Above & beyond: Tales of courage under fire

One VC already, five more in the pipeline; 132 honours in Afghanistan so far: more than the Falklands or the first Gulf War. These are some of their stories. By Jonathan Owen

George Cross

Awarded to Cpl Mark Wright

The George Cross ranks with the Victoria Cross as the nation's highest award for gallantry and is awarded "for acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger". Since its inception in 1940, the George Cross has been awarded posthumously to 84 recipients and to 71 living people.

He had wanted to be a soldier for as long as anyone could remember, but 27-year-old Mark Wright's promising army career was to be tragically cut short. It happened on 6 September when a foot patrol of about half a dozen soldiers searching for a suspected Taliban position in Afghanistan's Helmand province walked into a minefield.

Without any thought for his own safety, Cpl Wright ran to the aid of two soldiers injured by exploding mines. After helping to treat their wounds and calling for a helicopter to winch them to safety, he himself fell victim to a landmine and died before he could be taken to hospital.

It is understood he is to be posthumously awarded the George Cross, with Britain's military commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier Ed Butler, having hailed his "act of exceptional bravery".

Cpl Wright was born in 1979. He lived in Edinburgh with his fiancée Gillian, whom he was planning to marry this year. He joined the Army in January 1999, passing the selection tests to join the Parachute Regiment a few months later.

By the age of 23, he had completed three tours of Northern Ireland and in 2003 was sent, along with the 3rd Battalion, to Iraq, where he served with distinction. In May this year Cpl Wright was sent to Helmand, where he provided mortar support for his fellow soldiers. Senior officers said his "accurate and timely fire control" saved many lives and was "instrumental in fending off Taliban attacks".

His commanding officer, Lt-Col Stuart Tootal, said: "Cpl Wright died attempting to save the life of a fellow paratrooper... His actions were typical of the type of man Cpl Wright was. Quietly determined... he possessed exceptionally high moral and physical courage." The Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne, has also paid tribute: "His selfless commitment and professionalism are an example to us all."

Cpl Wright's grieving family has said: "We are extremely proud of Mark and the profession that he chose. He leaves a large empty space in our lives."

Distinguished Service Order

Awarded to Wing Cdr Martin Sampson

This recognises outstanding leadership and is awarded "for distinguished services during active operations against the enemy". During the Second World War the Distinguished Service Order was awarded to 870 RAF officers.

The veteran of more than 100 missions during two tours of Afghanistan, RAF Wing Cdr Martin Sampson came to the rescue of soldiers who were pinned down under heavy fire earlier this year.

Described as a "fearless and courageous airborne warrior" by his commanding officer, Wing Cdr Sampson was last week awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his command of the Harrier Squadron - providing life-saving air support for ground troops - in southern Afghanistan between December 2004 and May 2006.

His citation described him as a "fearless and courageous airborne warrior", and commended his "inspirational command... in the face of a persistent and hostile enemy".

Conspicuous Gallantry Cross

Awarded to RSM Bob Jones

The Conspicuous Gallantry Cross is awarded "in recognition of an act or acts of conspicuous gallantry during active operations against the enemy". It has been awarded 15 times since its introduction in 1993.

It was during fierce fighting in the caves of Tora Bora, a Taliban stronghold, as part of the hunt for Osama bin Laden in 2001 that SAS RSM Bob Jones (his name has been changed) took on the enemy armed only with his commando knife, despite having been seriously wounded. He was hit at least twice by enemy fire, yet he somehow managed to get back to his feet and continue fighting, before resorting to his knife as the conflict descended into savage hand-to-hand contact.

In a private ceremony with the Queen in 2002, the SAS veteran was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross. Officials described his "outstanding leadership in drawing his knife and charging the enemy, inspiring those around him at a time when ammunition was running low and the outcome of the battle was in doubt". He is one of many SAS soldiers who have been privately presented with awards for bravery in Afghanistan.

A married man in his forties with children, RSM Jones has served in some of the world's most notorious troublespots, including Bosnia and Northern Ireland. Still recovering from his injuries a year after the battle, he was given light duties at the SAS regimental headquarters near Hereford.

Military Cross

Awarded to Royal Marine Liam Armstrong

The Military Cross recognises acts of bravery during combat and is awarded "for gallantry during active operations". Around 11,000 were issued during the Second World War.

In 2003, Royal Marine Liam Armstrong, 23, became the most junior serviceman ever to be presented with the Military Cross as a result of his actions in seizing a 45-tonne cache of mortar rounds, rockets and bullets near the Pakistan border. The operation took place in al-Qa'ida heartland in 2002, against a compound thought to contain extremist militia and weapons.

His heroics in breaking into the compound, forcing nine Afghan fighters to surrender and taking them prisoner without having to fire a single shot, before dealing with an angry crowd that had gathered nearby, were described as showing "great bravery, initiative and leadership beyond that expected from such a junior rank".

Major Rich Stephens MBE, the commanding officer of 45 Royal Marine Commando's Zulu Company, said Marine Armstrong's actions were "truly exceptional".

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