On the ground in Afghanistan: 'You can't tell the lads one thing and then not produce'

This week Tony Blair was in Afghanistan to speak to troops. Sergeant Tony Phipps, 36, tells Terri Judd how he spent that day
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The Independent Online

"I set my alarm for 4.30am. You only get two days a week to get your washing in and there are hundreds of bags. If you don't get it in early you miss it.

"I share with two other sergeants. We have got an empty bed space in our room because that is where [the Marine seriously injured in the patrol attack which killed Marine Gary Wright] used to sleep.

"At 6am, I was running around like a maniac, preparing the route, making sure the vehicles are ready. I command 12 guys in multiple 2, Command Support Group. I grabbed a breakfast in the galley and sat down for orders, tasking everyone. The lads go and check the vehicles, the ammunition, the radio and I went back to the ops room to make sure there is no change in the detail.

"One of the most dangerous tasks is to take someone to the governor's building as that is where the majority of suicide bombs happen. I need to look at the map and pick an alternative route to the last one we took.

"Since Gaz Wright died, we drive a little bit faster in town with the top cover down. After he was killed the lads closed in for a while. It was a coping mechanism. When we went back on foot patrol you could feel the lads were being a lot more aggressive, not angry, just thinking of their self-preservation. They wouldn't allow vehicles as close.

"The town is like Oxford Street on Christmas Eve and it doesn't allow you to spot a suicide bomber. Someone comes driving madly towards you and it might just be because he has got the sun in his eyes. But you have got to be friendly to the locals even if they are chucking stones at you because next time they might be the one who lets you know there is an IED [roadside bomb].

"We set off at 9am in three Snatches [armoured land rovers]. We got into town and I brought the top cover down for their safety. In conventional warfare you can see your enemy but in this environment you just have to react to a suicide bomb going off.

"We arrived at the governor's building, the scene of the first suicide bomb which killed 19 people. Blair must have been visiting about now but I didn't have time to think about it.

"I pulled my front vehicle into position to block the front view and offer some protection from an IED.

"We then went out into my focus area which is in the south of Lash. I needed to speak to people to see if they would take part in a shura [meeting].

"We went to the school. As I was speaking to the headmaster one of the kids kicked a football to one of our lads. Next thing we were playing volleyball against the kids. There were hundreds of them cheering.

"We then walked down to the prison 200 metres away to see the governor, trying to fight off all the kids following us. We have one lad, Hodgy, who we have nicknamed the Messiah because every time we walk along the streets about 50 kids follow him. He is a big guy, very quiet but the kids love him.

"The prison was like something out of Papillon, only the political prisoners looked pissed off when they looked back at us.

"We then went to the airfield. The terminal is like a 1970s front room with old sofas and big flowers on the wallpaper. We sat down to tea. The airport controller agreed to join the shura.

"We then went to this residential area to speak to a man who represents 250 families. He was a bit standoffish at first. Once I explained we were his guests, he was more on side and agreed to come to the shura. There were kids playing with kites made out ofbits of plastic and sticks. I look at Jordan, my eight-year-old son, and he gets spoilt and these kids have got nothing but they seem happy. About 3pm we headed back through town and I put in my patrol report. At 6pm I rushed for scran [supper]. As I was eating I looked up at Sky News and saw Tony Blair had been to [Camp] Bastion. It was only at that point that I remembered he was coming out. I thought the lads would give him shit because they are feeling frustrated about how slow kit gets out here. Blair said we would get any kit we needed and a month, six weeks later, we are still waiting. The Government said you can have all the kit you need and when it doesn't arrive you start to question. You can't tell the lads one thing and then not produce.

"I then went to the evening briefing from 7.15pm to 9pm. That's where you get the intelligence reports on the situation in Helmand. You hear of loads of contacts [firefights] in other areas and you think I would rather be there than facing suicide bombers. Conventional warfare seems fairer.

"At midnight I went to bed. The next thing I knew some other guy was getting up at four in the morning to get his washing in and I chucked my washing bag at him. It is like a cross between groundhog day and a vicious circle."

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