Time for examination after 300th serviceman's death

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The Independent Online

In the searing summer heat and dirt of the patrol bases in Helmand the landmark will have passed unnoticed. Nobody wants to count their dead or suggest one is more noteworthy than the other. But the loss of the 300th serviceman in Afghanistan must be a time for reflection and examination.

In four years in Helmand the losses have long surpassed, almost doubled, the 179 deaths, in six years in Iraq. It has taken just ten months to go from 200 to 300. The figures make haunting reading. This year 55 soldiers have perished, compared with the same period in 2009 when 32 had been killed. In total British forces lost 108 in Afghanistan last year, compared to 51 in 2008, 42 in 2007 and 39 in 2006, the year they deployed to Helmand when Brigadier Ed Butler described it as the most intense fighting since Korea. Five died previously in just over four years.

Far from simple statistics, each one has been a story of loss for wives, parents, girlfriends and - in the case of the only woman to perish Corporal Sarah Bryant - a husband. The "funny and kind" 26-year-old Intelligence Corps soldier was killed along with three others in an explosion in June 2008.

The home towns of those who have died pepper the entire map of the UK from the Isle of Mull to Cornwall, Croydon to County Mayo, Abergavenny to Ascot. Others were from Fiji, Nepal or Australia.

Their average age was 25. The youngest was Rifleman William Aldridge, of 2 Rifles. Just six weeks after his 18th birthday he died in a series of bombs that killed four other soldiers last summer. The oldest was Senior Aircraftsman Gary Thompson, 51, a managing director with five daughters and a reservist with the Royal Auxiliary Airforce.

Some, like Private Robert McLaren, of 3 Scots, a quiet, mild mannered 20-year-old, were just weeks out of training. Others, like Regimental Sergeant Major Darren Chant, 40, of The Grenadier Guards, were at the pinnacle of a long career spanning 23 years. A "role model" he was highly tipped to take on the country's most senior Warrant Officer job as Academy Sergeant Major at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

Lieutenant Douglas Dalzell, a courageous, popular Coldstream Guard officer was killed on his 27th birthday. Lance Corporal Benjamin Whatley, 20, a tough, uncompromising Royal Marine from 42 Commando Royal Marines, perished on Christmas Eve while Serjeant Chris Reed, 25, a territorial army soldier with 6 Rifles who built yachts in civilian life died on New Year's day.

While Sergeants, Corporals and Privates took the brunt of the deaths, every rank has been hit up to Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe MBE, 39, an "outstanding" Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards.

Explosions have been the biggest killer ever since the Taliban realised that it could not take on the army in face to face conflict. Of those who have died two thirds (205) lost their lives either to IEDs or less frequently mortars and rockets, 52 have been killed by small arms fire and 26 in accidents including the loss of 14 in a Nimrod crash in the most deadly day. A further nine have died in suspected friendly fire incidents and five Grenadier Guards were killed last autumn when a rogue Afghan National Policeman opened fire within a compound. Two were suicides, one of whom killed a colleague.

The army has borne the brunt of the losses having suffered 243 deaths, the Royal Marines 40 and the RAF 17.

Captain Jim Philippson, 29, a gifted young commander with "enthusiasm and ready wit" was the first to be killed in the bloody battle for Helmand. He was killed in a firefight with the Taliban in the Sangin area. It would prove an ominous warning of what was to come.

While troops are now losing their lives in areas such as Babaji and Nad Ali, names that meant nothing to them in 2006, Sangin remains the most deadly district, getting more lethal every year. To date it has claimed a third of the deaths (100). Areas such as Gereshk (31 deaths), Musa Qala (25 deaths) and Garmsir (14 deaths) have now quietened down or been handed over to the US Marines who began joining the British in 2008. But other areas have become synonymous with violence, areas such as Nad Ali (27), or Babaji and Nahr e Saraj (20). While Helmand is the main focus of British operations 28 soldiers have died in other districts - such as Kabul and Kandahar - or on special forces operations and air crashes.

It is not just the deaths that have torn apart lives. Since deploying to Helmand there have been 378 catastrophic injuries, categorised as very serious or serious by the Ministry of Defence and these have been steadily rising from 31 the first year to 157 in 2009 and 62 for the first five months of 2010. The British Limbless Ex-Service Men's Association said there had been 199 amputees, of which 37 had lost two limbs and 12 three, as well as 29 servicemen or women who had lost the use of limbs or their eyesight.

Hundreds more have suffered shattering injuries or returned home broken men or women, traumatised by what they have seen.

But there has been as much bravery and self sacrifice as there has been pain. Hundreds of medals and citations have been handed out for acts of extraordinary valour, dedication to duty but more crucially to their friends and colleagues.

Among the 553 gallantry awards there has been one Victoria Cross and four George Crosses - the highest awards for valour - as well as 22 Conspicuous Gallantry Crosses, 123 Military Crosses, 17 Distinguished Flying Crosses, eight George Medals and 15 Queen's Gallantry Medals. Many, however, have been awarded posthumously.