Last week was not a good one for the Ministry of Defence. First, it and the Army were slated by a coroner for serious failings in the supply chain that lead to the death by a roadside bomb of 19-year-old Fusilier Gordon Gentle in Iraq in 2004. Then a group of senior politicians and former officers launched a campaign to ensure the armed forces are properly funded for their tasks in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Fusilier Gentle, of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, was just a month into his tour of Iraq. He died because the electronic counter-measures (ECM) which would have jammed the signal that activated the bomb that killed him was lying on the shelf of a logistics unit awaiting collection by his unit. Hours after he died, his unit collected it.
I don't know exactly what happened, but my guess is that had his unit Quartermaster had the stuff on his books, it would have been issued pretty damned quick.
During my six-month tour of duty in Iraq, you simply didn't move without an ECM. Fusilier Gentle died doing "top cover" in a Snatch (armoured) Land Rover on a road between Basra and the Kuwaiti border. It's a job I hated doing. Your head, neck and upper torso are exposed as you scour the road looking for potential sites for roadside devices.
In the unlikely event of you spotting anything, you had nano-seconds to scream it over the radio and bring the vehicle to a halt. The mental pressure of constantly waiting for the world to explode was draining in the extreme. Not only would you come back from patrol physically exhausted from the heat and conditions, mentally you had been through the wringer.
I remember feeling a similar mental strain the first few times the insurgents fired Chinese 107mm and 122mm rockets and mortars into our camp. You're all hyped up, but after a while it's easy to get blasé and adopt an attitude of "yeah, whatever..." unless it was at night because it meant you lost out on sleep. The fact that a couple of seconds' flight time could make all the difference between a harmless explosion and total carnage didn't really register. Similarly, there is something slightly unreal about coming under rifle fire. Everything seems to go into slow time – assessing that it really was rifle fire, getting into cover, making ready my own weapon. All done in a split second, and yet it seemed like for ever.
Bullets don't whine except in the war movies; it's a "crack" followed by a "thump" depending on how far away the firer. When someone was killed – not from my own unit, we were lucky – I always felt a mixture of relief and flatness. The relief was in the sense that it wasn't me or someone I knew, but the sense of flatness came because yet again the bad guys had scored a point off us and some poor sod was going home in a coffin.
Britain can and should be proud of its armed forces. We might not be the best equipped but we train well and operate even better.
It would be unfair to accuse the Government of squandering lives, but two major theatres in Afghanistan and Iraq plus other commitments around the world mean the Army is now seriously overstretched. The Government needs to look at its priorities. If it wants us to be a major player on the world stage, fine, it has to pay for it. You can't fight a war on the cheap.
The writer is a sergeant with 20 years' experience in the Army
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