Roadside bombs planted by the Taliban have been the lethal equaliser of the war in Afghanistan, claiming 92 per cent of the British and allied lives. Dealing with them is now the most dangerous job in the UK's military. The counter-IED (improvised explosive devices) team which has just returned from Helmand lost seven of its members, including Staff Sergeant Oz Schmid.
The reality of the drama and tension of bomb-disposal work is very sobering for those of us who have seen these men head towards a bomb as the rest of us cower behind makeshift defences. During the "long walk" the bomb disposal officer not only knows that he will have to deal with a device crafted to kill and maim but also that on the way he may become the target of a sniper.
If he does make it to the end without getting shot at, the officer will have the task of searching out booby-traps before attempting to dig out the device from the hard earth, and prepare it to be blown up – painstaking work often in heat of 50 degrees.
The men each have their own mental preparation for carrying out the task. Staff Sergeant Karl Ley, who defused 139 bombs in Afghanistan, a record, said: "I can't allow myself to think of it as something which could kill me or others. I see it as pieces of metal, wood, batteries, something that I have to dismantle. Each one dealt with means it can't do any harm."
Another bomb disposal officer, at the Helmand town of Showal, told me: "Each time I go out to take care of an IED I take a long look at a photo of my wife and our three-year-old daughter. I know I may not come back from the job. But of course I cannot tell my wife how I feel, she has enough worries about me being here. But we have to deal with these things because of the terrible effect they are having."
That effect was illustrated a few days later in a camp in Babaji in the words of Company Sergeant Major Steve Taylor, of No 1 Company, 1st Battalion, the Coldstream Guards. "Out of 130 we have had four deaths and 35 casualties, four of them have been double amputees, two single amputees. It hasn't been easy.
"I have had young lads pleading that they didn't want to go out on patrol, but you say 'Son, you have got to go through with this, this is what we do'. They have taken a deep breath and gone out and done the job, done it very well. I don't think anyone could have asked for more."Reuse content