Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

This is the dramatic moment in 2007 when Private Davey Graham was dragged from a Taliban ambush, after being shot five times – it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province. Now, in the wake of the British withdrawal from Afghanistan, Graham and two comrades crucial to his survival recall that fateful day – and the difficulties they have faced ever since

Karen Attwood
Sunday 28 December 2014 01:00
Lance Corporal Clint Buchanan, top left, helps bear the stretcher taking Private Davey Graham to a waiting Chinook
Lance Corporal Clint Buchanan, top left, helps bear the stretcher taking Private Davey Graham to a waiting Chinook

The extraordinary photograph on the preceding page captures the moment when Private Davey Graham was stretchered to safety after he was shot in the stomach during a Taliban ambush in Helmand province in August 2007. Minutes later, the soldier was flown by Chinook helicopter to Camp Bastion for surgery.

The work is one of a series of graphic images shot by the award-winning photographer Andrew Parsons. Embedded with the 1st Battalion, the Worcestershire and Sherwood Regiment, he was able to show to the public for the first time the British soldiers being injured in the conflict in Afghanistan. In April the year before, then-Defence Secretary John Reid had said of the British military presence in Afghanistan that, "We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years' time without firing one shot." So it was, perhaps, unsurprising that the Ministry of Defence initially resisted the images' publication. The pictures were finally released three weeks later with the permission of Private Graham's family, who wanted the "real story" of the war in Afghanistan to be told. His father, David McMahon, said then: "The public are not seeing pictures like this at the moment."

On 14 August 2007, Private Graham was part of an operation to secure a maze of compounds near Rahim Kalay, in Helmand, which were being used by the Taliban. He was at the front of a column of troops walking through a cornfield in the Green Zone – an area of lush vegetation which flanks the Helmand River – when he was shot four times in the abdomen and pelvis, a fifth bullet hitting his body armour. The troops were then encircled by the Taliban and a gun battle ensued; it was feared that the column would be wiped out or taken captive, until bombs dropped from jet fighters forced enough Taliban to retreat; it was only then that Private Graham's comrades were able to carry him to a waiting helicopter and safety.

As he was carried away for evacuation, Private Graham asked Parsons to continue to take pictures "as a distraction" from the pain.

Declared dead twice in the helicopter, Private Graham was not expected to survive. He was flown home to Birmingham and spent six days in a coma, with family by his bedside. On his recovery, he served a further six months in London and a year in Belfast before leaving the Army in 2009.

Now, more than seven years since that day, and months after British troops pulled out of Afghanistan for good, we caught up with Graham and two of the comrades who played a crucial role in his rescue, to find out what they recollect of the ambush, and to reflect not only on the 13-year British mission to Afghanistan, but also their often-difficult transitions from active service to civilian life.

Davey Graham, 28

Years of service 2004 to 2009

Afghanistan tours 2004, 2007

Rank upon departure Private

Currently Prison officer in Nottingham

"The first time I went to Afghanistan, I was a lad wanting to do something for myself and to make my parents proud. I could see why we were there. We were helping out with the elections. You could see what the purpose was.

"It was on my second tour that I was injured. My job that day was to be point man, so I was at the front. While we were hiding in a river bed, the Taliban were no more than 30m way. We started walking towards crops, where I knew there was a path, when they opened up on me.

Davey Graham says: 'I still have nightmares. I remember having a moment with my wife, saying, 'I need to be out there again'

"I didn't know I had been shot. I just remember there were specks of blood all over my arms. I didn't feel pain. I felt sick and went to the ground. The guys were giving back fire to the enemy and everything was slow and taking longer than it should. At first I was in shock but then the adrenalin kicked in. When I was put on the stretcher to go to the chopper, that was scary, as you can't control anything. All the mates I had been with left; I was left with six guys trying to get me out of there. I just remember getting the gas mask on my face and that is when I 'died'.

"The nightmares in the first three days were terrible. It was like I was there again. I still have nightmares. I remember having a moment with my wife, saying, 'I need to be out there again, I need to finish the tour,' and my dad was like, 'Don't be stupid, you can't get back in time.'

Davey Graham was shot during an ambush by the Taliban in Helmand, Afghanistan in 2007

"After serving another six months in London and a year in Belfast, my third tour in Afghanistan was coming up. I didn't want to put my family through it again. I remember thinking, 'Am I going to 'go Rambo' on the Afghans? Would I just freeze?'. But the Army being the Army, they would have just said, 'Get a grip,' so I felt I had no one to talk to. I had to leave.

"Now we've pulled out, Afghanistan will take a step backwards. It will end up back to the old ways of girls not being able to go to school and women not being able to do the jobs they want to do and it being a male-dominated society.

"It was too early to leave Afghanistan, as there isn't a solid infrastructure, which is why the Taliban are pushing forward, even attacking Kabul. That wouldn't have happened if we still had the large number of troops we had on the ground when I was there in 2007.

Davey Graham's old Army kit

"The only thing I regret is leaving the Army. It's not just a group of mates and a career; it's a family. Moving to Civvy Street was one of the hardest moments of my life. It's hard to make the transition. You have your own way of life, your own banter. It's not the Army's fault; you just don't have any support. The way you speak, people can't understand it. I realised after a while it wasn't them that was the problem. I had to change. It's like learning to walk again."

Clint Buchanan, 32

Years of service 1998 to 2008

Afghanistan tours 2004-5, 2007

Rank upon departure Lance Corporal

Currently Team leader at an international technology company

"I was supposed to get out of the Army in April that year, but the regiment was short on commanders, so I extended to go on the tour. I was aware that if I had got out I'd have left the platoon massively short when it went to Afghanistan. I felt better knowing that I would be there with the guys I had done the training with, and more confident that I could get everybody back.

"We were moving back between two sets of compounds. Davey was in front, I was next, then Andrew [Parsons], when Davey stumbled across an ambush and was shot. Everybody hit the deck. We scrambled to cover in a 6ft ditch. The rest of the platoon was behind me. Davey was screaming. I knew he had been shot. The rest of the guys started to move up and return fire to the Taliban positions. That gave us a brief break from incoming fire.

"I scrambled over to Davey, put my legs around him, and started pulling him back. At that point I saw something moving in front of me and at first I thought it was one of our guys, because of the way he was dressed – in a sandy-coloured dish-dash with a headdress on; through the shrubbery it looked like a helmet. I thought one of our own had opened up on us. Seconds later, I realised it was the Taliban fighter, who could hear Davey moaning and had come back to finish him off. I immediately arced up above Davey and put 10 rounds in the Taliban. I then put more rounds in the area as I didn't know if it was just him.

Clint Buchanan says: 'Our mission changed from peacekeeping and patrol to a war-fighting operation'

"It then went ridiculously quiet. They stopped firing. I assumed he was the point man of their assault and that they withdrew at that point to somewhere safer. I started pulling Davey down the ditch thinking someone might come back. It felt like I was there for 20 minutes but it couldn't have been more than about two. Time sort of slowed down.

"Pulling Davey along the floor was hurting him more than it would have done walking; he said it was hurting so much, it felt like he was ripping open. We finally got to the rest of the platoon and all hell broke loose, as they could fire back at the Taliban without shooting us. The Taliban opened up with everything they had.

"The platoon commander was trying to get us back to a safer position. It came over the radio that the Taliban were trying to cut us off. It was obvious the medic had not been in a situation like it before, being that close to being shot, and he completely froze. I grabbed him and shouted: 'You need to sort him out! He is going to die!' Davey's intestines were starting to come out. I thought, 'If we don't get him back he is going to die.' At this point two other platoons opened up and hammered the entire area. There were mortars going in and we had heli support. The Taliban back off when they know the Apache [helicopters] and F15 [jet fighters] are there.

"If we had [come upon] those compounds two or three minutes later, it would have been a lot worse. Davey was our point man, and I think he stumbled on the point man of the ambush. I don't think they were fully set up, and there was a brief delay when Davey got shot. If they had been set up, we would have had 10 to 15 dead.

"Davey likes to say that he wouldn't be here without me. I like to think that if I hadn't been there, somebody else would have done the same thing. If I had been looking any other way, he would have finished Davey and shot me.

"Before we went out, we thought that our mission would be similar to our peacekeeping mission in Kabul, and it was like that the first six weeks. But we went out on patrol, were ambushed, and we never really withdrew. Our mission changed from peacekeeping and patrol to a war-fighting operation.

"When we got to Afghanistan, the Taliban were all over Gereshk, but when we started pushing them back, we felt we were doing a really worthwhile job. We couldn't stay there for ever, as the more injuries you get and the more people get killed, the more the public turn against it. But by pulling out we have the same problem as in Iraq. The second we pull out, we run the risk of reverting to how it was in the first place – the police and Army are corrupt and the Taliban have infiltrated them. In Iraq, we [effectively] substituted Saddam's regime with Isis and we run the risk of the same happening with Afghanistan."

Paul Grahame, 36

Years of service 1995 to 2014

Afghanistan tours 2007, 2012

Rank upon departure Staff Sergeant

Currently Regional contract manager for a maintenance company

"The day of the ambush was the worst day we had in the tour [Afghanistan, 2007]. We were being spanked every day with mortars. The lads were on patrol and I was about 200m away at tactical headquarters with the OC [officer in command], as it was my job to co-ordinate air power.

"A Taliban fighter swung beside a tree and opened up on Davey. We had a report from one of the lads with Davey, who said he could hear Arabic from three cardinal points around him. The lads were surrounded and I knew we had to get them out. "I had two jets on stand-by allocated to me – a pair of American F-15E jet fighters. They started doing strafing runs, but it had no effect on the Taliban; the pilot said switch to bombs. I only had 3m to play with [between the British and Taliban positions], so I had to work out the best angle to bring the jets in.

"This was not something I had ever tried before. We pulled it off. We dropped three bombs and the Taliban started to extract enough for the team to get Davey out. If we hadn't dropped the bombs, we would have been gone.That was horrendous. When we got back, there were not many people who could talk.

Paul Grahame: 'There are a lot of people who suffered for no reason. I think we got it totally wrong.'

"From 2007, it was war-fighting – 'We are going to smash the Taliban!' We can't smash them. They have no equipment like we do, yet look at all the damage they inflict. It's fighting them in their back garden. There are a lot of people who suffered for no reason. I think we got it totally wrong.

"It was a different ball game the second time, in 2012. There is no flamboyant story: I was there in a mentoring role and I was emptying a swimming pool when I got blown up: Afghan police threw hand grenades over the compound wall following an argument with the OC. Both my ears were badly damaged. I got shrapnel injuries and also PTSD. I was medically discharged from the Army this year.

"Adjusting was hard. After 19 years, I was left to get on with things myself. Everyone I met who has been medically discharged through the rehabilitation centres,says the same: they didn't feel like they received the support they needed to settle. Eleven-and-a-half months after leaving, I am still receiving operations I should have had while I was in [the Army].

"I had the best times of my life in the Army. It has been fantastic, and I still get to kiss the kids of a night. But I very nearly had that taken away from me."

While none of the former members of the British armed services featured in this article is homeless, many others are – see The Independent on Sunday's Christmas Appeal or donate here

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