Dedication of our brave troops is truly humbling

Staged images on the Helicopter flight line in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. In the Photograph from left to right is - Lance Corporal Michael McKee aged 23 from Banbridge and Lance Corporal Aaron Turner aged 27 from Kerry.
Staged images on the Helicopter flight line in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. In the Photograph from left to right is - Lance Corporal Michael McKee aged 23 from Banbridge and Lance Corporal Aaron Turner aged 27 from Kerry.

AFGHANISTAN is a country of contradictions – where the middle east collides with west and neither really knows what to do with each other.

The week I spent there with the Royal Irish Regiment and Irish Guards was one of the most memorable of my life.

To see the work undertaken there by the brave young men of Ulster, some barely out of their teens, was a truly humbling experience.

Every single day they wake knowing that it could be their last. But they never complain, they never moan, and despite the dangers they face, they just get on with their job.

What struck me most is that they all truly believe in what the British army is doing in Afghanistan. While debate rages at home on whether they should be there or not, the troops on the ground are keenly getting on with the day-to-day slog of improving the lives of ordinary people in Afghanistan.

Arriving in Camp Bastion was an experience in itself. Sitting among several hundred soldiers in a huge C17 aircraft, we descended in complete darkness for almost 20 minutes.

Ten minutes before landing, the young men I had been laughing and joking with suddenly became soldiers ready for action as we were ordered to don our helmets and body armour.

On landing, it’s hard to take in the sheer vastness of Camp Bastion at night, but in the light of day, it’s difficult not to be impressed.

Set in the middle of the desert and housing 21,000 people, Camp Bastion really is a man-made wonder. The camp itself is the size of the south England town of Reading, and is still being expanded.

Adjacent to Bastion, US base Leatherneck and Afghan National Army (ANA) base Shorabak add many more miles to the site.

The camp is exceptionally well equipped considering there was nothing there before 2006 but acres of sand.

Soldiers are provided with three square meals a day, heating, air conditioning and hot showers. If they wish, they can even indulge themselves with a meal from Pizza Hut or a latte from one of the coffee shops on site.

I certainly didn’t expect to be eating a steak dinner with yorkshire puddings in the middle of the Afghan desert.

When in Bastion, it’s difficult to get your head round the fact that you’re in war-torn Afghanistan. But once the men step outside the wire, it’s a different story.

At various checkpoints, patrol bases and forward operating bases, the soldiers could be living on the bare essentials for several months on end.

Eating from basic ration packs, the men wash in streams and sleep on the floor with only a sleeping bag for comfort – even in the harsh cold of the Afghan winter.

Some young men I spoke to had lost up to three stone in weight during the four months they had been on tour.

In the midst of these most basic of living conditions, the soldiers are under constant threat of insurgent grenade attack and gun fire, as well as contending with the most deadly threat of all - Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

The devices have already claimed the life of one Royal Irish soldier, Ranger Aaron McCormick, and, considering how difficult they are to spot in the rugged Afghan landscape, it’s an absolute blessing more lives have not been lost.

During my week in Afghanistan, I spent most of my time with the men of the Royal Irish Regiment.

Hand on heart, I can say I’ve never met a better bunch of lads. Their sense of humour is blacker than black, and their tales of the practical jokes they play on each other at best shocking - but you know they would die for each other in the blink of an eye.

Myself and my colleagues were treated like royalty - showing that Northern Ireland hospitality survives even in a war zone.

Spending so much time with these men means you get to know them well - hearing about their wives and families, near death experiences, and plans for the future.

I will say a prayer every night for them to stay safe as they continue their work in the dangerous region of Nad-e-ali south.

We also spent time with troops from the Irish Guards, who are mentoring the soldiers of the Afghan National Army (ANA).

Their role is not an easy one, and they are working tirelessly to overcome cultural differences to instill organisation and discipline into the Afghan troops - who could take over the security of their country as early as 2014.

In the few short months they have been in Afghanistan, the Irish Guards have brought the ANA troops on leaps and bounds, and if their successors are as dedicated in their training, the future of the ANA bodes well.

The Afghan culture is not one easily reconcilable with the British way of life - but efforts are being made on both sides to find a joint way forward.

There is a long way to go - but things are undoubtedly getting better.

Soldiers making their way through the Biblical villages of Afghanistan, armed to the teeth on the hunt for Taliban insurgents, look severely out of placed - like they have travelled from the future - but they are there to do good and that fact is now being accepted by the Afghan people.

As I make my way home from Afghanistan, I do so in awe of the bravery of the men from Northern Ireland. And I hope every single one of them gets home safely to the families they love too.