The morning broke with the sun rising over the desert. There’s never a bright glow as you’d imagine, never a red fire ball on the horizon, but the light just seems to spill over the ground like a wave over rocks.
I’m in Helmand province, Afghanistan, stood in the “crows nest” atop the roof of one of our vehicles, the WMIK, (now out of service due to its inability to keep the crew alive during an IED blast) one of our main fighting vehicles. Its chassis is based on the land rover defender, the body panels are removed an replaced with ballistic nylon pads, a roll cage is fitted, and finally a .50 machine gun is attached to the roof. These vehicles when new were difficult to drive, lacked power and were outrageously top heavy, but now after 5 years of service were barely useable, but us British always like an underdog and its quite possibly the favorite vehicle among the troops. We’re placed in a position close to todays target, a settlement we refer to simply as settlement 2. Running along its length is a road we’ve nicknamed Broadway, this acts as the divide between the two tribes in the village, tribes, which seem hell-bent on making each other’s lives as difficult as possible. There have been a number of IED strikes in the area and we’re intending on going into the village to gauge the atmosphere, and hoping to find some much needed information on where the strikes are derived.
Our intention was to move at first light, but difficulty with radio communications have forced us into delaying our op and by the time we begin to move its already 0845. I take my seat in the back of the mastiff, a vehicle designed as an “urgent operation requirement” to be used as a patrol vehicle capable of taking blasts whilst keeping the crew safe, a job it does extremely well! A job it does not do extremely well however is having enough space to fit people and equipment, as a result this morning there’s 8 of us crammed into a space built for 6, along with more equipment than was used during the entire first gulf war. The vehicle roars into life with a familiar grumble, as we begin to move the suspension creaks under the strain of 26 tons and lumbers forwards. The lead vehicle, a welter weight in comparison is the Panther, at a mere 8 tons it provides the job of a lead scout scanning the ground to ensure the patrol doesn’t roll into any avoidable un-pleasantries. Inside the Mastiff situational awareness is non-existent, you have to just sit and wait for the call to get out, and then learn very quickly the lay of the land, try and work out where you are and then get the job done. The suspension on these vehicles is truly medieval, as a result you spent more time trying to hold yourself in position than anything else, I sit holding onto my day-sack and trying desperately to keep my rifle from being thrown out the holder that broke around 2 months ago, and never got replaced. Music spills through from the driver’s compartment, Johny Cash, when the man comes around.
Suddenly there’s an almighty destructive bang… It feels as though Thor’s hammer has struck the metallic shell of the vehicle. I immediately think it’s our Mastiff, the explosion was that ferocious it can’t be any other… Surely, grabbing my legs I’m hit with an overwhelming relief. The top cover drops into a ball on his stand. My relief turns to guilt, I believe he’s been hit, but thankfully after an agonizing wait he reply’s to our shouts, “fuck… Shit… I mean, CONTACT IED! The panthers hit!” Once again the guilt returns, a lifetimes worth of emotions in a disgustingly short period of time can’t be good for any mind.
As last man in the vehicle I realize it’s now my job to get out the safe haven of the Mastiff and walk towards the seat of the explosion. It’s very rare for just one IED in place, they often have up to 3 secondary traps, it’s like running into a building engulfed in flames. I’ve no idea what waits for me but as I open the door I see the rear lights of the panther, deformed in a molten twisted fashion dug into the ground like a gothic figure. I most definitely fear the worst. I step out the door facing the most hostile 50 meters of my life, armed with nothing but a metal-detector. With adrenaline coursing through my veins hesitation isn’t an option, and so myself an one other, Hilly, we begin to move. The panther is in a horrendous state, a fire extinguisher that used to be attached to the rear of the vehicle sits 200 meters away, and shards of the vehicle’s armour litter the ground between myself and the remnants of the £500,000 Panther. Over to my left is the village, usually crammed with activity the place is desolate, A sure sign something isn’t right. Step bystep I progress to the explosive carnage. I begin to smell a familiar aroma. Fuel. The explosion has hit the tank; fuel is covering the back of the wagon, all over the floor and continues to spill onto the ground. Normally this wouldn’t be problem, but in the Afghan sun it renders the entire panther its own IED. Finally I approach the driver’s door, looking through the window the driver is staring straight forward, white as a sheet. But miraculously unharmed. I shout through to the other passengers, telling them to climb out the hatches over to me, they’re are all completely un-injured, the passenger in the back can’t hear a thing, completely deaf, which provides some much needed humor. Looking up from the growing fountain of fuel, I see the commander clambering out his hatch, fag between his fingers, just about to flick it on to the ground, “PUT THE FUCKING FAG OUT!” He stops in his tracks, pulls the cigarette back into his hand and scrapes it onto roof; I’ve never been so pleased to see someone stop smoking. Leading the way we trudge back to the Mastiff, leaving the dismantled shell that used to be the lead vehicle. I realize if that had been the WMIK that had driven over that IED, I’d have been literally scraping up 3 bodies.
Our patrol was incredibly lucky that day. 410 British soldiers have not been so lucky. The Panther without doubt saved the lives of 4 friends, without that vehicle, the Mastiff, and all the other armoured equipment now used in Afghanistan 410 dead would be far, far greater. IED’s take a man from the peak of physical fitness, tough, battle hardened individuals down to the depths of invalidity, both physically and mentally. I will, soon be adding a story of another MERT call-out, which will show what effects the IED has on the individuals and friends this cowardly weapon causes.