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Middle-class graduate says fighting Taliban was the most exhilarating experience of his life

04 May 2019 Daily Mail Online

I never thought I would become a drug addict. I never thought I would want to take my own life. All of that changed after Afghanistan. I’m fortunate, ten years on, that I survived a period of my life where I was doing everything I could to destroy my body and mind. Some people don’t come through that. Some don’t even want to.

I had been the unlikely member of my platoon. I was the tattoo-less middle-class boy from North Wales who was doing this ‘for fun’, rather than as a career. As a 25-year-old graduate turned lance corporal, this trip to Afghanistan would be my third tour in three years.

I had become what some would call a ‘war junkie’, always begging to be sent to the unit that was likely to see the most action. I was eager and I was naive. I still thought war was a sport. I recognised the stakes were high, but I played willingly, because I knew that there was nothing else in life that would fill my limbs with adrenaline and my head with stories.

Geraint Jones (pictured), says: 'I had become what some would call a ‘war junkie’, always begging to be sent to the unit that was likely to see the most action. I was eager and I was naive. I still thought war was a sport'

Whenever an officer learned of my qualifications, they’d ask me why I hadn’t sought a commission. I’d explain I wanted to be the guy kicking in the door, not the one telling someone else to do it. Truly, to be a machine-gunner in a war zone was my dream come true. I was an anomaly in the ranks because I possessed a university education. The boys would tease me, calling me the most qualified ‘gimpy’, or machine gunner, in Nato, but the weight of the ammunition on my shoulders and the feel of the gun in my hands was worth more than any other experience I could think of.

Our first job on that summer tour in 2009 was to move as a company to Musa Qala in Helmand province. Our Warrior armoured fighting vehicle’s interior stank of diesel, grease and sweat as we prepared to leave Camp Bastion.

There was no air-conditioning in these Cold War relics, and the upper hatches remained closed to protect our throats and bomb-jamming equipment from dust. The rear door was still open, though, leaving us vulnerable to the sergeant major who caught sight of my shirt: it was missing the unit insignia on my sleeves.

‘Corporal Jones, where’s your f****** flashes?’

‘I didn’t have time to sew them on, sir.’

‘You’ve got Velcro ones. Get them on. And shave your f****** sideburns, too. Top of the ear.’

‘Yes, sir,’ I said, fuming as he walked away. ‘I’m glad they have their priorities straight here,’ I vented to my comrades. ‘We have one team medic pack between eight, when it should be a maximum of between four. I’ve no spare barrel, sling, or cleaning kit for my gun, and most of the guys have only got one tourniquet. Last time I checked we had four limbs. I suppose it all gets made OK if my sideburns are a little higher?’

Face-covered militants who they say are members of the Taliban, pose with RPG and AK47, in Zabul province, southern of Kabul, Afghanistan in 2006

‘Close the door!’ came the shout from the turret. ‘We’re off!’ The rear door moved slowly, sealing us within our steel coffin.

‘We’ll be in the patrol base in 36 hours,’ said a young private to reassure himself.

He had no idea why the veterans started laughing. After our tours in Iraq, we knew it wouldn’t be as simple as that.

THE first Improvised Explosive Device (IED) strike occurred that afternoon. The victim was an American truck we were supposed to be escorting.

Although the route had been cleared by our leading platoon, the savvy Taliban had spotted a break in the convoy. Using motorbikes, they had rushed into the gap, deploying small IEDs on to the route. They were not large enough to cause much damage, but they brought us to a halt.

We patrolled the track, myself and my buddy Johan leading the way. Whenever somebody with a metal detector found a reading, we slid on to our bellies, working with fingers and a paintbrush to uncover the cause, while the rest of the team lay flat, hoping we would not obliterate them.

The steep-sided valley was full of poppy fields, where the flowers had already been harvested, leaving only dead husks behind.

There wasn’t much you wanted to step on here, but there was something satisfying about the crunch of the dried poppies beneath my boot.

This was the beginning of the world’s heroin supply chain, and though I knew that much, I could never have reckoned on the irony that Helmand’s crop would one day find its way into the veins of soldiers who had lost their own, invisible battles after fighting here.

We finally arrived at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Edinburgh, an encampment home to the light guns of the Royal Artillery, in the oppressive darkness of the desert. Tomorrow we would make the journey to Musa Qala.

I was to be dismount commander of one of Warrior, directing the team when we were out in the open. My colleague Breezy was in charge of the vehicle, while Private Brown was to be the driver. That was the plan. But like all plans in wartime, it would not survive contact with the enemy.

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The drive should only have taken an hour, but the American engineer units leading the way discovered IEDs that then had to be cleared by the British bomb disposal guys. We had to sit and wait these moments out inside the armoured vehicle. We’d been told the valley outside was heavily Taliban and were forbidden to step outside our steel oven at any point.

In the heat – more than 50 degrees centigrade – we slipped in and out of consciousness.

We had only just started moving again when we hit an IED. The sound was beyond comprehension, the blast wave throwing my head back, my guts lifting within me as if they were being punched into my throat. The mortar hatches were blown open, then slammed back down, the rear of the now unmoving Warrior filled with darkness, swirling dust and shouting. We yelled to each other.

‘One at a time, guys!’ I shouted, calling their names. All responded. All uninjured. A miracle. ‘Breezy!’ I called up to the turret. Silence. ‘Gez!’ he finally shouted down. ‘I think I was knocked out!’ ‘Can you hear Brown?’ I yelled up to him. The turret was closer to the driver’s hatch. ‘No!’

I pushed open the mortar hatches above, telling the others to wait. All was silent aside from the chugging of the Warrior’s still-running engine. I had worried about this moment for months, coming face-to-face with a casualty. Maybe it was the adrenaline, but as I peered inside the driver’s hatch, I felt nothing. One look was enough to know that Brown was dead. He was slumped over and silent. I didn’t think anyone could survive such grievous injuries. I knew that it was a useless task, but I went on with my casualty drills as if there was hope. I put my hands inside the hatch, feeling round his body for huge bleeds. I found none, and went to the next stage, his airway.

Royal Marines from 42 Commando Mortar Troop, carrying out a night fire mission using 'Illume' rounds in Now Zad, Afghanistan

I pushed back the 21-year-old’s limp head. In that moment I cursed the people who left us short-handed with our first aid equipment. And then, his airway open, Brown somehow began to breathe again. The breaths came regularly, accompanied by an awful rasping sound.

Our medic, Emily, arrived. She inspected Brown and told me to keep his airway open. It was only then that I spotted an Apache helicopter overhead, covering us. It did a lot to explain why we weren’t taking small arms fire.

I tried talking to Brown, asking him to squeeze my finger. No response. I began telling him about the pretty nurses who’d no doubt be looking after him, and how proud we were of him. It was the longest conversation I’d ever had with him, as cliched as anything you would hear in a bad Hollywood movie.

Other people arrived: the sergeant-major and the medical emergency response team among them. ‘We might have to take his leg off,’ someone said, and my stomach lurched. Seeing injuries was one thing. The thought of having to sit by and watch while my comrade’s leg was cut off in front of me was another.

My stomach was in my mouth as one of the medics leaned into the hatch and began grunting as he tried to free the trapped limb. ‘Got it!’ he shouted, and relief washed over me. ‘Let’s get him on the stretcher.’ There was nothing else to be done, and so, after a silent goodbye, I made my way back on to the Warrior’s turret.

Later, with a moment to reflect, the boys and I shook hands and talked through the experience. We had survived intact, and we were confident Brown would make it.

MY MATES and I had been in the Army long enough to know that the summons was rarely a good thing. ‘Boss wants everyone in the courtyard.’ Our platoon commander did not mince his words. ‘Private Brown died today at 2am, when his life-support was turned off,’ he told us. ‘His family were with him when he passed.’

I ground my jaw shut, willing my face to stay neutral. Some of the guys cursed, and one of the younger soldiers began to cry. I wanted to say something to him, but I didn’t dare – one word and my mask would break. Instead, I tousled his hair as I walked back to my bed.

I fell face-down on to it and then my own tears came. I had thought he was going to pull through. I’d already played out the reunion in my head. The drink we’d share as we laughed it off. I thought about Brown’s close friends in the company, and how they were denied the opportunity to say goodbye to their brother. They’d seen him in the morning, and then it was as if he had simply vanished.

Helicopters came and took broken soldiers away. Maybe their friends were the ones to load them on to the birds, or maybe they watched the spinning blades from a distance. Either way, those friends would never receive the closure of a funeral for a fallen comrade. They would never spill beer and tears at the wake. That’s how it was for the soldier at war. Pick up your weapon and fight on.

WITHOUT warning, the crack, buzz and clatter of rounds stung by our ears with angry venom, followed a split-second later by the hammering of automatic fire.

Within the blink of a sweat-filled eye, the field around our foot patrol was suddenly spewing geysers of mud as rounds chewed the dirt.

We knew the steel rain had been due, but even so the firing took a few seconds to register. Your brain doesn’t like to admit that somebody is trying to put holes in you.

Instinctively, from the crack of the bullets, we could tell that the fire was coming from the other side of a large wadi – a dry ravine – in the arid ground, so that’s where I ran with my gun, remembering the old maxim: Stay low. Move fast.

I pulled the butt of the gun to my shoulder. This moment had been drilled into me in countless exercises. Identify the firing points. Only fire at confirmed targets. F*** that. I had only one thing on my mind. Pulling the trigger. It was the most exhilarating moment of my life. In no time I’d gone through the first belt of ammunition. My mate Jay appeared beside me, handing me another.

Formed into an L-shape, the platoon brought its firepower to bear on the wadi’s bank. In no time we’d won the firefight through sheer volume. Rounds were still coming our way, but a torrent had now calmed to no more than a trickle.

It was as we pulled back that the Taliban at the end of the dirt track decided to join the party. I can’t explain why they hadn’t opened up when we stood there right in front of them. Buzzing with excitement, I dropped behind an embankment. My gun peered hungrily over the lip and Jay fed it more ammunition. I’d brought 600 rounds with me, and it was going fast. It was at this point, as the fire slackened, that I first realised we had a casualty. I asked Jay who it was. ‘Jake. He’s been shot in the neck.’

Jake. One of my best friends.

‘It’s not serious,’ said Jay.

‘How can you be shot in the neck and it not be serious?’ But there was no time for answers as the Taliban picked up their fire from both directions. I nearly got my first kill when my mate Danny ran in front of me. Luckily, I was taking a second to look up over my sights and so he escaped a burst of 7.62. It scared the hell out of me.

‘If we had the tripods like I asked, we’d be hammering these bastards,’ I said to Jay.

The larger, stable platforms would double the accurate range of the gun. I’d petitioned that we should deploy them, but my advice had been unwanted.

‘Look, look!’ It was Jay again. ‘Moving down to the tree line from that compound. You see them?’

I did. Two figures, moving at speed. I looked down the sights once again. Pulled the trigger. A five-round burst, then another.

They ran straight into it. I couldn’t believe it. ‘Did I hit them?’

Jay had the binoculars. ‘Yeah! One of them’s down! He’s not moving!’ The boss looked up from his map. ‘Good job.’ I’d seen it, and yet… ‘I definitely got him, yeah?’ ‘Yeah! He ran straight into it.’ A moment of detached belief, pure joy. I high-fived my comrade.

‘That one was for Brown, you bastards.’ Yes, I said that. They say it in the movies, and when they do you think it’s a cliche. But I said it. And I felt it.

Now I wanted to get more of them and I know I was not alone. There is one fact about the British infantry soldier that is conveniently forgotten: we wanted to kill. We could have taken regular jobs and joined the local boxing gym, but they won’t let you kill someone in the ring.

We joined the infantry because we wanted to see destruction. To cause destruction. This is one of the reasons the Afghan mission was doomed: they sent war-fighters to be peacekeepers.

We were supposed to support the reconstruction of a country. Instead we flattened it. We wanted to see bodies dropping in our sights. We wanted to shout about it. Record it so that we could relive it again and again.

I had faced the enemy and lived. They’d tried to kill me, but I’d killed them. I felt like I was walking on air. The darker times would come much later.

Next week I will tell you how, years after leaving the Army, I was brought to the darkest place I could imagine – and how I found light at the end of the tunnel.

© Geraint Jones, 2019

Brothers In Arms, by Geraint Jones, is published by Macmillan on May 16, priced £18.99. Offer price £15.19 (20 per cent discount with free p&p) until May 19. Pre-order at mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. Spend £30 and get free premium delivery.

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