Contemporary Operating Environment
That others may live in peace: Death in an Afghan ValleyBy Greg Colton November 18, 2019
It is a uniquely unpleasant experience to be woken up to watch a man die. The young Afghan policeman who was brought into our patrol base that morning was sadly not the first man I have stood beside as they took their final breath, but his death had a profound impact on all the soldiers who battled valiantly to save his life. While other Australian soldiers in previous tours saw far more shooting than we did, the death of this young policeman in many ways typified the character of the combat we experienced during our time in Afghanistan.
I deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 as the commander of Mentoring Team Charlie, part of the 3 RAR Task Group. Our rotation to Afghanistan was to be the last in which Australian soldiers lived alongside the Afghan soldiers they were tasked to mentor. Our mission was not to close with and kill the enemy, but to train and mentor the Afghan National Army so that they could take over responsibility for security as the ISAF mission drew down. It was a mission that called for patience and restraint, for unwavering professionalism and a ready sense of humour. As a result, the six months were not without their frustrations. To paraphrase the Serenity Prayer, throughout the tour we were challenged to have the strength to accept the things we couldn’t change, the courage to change the things we could, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Viewed on the map, the small patch of Afghanistan we were responsible for was the Miribad Valley, a cluster of tightly grouped contour lines that stretched from the outskirts of Tarin Kowt to the Khaz Uruzghan basin, a distance of some 120 kms. As is the case almost everywhere in Afghanistan, the area of operations followed the course of the local river, which in turn was flanked by the cultivated ‘green zone’, the home to most of the civilian population that the Afghan security forces were tasked to protect. A dusty road constructed from little more than compacted dirt followed the river for much of the valley.
While both the Afghan Army and our own troops usually moved tactically through the surrounding desert, the majority of the local population was forced, through necessity, to use this road as part of their daily routines. As a result the road was often targeted with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by the Taliban, who were determined to undermine security, regardless of the cost in civilian lives. To counter this, a number of Army and police checkpoints were established along the road. Every morning local police would search their stretch of road, equipped with little more than their local knowledge and a rifle, to clear it of IEDs. We made a conscious decision to work extensively with the police as well as the Afghan National Army throughout the Miribad Valley. As a result, and due to the personalities of the local Army and police commanders, the cooperation between the two arms of the Afghan security forces within our area was excellent.
The evening before the incident had been a testing one. The US artillery at our patrol base had spent much of the night firing illumination missions into a neighboring valley to support two Afghan police posts which had come under heavy attack. During this fire mission a police patrol near our camp had triggered an IED, miraculously without suffering a casualty, but had opened up with small arms fire alarmingly near our joint Afghan/Australian base. As a result I had spent much of the night with the Afghan commanding officer providing advice as he provided support to the police. It was not until half-past four in the morning that I finally got to bed. Two hours later, my second-in-command woke me and calmly, almost apologetically, told me the Afghan police had brought in a casualty from an IED and that it didn’t look good.
Within the patrol base we had a small medical station. It had been constructed out of plywood on earlier tours by Australian engineers, and was open at both ends, with a high wooden roof from which hung hooks ready to take saline bags. It was normally manned by one of our two combat medics, the other usually being out with one of our patrols, but as I arrived I saw that both were working on the casualty, supported by infantrymen who had been trained as combat first aiders. The casualty was a young Afghan policeman in his late teens, dressed in a grey police uniform, with bright blue eyes and a mop of dark black hair. At first glance it seemed there was not a mark on him and he was conscious and talking. But first glances can be deceptive. That morning, he and his fellow policemen had cleared their stretch of road and found an IED which they had recovered and taken back to their outpost. They put it in the corner of a room and set about making breakfast.
The young policeman had been in the same room when the unstable main explosive charge had belatedly detonated. Although he had not received any fragmentation wounds, the blast injuries he suffered had ruptured his internal organs, causing massive injuries which ultimately would prove fatal.
My soldiers worked on him for forty minutes as we waited for a helicopter. He quickly deteriorated and lost consciousness, but the efforts of the medics and first aiders never wavered. They commenced CPR, but as they pumped air into his chest, his lungs pushed through his burst diaphragm, making working on him extremely difficult. Undaunted, the medics were still performing CPR as they put the young policeman into the helicopter. He was declared dead on arrival at the field hospital. It was half-past seven. I had been awake for an hour and the cook was just serving breakfast.
During our tour of Afghanistan, combat did not consist of storming enemy trenches, seizing objectives or calling in close air support to destroy Taliban positions. Sure, we had some fleeting contacts with the insurgents, but for us combat was constant test of our professionalism. It was about soldiering in the relentless heat of an Afghan summer, carrying loads that sapped your energy every step, in the knowledge that an insidious, unseen, barely detectable IED could remove your legs the very next step. Combat, for us, was largely mental strain and, when it occurred, sudden, bloody and violent. And yet somehow the soldiers overcame all these challenges and maintained the professionalism required to mentor our Afghan partners. They performed to the highest of standards and the nation should be proud of them.
At this time of the year, like most members of the professional of arms, I pause, reflect and remember those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their countries and in the pursuit of peace. Remembrance is an intensely personal activity and like many my age who have spent much of their careers deployed on operations, my thoughts often turn to those I have served alongside who have fallen in combat. Officers such as Captain Alex Eida, who was in my intake at Sandhurst and, like me, was raised in Dorset, and Captain Mark Hale. Mark was a legend of a man who was the RQMS of the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment when I was a young Second Lieutenant and characteristically gave his own life while trying to save that of a wounded soldier. I also think of Corporal Stephen Thompson and Private Stephen Kingscott, both of whom were members of my platoon on operations in Northern Ireland, as well as Lieutenant John Thornton of the Royal Marines who took over 8 Platoon, C Company from me: all three were later killed in Afghanistan.
I find myself dwelling on the life and death of Major Hesperus Watkiss Lloyd, the first of four generations of officers in my family. 'Uncle Pic', as he was known within the family, was a professional soldier in the Victorian era who wrote to his sister in 1914 expressing disappointment that his posting to Malta would likely mean that he would miss out on the 'short war' against Germany. His assessment was sadly proved wrong. His battalion deployed to France and he was killed on 10 March 1915 as the 2nd Battalion The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) attacked at Neuve Chapelle. A letter written to his family from a soldier who witnessed his death suggests Uncle Pic achieved his ambition of commanding the battalion for about five minutes between the second and third German trenches before he was 'bowled over by machine-gun fire'.
All these men are formally remembered by their countries: their deaths are commemorated and their sacrifices acknowledged. Yet, there is no plaque for the young Afghan policemen who died that day in a small forward operating base in the Miribad valley; his name is not carved in stone on a small obelisk in his village. Outside of his family, his sacrifice is unknown to the world. He is but one of thousands of Afghan security force personnel who have been killed trying to carve out a new country. He died as a result of trying to make a small dirt road safe for local people to travel on. He died in the service of peace.
We should rightly remember the sacrifice of our soldiers in the service of the nation. However, I will chose to also remember those members of the Afghan and Iraqi security forces who have also fallen in the fight against a common enemy. They shared the same risks as us, but often without the equipment, training or protective measures on which we relied so heavily. As a result, their ranks contain some of the bravest men I have been privileged to serve alongside. So, this week I will remember my Uncle Pic and those soldiers I have served alongside. But I will also remember a young Afghan policeman, with a mop of black hair, whose life ebbed away in a plywood medical station in a remote Afghan valley. He died that others may live. Less we forget.
Postscript: The same day the young policeman died, another Afghan policeman was brought to our patrol base. He had been hit by an IED when collecting water from the river. The blast had caught him side on. He had lost his right eye, his right leg and arm were badly wounded, and he had taken fragmentation to his body. Our medics were determined they would not lose another man that day. He survived.