Meet the East Anglian characters serving in Afghanistan: Part One
Soldiers from East Anglia are fulfilling a wide spectrum of military roles in Afghanistan. In the fifth part of a week-long series, CHRIS HILL spoke to a few of the local characters working in the heat of Helmand.
Of all the Vikings serving in Afghanistan, one looks more like his unit’s Nordic nickname than all the others.
Sgt Dan Ling, 32, from Ramsholt near Woodbridge in Suffolk, is the assault pioneer sergeant with the 1st Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment – a traditional role which used to involve clearing a route for troops and establishing their base camps.
When in ceremonial uniform, he carries a silver axe, wears a white apron and gloves and is the only soldier allowed on parade with a beard – a privilege which he has taken full advantage of.
“I’m the only one allowed to grow a beard, so I do,” he said. “I like tradition.
“One legend behind it is that when we were fighting the French, soldiers had to take their dead horses back to the pioneer sergeant to prove they hadn’t sold them. He would cut the horses’ shoes off, and the story goes that he needed a beard for holding smelling salts.
“This one has been growing since May 9. The lads all love it, even though they all have to shave every day, and I don’t.
On this tour, Sgt Ling is specialising in battlefield clearance - closing down patrol bases as the process of handing over control of Nad-e Ali to the Afghan forces continues.
His role also includes demolitions, ensuring sufficient supplies of water, fuel fortification and force protection.
Pte Ross Green, 28, from Great Yarmouth, is an army dog handler on his second tour of Afghanistan with the Vikings. He works with Lede, a black Labrador trained to sniff out explosives, who stays with him in his tent on a mattress beside his camp bed.
“He’ll be used if there is a road search and there is a long distance from A to B, or if there has been specific intelligence, and hopefully we can find something before somebody else does by losing their legs,” said Pte Green. “We have had no finds, but he has had a few searches, he has done his best and he has certainly put his time in.
“It is hard to maintain him. It is quite easy for an animal like this to die in this kind of heat. With the amount of time we spend on the ground to make sure he has enough water and to keep him in shape. The wadis (local streams) are a good thing – I can let him off his lead for ten or 15 minutes and let him jump around in the cold water.”
Pte Green said he would have to part company with his four-legged comrade at the end of his tour, as the dog would probably be redeployed to another unit.
“He has already proven himself, so they will keep him and give him to someone else for the next tour,” he said. “I am pretty attached to him, so to hand him over will be tough. I can put my paperwork in so I get an option to keep him when he is retired.”
Among the many specialised units attached to the Vikings’ battlegroup is WO2 David Tidman, a Battery Sergeant Major with the Royal Artillery.
The 36-year-old from Fakenham is in charge of the Joint Fire Cell which involves co-ordinating strikes by artillery, mortars, Apache helicopters, fast jets and surveillance aircraft when called in by troops under fire on the ground.
“I co-ordinate all those things in the air space so they can fly and fire, drop bombs and kill insurgents,” he said. “We have to have everything in place to allow each weapon system to engage a target on the ground without conflicting with an asset of ours.”
WO2 Tidman is on his third tour of Afghanistan, leaving his wife Jillian at home with their five-year-old daughter Isabelle and two-year-old son Samuel.
“This is the worst one yet,” he said. “This is the first time I have come away with two kids at home. Part of you has to switch off in order to do your job. If you thought about them every minute of every day, I don’t think you would get through the tour.
“When it is time to write a letter or to make a phone call, you do that – you get in that family bubble. But then you put the phone down or put the pen down and get back to doing your job. I have been in the army for 20 years and it doesn’t get any easier”.
WO2 Tidman is due home for rest and recuperation (R&R) in July, when he is looking forward to taking his family to Wells and Holkham beach.
“I was dying to get out of Norfolk when I was growing up,” he said. “But now, having been to some really horrible places, I cannot think of a better place to bring my family up.”
Keen fisherman and Canaries fan Cpl Jamie Bale, 40, from Poringland, is a quartermaster at the Vikings’ rear supply base at Camp Bastion. He is responsible for supplying more than 400 servicemen and women at his battalion’s main base at Shawqat.
That means handling the logistics for vital items like priority medical equipment, vehicle spares, water or body armour, down to day-to-day essentials like shaving foam or foot powder.
“Anything we can get forward for those guys, we will get it forward, even if we have to risk our lives and take it there ourselves,” said Cpl Bale. “As a soldier myself, you know what the guys want and you know what gives the morale, even down to the slightest thing like magazines or corn flakes.”
Cpl Bale said more than 8,000 tonnes of equipment and supplies leave his stores every week, despatched from an array of freight containers.
“This place is busier than Norwich city centre,” he said. “I think it is a really important job. Anything they need, we will get it there. Without that, the mission will fail.”
Cpl Bale lives in Poringland, where he has five children: Devlin, seven, Gabriella, three, Carlton, two, Courtney, 13 and Alexis, 11.
“I just miss being with my children on the beach, and I really love my fishing,” he said. “I just long for a fishing trip to relax in the wind and the rain at Trimingham, and to catch up on the gossip about Norwich City.”
One of the youngest Vikings on the current tour is Pte Steven Sheard, 18, from Rickinghall, near Diss. After leaving Hartismere High School in Eye he became a soldier with B Company’s Quick Reaction Force (QRF).
He was inspired to join the Royal Anglians after watching the dramatic documentary about them filmed by ex-Eastenders hard man Ross Kemp.
“I joined as soon as I turned 16,” he said. “One of the guys here is 40 and he has a daughter who is older than me. It is a bit mad.
“I remember watching Ross Kemp in Afghanistan, who was with the regiment I’m with now. I was only 13 watching it on TV with my granddad and I wanted to do it ever since.
“I am proud to be in the army and you get the discipline as well. On Civvy Street, you get no chain of command but here you get someone constantly telling you what you should do. It is the history of the regiment as well.
“We do two days on QRF and two days training the Afghan police. It is a bit weird, doing all that and being so young.
“I want to stay in the army a long time. Just going out and smashing the Taliban doesn’t achieve it. It is all about hearts and minds now, and getting the locals on our side.”
One soldier whose role has changed more than most is Sgt Paul “Bommer” Grahame, of the Swanton Morley-based Light Dragoons.
In 2007, the 34-year-old was a JTAC (Joint Terminal Air Controller) and regarded as one of the army’s deadliest weapons, co-ordinating an arsenal of aerial firepower from attack jets and helicopters to destroy Taliban targets.
Last year, he released a book about his exploits, Fire Strike 7/9, which has already raised more than £100,000 for military charities.
This time around, Sgt Grahame is working in the provincial police HQ in Gereshk, where he helps the district chief of police to mentor local counter-terrorism and intelligence personnel.
“It is the other end of the spectrum,” he said. “The Afghan police have got the local knowledge and they can see when something is out of the ordinary. The people are happy to move around their villages without being pulled in or questioned. That freedom of movement means those towns and cities can be used how they are supposed to be used.
“If you talk about writing another book, I could tell you some stories from this tour. We have found IED factories, IED motorbikes and big drug hauls, which is where the Taliban gets 85pc of its income.”
Sgt Grahame has two children, Harry, nine, and Ella, six, and will celebrate his 10th anniversary with his wife Nicola at the end of July, when he returns home for his mid-tour leave.