Light Dragoons spearheading a battle-field evolution in Afghanistan

In keeping with the evolving nature of the conflict in Afghanistan, the Norfolk-based soldiers of the Light Dragoons are undergoing a transition of their own.

The adaptable regiment, based at Swanton Morley near Dereham, is undertaking its fourth tour in six years, this time bringing 350 servicemen and women to Helmand.

The majority are still involved in the regiment's traditional trade – the reconnaissance and information-gathering which is a key part of the ongoing efforts to defeat the insurgency.

The Dragoons are also a central cog in the multi-faceted Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF), an elite outfit launching fast and destructive raids into insurgent territory, mostly by rapid strike helicopter insertion.

But as the transition to bring Helmand back under Afghan control gathers pace, an increasing number of soldiers are taking on police training roles, with one of the Dragoons' three deployed squadrons being split into Police Advisory Teams (PATs).

And activities on all fronts are now being led by the Afghans, to prepare them to fight their own battles when British forces withdraw.

Regimental sergeant major, WO1 David Rae, said: 'The Afghans take the lead on everything we do. 10pc of the BRF is Afghan. But it is much more than that in real currency, because that 10pc is leading it.

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'In a lot of areas the situation on the ground is the same, but the way we do business here is completely different.'

Sgt Paul 'Bommer' Grahame is a Light Dragoon who has seen more changes than most.

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. 'It is the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) which the lads really worry about. But 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.

'It is all planned and led by the ANP. We steer them in the right direction if we need to but otherwise it is up to them.'

Although the Light Dragoons have traditionally recruited from the north of England, their established Norfolk roots means they are also attracting soldiers from within the regiment's adopted home county.

One of them, Capt Ed Lowther, is the regiment's adjutant – a staff officer, whose role includes logistics, discipline and liaising with the families of casualties.

He said: 'It is a real measure of change that one squadron is being cut in half to provide more police mentoring capability, because the traditional role that squadron used to fill has become completely unnecessary.

'Since our last tour the access we have to places has completely changed. There are areas that we still have to fight for, but we are able to move through the population we are trying to protect and to be alongside the Afghans, who have ultimate responsibility for sorting out their problems… that change is pretty significant compared to what we have seen earlier.'

Capt Lowther, 30, was brought up in Docking but his parents live in Brancaster. His father is Viscount Ullswater, deputy speaker in the House of Lords – whose children are afforded the right to use the prefix 'The Honorable'.

'It means I can always say I'm the most honourable person in the room, because it says so before my name – although some of the officers would question that!' said Capt Lowther. 'I was nicknamed The Lord on the last tour, but I think I have managed to escape that this time round.'

Capt Lowther and his wife Katie celebrated the arrival of their first daughter, Eve, on May 26 while the soldier was home on a well-timed rest and recuperation (R&R) break.

'It was a bit of a wrench to come back here but I have got an important duty to do and I wouldn't have it any other way,' he said. 'I have got a different kind of family to look after here.'

Lt Nick Taylor, 26, from Ingworth, near Aylsham, is a former student of Cromer High School. He is on his first operational tour, as a troop second-in-command in the BRF.

He said: 'I think your expectations are somewhat blurred. You hear everybody's war stories and you can only create an opinion based on what you are told. But with regards to our role out here it is what I expected.

'We are working with small Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) units and they are very professional with regards to their abilities and their knowledge of the ground and the local people. The information they are able to gather is second to none.'

Cpl Tom Harper, 29, from Newmarket, joined the Light Dragoons two-and-a-half years ago. He has previously served in Iraq but, after re-training as a member of one of the new PATs, he said the current tour could be his most rewarding yet.

'We've had some experience of working with the Afghan police and they seem as up for it as we are. There is not as much of an IED threat and it is not as dangerous being in the patrol bases.

'I can see this tour being more rewarding as we are helping the ANSF to stand on their own two feet. If I can personally help with us withdrawing from the country, then it is all good.'

Lt Jamie Harle, 31, is a commander of one of the newly-formed PATs. He said: 'To see how hungry they are to take ownership of their own security and control their own operations… it is a massive change and it inspires us to help them.

'We can give them the training and equipment, but to see how passionate they are about providing security to the local areas and their own families and friends – we cannot touch that.'

Although originally from West Sussex, Lt Harle said he would be proud to bring up his new son or daughter in Norfolk with his wife Emily.

'I am expecting a baby in December and it will be Norfolk-born,' he said. 'My favourite place to have a pint is the Railway Tavern in Dereham, and the biggest thing I am looking forward to when I get back is sitting around with all those friendly faces, and making them listen to my war stories.'

Trooper Alister Johnston, from Leeds, celebrated his 24th birthday in Helmand in May.

He said: 'Coming through training your corporals are always telling you about being on rooftops in compounds but we knew we would not be doing that role. We knew that we would be working with the Afghans and that it would not be as kinetic as in 2006, when there was a lot of action going on.

'This is the exit strategy. We have to leave here eventually, and we couldn't just leave it in a mess. We have to stay and help the ANSF through their training, and that is why this new role is so important.

'We take them after their basic training. We show them how to patrol, how to interact with locals and how to report IED finds up the command chain.'

Trooper Arron Jordan, 22, comes from a military family and his sister Steph, of the Royal Military Police, is due to join him in Afghanistan this month.

He said he had seen a 'massive change' since his previous tour of duty in 2009.

'Before, there were not so many checkpoints in the main towns and villages,' he said. 'The Afghan police are everywhere now. The job I'm doing now is supervising and teaching them and monitoring so that when it comes to taking over they can take this area over themselves rather than having us around.'

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