Long-serving Royal Anglian soldiers remember comrades lost in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan has taken a painful toll on the East Anglian regiments who have fought for the freedom of the country. In the final part of a week-long series, CHRIS HILL talks to experienced soldiers about the legacy of those sacrifices.

Last Friday, 37-year-old Cpl Alex Guy became the 16th Royal Anglian soldier to be killed in action since the beginning of the conflict in Afghanistan.

His sacrifice underlines the painful cost borne by this region's regiments for the progress which they have undoubtedly made in securing freedom and safety for the population in large parts of battle-scarred Helmand province.

I spoke to some of the more experienced soldiers from the 1st Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment, known as the Vikings, about their reflections and aspirations for the future as they contemplate the final withdrawal of British troops, scheduled for the end of 2014. The following interviews were conducted before the loss of Cpl Guy.

As the Royal Anglians' regimental sergeant major (RSM), WO1 Jimmy Self is one of the Vikings' longest-serving soldiers – the senior organiser and enforcer of his unit.

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The 40-year-old campaigner from Southwold joined the army at the age of 16 and is one of the few who has taken part in all four of his battalion's operational tours of Afghanistan, with his long career seeing the conflict through from its beginning to near its end.

He said: 'It was not until 2007 when we pushed into Helmand that we saw the realities of what Afghanistan was really like at the time.

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'It was a far cry from what we are doing now. I always use the comparison of two years ago in the same area. For us to drive from Shawqat to Kalang (two of the Vikings' bases) was an absolutely monumental task and you wouldn't be able to do it without hitting several IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and coming under small arms fire. You could not sit down and talk to the locals because it was too dangerous to do that.

'To now be able to drive from one end of our AO (area of operations) to the other in an hour and a half with just a few incidents here and there is an unbelievable change.

'We have got to put that down to the fighting which has gone on in the past and the effort we are putting into the police and the ANA (Afghan National Army). And it is working, there is no doubt.

'Nobody can say that what we have done has not been a success. It is very easy when there is a death or a casualty to question why you are here. I will always remember on the last tour when Capt Driver got killed, and L/Cpl Drane. You know those blokes personally and they were in my company, so you think: 'Was it really worth it?'

'But I have to admit that if we were to pull out now it would be a shame for it to go the wrong way because of all the efforts we have put in.'

WO1 Self has a 13-year-old son Cameron, an 11-year-old daughter Megan, and a stepson Charlie, 16. He described his wife Joanna 'the rock behind everything'.

WO1 Self's parents live in Reydon and his sister also lives nearby, so he is thinking of moving back to the serenity of the north Suffolk coast when his term in the army ends next April.

'I just remember the very settled and calm life in Southwold as a child and always wanting to go to Norwich to meet people and go out,' he said. 'Southwold didn't have that, so I couldn't wait to leave to go into the army. Now I am older, it is appealing to go and settle down and live that life I didn't want 24 years ago.'

Cpl Alistair Procter, 33, from Stiffkey, has been in the army for 16 years. This is his third tour of Afghanistan, having previously served here in 2002 and 2007.

'I was in a Fire Support Group in 2007, the same job I'm doing now, and it was very, very hostile,' he said. 'We were in fire-fights every day. Out of 22 guys, we ended up with nine. The rest were casualties, unfortunately.

'That was a hard tour. There was one fatality, L/Cpl Alex Hawkins, who was a very good friend of mine.

'It does not really matter what the politicians say. You are just here to do the job that you've been asked to do by your superiors, whether that is going forward and fighting the enemy, or filling sandbags. It is what you are told to do, so you do it.

'The transition we have seen from 2007 to 2012 is amazing. I was teaching counter-IED warfare on Herrick 11 (in 2009/10). I was telling all the students how dangerous this place is, but coming inside the Canal Zone, the people are very friendly. It is the same everywhere you go. Some people will want to smile at you, and some will want to fight you.

'I would hope that the British public will be able to see a difference from what they saw when we stepped into Afghanistan, and that we have made a difference.

'How much of a difference can be sustained after we have left as a force is yet to be seen, but hopefully the British public can see that all the guys who have lost their lives or had their lives changed… that something has been achieved for all that.

'More than anything, we have learned a lot as an army and as a country about coming to somewhere like this. I just hope it is sustainable. It is very sad we lost so many people as we did, and people are still getting injured day by day. No death is worthwhile, but we have made some large steps out here.'

Cpl Procter's parents Vivienne and Edward still live in Stiffkey, while the soldier is based with his battalion in Bulford in Wiltshire with his wife Anchan and his daughter Victoria, who will have her first birthday in July.

When he returns for his mid-tour leave in July, he said he was looking forward to a 'nice bottle of beer, and then I'll start packing my daughter's birthday presents'.

Pte Oliver Dodds, 24, from Eaton in Norwich, is a former Hewett High School student on his third tour of Afghanistan, having served in 2007 and 2009/10.

Speaking from the patrol base at Kalang, now surrounded by peaceful farms and thriving bazaars, he said: 'I had a mate who died just down the road from here. We take it for granted now, but two years ago it was quite a hostile place.

'L/Cpl Adam Drane was shot in a sangar (guard tower). I lost mates on my first tour as well.

'All you can think about is when you knew them. It was a Friday 13th when Chris Gray died and we got another one of those dates this year, so you go through it all again.'

Pte Dodds said he had spoken to his girlfriend Philippa Stebbing, in Eaton, every few days, and he regularly received mail and welfare parcels containing morale-boosting home comforts like Twiglets, Lucozade, and copies of the EDP's sports paper, the Pink 'Un.

While some of his younger colleagues were eager to get in the action, Pte Dodds said he was content to be in a secure part of Helmand.

'To be honest, I'm glad,' he said. 'It is nice to think you are suddenly getting somewhere. I cannot really see Afghanistan ever being completely stable, not in the near future anyway, but it is a lot better now, so improvements have definitely been made.'

?The 1st Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment, known as the Vikings, is an infantry regiment which recruits from Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire.

On its first deployment to Afghanistan in 2002, the battalion lost one solder: Pte Darren George.

In 2007, the Vikings carried the fight into the Taliban's safe havens across Helmand, with the loss of nine soldiers: Pte Chris Gray, L/Cpl George Davey, Cpl Darren Bonner, L/Cpl Alex Hawkins, Pte Tony Rawson, Capt David Hicks, Pte Robert Foster, Pte John Thrumble and Pte Aaron McClure.

In 2009/10, the Vikings were called up again at short notice and lost five more men: L/Cpl Adam Drane, Pte Robert Hayes, Capt Martin Driver, Pte James Grigg and L/Cpl Scott Hardy.

And on June 15, 2012, Cpl Alex Guy became the 16th Viking to lose his life in Afghanistan, killed while trying to help his Afghan comrades after an insurgent ambush in Nad-e Ali.

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