Meet the East Anglian characters serving in Afghanistan: Part Two

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.

Pte Stefan Marchese, from Norwich, is a former Sprowston High School student who will celebrate his 21st birthday during this, his second, tour of Afghanistan.

He is a Royal Anglian attached to the 1st Royal Tank Regiment with the Mastiff armoured vehicle group, which he describes as 'like a battle taxi service' – where he gets a privileged perspective on Afghanistan as a top cover gunner.

'I saw two kids walking to school the other day with school bags on their backs, which is something I thought I would never see,' he said. 'The public view of us has improved since we were last here. The local nationals have taken more of a shine to us than they used to. I think they have realised we are here to help them.

'Top cover is good because you get to see everything first-hand. The kids do throw a lot of stones at you, but the Mastiffs are the daddy out here. The Taliban are scared of them.'

Pte Marchese's girlfriend, Ashleigh Ruthven, is studying sports science at the UEA in Norwich.

'I speak to her every other day' he said. 'I write quite a lot of letters home. I tell her I cannot stop thinking about her and I am missing her lots.'

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Pte Marchese said he was not expecting many luxuries when he turns 21 in August.

He said: 'I am hoping that one of the lads will buy me a slushy from the NAAFI (The Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes shop). Then maybe I'll have a game of volleyball and have a session in the gym. That is as good as it gets around here.'

Colour Sgt Nigel Rix, 38, is one of six brothers who grew up in Beccles. He acts as the Royal Anglian Regiment's liaison officer for the Estonian army, one of the many different nations making up the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

'There are so many nations out here, and I think if they are going to be a part of NATO, they need to make a contribution out here, regardless of how big or small they are,' he said.

'I work very closely with the Estonians in everything they do – planning, operations, administration, and everything that the company quartermaster sergeant does.

'I help with discipline issues too, and even help them check their emails. It is about breaking the language barrier, and helping them to realise that important information has got to go up the command chain quickly.'

Colour Sgt Rix said he was single, and enjoyed travelling the world with the army, having worked in Northern Ireland, Bosnian, Iraq, Kenya, Australia and twice in Afghanistan.

'If there was an opportunity to get away and do something different, I would take it,' he said. 'You would have to be with a very special person for them to put up with that.

'I have a close family, all living in and around Beccles and Worlingham, so I am very keen to get home. I bought a house in Worlingham, next to my brother Stephen, so he is my neighbour now.

'I am leaving the army in two years, and I'm looking forward to a different life. I want to go self-employed as a tree surgeon. It would be outdoors, I know it is something I enjoy, and I am pretty handy with a chainsaw!'

Cpl Daniel Sellers, 24, was born in Norwich and still has family living in Dereham. He is a military policeman, attached to the Vikings battle group as a weapons intelligence specialist – but like many other soldiers he still has to take his turn on 'stag', manning the guard towers on his base.

While keeping watch from the walls of his battalion's HQ at Shawqat, he said: 'Doing this today is basically to provide general base security and observe the pattern of life, both good and bad. We're looking for anything abnormal really.

'Passing the time is just a case of watching the idiosyncrasies of the local people. It can be quite entertaining. They have got their own habits. I have seen kids having a laugh like they would do back home. They are proper cheeky.'

Cpl Patrick Casey, 24, from Bawdeswell, near Norwich, is undertaking his second tour of Afghanistan with the 1st Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment.

The former Reepham High School pupil said he had seen many changes since his previous deployment to the country.

'The ANCOP (Afghan National Civil Order Police) and ANA (Afghan National Army) have come on in leaps and bounds since then,' he said. 'But I think they're going to struggle when we're not here.'

Back in Britain, Cpl Casey has a girlfriend, Amber, and one-year-old son, Brandon.

'It is difficult,' he said. 'I don't use computers, so she sends me Blueys (military mail) with pictures, and they are both busy, which is good.

'I've got R&R (rest and recuperation) in July, but I would rather be here. It is boring back in the UK. Here, I know what I'm doing and if this was like the previous tour I would just love it.

'This scares some of the people out here, but it is like a holiday to me. This place (at Patrol Base Kalang) is so safe now I would bring my son to live here.'

Pte Alex Berezynskyj, 21, from Cambridge, is a GPMG gunner (general purpose machine gun) – a heavy piece of equipment to carry on patrol in the heat of Helmand.

'It is a lot of weight to carry and it keeps you nice and thin,' he said. 'It is getting hotter and hotter, but you just deal with it.

'It is a lot less kinetic than I expected, but you need to keep your wits about you. As an infantry soldier I want a lot more contacts. 'There was one reasonable contact which was on and off for about three hours but, especially as a GPMG gunner, I feel a bit disappointed not to have fired more. The more I fire, the more weight I lose, and if I use all my link (chain of ammunition), that's 14kg less I have to carry!'

Pte Berezynskyj's girlfriend Bryony lives in Cambridge and the couple celebrated their second anniversary this month.

'I do miss her, but I try not to think about it too much,' he said. 'It's not really a problem, because you are always doing stuff. I have got R&R coming up shortly. I am going to another base when I get back, and it's a lot more kinetic up there, so hopefully it will be better.'

Fellow Viking Pte Sam Butler, 20, from Canvey Island in Essex, is on his first tour of Afghanistan.

'I thought it would be a lot more lively,' he said. 'This part (around Kalang) is a bit quiet and I thought the locals would be a bit more anti. But they are happy to come up and talk to us.

'There was one contact in the Dashte (the desert area to the west), but this place is a perfect example of the best of Afghanistan. It is a real success story. It is good being in an area like this, but as an infantry soldier I definitely want to take the fight to the enemy.'

Pte Butler's girlfriend Jamie-Leigh lives in Barking.

'I do miss her but we have been in touch quite recently,' he said. 'We have got text-link and we have got the internet her so we can get on Facebook and the phones. It is pretty decent.'

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