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A Croydon welcome

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Kurt Barling | 14:58 UK time, Sunday, 1 November 2009

There are some days my job is shocking and humbling in equal measure. A trip to Croydon last week to witness the return from operations parade for 2 Rifles (2nd Battalion, The Rifles) was just that.

2 Rifles Commanding Officer Lt Colonel Rob Thomson described the engagement in Helmand as the toughest assignment he's had in 20 years in the Army.

His Battle Group lost 23 men, 11 seriously wounded and 51 less seriously securing the town of Sangin and the Upper Sangin Valley.

There have been a number of these parades in the capital over the past year. All the ones I have reported from have been well attended by the public.

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I am always struck by the diversity of the assembled crowds. Veterans with their medals pinned to their chests from long gone campaigns; young families; a veritable range of ethnicities which reflect the localities where the regiments are often drawn from. People are generous with their applause and their cheers.

On the local parade ground on the Mitcham Road hundreds of troops had assembled in battle fatigues to do a final run through of the marching style. Riflemen from what I can tell have very good footwork.

Close to the time of departure for the parade through Croydon town centre a van equipped for people with disabilities pulled up and out rolled several wheelchairs with young men in them. These were the seriously wounded from the 2 Rifles last sixth-month tour in Afghanistan.

Eleven soldiers were seriously wounded with permanent injuries like amputations. Lieutenant Alex Horsfal was one of a number of men caught in an incident where five men lost their lives and several more were seriously wounded in Helmand.

Lieutenant Horsfal described it as an hour of tragedy. He has clearly mastered the art of understatement. He has lost a leg and several fingers; it has taken him three and a half months to get to where he is. He has a lifetime of challenge ahead.

But as soon as he emerged from the van he was surrounded by the men he commanded. Grown men don't cry of course, particularly when they are soldiers and TV cameras are around. But there was a stricken look on many faces.

This was the first time they had seen each other since Helmand.

Lieutenant Horsfal moves with some difficulty in his wheelchair but he approached his colleagues and offered each a hand and apologised if he had forgotten to shake anyone in particulars.

He was visibly relieved and happy to see his men back safely. He told them it was good to see them in one piece, no irony from a man in his condition.

When I was a young boy I spent a lot of time in Germany. In the 1960s it was still a common thing to see war amputees everywhere you went. The scars of modern war, you see, are not so easily concealed. There are always more injured than killed. It is those survivors who remind us more often of the cost of conflict.

These courageous young men in Croydon reminded me of those old soldiers. It was not something I had expected to see on London's streets.

As the men of 2 Rifles passed through the town centre the crowd cheered and at times it was a very intimate parade; just a hands width separating the thousands of well-wishers and marching troops.

Assembled outside Croydon Town Hall the civic leadership offered the soldiers the freedom of the City of Croydon. Lieutenant Horsfal and his fellow wounded soldiers were presented to the Mayor by Commanding Officer Lt Col Rob Thomson. It must have been a sobering moment to see these young men for the Mayor.

I overheard a number of the crowd expressing shock at seeing the condition of those particular young men.

Rob Thomson says it is a vital part of keeping up his men's morale; to know that their endeavours and sacrifice are not being overlooked. He pointed out it was a chance for the families of soldiers to feel less isolated from the public and to feel that their soldiering folk are appreciated.

We are good at military pageantry. The marching band and the crisp drill of the soldiers are quite a sight. Even Army bands have a sense of humour these days. They played the theme tune from Star Wars and Indiana Jones along with more traditional scores.

People are repeatedly showing they are keen to turn out to show their appreciation and respect for these young soldiers who are increasingly paying a high price for our Middle Eastern policy.

But there is another side to these parades which is making people uncomfortable, myself included. Having been at a number of these parades over the past few years I get the sense that Londoners are beginning to witness first hand the real human cost of this Middle Eastern engagement.

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