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Military honours hint at many extraordinary stories

Mark Urban | 13:18 UK time, Friday, 24 September 2010

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) publishes its lists of operational honours twice a year. Today's includes 131 individuals, most of them recognised for acts of bravery in Afghanistan.

These lists of ranks, names and medals may seem mundane to the outsider but hint at many extraordinary personal stories.

Sergeant Major Karl Ley is getting the George Medal for defusing 139 bombs during his tour.

Flight Lieutenant Ian Fortune managed to keep control of his Chinook helicopter despite being hit between the eyes by an enemy bullet that came through the windscreen and shattered the visor of his helmet. Both Sgt Maj Ley and Flt Lt Fortune (who had the responsibility for so many other lives) are under 30-years-old.

Inevitably the 3 Rifles Battle Group that was involved in countless contacts with the insurgents around Sangin, and lost 30 of its members, features extensively in the lists.

Its Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Nick Kitson, received the Distinguished Service Order, the Army's top medal for command in combat. Lt Col Kitson and some of the other personnel decorated today featured in a Newsnight report about the difficulty of trying to turn around Sangin.

This list also announces the award of the Queen's Gallantry Medal to Sergeant John Swithenbank of the Yorkshire Regiment (the Green Howards).

John was one of the soldiers shown during several Newsnight reports over the past year about the Green Howards (and indeed, his wife Vicki featured too).

He was decorated for an incident in Sangin (where his company was part of Lt Col Kitson's Battle Group) when he helped to save the life of one of the Afghan soldiers he was training was blown up.

There are obvious reasons why the great majority of these acts of bravery were not recorded at the time. But because of Newsnight's project with the Green Howards, the whole series of events involving the wounding of that Afghan soldier (who tragically lost all four limbs when he trod on a booby trap) were videoed and examined in detail in one of our reports.

If you want to know the reality of a story behind one of today's 131 names I would recommend you watch it.

As Sgt Swithenbank tended the wounded Afghan soldier, he did so knowing that other, unexploded, explosive devices had been detected within yards of where he was kneeling - the whole compound was booby trapped.

The recipients of these awards will often say that they regard it as recognition for a whole team of people. Watching our report, I hope you will see in practical terms how this was true of that incident in Sangin last November.

This is one reason why many fighting soldiers regard the award of decorations as invidious. The platoon commander, medic, a corporal who helped Sgt Swithenbank, and the American aircrew who flew into the fight might all be said to be deserving of recognition for saving that Afghan's life in apparently hopeless circumstances.

But if they cannot all be decorated, for fear of what the military sometimes call 'medal inflation', then at least Sgt Swithenbank can pick up his QGM on behalf of all of them.



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