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Sangin tour takes its toll on Green Howards

Mark Urban | 15:59 UK time, Wednesday, 17 March 2010

A six month tour in Afghanistan takes its toll on a regiment. That is not just measured in the obvious ways - of wounds and death - but talking to the soldiers and families of the 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment (the Green Howards) over the past eight months it is clear that the stresses of a deployment in Helmand run deep

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At Patrol Base Blenheim, on the violent fringes of north-east Sangin, and scene of almost daily firefights, Colour Sergeant Marty Simpson told me how the satellite phone the soldiers use to stay in touch with home has an infuriating tendency to cut out:

"When the signal breaks up after three minutes it breaks you," he said.

Colour Sgt Simpson's marriage has survived the deployment, but four of the seven men serving with him at PB Blenheim have seen their relationships broken by it.

Even so, speaking to the soldiers' partners back at Weeton Camp in Lancashire, it is apparent that e-mails and calls play a vital role in saving some relationships.

Last September, when the Green Howards were about to leave for Afghanistan, Hayley Harle told us about her fears that her husband Lance Corporal Mike Harle would return angry and introverted, as he did from a previous stint there.

This time, Mike is telling her everything - including distressing details of a 24-hour period in January were two British and two Afghan soldiers were killed nearby.

Mike recorded a raw video diary for Newsnight just hours after those events took place:
"It's nasty, it isn't worth it," he said, sitting in his Jackal patrol vehicle, "I don't get paid enough".

Hayley feels that phone conversations they have had about the incident have helped both of them, but it is clear that time in Sangin has taken its toll on her husband.

All of the soldiers featured in Newsnight's series of reports serve with A Company of the Green Howards, which has just a few weeks left to go in Sangin.

Their mission is mentoring the Afghan National Army, and the battalion has teams spread across Helmand Province.

In recent months Sangin's reputation as the grimmest British sector in Helmand has been reinforced, as the death toll in the Battlegroup serving there has climbed to 27 since last October.

Visiting A Company last month, the fact that it (and indeed the Green Howards as a whole) have not yet lost a soldier on this tour was a topic that provoked a good deal of superstition, or indeed evasion.

Some soldiers said they have simply been lucky - and they have certainly been in enough firefights - others that their role alongside Afghan soldiers, with their local knowledge, has kept them safer.

Major Rob Palfrey, who is in command of A Company told me: "I just want to take 50 people off that plane with all their limbs. That will do me."

Even since filming that interview, just weeks ago, the Green Howards have suffered casualties.

Chris Hale, a 19-year-old private whom Newsnight has been following since last summer, was shot in the leg.

He is now recovering in the UK, and is likely to remain in hospital until his comrades come home.

Chris' mother, Linda, and sister Samantha, have been frequent visitors to his bedside.

Both said that they were shocked by the number of wounded soldiers they have seen on the military wards of Selly Oak hospital.

New casualties were arriving in the hospital near Birmingham "literally every day," Samantha said. "You just don't hear about these guys... it was heartbreaking."

"It's a hateful place," Linda said about Afghanistan, though she had nothing but praise for the soldiers serving there:

"The determination in them lads is overwhelming," she said. "They just want to get out there and do it again."

In just a few weeks Green Howards soldiers and families will be together again and will start to work out what they have been through.

Infantry battalions now face a future in which one Afghan tour will follow another in a couple of years.

It will be fascinating to see how many veterans of A Company's time in Sangin will be ready to do it all over again.


  • Comment number 1.

    ..."It's nasty, it isn't worth it,"...

    which is the conclusion the The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism
    by Robert Pape lecture [see previous link in blog] comes to as to why it works. there is nothing strategic for the uk in afghanistan.

    ...You just don't hear about these guys..

    they are the invisible.
    if war is a drug, a private pleasure for those in govt, no one wants the public to see the 'dark beauty' of this 'lust of the eye'?

    as for broken minds your colleague Chris Hedges in his War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning talk mentions a statistic in the q&A what happens to people after 60 days of combat. he also says the price of this 'drug' is to live with the images all your life.

    we need to stop breaking our army upon this foolish wheel of tony's ambition.

  • Comment number 2.


    "It's nasty, it isn't worth it," he said, sitting in his Jackal patrol vehicle, "I don't get paid enough".

    What a telling 'rider'. Supply and demand dictates you pay a rate that fills the ranks. But suppose, one day, few want to play the politicians games: killing Johnnie Foreigner JUST BECAUSE WE CAN? Do we then raise the pay until even the reluctant are enticed? (We already advertise for troops in a less-than-candid manner.) At what pay level does the coercion, through greed, become unacceptable for a 'civilised' country?

    So what IS 'enough' pay to recompense a man who wants to do war (but not really nasty war) even though he knows it has no bearing on the safety of his home and loved ones? Surely, it will always be 'the minimum'?

  • Comment number 3.

    Bring our army back...I think they will be needed at home far more than they are abroad.

    Things are going to get a lot more nasty here...and soon!

  • Comment number 4.

    2 ..Do we then raise the pay until even the reluctant are enticed?..

    conscription? we can be in dad's army barrie. don't panic! they don't like it up 'em.

  • Comment number 5.

    well done to the camera crews from NN and brave front line reporting I do not agree with the war but I admire the courage of those brave young men

  • Comment number 6.

    Afghanistan is fast coming a 21st Century Army "Ulster" Commintment.
    if the deployment drags on for five or more years it will "break" the army
    Already the Army is failing to exercise for Conventional War, despite the possibities of Conflict with Russia in Georgia, and Baltic States, Argentinian bid to grab the Falklands or A stand up fight with Iran, should it attack Iraq in reponse to airsrikes against their Nuclear sites
    by either Israel or US/UK or both.

    We should give a clear time limit to our deployment, say 2012 , and gradually reduce th forces we have there.

  • Comment number 7.

    i get a bit fed up with so much pro war propaganda from the bbc be it in news broadcasts or soft propaganda that is currently running on bbc3

  • Comment number 8.

    The government are about to spend £97 Billion on renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system, that’s a huge amount of money to be wasting. If it's spent on new nukes there won’t be much left in the defence budget to buy basic equipment.

    Many senior military figures have now come out against Trident.

    The best way of supporting the troops would be to bring them home by end both wars and spending the £97 Billion on something useful like education or the NHS or even investing in renewable energy

  • Comment number 9.

    A great piece of video documentary which does a good job of telling what it is really like under combat conditions.

    I served in the armed forces for five of the best years of my life and yes, it is tough when your unit is deployed in action. You really do rely on your mates and you have to work as a perfect team. That's what you join up for and that's what your paid for.

    And yes, the pay does not reflect the skills you need and the stress or risk you face, and you don't always get the gear you need to do the job. But you know that when you sign on the line to join up.

    That said, there's no excuse for spending money on the wrong things. Nuclear weapons and Trident are a luxury item with a price tag of £97 bn, and the priority has to be spending to win the war, which means boots on the ground with the best available kit. Sadly, as a nation we are no longer the kind of power that can afford both.

  • Comment number 10.

    Ive just seen this. One of the most powerful pieces of war reportage I have ever seen.

  • Comment number 11.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?


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