Our War: Dealing with death on the frontline in Afghanistan

Monday 6 June 2011, 10:31

Bjorn Rose Bjorn Rose

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In April 2007 I was the officer commanding 3 (Corunna) Platoon in Helmand, Afghanistan.

Due to the events surrounding the death of one of my men, Private Chris Gray, on Friday, 13 April, I was approached by BBC Three to contribute to the programme, Our War.

My platoon sergeant Si Panter had already recorded all the frontline footage used in Our War on his helmet camera.

As a keen mountain biker he had always liked recording his outings on camera and transferred this passion to our six month tour of Afghan, as we called it for short.

Bjorn Rose in Afghanistan

To the observer it would appear that there were a lot of inexperienced soldiers in my platoon that day.

This is true, but even for some of the seasoned soldiers like Billy Moore, who was shot in the arm in the 'contact' (engagement with the enemy) featured in the programme, this action was like nothing they had experienced before.

Up to 60 per cent of the men in a platoon will have changed by the next operational tour so there is always likely to be a high proportion of inexperienced soldiers in the platoon.

I know the Gray family have seen the programme and are proud of the portrayal of their son. He was a great soldier - something which is often said about the dead, but he truly was.

He showed such potential at an early stage in his career that I was keen for him to go on a promotion course on getting back from Afghan.

In the film, Private Tony Cowley mentions that there were nine empty seats on the flight home. This was true as we had lost nine men from the battalion (which contains nine infantry platoons) during our tour.

Some would say we were fortunate in my platoon to only have one killed and one wounded.

After the action in the programme, we went without a further casualty for the whole remaining six months in Helmand. Other platoons weren't so lucky.

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After Chris was killed, while still on tour, I decided to write to Chris' mum, Helen. While my training had not covered the writing of 'death letters', I felt it my duty to do so.

The letter I wrote to her was an outpouring of every factual detail I could lay my hands on.

I wanted Chris' family to know everything as I thought it highly likely I was going to 'get it' myself in the next contact.

In hindsight, and as you'll see Helen say in the programme, the detail in the letter was too much for her.

Although my company commander checked the letter and approved it to be sent, it conflicted with the version of events given to Helen on first learning of Chris' death by those in England.

Although an innocent mistake, this had long-reaching and devastating results, which I felt responsible for.

In the programme, I struggled to read the end of the letter to camera because I hadn't read it since the day four years ago I put it in the mailbag to go on the helicopter.

Reading it unlocked a lot of emotions I thought I had got over.

The phrase "a lot of young boys turned to men" was the one that really got me. It was the thought of the lost innocence, I think.

I have had the pleasure of meeting Chris' family on a couple of occasions. I was concerned about how I would be received by Helen after the rejection of my letter.

When I met her for the first time, she simply walked straight up to me and gave me a hug.

That said more than any words ever could. In that moment a lot of wounds were healed for me.

The late Private Chris Gray in Afghanistan

I can remember discussing with one of my fellow officers whether Chris' death was 'worth it'. The gains made on that operation appeared slight to us for the loss of his life.

The truth is I can't go there emotionally - it's too painful to think that it wasn't worth it.

After all, at the time I did genuinely feel the gains we made whilst in Helmand were worth our sacrifices. I think you have to in order to cope.

The Army is a lifestyle choice. If you are not prepared to submit to the demands of that lifestyle then you should leave.

After serving my minimum four-year commission I elected not to extend and left to take up a new career in teaching.

I was content that I had gained some invaluable experience leading men on operations and now have some interesting memories to bore my pupils with.

People ask me if I miss the Army. The simple answer is yes, particularly when I meet up with guys from the battalion who are still serving. I try to stay in touch with them as much as possible.

But I am also grateful for the control I now have over my life by not being in the Army.

I often find myself looking back on the action in Afghan with rose-tinted spectacles, forgetting the uncertainty and confusion, just remembering the action and adrenalin rushes. I suppose that is just human nature.

If I were able to say something to Chris now it would probably be, "Watch out, your mate and fellow soldier Matt Duffy is after your sister!"

Editor's note: Chris Gray's good friend Matt Duffy, who appears in Our War, is now engaged to Chris' sister Katie.

Bjorn Rose was an officer in the British Army during the making of Our War. He is now a history teacher.

Our War starts on BBC Three at 9pm on Tuesday, 7 June. For further programme times, please see the upcoming episodes page.

You can watch exclusive short films from those affected by the war in Afghanistan on the Our War programme page.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    It goes without saying that the Britsh forces have the best, most courageous and most professional men and women in the world carrying out missions in Afghanistan without fear or favour.
    There's another debate being had on Mark Eastons blog about extremism and how to fight it. The Afghan campaign is one way violent extremism is being fought but its not the only way. Winning hearts and minds play an equally big part and thats another role played out by our forces in the combat zone.
    Political and diplomatic measures also need to be fully utilised. Its pointless having our brave soldiers fighting if the political structure is corrupt which then feeds the extremist wing more and more.
    The Taliban know they can't beat our forces head to head so they now use terrorist tactics in use of the IED, suicide bombers and the like.
    At some stage, as with the IRA, we're going to have to talk to the less millitant/violent Taliban to get a final solution. The governance of the country has to be strengthed and systems in place to stop corruption, allow aid to get to the people so people have no reason to turn to violence to get what they see as a basic right to food, education etc. You can't 'impose' democracy, you can sow the seeds and show what can be achieved when people are free from tyranny and dictatorship.

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    Comment number 2.

    I would just like to say what a deeply moving and brave production this was, and I am sure the remaining programmes will be the same. I feel totally humbled by the actions of others risking their lives for their country. Irrespective of one's political or personal viewpoints on the war against terrorism, or the war in Afghanistan in particular, this was a brilliant piece of television which may prove to be historical in how future wars are chronicled. It is only by seeing the reality of war that we can fully appreciate our own freedoms which are often taken for granted. This also serves as a fitting tribute to Chris Gray and a loving memory for Chris's family. Well done to all at 3 (Corunna) Platoon.

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    Comment number 3.

    just watched "our war" gob smacked, wot a superb programme boys becoming men overnight real heros. proper reality t.v

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    Comment number 4.

    Young British soldiers fighting for the freedom of Afghanistan,yet we have Afghan
    asylum seekers in this country who should be fighting along with our boy's for there freedom.I just don't get it.

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    Comment number 5.

    Very sensitive docmentary. Was very moved.

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    Comment number 6.

    what a moving programme - I was one of the Brigade Ops Officers on Herrick 6 and was in the Brigade Ops room while this was taking place. I will never forget dealing with the casualty evacuation of Chris Gray as sadly he was the first soldier we lost. We did not get the full picture of what had happened and how close the fighting had been until the following day, I only wish we could have done more to help.

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    Comment number 7.

    One of the best documentaries I have seen on any war. Typically war documentaries are produced by outsiders....... this made me feel like an insider, experiencing the anxiety, pain, fear, joy and sadness. This was REAL. My compliments to the people who did the filming and BBC 3 for producing it.

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    Comment number 8.

    I thought this was an incredible programme - deeply moving - and I just want to say how humbling the whole thing was and how much I want to give my sympathy to Chris Gray's family, and to his friends. Thankyou for helping make such an important and moving programme.

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    Comment number 9.

    Watching the programme tonight was such a difficult & emotional thing. I am really not into war, but understand it is a necessary evil sometimes. The young people, who serve & horrifically give their lives to sort out things our elected, well paid & sometimes cheating politicians fail to do. If they don't sort it out, it seems we send our youth to die without much protection. Not that it removes from the incredible bravery I don't think I could ever have shown. The film showed great camaraderie, but mostly the danger, fear & once again bravery these guys go through for us. They are all a credit to us, but it brought me a lot of pain to think my easy life is so much gained through the suffering of other people and families. They are me more than I will ever be, but I hate to seem patronising, most of you were no more than boys when you went out there & I am sorry the world my generation created made you do that. I hope they all live a great life we should have provided. The film was so intimate, it put all Hollywood blockbusters into a shameful place where the horrors of war were put into true perspective instead of glamorised action movies where acting stars get more glory than the true heroes who provided us with such a great insight to what is happening in our world today. I hope we don't have to do this much longer & especially not to a great team like appeared tonight. Although I don't agree with the politicians who put you there, Thank you for doing us proud.

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    Comment number 10.

    I was in theatre as part of the Special Investigations Branch team responsible for investigating Chris's death (and the deaths of another 29 of our finest over the next six months).

    I arrived at Bastion just as we became aware that we had our first fatality. I recall feeling numb as our task began to sink in. In those initial moments I went with a colleague to the Royal Anglian Ops room to try and gather some information. They were in shock, struggling to grasp the enormity of what had just happened.

    Initially we were not welcomed (not a surprise really), but unfortunately over the coming months, our organisations got to know each other very well. They lost others, but the first one will always be the hardest. They along with the Mercians and the Grenadier Guards suffered the brunt of the casualties, yet inspite of this, they displayed the utmost in professionalism and as an RAF Police Investigator, I can say that I am proud that I met some real heroes over those six months.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.


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    Comment number 12.

    Thank you so much for such an insightful and dramatic look into the world of a soilder on the front line. I have never felt so emotionaly involved in a documentary

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    Comment number 13.

    Hi, I rarely post comments on TV programmes, but feel compelled to do so after watching " Our War ". As a former military man with 26 years service, this programme comes across extremely well and is as close to the front line experience you will ever get without actually being there ! The programme was well put together and showed many sides to soldiering that many members of the puiblic do not see very often; sensitivity, emotional, humour (so important to get you through the worst times !) and professionalism. I am looking forward to the series - shame I cannot watch it again on iplayer ( I am overseas !). Well done to everyone who played their part in making this hugely interesting and highly watchable programme. Regards !

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    Comment number 14.

    @ David Crook, I am an Afghan, I hear about dozens of Afghan soldiers dying everyday, and of-course it saddens me, but when I hear about the death of a British soldier it moves me to tears, you are right that its our war, and we should be fighting it, and we are more than grateful for your sacrifices. However to say that young Afghans should go from the UK to fight the war is just naive, this program is a 3 part series, its the next episode you will see them fighting along side the ANA, most of footgae you saw in the first episode, was from 2008, when there was very few trained ANA units, at the moment every month nearly 3000 soldiers join the ranks of the ANA and fight along side foreign forces, in july the will start taking the security of 7 provinces. I know its not about the war.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    @David Crook, most of the footage that you saw last night was filmed in April 2007, as you are well aware, Afghanistan did not have an Army until 2002-3, when they started building a National Army (ANA) this takes time, and more and more of them were deployed with foreign forces across Afghanistan.

    At the moment the ANA has one of the highest monthly graduation numbers in the world around 3000 soldiers, who are deployed around the country, and the time of filming this footage, the overall number of soldiers that the ANA was training every month was very low. In July they will take control of 7 provinces from foreign forces.
    This documentary is a 3 part series, its naive of you to say that young Afghans should go and fight along side British soldiers, I understand its our war, and we should be fighting for our freedom, but we are, as i said this is a 3 part series, watch the two remaining episodes and will see the ANA fighting along side British soldiers.
    On a last note this is not really about our freedoms, but your own governments agendas, and its desire to be America's best friend, remember we ( Afghans) did not ask you to come to Afghanistan and fight for us, and you are free to leave whenever you wish, its not an Afghan war, its a global war, for the good of Afghans, Britons, and everyone else.

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    Comment number 16.

    I watched with interest last night and was in awe of the reaction to the whole contact period surrounding the sad loss of Pte Gray. In my view this highlights the value of training, in so far as the death toll could have been far higher if it weren't for the professional way in which the men of 3 Pl reacted. OK, some of the training went out of the window, it's bound to in such an emotionally charged situation, but on the whole those guys acquitted themselves brilliantly in the finest traditions of the British Army.

    What this film portrayed was the bond that develops between soldiers when death is close at hand. As Lt Rose aptly summed up in his letter "boys turned into men".

    Well done to the BBC for putting together this programme and showing it in all its uncensored glory and well done to the men of the Royal Anglian Regiment for doing what you do.

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    Comment number 17.

    Very interesting and great to see a real front line perspective, but why isn't this programme being shown on BBC1 at 8 or 9pm, rather than BBC3 which has a much smaller viewing audience?

    Tomorrow, Thursday 9th June 2011 will see another repatriation of UK soldiers killed in Afghan, and once again the people of Wootton Bassett and many others will come out to show their respect for a soldier killed in a war that is still going on today.

    Yes, the UK is still fighting this war and soldiers are dying and being seriously injured, yet it seems that the media and public at large are happy to almost forget about it. The reality of war is grim, and rather than obsessing about Britain's got Talent all the time, it'd be great if just for an hour, the UK public were shown on a high profile channel what the brave men and women of this country are going through.

    There are still 2 episodes left, so go on BBC, do the decent thing and show them on BBC1

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    Comment number 18.

    Was really stunned watching Our War. Fantastically shot and put together,but so moving too. Thank you BBC for putting this together.

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    Comment number 19.

    I am a friend of Helen Chris' mum, i witnessed what hell she and her family went through when Chris was killed. I am so proud off her, it must have been the hardest thing any mum has ever had to do, to let this footage be shown. Helen is brave, and one of the most genuine people you could ever wish to meet without her consent this documentary could not of been shown. ( why was it not shown on BBC1?) we as a nation should all know what a fantastic job and the sacrifices our armed forces are taking, being out there in Afghanistan. It moved me to see a group of men who didnt know each other in the begining and ended up as a family unit looking out for one another so proud.

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    Comment number 20.

    Never have I felt the need to comment on any other programme before. I was gripped the entire programme. This was an extremely emotional journey for these men and we have been allowed to share that journey. Thank you.

    Being an army wife, the realities of war are always on my mind and this programme certainly put life in perspective for me. I just wanted Bjorn Rose to know that his letter was everything that I would wish for in such tragic circumstances. His compassion and devotion was clear. I can only imagine what life is like for the Soldiers on the front line and I have the greatest respect for you all.

    Truly amazing people.


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