UK forces' Operational Awards honour battlefield bravery
The mottled green and brown of army fatigues are a great leveller. Line up three rows of soldiers dressed identically, and it's impossible to tell which one helped save an Afghan boy who had his leg blown off or which one narrowly escaped a bullet in the brain.
But such bravery and selflessness do not go unnoticed by senior officers. The Ministry of Defence's latest set of Operational Awards lists 104 personnel from the three services whose actions deserve special mention.
Take Sapper Matthew Garey, from the Royal Engineers and already a seven-year veteran of the Army at the age of 24. He received the Queen's Gallantry Medal, and as he sits in west London, immaculate and calm, he listens as an unforgettable day is marked.
"For five mentally and physically exhausting hours, Sapper Garey purposefully placed himself in harm's way," the citation reads. "His conduct was extraordinary, personifying his astonishing and exemplary level of gallantry".
On his hands and knees, he had painstakingly searched a ditch, often with little more than his fingertips, for improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The deep ditch had provided insurgents with the perfect cover to creep along the side of the road and plant the explosives on it. The Royal Engineers had already lost one soldier on the road, when a powerful IED had exploded as they passed along it a few weeks earlier.
Three further attempts to clear and repair the route claimed four more casualties, so it was a "tense journey - returning to the scene of the crime, so to speak," says Sapper Garey, from Tamworth.
His first job as lead searcher was to search a river, just shin-deep but freezing cold, before his team could safely cross. Then came the ditch.
His citation reads: "Finding a deeply buried command wire in his path provided the final piece of the jigsaw that told the story of a complex, multiple IED attack planned to hinder the freedom of movement along the route."
Sapper Garey says of the dangerous role: "You try not to let the fear affect you. It's slow, monotonous work, but it was a high-threat area, and I was taking my time. Knowing that at any time you could come across a device - well, you don't really think about them, they're part of my day-to-day life."
His modesty appears to be typical of his fellow recipients. Sapper Ryan Pavey's citation for receiving the Queen's Commendation for Bravery mentions his persistent courage, extraordinary conduct and unremitting dedication.
End Quote Sapper Ryan Pavey Queen's Commendation for Bravery
At the time you go into auto-pilot. You're not thinking of the bigger picture.”
And yet he says he was just "focusing on the job at hand". That particular job involved dealing with the bloody aftermath of an exploded minibus carrying villagers to a wedding in the Gareshk region.
It had triggered an IED just 100m from where Sapper Pavey and his team were clearing a route of such devices. Eighteen people, mainly women and children, were killed, but one elderly man and four children were lying shocked on the side of the road.
"In spite of the extreme risk of further devices and faced with a scene of unimaginable carnage, Pavey immediately, and without prompting, switched his focus to clear a route to the survivors," his citation reads.
Metal debris from the bus littered the road, making his equipment sound continuous false alarms, but he got safely to the screaming children. However, one boy, about four years old, was silent. Sapper Pavey attended him first, stemming the blood loss from his leg, until he could be safely taken to medical help.
"At the time you go into auto-pilot. You're not thinking of the bigger picture. But it was the worst civilian incident [I witnessed] by a long way," he says.
The boy eventually lost his leg. Sapper Pavey, 24 and from Southampton, and his team all chipped in and bought a wheelchair for him.
In the case of Rifleman Matthew Wilson, 21 and from Aberystwyth, his equipment probably saved his life. A bullet from an insurgent sharpshooter hit his helmet on the left side, exiting through the top. The soldier behind him just saw dust rise off his helmet and then Rfm Wilson drop to the ground.
"I heard a loud crack, and then remember waking up on the floor. I was out for about 20 seconds," he says. During those few seconds, with insurgents firing at their position and a helicopter called in to collect a casualty, his colleague had run his hands under the helmet to check for blood. Luckily there was none.
Rfm Wilson, from the Rifles, Brigade Reconnaissance Force, was left with a thumping headache, blurred vision, slight confusion and a huge sense of relief. But his Military Cross was not given just for surviving a bullet, as the citation shows:
"As he came to, the casualty evacuation helicopter was receiving enemy small-arms fire and so with complete disregard for his own safety, Wilson moved some 50 metres into a firing position, in open ground, so that he could engage and suppress the enemy to stop the helicopter being engaged further."
Military Operational List 39
- Fifty gallantry awards
- Fifty-four meritorious awards
- Made by commanding officers, then considered up the chain of command
That incident, south of Sangin in October 2011, was a shock at the time, but "I'd forgotten about it really, I'd just cracked on." When his commanding officer called him in to his office this week to tell him about the Military Cross, he initially thought he was in trouble.
These soldiers speak humbly of their roles within teams, seeming reluctant to take all the glory individually.
Capt Nicholas Garland, who once "died" in a medical helicopter as medics tried to stem the blood flowing out of his throat from a shrapnel wound, says: "I was very grateful that I was recognised, but I had 30 other blokes with me - and without them, there'd be no award."
His "mention in dispatches" citation says he displayed "exemplary leadership, bravery and courage over a very demanding and high-tempo six months".
Three and a half years after a rocket-propelled grenade exploded in front of his face, forcing the shrapnel into his windpipe, thyroid, an artery and through a lung, that serves as a mark of his qualities.