Volunteer soldiers return after Afghanistan tour

Commanding Officer Alan Black Territorial Army commanding officer Alan Black has returned from a tour of Afghanistan

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Volunteer soldiers have returned home to Northern Ireland after spending more than three months in Afghanistan.

The Territorial Army medics with 204 Field Hospital were met by relatives in south Belfast on Saturday.

They have been running the acute care hospital at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province.

A piper welcomed the reservists who arrived by coach in Belfast to be reunited with their waiting families.

They have been working alongside regulars and reservists from across the UK as well as medical staff from the US Army, US Marine Corps and Danish armed forces.

Commanding officer Alan Black said his two main concerns were ensuring the care they provided in Afghanistan was "second to none, and that everyone returned home safely".

He said that had been accomplished.

"To quote a phrase from an earlier conflict I counted them all out, and I've counted them all back, it's great to be back home with our families after a job well done," he said.

"The level of trauma is still as severe as it was, so although the numbers are less, the actual injuries can be very substantial, particularly from improvised explosive devices which are still very prevalent out there unfortunately.

"We did have our moments, there was an indirect attack on the camp when we were there, and it gives you a different perspective on life when you hear incoming rockets and explosions and the building starts to shake around you, as you are taking cover under the office furniture."

Mr Black's wife said she had been "counting every day" until his return.

"I feel very proud of my husband, and I feel privileged that he was able to go out and serve his country and look after the soldiers out there," she added.

"I've been lonely; it is true what they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and its not until someone goes away that you appreciate how wonderful they are."

Although nobody was injured during the tour, there were a few moments that worried relatives.

Sirens

There was a ground attack on the unit's base in September, and a rocket attack in February.

One man who was waiting on his wife's return described how a phone call had reminded him of the precarious situation she was facing.

"The rockets landed quite near the phone booths at the hospital itself, I was talking to my wife on the phone when it happened, and heard the sirens," he said.

"The phone went dead. I didn't really know what was going on until afterwards.

"It was a warning that they are in a dangerous place."

One tearful nurse was overwhelmed to be reunited with her husband and children.

"It was fantastic, it seems like a long time," she said.

"It was the chance of a lifetime, I met fabulous people, it's hard to put into words."

There are no current plans for the unit to return to Afghanistan.

A senior ward master in the hospital reception said this tour had been "less frantic" than previous years.

"The tempo was a lot slower than last time I was there, which was good, less people getting hurt," he said.

However, his wife thought the harder job had been at home.

"Four months alone, with five children, aged seven, six, five, two and one.

"It's been tough going.

"I'm looking forward to a night's sleep!"

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