Life for those waiting back at base

By Jonathan Beale
Defence correspondent, BBC News

  • Published
Soldier at Army base
Image caption,
Soldiers waiting behind say they feel relief and frustration

The UK's armed forces are mourning the death of the 300th person to be killed in the Afghanistan conflict since 2001, but while the fighting continues, what is life like for those left behind at Europe's biggest barracks?

On the edge of the dramatic landscape of the North Yorkshire moors lies Catterick, home to the 4th Mechanised Brigade.

Some 6,000 of the 9,000 troops normally based here have been deployed to Afghanistan, so Catterick Garrison now feels more like a ghost town.

At the barracks of the Royal Dragoon Guards a few soldiers in uniform walk the deserted streets.

Hidden behind the armoury a small group of troops clean their rifles, knowing that in Afghanistan their comrades are already firing their weapons for real.

Rising casualties

These are the few left holding the fort. They are the rear party - some not fit enough for front-line duties, others waiting to replace injured troops and a few about to quit life in the Army.

This small band of soldiers expresses a mixture of relief and frustration at having to stay behind.

Trooper Matthew Tyson, who is getting ready to leave the Army, says: "It's hard to explain - I do want to get out there, but at the same time I want something different."

Although he is now looking for a life out of uniform, he does not question the mission.

"Of course I'm worried, it's bad out there at the moment, but obviously we are there to make it better," he says.

Public concern and scepticism about Britain's role in Afghanistan is not reflected among the soldiers left behind in Catterick - at least in public. But, they are acutely aware of the rising casualties.

Maj Robert Kase, Commander of the Royal Dragoon Guards Rear Party, says the repatriation of any soldier killed is "the most difficult job I will have to do". It was something he had hoped to avoid.

But on Friday came news of the death of a Royal Dragoon, who became the 299th member of the UK armed forces to have died in Afghanistan since the conflict began.

On Monday, the death of a Royal Marine took the toll to 300.

'Scared and anxious'

It is the wives, girlfriends and children who must endure the longest wait. Catterick's Army welfare centres provide support for the families left behind.

There is a toddlers' club to entertain the children, but even in this refuge carrying out their daily routines, it is hard for the wives and girlfriends not to worry.

Julia Barber, the wife of Cpl Ralph Barber, says she is "scared and anxious" and cannot wait until he comes home.

Image caption,
Just hearing news of casualties is very personal, says Eleanor James

Like most of the Army wives and girlfriends, she has stopped watching the news.

Eleanor James, whose husband is a major in Afghanistan, says just hearing about the casualties is very personal. "I don't want to think about my husband getting hurt," she says.

Some of the soldiers have written letters to their children, to be opened in the event of a tragedy.

Others have recorded bedtime stories on to a disc so their young ones will feel their absence less.

But in an office, just next to the toddlers group, Army welfare staff of the Scots Guards are already having to deal with the harsh realities of war.

News has just come in from Helmand that one of their soldiers has been injured.

Grim news

There is a rush to answer calls and make preparations. Informing the family is their first priority.

The base hears the soldier concerned has suffered "life-changing injuries".

Back at the headquarters of 4 Mech, the flags are already flying at half mast - another soldier has been killed in a separate incident.

There are well-established procedures for dealing with such grim news.

First, the family is informed by an officer in uniform, the casualty visiting officer, followed by others who will offer support.

It is often left to the Army chaplains to try to comfort the bereaved.

It is a task that never gets any easier for Father Timothy Forbes Turner, the garrison's Catholic priest who has remained on base.

He has recently had to visit the family of another Scots Guard soldier killed in battle.

Describing the difficulties of his job, he said: "When you get there you go with what you find in the house, and sometimes you can do very little.

"But you are there - and the important thing is being there. You haven't got to have the great profound word - you've got to show you care and you love them."

Back at the barracks of the Royal Dragoon Guards, one of the pipers who has stayed behind is rehearsing his ceremonial duties. It sounds like a lament.

All the more poignant given that he will have to play the pipes for the repatriation of any comrade killed in battle.

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