The moving and terrifying moments our Derbyshire soldiers experienced in Afghanistan

Over the past few days, British and American forces have pulled out of Afghanistan after 20 years of conflict.

In the summer of 2009, I was fortunate enough to be embedded with troops from Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire in Helmand Province during the height of the war.

I start this piece by saying from the outset I have absolutely no political statement to make about the rights and wrongs of what has taken place over the past two decades.

Instead I have been asked to write a first-person piece on the lifetime of memories those eight days with the Mercian Regiment afforded me.

So here goes.

Among those experiences I was grateful to encounter, I have two distinct and hugely contrasting specific recollections from my time in the sweltering heat – and it really was at times – of Afghanistan.

One came on the very first evening we arrived and the other towards the end.

The former was standing on the tarmac of the runway at Camp Bastion, the huge protected base for British troops in Helmand, in stunned silence.

It was midnight and I was among hundreds of people – the vast majority comrades – as the Last Post was played by a bugler and the coffin of Lance Corporal Kieron Hill a 20-year-old soldier from Clifton, Nottingham, was lifted aboard a huge aeroplane destined for home.

I didn’t know him, I had never met him, but two days earlier he had been killed in an explosion.

The sight of so many men and women, all immaculate in uniform, standing to attention in respect for their fallen friend who had made the ultimate sacrifice was awe-inspiring in both its sadness and, if I am totally honest, raw beauty.

My second most vivid memory from that summer 12 years ago was the moment a white hot casing from a freshly fired bullet landed right in my groin as the gunner who was stood above me in the armoured car I was sat in, hit back at the Taliban forces who had tried to ambush us.

Remarkably the journalists I was with remained totally calm considering minutes earlier enemy bullets strafed the back door of the vehicle right next to where one of us was sat.

Martin in Afghanistan with the 2nd Mercian Battalion (Worcesters and Foresters), Derbyshire’s Infantry Regiment

We even passed round Mint Imperials while above us the noise of the firefight engulfed the scene.

Incredibly, the shouting, calling and the noise from the guns failed to even register one iota of nerves in any of us as we felt 100% safe in the hands of those who were protecting us.

I have genuinely had scarier nights out on the streets of both Derby and Nottingham and it was only when we were all sat around a table with a cup of tea back at Camp Price that the four of us looked at each other in shock.

I can’t remember if it was me, my friend Jeremy Ball from the BBC, or one of the other reporters I was with who uttered those first words “did that really happen?”

Afghanistan – as was the week I spent the previous year in Iraq with Derbyshire soldiers – was a stream of short-notice helicopter flights across arid desert clutching my belongings.

The mountains in the distance in Helmand shone beautifully in the sunshine.

Most of the soldiers I spoke to were happy to share their experiences of fighting the Taliban.

Some, it was plain in their voices, just wanted the hell to end and to be back home in the East Midlands.

Others told me how, on the surface at least, they were thoroughly enjoying their time serving Queen and country thousands of miles from loved ones.

“The Last Flight” was the front page headline in Tuesday’s Metro free sheet I picked up at the railway station for my journey into Derby.

Whether the bloodshed and lives lost was worth it is for others, not me, to comment on.

But I will never forget those eight days in what to me was a beautiful country with friendly people eager to talk to you about their lives.

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Courtesy of Derbyshire Live – Derby News