I joined A Company 1 RIFLES to deploy on Operation OMID HAFT on the 23 May 2011. A day I will never forget. I was at Patrol Base 4 (PB4) and had just returned from an operation with C Company and was preparing for an operation with A Company I RIFLES. As darkness fell we were checking our kit, ammunition, and cleaning weapons, it was a quiet, calm night. It hadn’t been dark for long when suddenly the lads and myself were called together into the centre of the camp.
The Officer Commanding walked out from his tent, he didn’t even need to speak, a deep look of sorrow on his face said already what was coming next. The clouds literally started to form and a wind rose up from nowhere sending a chill straight down my spine. As I watched the flag fly in the breeze above, the OC stood up on a rock and broke the news to his men that a treasured friend and colleague had been fatally injured, Company Sergeant Major Kevin Fortuna was inspirational to his men, a pillar respected and trusted by all who served under him including myself. He was the sort of soldier that you knew wouldn’t be phased by anything. Devastation fell instantly upon the lads around me it was written over every face. I remember feeling like such an outsider intruding on their grief by being there not. I wanted to give them time to grieve collectively. For A Company it was their first fatality on this tour and it left a horrendous void both personally and professionally.
We are all realists and expect to deal with these things at some point on our tours, but everyone hoped for luck. The news came on the eve of the Brigade's biggest planned operation - Op OMID HAFT. Before such large operations it's usually the CSM and section commanders that take control of the guys and keep them focused on the job, and it was now up to them to maintain their focus in the CSM's honour. A short vigil service was held followed by a few moments of silence. Then the attention had to re-focus on the task in hand. In less than a few hours the first packet of men would be collected by helicopter to fly to Camp Bastion to begin rehearsals with the Afghan National Army.
As many of A Company headed up to Camp Bastion for the rehearsals, it also meant that they were able to attend the main vigil service held on the parade ground there. It was the night before the operation launched when A Company asked me to stand with them on parade at the sunset service for their friend, I was both touched and deeply honoured - I guess maybe the apprehension of tomorrow was already joining us as a group.
After the vigil service came orders followed by more final preparation, we had been told to plan to be away for between 2 to 6 weeks This meant additional kit, equipment and supplies. However, we were to conduct the initial assault in only fighting order - the bare minimum - anything else would be dropped off to us by helicopter once we had established a new patrol base. If you couldn't eat or drink it and it didn't go bang you left it behind.
We stole a few hours kip before heading to the helicopters at 0130 to launch Operation “Omid Haft” (Hope 8). Our mission, to take and establish a new check point in the village of Alikosi in the Nar-e Sarj District of Helmand province. The check point once established would provide a security screen, protecting other Brigade assets to the North from any insurgency attack while also carrying out major reconstruction work to improve area.
We were under no illusions from the outset, this mission was into the unknown, the 'heart of darkness' to take a new location, in what we knew was an insurgent stronghold. All we had to go on were some aerial images of the village and some pictures of the compound that we were going to take, we also knew the area had more than its fair share of (IED’s) Improvised Explosive Devices.
It stands to reason that if the compound looked appealing to us as a good fighting position then it would also look good to the enemy, further to that if they were indeed occupying this compound then we knew they would be prepared and ready to defend it.
It was expected that we would be met with major resistance from the off and we were prepared for the worst right down to the point where we had all been asked to pack up any personal belongings that we weren’t taking with us to make it easier to return them home if we didn’t come back, Initially this didn’t seem like too much of a problem but the reality of having that asked of you lays a dark cloud over your mind, it’s no longer a game it doesn’t get any more real than this. It’s extremely hard to do but we manage it through our friendships and our unity, our sense of humour and our drive, to not just take this fight to the insurgency but to win it every time.
Despite the foreboding, the mission was a success and we established Check Point Zarawar with ease and speed.
We had caught the enemy by surprise. I left Check Point Zaraway and the men of A Coy 1 RIFLES after one week and didn't see them again for three months. When I did catch up with themI was astounded to learn that they had literally just left Check point Zarawar, I couldn’t have imagined staying in one place like that for so long. it was incredibly basic - they were definitely better men than me.
While embedded with 1 RIFLES, A Company I was overwhelmed by the courage, grit and determination. Their officers and soldiers were inspirational. Some of the young lads looked barely old enough to be there. In losing their CSM they had taken a terrible blow in the run up to this operation and yet they still delivered 110%. I will always think back to that time with only the proudest memories.
Shoulder2Shoulder the special exhibition which features Hamish Burke's photography will be on until 20 April at the Royal Marines Museum.
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