A Christmas message from the frontline

Kev Copsey

Kev Copsey

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The sun is setting over another day in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Around me there is a population strengthening its resolve against the Taliban who have, over the years, denied the Afghanis the ability to develop, become financially robust and dependable upon its own fledgling economy.

I have been here for 3 months and I command a Regiment of 670 soldiers that provide the close engineer support to the British contingent in Helmand. It is a challenge, and a very long way from my home and family in Bridlington.

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I grew up in Bridlington, a town that still remains dear to me – I proudly have a painting of the harbour and another showing the view across Bridlington Bay from Flamborough. These pictures have always hung in the dining rooms of many military houses over the last 24 years.

I went to Headlands School and joined the local Army Cadets, where I got my first taste of what would be a lifetime career in the military.

Having risen to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, I have served in most of the war-torn places across the globe – but that is another story. I would like to focus on my experiences of Helmand and the work the soldiers of my unit, 35 Engineer Regiment, do on a daily basis.

The Regiment I command allows the remaining infantry troops to live, move and fight.

I have four Squadrons that operate throughout the Province, each one facing the challenges of Improvised Explosive Devices, the threat of insurgent attacks, an austere and demanding environment and endless operations – it is mentally demanding and physically draining. I am proud of their efforts and spend as much time as I can sharing every emotion alongside them.

My role and that of the Regiment in Helmand is varied. As engineers we have armoured tanks that clear through old Russian legacy minefields. These huge metal monsters also have the ability to fire a rocket that is connected to an explosive hose; it can reach 270m in front of the tank before settling on the ground and detonating itself along with any IEDs that have been laid along its path.

Coupled with this amazing device, we also have a flail tank that eats the ground and hopefully breaks apart the devices that cause so many casualties to our troops and the local Afghan population.

My soldiers also carry explosives all the time when on patrol – it adds to the 100lbs of armour, weapon systems, ammunition and first aid equipment that they have to carry over the tortuous and unforgiving terrain.

They use the explosives to destroy hidden stores of guns and ammunition that have been found and possibly used by the insurgents. Importantly, my soldiers use their skills to explosively enter the mud-walled compounds when under assault from the Taliban, or destroy their hiding places.

Although extremely dangerous, it is by far the most exciting part of any patrol or operation and the guys yearn for such activity; I suppose it is the true test of professionalism, skill, calm leadership and physical robustness that they enjoy.

We also act as artisans in all the bases we live in; they are pretty austere and we try to make them a little better.

We live behind small forts, constructed from wire baskets filled with earth. In the corners there are watch towers to protect the soldiers within.

Overhead, the constant hum of helicopters taking troops on further operations eventually fades into your consciousness. Showers are sometimes from a solar shower bag, which often does not get that warm from the winter winds that blow across the Province. The toilets are perhaps not what you are used to. Imagine a small wooden hut like a telephone box; inside there is a seat with a hole in the middle. Waste is collected in a bag then burnt later, as it is important to stop the spread of disease and illness throughout the base.

However, the food is good, with some bases offering fresh meat and vegetables – other locations are on small bags of food that is boiled in hot water to heat it up; either way, its welcome after a long foot patrol through the notorious Green Zone.

Although basic, the guys like the ‘band of brothers’ feel to the place. It is in these bases that enduring trust, friendship and mutual respect amongst the soldiers is forged; it is a potent quality that cannot be replicated anywhere else on earth.

This is the second time I have been in Helmand Province; the first was in 2008 with 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment. Then I was a Major and commanding 9 Parachute Squadron, made up of 150 soldiers. It was different to now. Then we fought the Taliban all of the time, and we constantly over-matched them in skill and numbers. The population did not know who to turn to; the Western soldiers or the traditional ways of the Taliban. The military campaign in Helmand had to turn.

Now, at the end of 2011, there is a real feeling of stability and peace. There are schools for girls and local contractors busily building numerous projects all over every district. Local government is established and the market places are busy with locals trading their goods. Clearly there are bad areas, and it is those darker parts of Helmand in which we operate.

Much of my military life can be traced back to the experiences forged whilst at Headlands School. The opportunities for drama, endless plays, school governor committees and being proactive within the many youth clubs allowed me to develop a character that appealed to the Army and Sandhurst Military Academy, the officer training college in Surrey.

My time in the Army Cadets, working in Woolworths and delivering papers around Old Town are my enduring memories.

I often reflect on my youth and how various events and opportunities have acted as waypoints on a journey that has led me to this dark chilly night in Helmand.

Being a Commanding Officer of a Regiment is an honour, to work alongside the very best of the youth Britain has to offer is humbling. The responsibility and role demanded of me I will never ever take for granted.

The Regiment I command is based in Germany, although we deployed to Canada, Kenya and Jordan in the months leading up to deployment. We have left our families behind in Germany. They have, in many respects, the hardest job.

They fear the knock on the door by a military official bringing dreaded news of a loved one. They take the children to school no matter the weather and the doctors when they are ill; lastly they tuck them in bed every night. It is to them and their tenacity, devotion and support to my soldiers that I will direct a quiet toast on Christmas Day.

The Regiment will return to Paderborn Germany in March 2012, when we will embark on a well-earned rest.

Myself, I hope to spend time with my parents and brother in Bridlington. Even after seeing the world with the Army I still gravitate back to East Yorkshire. To run along the beach on South Side when the tide is out, or walk along the cliffs between Sewerby Park and Limekiln Lane, I will always look forward to being amongst the place I still call home.