In Afghanistan: Leaving base's security for night of gunfire and shells
SOLDIERS serving with 3 Mercian in Central Helmand carry out foot patrols every day.
While they are inherently more dangerous than mounted patrols, with threats such as Improvised Explosive Devices and small arms fire, they allow soldiers to interact with locals, thereby winning "hearts and minds".
During our stay with 3 Mercian's C Company at Khar Nikah we were invited to join a foot patrol to patrol base (PB) Bahadur – just a kilometre away but through potentially dangerous territory.
A group of soldiers had been tasked to escort a group of engineers to the PB, via checkpoint Bahar, and we would be tagging along.
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So at around 5pm, with the sun's strength gradually fading, we made our way through Khar Nikah's back gate and started our foot patrol.
It was a genuinely unnerving experience walking on the ground outside the wire for the first time, especially considering the names of locations on the route, such as Murder Wall and IED Alley.
But apart from a few pauses along the way, for discussions with locals and sweeps for IEDs, we made it to Bahar surprisingly quickly.
There we met Cpl Shaun Coates, pictured below, who has been in charge of the checkpoint since April.
The 30-year-old, from Uttoxeter, said: "This is the most isolated checkpoint in the area. It's just 100 metres away from prime insurgent ground, so things can get pretty hairy here.
"This is the first time I've been in charge of such an isolated camp, but it has gone well. We have a good relationship with the locals, and they bring in IEDs to us. They know we're here for their protection."
After five minutes at Bahar we donned our body armour again and headed back out for the second leg of our journey, which again was largely uneventful.
At Bahadur we received a warm welcome from the soldiers stationed there, most of whom are serving the entire six-month tour at the base, apart from two days at Khar Nikah every month.
Cpl Sabot Biusavu, the base's Fijian-born commander, told us that in the event of a small arms fire or RPG attack we should grab our protective gear and head for a hard-covered building next to the compound wall.
Bahadur has reasonably good facilities for a patrol base, including a gym, a makeshift volleyball court and two chickens, all surrounded by 15ft compound walls,
The soldiers survive on a diet of ration packs and cooked meals, and to celebrate our visit they decided to make a sort of spam paella, which actually tasted a lot better than it sounds.
Pte Matthew Pender, who has been based at Bahadur since April, explained that the base was very much at the front line of the campaign against the insurgency.
The 21-year-old, of Burslem, said: "We've had four or five 'contacts' here, so it's usually at least every month. It's mostly small arms fire but we have had a couple of grenades as well.
"Most of us here are on our first tour and so when we got here I was a bit nervous. But you just get used to it."
Cpl Thomas Bryan, aged 24, of High Lane, Burslem, said: "Three weeks ago we were attacked from three positions on Murder Wall. It's known throughout the whole area of operations for its name. It's called Murder Wall because there are these murder holes in it that the insurgents shoot through, and so when we return fire it's less effective.
"And then a few days ago we had two grenades coming from behind Murder Wall land just in front of one of our sangers [watch towers]."
After arriving at Bahadur we were told that Bahar had come under attack from insurgents just minutes after we had left, with two grenades landing within the compound, although thankfully nobody was hurt.
With this worrying thought in our heads we made ourselves comfortable at Bahadur, but as the hours passed and darkness descended, the threat of attack seemed to recede.
With the soldiers chatting and joking around the dying embers of the cooking fire, it almost seemed like a camping trip.
But then, shortly after 10pm, reality came crashing back in the form of the characteristic crackle and whizz sound of AK47 assault rifle fire overhead.
Suddenly everyone started moving very quickly. The three journalists in the party headed for the hard cover while the Staffords got on with the job they are trained for.
Two muzzle flashes had been seen out in the darkness, and fire was subsequently returned. The night, had become deadly serious.
A thunderous clatter filled the air as the 50 calibre heavy machine gun in the sanger above our heads let off a few bursts, and a short time later there was a series of deep booms as several high explosive mortar shells launched from Khar Nikah landed behind the Murder Wall.
There then followed a wait of well over an hour as the Staffords attempted to find the insurgents' whereabouts; a pretty uncomfortable wait in the cramped and hot conditions under the hard cover.
Eventually the threat level fell low enough for us to be allowed out into the compound to our beds.
Needless to say, sleep did not come easily that night, with mortar fire and the noise of helicopters continuing for a while afterwards. Even after those sounds had faded, with the adrenalin still pumping, even a dog barking in the distance was enough to make you start.
The next morning we were told that this had been the insurgents' first nocturnal assault on Bahadur, and there was still the threat of further attacks during the day.
But the mood of the camp was lifted with the arrival of Torjan, a legendary mujahidin fighter, Taliban-hunter and key ally of C Coy, who lives next door to the patrol base.
We had heard stories about Torjan and his battles against the insurgents, and we were expecting some huge warrior, clad in bandoliers and grenade belts, and so the short, unassuming figure who walked into the compound came as something of a surprise.
Cpl Bryan said: "Torjan is mental but he's good to have around. He brings us bread. We wanted to return the favour and asked if there was anything he needed, so one day he came round with the Afghan Local Police and asked if he could have some flares, as he was taking them out on patrol."
The decision was made shortly before 8am to make the trip back, and so, behind a smokescreen created by the mortars at Khar Nikah, we slipped out of Bahadur and past Murder Wall.
With the insurgents believed to be in the area and very close to our patrol, there was a noticeable tension in the air.
Eventually though, we made it back to the base without any further incident, apart from the occasional encounter with the local young pickpockets. Our venture out on to the ground in central Helmand was over, and while we had come closer than most to a genuine contact, we had all got home safe and sound – an ideal result for a journalist.
We had experienced a small taste of what a British soldier faces on the front line in Afghanistan every day.