HORNETS’ NEST

Well, I promised to keep you posted about my progress (or lack of) on the short story writing course I’m doing. Here’s my first attempt.

Contains language and some scenes which some readers might find upsetting. May not be suitable for those of a nervous disposition

 I took an instant dislike to Major Christian Haslam at our first meeting. A ‘rising star’ in the Grenadier  Guards, he was 32 or thereabouts with one of those smug faces, straight out of the shallow end of the gene pool and an expensive accent to match.

He was the driving force behind the British Army’s new tactical strategy in Sangin and the surrounding area. Operation ‘Front Foot’ he called it. He felt the area had been quiet for too long. What was needed, he said without a hint of irony, was for the British forces to be on the ‘Front Foot’ and take the fight to the Taliban; shatter the calm. For the troops in Helmand province, the ‘Front Foot’ was what was likely to get them reduced to ‘pink mist’ or to life as a multiple amputee.

soldier

‘The calm’ as he put it had been regular parolling in an effort to win the hearts and minds of the populace, knowing full well that the Taliban had control of the townspeople and the moment the British returned to the safety of the Sangin District Centre the Taliban were out undoing all their good work. On their first tour of Afghan and with an average age of nineteen, The Royal Irish Regiment had found themselves at the business end of ‘Front Foot’ and were having to adjust pretty rapidly.

Today, I have the pleasure of Haslam’s company as he interviews Private Bailey of 3 platoon. A routine patrol had ended with Private Steven Finch killed and Bailey wounded. I am there in the capacity of witness/notetaker.

It is hot and sticky, about 48 degrees, the atmosphere heavy. Haslam looks irritable as he enters the compound. He dispenses with pleasantries.

“There’s a shit storm brewing over this in the media back home” he rants. “The mother is claiming that Finch’s life could have been saved, that the MOD is covering up.”

I call Private Bailey. A tall, wiry unshaven man, he sits on the compound floor, after first saluting his senior officer.  Haslam perches on the corner of some ammuniton boxes. He fixes Bailey with his startling green eyes.

“Now  Private Bailey, I presume you know what this about?”

“Sir” He mumbles.

“We just want to get a clear picture of what happened on the patrol which led to Finch’s fatal injury and your wound”

“Sir”

Bailey describes how the two platoons formed up in the wadi outside the compound at dawn. Then carried out their orders which were to clear their section of town of insurgents, weapons and IEDs, then make their way to a known Taliban stronghold where 1 platoon would attempt to provoke an engagement with the enemy. Bailey and Finch were at the front of the section, Private Finch acting as Point Man.

“We walked out of an alleyway and into a sort of orchard, when we see five fucking Taliban with weapons, ammo belts, everything, right in front of us. Without thinking, Finch and me open up and drop them. As soon as we do, we come under massive fucking fire. A wall of lead. We’re pinned down. After about two or three minutes I think “I’ve fucking had enough of this” and throw a grenade over the wall where most of the fire is coming from, so we can pull back. Then Finch looks at me and says

“Billy I’m hit”

And he falls at my feet. Well, I thought this is starting to get fucking serious. This is really happening.”

“And so what happens next?”

“I shout ‘Man down, man down!’”

“And then what”

“I pick up Finch’s machine gun and spray the area while Woodward the Medic assesses his wound; then Sargeant Gregg comes running down the alley. “Where is he? Where is he?”  He’s shouting.

“That’s when I get hit when a round grazes my shoulder.”

“Go on.”

“We’re still under fire. Sergeant Gregg organises a stretcher party. They were using a hammock and Finch kept falling off. We’d never practised using one before. The straps were trailing on the ground and the boys kept tripping over them. Sargeant Gregg was screaming at them. It was a bloody nightmare.”

“And in your opinion, was the casualty still alive at that point”

“Yes Sir. I remember Woodward saying he had a pulse, it was shallow and weak but he was definitely alive. They took him all the way back up the alley and across the ground we had cleared earlier to the compound”

“Now this is what I don’t understand.” Said Haslam “You took the casualty back to the compound and requested MedeVac from there. Why? Why was it left another … what was it? ten minutes to make the call? Why didn’t you make the call straight away?”

“The radio wasn’t working, Sir”

“What?”

“The fire control radio wasn’t working Sir. The antenna was broken. We had been waiting a week for a replacement.We had to rely on the Bowman radio Sir, and we were in a flatspot. We kept losing the signal. “

“Jesus Christ! So you had no Comms? Was your commanding officer aware of this?”

“Yes Sir”

“And the casualty died on the way to Bastion – you were with him?”

“Yes Sir”

“Bailey, under no circumstances do you mention any of this without consulting me first. Is that understood?”

Bailey scuffed the dry earth with his boots, and for the first time raised his eyes to meet Haslam’s.

“Bit late for that Sir. “

“Why is that?”

“I rang his Mum”

“You’ve spoken to the Mother?” Hissed Haslam suddenly, all the colour was drained from his face.

“Yes sir. I know his family well. I stay round there sometimes when I’m on leave. I’m going out with his sister”

“Are you familiar with the term Operation Minimize corporal Bailey?” Asks Haslam, barely able to hide his fury.

“Sir. It’s the procedure that is put into force when someone has been killed in action”

“Meaning?” Prompted Haslam.

“No calls or texts home, so the parents and family hear first from the MOD”

“Exactly! So then family don’t get the news from the gutter press … or God knows who. What did you tell them?”

“Everything. I thought the Operation Minimise period had passed”.

“Rubbish … Oh Jesus.” Haslam’s head drops and he begins to rub the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger.

‘This isn’t over yet’ Growled Haslam.

There is a dead silence.

“Okay. That will be all Private’ I dismiss Bailey.

“Sir”

“Do you believe him?” I ask Haslam when Bailey has left the room.

“I don’t know!”

Haslam rounds on me. “All I do know is that I’m going to get hauled over the fucking coals for this. A grieving mother all over the papers and TV, and then there will be an inquest which will want to know why the MOD lied when it said her son died instantly, why she was told his wounds were ‘not surviveable’, why vital communications equipment was not working, why it took so long to get him out. Oh God what a mess.”

afghan

The following morning 3 platoon takes delivery of a replacement radio antenna. Then at about 10am we get the news that on Route 611 the Taliban have detonated a huge roadside bomb. I wonder whether Haslam has got through safely.

I find myself recalling his parting words the day before:

“When will people wake up and realise that this is a war, people get killed. It happens”

© Andy Daly 2014

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