Further to my previous blogs about my summer spent with the men and women of C Company 1 Mercian in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2010, I will today talk about an incident in which I witnessed gunshot wounds, and the way in which bullets behave when they enter the body.
It was during the second half of the tour of duty that the Commander of C Company (Coy) 1 Mercian switched tactics from assuring the local populace, to actually taking the fight to the local Taliban in order to defeat them militarily. The Taliban in the area in which we were stationed, had previously been occupying and operating from an area known as the Green Zone (GZ). The GZ was an area spanning about 2 miles either side of the Helmand river into which irrigation could stretch. This offered lush greenery and the opportunity for farmers to cultivate the fertile soil. However, it also gave The Taliban plenty of cover from view to freely move weapons and explosives up and down the river, almost with impunity. The Commander decided that we would carry out an operation to move into the GZ and to occupy a number of empty compounds in order to exert control over the area, and to demonstrate to the Taliban who actually was in charge. For this operation, a platoon would move into the GZ on foot with support from around 800m away from a Danish Leopard 2 Main Battle Tank. The Coy Commander's Tactical Group (TAC), consisting of radio operators, The Fire Support Team (FST) Commander, JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller), Company Sergeant Major (CSM), Medic, Protection group (including myself) and IED detection team, would occupy a 3rd compound on the edge of the GZ with eyes on both the Platoon in the GZ and the FOB.
During the patrol out to the Compounds situated in the GZ, it became apparent that The Taliban were not about to allow the Coy to operate on their home turf without some serious resistance.
Straight from the moment the Platoon stepped from desert to greenery, they were constantly harassed with small arms fire and RPG attacks. It was during this move towards the compound that the most dreaded of of noises was heard The stomach churning thump of an IED detonating. It was later to transpire that one of the riflemen, Private Jonathan Monk had detonated a pressure pad IED that was embedded in the bank of an irrigation ditch as he was exiting. He lost his life in the explosion. This absolutely devastated the company when it was heard over the net but the mission had to continue and he would have to be mourned when we got back in to the FOB. I wasn't present when Pte Monk lost his life, so it would be wrong for me to comment at any length on that incident.
Once the Platoon had fought through to the area that they wished to occupy, it was a case of remaining in place for as long as was practical in order to demonstrate to the Taliban that we could operate there regardless of what they threw at us. The next 25 hours would probably be the hardest in the lives of those men and women that held fast in that hornet's nest. I refer to the Daily Mirror article that covered those hectic 25 hours in detail https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/heroic-british-troops-fought-off-taliban-248589 . Our job during this time as TAC group, was to defend the route out of the GZ and to resupply the guys in the forward compounds, a job that would soon be of the utmost importance.
The guys in the compounds were in urgent need of water and ammunition around 12 hours into the operation and it would be the job of the TAC group to get it to them. For that we had to return to the FOB to be loaded up with ration packs, water jerrycans and boxes of ammunition. Even three guys who were merely waiting for a helicopter out of the FOB and back to Camp Bastion were enlisted to carry supplies (2 Royal Military Police investigators and a Royal Army Medical Corps Mental Health Nurse) much to their behest!
We would be taking a route out into the GZ that would take us along a fairly solid road with waist high walls on either side, then across a few ploughed fields, into and out of irrigation ditches along the way. I wasn't hugely looking forward to sprinting across open ground, carrying all that weight in 50 degree heat I have to admit, but it was the nature of the job and the guys urgently needed the water and ammo. As we patrolled out and started to make progress into the GZ, I found myself behind the RAMC nurse in the patrol order, something that would prove to be a challenge in the ensuing hours. We were around 100m into the GZ on the metalled road when we were met by a Royal Engineers Search Team (REST). The REST were specialist IED finders and had more technical equipment with which to detect the explosives buried in the ground. It was the REST's intention to clear a site in field adjacent to the road to act as an Emergency Helicopter Landing Site (HLS) should another medical emergency occur. It was decided that the TAC would cover them as they moved into the field to conduct the clearance. They stripped off all of their excess equipment and the two Sappers walked cautiously into the field and began to search. It was then that we heard the single "CRACK" and blood curdling "thud" of a bullet hitting flesh. Immediately the whole TAC and REST returned fire in order to ensure that whoever had fired the shot would, either never fire a shot again their life, or at least keep their head down as we figured out how to get the two Sappers back behind the wall. The video below shows some of the ensuing firefight.
From shouting to the two guys, it emerged that both had been shot and both had lower leg wounds. This was perplexing as we all had heard a single shot. Quickly, two more Sappers from the REST stripped all of their heavy equipment off and ran into the field to drag their colleagues back. Again, we provided a weight of covering fire whilst this extraction took place and soon the the two injured Sappers were behind the relative safety of the mud wall. It was only then that we realised the single 7.62 bullet had entered one of the soldier's ankles and deflected off the bone into the other soldiers lower leg. Both had quite severely shattered lower legs and had to be carried towards the rear of the patrol to an area that had been cleared for the MERT (Medical Emergency Response Team) Chinook helicopter to land and evacuate them back to Camp Bastion. We had the time to deliberate what had actually happened while we were waiting for the MERT to land. We had always been taught on Team Medic Courses that bullets could ricochet off bone and exit the body in and entirely different route to entry, but it was something that no-one really paid much attention to, or at least presumed it was somewhat of an exaggeration. It is not. I was now witnessing first hand how bullet could enter one guy's ankle, deflect at a right angle and enter another guy's lower leg with enough force remaining to completely shatter both soldier's lower leg bones. Luckily for those two Sappers, they recovered relatively well from their injuries and the operation had to continue on. Once they had been dusted of by the MERT, we patrolled further towards the two compounds in the GZ. We arrived at the first ploughed field and had to cross an irrigation ditch in order to enter it. Now, it was apparent that the Mental Health Nurse had not been living completely on Operational Ration Packs (ORP) as we in C Coy had for the previous 3 months. In a word, this guy was chubby. He could not get out of the ditch, no matter how hard he tried! He was also carrying a box of ORP in a huge rucksack on his back that didn't help the situation so I had to get my shoulder underneath the rucksack and push his whole body weight up and out of this ditch. The guy in front of him also had to offer his hand to pull him from the other side. On exiting the ditch, we were them faced with the prospect of moving across a freshly ploughed field that offered zero cover from fire from a very very aggrieved enemy. The half run, half walk we could manage would have been absolutely hilarious if it wasn't for the fact that 7.62 bullets were whizzing passed like angry bees and the odd RPG was detonating nearby. The whole move across the field must have taken all of 5 minutes to complete but it felt like hours! It was to our huge relief that we saw the gates of the nearby compound opening and one of the C Coy guys from the platoon ushering us inside into relative safety. We all collapsed on the ground in the middle of the compound in a mess of sweat, mud and adrenaline. The Mental Health Nurse then promptly proceeded to go down with heat exhaustion which was not altogether unexpected.
It is true what they say about bullets and the force with which they enter the body. When dealing with gunshot wounds, ensure you carry out an in depth Secondary Survey of the casualty and look for exit wounds. Don;t assume that the bullet will exit in a line that matches with the entry point, bullets do not behave!