Baptism of fire: The first trip out

Lance Corporal James Atkin is a member of 21 Engineer Regiment (21 Engr Regt) in Afghanistan for Operation HERRICK 12. He talks about his first ‘contact’.

The task was to clear an 8km route to a patrol base. I have worked with the four men of the team in the past but never on a search task. Off to the right of us was a steady hill with small compounds scattered four hundred metres away along the side of the hill. There were people walking around by the compounds, and there was some greenery up there. Off to the left about 300m away were cornfields. So I was enjoying my time on this mission with the views and scenery. It was disgustingly hot and the ground was baking hard sand. Behind our team was a fleet of vehicles. The machines are huge, angry-looking, rumbling things with big heavy guns constantly looking around for any threats. I felt pretty safe in this environment despite the country I am in. The search team I was working with was commanded by Lance Corporal ‘Mick’ Meagan who is cool, calm and methodical. The other three searchers I knew I could trust as much as I can trust myself. So that is the scene set.

So, we were walking along doing our thing, making sure that our path was clear of any improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Just minding our own business. When out of the corner of my eye I saw some puffs of sand jump up, maybe thirty metres away. Then I heard the gunshots. Four or five of them. I stood there for a split second and asked out aloud, “are we being shot at?” I looked at the others but they were already down on their belt buckles. I kept my eyes on the target as I hit the ground, and the baddie ran into the compound he was stood next to. The range to the target outweighed the distance that my pistol could shoot at. Messages were shouted back. The gunners in the vehicles trained their weapons on the compound. But children quickly come back out to play and life went back to normal by the compounds. So we would have been prevented from shooting even if the guy had reappeared.  We ran back to the safe haven behind the trucks and eventually clambered into the lead armoured truck. That was it, the contact ended.

Now I smile to myself and realise I can tell people I have been in the thick of the action, and I will spend my spare time working on my thousand yard stare. Others claim that it wasn’t even a contact as we didn’t shoot back. I think they are just jealous. It was the first time anyone has shot at the men and women of 15 Squadron, also it was the first time in my eight years in the Army I have been shot at. It was nothing compared to the rest of the gun battles we hear about from other regiments but it was still interesting. It is a story I’ll not tell my mum.

Two days later I am back in my tent with a well-earned day off. This time is spent drinking fizzy pop, catching up with my mates and generally relaxing. 3 Troop, “Gods Troop”, have been busy this week servicing vehicles, cleaning weapons and carrying out the small tasks that need to be done. Training carries on as normal for them. At the end of the day tent life commences. Laptops come out, emails and Facebook are checked every five minutes. Letters are written, parcels are received. Men soon going on leave spend their free time panic tanning and others play cards. One individual called ‘Matty’ Copping, an armoured digger operator, spends his time trying to fix his laptop. (You know the small round metal hole you plug your charger into? Well, that was pulled out of his laptop.) We should feel sympathy for him, but being soldiers, we laugh at him. Soldiers are great for the banter. It is non stop, it is definitely a perk of the job. I will stop rambling on now. Oh yeah, not long now until I go on R&R! I will carry on writing when I get back to Afghanistan in a couple of weeks.