Sunday, 10 May 2009
Today’s mission included moving to capture some bomb makers. What the Gurkhas did not know was that the action they thought they were moving to was not the actual training. The real training was to be an attack on them that would occur along the way. Major Will Kefford, the commander of C coy, continues to throw unexpected curveballs at the men. Nothing is sacred. Everything is a trick.
Before we set off, Major Kefford said to me something like, “See that man on the ground over there? That’s Agnish. He got the Military Cross in Afghanistan on the last tour. Very good man.” I asked about other awards and Major Kefford said that men from the 1st Royal Gurkha Rifles received five Military Crosses on that deployment and they were awarded by the Queen.
In the training, Major Kefford is constantly trying to trip up his men to keep them sharp, but when we talk he often begins to brag about them. This trait is common with British and American commanders and senior NCOs. The good ones constantly talk about their soldiers as if they were grandparents bragging about their grandchildren. The Brits brag in a more subtle fashion, in reflection of their culture, whereas the American commanders and senior NCOs are overt and will talk about their soldiers until your eyes glaze over. In any case, bragging leaders definitely are a sign of a good unit. And so off Major Kefford went about Lance Corporal Agnish Thapa, and the courage and professionalism Agnish demonstrated in Afghanistan. Later I asked for the official recounting of Agnish’s actions, and got this:
On 25 October 07 C Company (C Coy) 1 RGR deployed on Operation SPIN GHAR in Uruzgan Province. The Battle Group had been tasked to clear the Baluchi Valley, an established enemy sanctuary. In order to achieve surprise, the Battle Group conducted an air assault into the area. C Coy was the lead element and inserted by helicopter to the edge of the objective. The enemy in forward positions capitulated without resistance, but at first light the remaining enemy engaged. Fighting was hard and at close quarter. Both lead platoons and the Australian SAS, in a screening position to the south west, were under simultaneous heavy contact from multiple firing points. Just as one of the C Coy platoons sustained a casualty, the Australian SAS came under immediate and heavy fire and one of them was hit in the chest. At this point 7 Platoon, which was already in contact with the enemy, was tasked to link up with the Australians and be prepared to assist them in breaking from contact and evacuating their casualty.
The report does not mention the name of the Australian who was shot in the chest. His name was Sergeant Matthew Locke. I had heard about this fight from other sources that were present. It sounded like Sgt. Locke was an incredible soldier. Sadly, Matthew Locke was killed in action.
The citation continues:
Lance Corporal Agnish Thapa immediately placed his team in a fire base. He then dashed across open ground under heavy enemy small arms, Medium Machine gun and Rocket Propelled Grenade fire to link up with the Australian SAS. On reaching the mortally wounded Australian casualty Agnish Thapa, still under intense enemy fire, physically dragged him 100m into the nearest sparse cover, where he initiated Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation. As Agnish Thapa’s team fought the close battle, the Reserve Platoon move forward with the Medical Officer, took over treatment of the casualty and evacuated him to a Helicopter Landing Site (HLS)further to the east. As the casualty was moved towards a suitable HLS, Agnish Thapa manouvered his section to maintain protection and a suppressive firebase. The enemy persisted, attempting to assault forwards but were held off by the sustained and accurate fire of Agnish Thapa’s team. The fire was so effective that the enemy advance faltered, giving the Australian SAS elements an opportunity to withdraw from the enemy’s killing area. The Australian commander saw the arrival of supporting elements of 1RGR as a significant turning point in the battle, with the additional security and medical support it provided, pushed forward at great personal risk, immediately boosting the morale of his troops.
Agnish Thapa’s actions were conducted entirely on his own initiative with no recourse to his superiors for support or direction. He showed conspicuous gallantry, complete disregard for his own safety, and a presence of mind and tactical acumen far above that expected of a soldier of his rank and experience. His bravery was inspirational and had an immediate positive impact on all involved in the battle, lifting morale and driving men to continue their fight, despite the infliction of casualties by the enemy. His effective leadership proved pivotal in swinging the initiative in favour of coalition forces, enabling casualty evacuation to be completed despite the grave tactical circumstances. [He’s] richly deserving of official recognition.
And so these are the type of soldiers I get to work with. Surrounded by people that one normally only gets to read about, or maybe see them on television receiving a medal from a President or Prime Minister. The Queen herself awarded the Military Cross to Agnish. Truth be known, if every soldier who deserves an award for gallantry actually got one, we would need a big medal factory. There are boatloads of outstanding, courageous soldiers deserving of recognition. I’m honored to work beside people like Agnish.
Our training mission continued and the Gurkhas began to move to their next objective. Their movements were unpredictable, but Sgt. Bel Gurung knows the Gurkha mind very well – since he is one – and somehow managed to anticipate their route. Major Kefford had told Sgt. Bel the end point and start point. (Tricky, tricky…No wonder the Gurkhas search their commander’s Landrover before he’s allowed on base.) But even knowing the start/end points and the objective does not guarantee you will find them as the soldiers might take any number of routes. The soldiers didn’t know that Sgt. Bel placed IEDs along the way. While Sgt. Bel waited in ambush to clack off the electrical explosions, two green snakes kept slithering around his position. He didn’t flinch but stayed hidden in there with those snakes. Later he told me that he had accidentally disturbed what appeared to be snake eggs.
Sure enough, Sgt. Bel had been conniving enough to plant the IEDs in truly the perfect spots. The soldiers could have chosen many routes…yet he got it right. BOOM! A Landrover drove up and deposited three casualties on the ground, and they were covered in fake blood and nasty injuries. BOOM! Another IED hit the front element. The platoon leader, Captain Suresh Thapa, was working the radio and I walked up to the front with the wounded and dead. The wounded were screaming and moaning and it was a little too real for me. I didn’t like it at all. One of the “wounded,” who “died,” was actually wounded during the battle that killed the Australian SAS soldier, Sgt. Matthew Locke. During that firefight, Rifleman Alok Kandangwa was shot in the face. The bullet glanced by his eye then hit his helmet, and he told me that he thought the back of his head was blown out. He lost 80% of his vision in that eye and was left with a scar on his face. I told him that it was a cool scar (Alok is a young soldier), and Alok laughed.
Alok said he comes from the far east of Nepal, so I asked if he is a Sherpa, and he answered that he is from the Limbu people and comes from Terhathum. Because he got shot in the face in Afghanistan Alok certainly knew how to act like a casualty. He was putting on a good show today.
I didn’t even want to look at fake blood while people were moaning and screaming so I moved back to the Platoon leader while he worked the situation. Major Kefford was happy with the way the soldiers were handling all the curve balls. BOOM! Another IED detonated, “killing” another soldier. Good grief. How many IEDs were out there? I did go through an ambush one time in Maysan Province where the enemy placed about 48 IEDs. Luckily only six detonated but they did kill the soldiers in the vehicle behind the unarmored Landrover I was in. Multiple IEDs are commonplace.
Captain Suresh, the Platoon leader, had to decide whether to call the QRF (Quick Reaction Force), but he decided that it was too much risk for the QRF; he had the situation under control. This was a wise move on his part, because the conniving Sgt. Bel had also planted two IEDS that were activated by a single pressure plate, and when he later showed me the pressure plate and the bombs, I was quite certain he would have killed soldiers in the QRF. Later I said to Sgt. Bel, “You are a very dangerous man.” He was using tricks he learned from the Taliban, but frankly these soldiers are far more deadly than the Taliban, and far more deadly than al Qaeda. Thankfully, they are the good guys. In any case Captain Suresh walked his men into the first part of the ambush, but he foiled Sgt. Bel’s ambush for the QRF by not calling in the QRF.
Captain Suresh called in a helicopter to evacuate the wounded but due to space on the helicopter we were going to keep the two who were killed. The soldiers cleared a landing zone, or as the British call it, HLS (Helicopter Landing Site), and the helicopter roared in throwing dirt and debris everywhere. Medics always cover the wounded before helicopters come in. A Gurkha medic ran off the helicopter to check the wounded before loading; it’s important for him to load them correctly based on the wounds. Major Kefford had a trick for the helicopter medic, too. He had instructed the medics on the ground to mislabel the wounded. One wounded soldier who was “T1” (very bad and in need of immediate surgery) and another who was “T2” (bad but not T1). They reversed the labels, but the medic from the helicopter took one look at the wounds, and saw immediately that triage was incorrect. He got it right. The soldiers loaded up the wounded and the helicopter roared away.