Tootal was slight, wiry and driven. He was as interested in the theory of soldiering as he was in the practice, and had as many degrees as battle honours. His enthusiasm for his job was matched by his concern for his men. There would be much to be concerned about before the day was over.
The 3 Para battle group had arrived in Helmand five months earlier. Its task was to create a security zone within which development agencies could get to work on projects to develop an area barely touched by progress and lay the foundations for a future of relative prosperity.
The plan had always been aspirational. The religious warriors of the Taliban, who were struggling to reassert their power in the province, were certain to oppose the arrival of the British.
Everyone had expected some trouble, but not the relentless combat the soldiers were now immersed in. The reconstruction mission had become a memory. 3 Para and their comrades were fighting a desperate war of attrition. Most of them were besieged in bare mud-and-breeze-block government compounds – ‘platoon houses’, as they had become known – scattered over the north of the province, fighting off daily attacks from an enemy who, despite taking murderous losses, kept on coming. They spent their days pounded by the sun as they took their turn at ‘stag’, crouching in sandbagged, rooftop gun positions, or standing by to run to their posts when the shooting started. They slept on floors, washed rarely and lived off ration packs and sterilised water. They were gaunt, bony and rough looking. Their sunburned faces were fuzzed with beards, just like those of the men they were fighting.
They were on their own out there. Beyond the walls of the compound and the shattered towns lay tawny, sun-baked mountains and vast stretches of desert, ridged with dry watercourses. The mother base at Camp Bastion was far away and they were connected to it by the slimmest of links, the helicopters whose vulnerability to the insurgents’ fire made every sortie heartstoppingly tense.
The morning started calmly. The previous day, most of the fighting had been around the base at Musa Qaleh, a broken-down fortress in the middle of a ghost town, now inhabited only by men trying to kill each other. It was held by the soldiers of Easy Company, some of whom had been there for thirty-one days. In the morning, the insurgents had lobbed five mortars into the compound from concealed positions in the maze of alleyways and walled gardens that pressed against the walls of the base.
At about 7.40 that evening some of the Royal Irish Regiment soldiers with the 3 Para battle group were on a satellite phone to their comrades at their home near Inverness, discussing the ‘big piss-up’ that was being organised to celebrate their expected homecoming in a few weeks’ time. The call was interrupted by the crash of an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) smashing into one of the sandbagged ‘sangar’ defensive positions ringing the platoon house. The blast knocked the four men inside flat and sent a soldier flying down the stone steps, knocking him unconscious. The soldiers in the sangar struggled upright and got on their guns, scanned the ground in front of them for muzzle flashes, and poured fire into the darkness. Green and red tracer flowed back and forth, and the crack of rifles and the throb of machine guns shattered the air.
The Taliban attack was finally beaten off after forty minutes when British and American jets arrived to bomb and strafe the insurgents’ positions. Intelligence reported ‘many Taliban killed in action’. Before he grabbed some sleep, Corporal Danny Groves, one of the Royal Irish soldiers, wrote with satisfaction in his diary: ‘Today was a very good day for the boys … The Taliban had attempted to overrun us but instead they received a hell of a beating from the mismatched men of Easy Company.’
And now, another day in Helmand was dawning. At 9 a.m., Tootal’s headquarters staff gathered in the JOC for the morning brief. A few incidents had trickled in over the radio net. Just before 8 a.m., four mortars had landed in the base at Now Zad. This was the most remote of the outstations, about fifty miles to the northwest as the helicopter flew from Bastion. Half an hour later, smallarms fire and RPGs were fired at the platoon house at Sangin. This was the normal back-and-forth violence, the metronome tick of aggression and counter-aggression that punctuated every day. There was nothing to distract Tootal from his usual crowded morning of meetings and briefings.
Then, just after midday, the atmosphere in the JOC changed. Reports of casualties started filtering in from Kajaki Dam. The dam was a prize target for the insurgents. The hydroelectric station there generated power for the whole region. The British troops, who lived in sweltering trenches dug out of the stony hills overlooking it, came under regular Taliban attack. But this sounded like something different. The details were sketchy at first. A sniper on his way to spy out a Taliban position had stepped on a mine and was very badly wounded.
Tootal called up his higher headquarters at Kandahar to request a Black Hawk helicopter, equipped with a winch, to lift the casualty out. He was told there would be a long delay. A CH-47 Chinook casualty evacuation helicopter was available. But it did not have lifting gear.
On a patch of barren hillside in Kajaki, a group of men stood rooted to the ground. Beside them lay Lance Corporal Stuart Hale of 3 Para Support Company. The mine had blown off his foot. Corporal Mark Wright was on his position about a mile away when he heard the explosion. He rounded up some soldiers and medics and they ran down the hill to help. They had gone to Hale’s side knowing the potential danger they were in. Now they were trying to get him out. They began prodding the gritty sun-baked ground, clearing a path to a spot where the helicopter could get in, then carried Hale on a stretcher to the landing site. Corporal Stuart Pearson turned back along the cleared path. As he bent down to pick up a water container, there was another explosion. Until now, it had seemed that Hale might be the victim of a stray mine, probably left behind by the Russians who had spent years occupying Kajaki. Now the rescuers were hit by a grim realisation. ‘We thought, fucking hell,’ said Corporal Jay Davis, ‘we are in a minefield now. They are everywhere.’
Pearson was only four or five yards away. But every step risked another explosion. He applied a tourniquet and dosed himself with morphine while they waited for the helicopter. It arrived at 1.30, and landed more than fifty yards away across ground that for all anyone knew was thick with mines. There was no question of carrying the casualties to the Chinook. As it lifted off in a cloud of muck and grit, another mine went off, blasting shrapnel into the shoulder, chest and face of Mark Wright.
A medic, Lance Corporal Paul ‘Tug’ Hartley, moved forward to help. He threw his medical pack on the ground in front of him to detonate any mines in his path. He reached Wright safely. But as he arrived Fusilier Andy Barlow moved back to give him room, treading on a mine that blasted shrapnel into his lower leg. The blast also blew Hartley to the ground and wounded Private Dave Prosser.
All around, men lay bleeding into the dirt. Hunched over the radios, Tootal and his staff had been listening with mounting dismay as the picture grew darker. The only way the wounded and the stranded could escape the minefield was if they were lifted out.
Tootal harassed Kandahar for updates on when the winch-equipped Black Hawk would be ready to haul his men to safety. Nearly four hours after the initial request, two Black Hawks arrived. Two American aircrew were lowered into the minefield and, one by one, winched everyone aboard.
When the casualties reached Bastion, Tootal and 3 Para’s RSM (regimental sergeant major), John Hardy, were at the landing site to meet them. As the helicopter touched down, they jumped aboard. Six men were stacked across the floor. Three had stumps where one of their legs had been. One was dead. Mark Wright, who had been chatting and joking with his mates during the two and a half hours they had waited to be rescued, had bled to death on the way home. The wounded were hurried away. Hardy and Tootal zipped Wright into a body bag and carried him to an ambulance.
Tootal had been back in the JOC for fifteen minutes when another spate of emergency signals squawked over the radio. There were more wounded soldiers in two of the platoon houses. In Sangin, three soldiers had been hit by mortar shrapnel as they stood in an orchard within the walls of the base being briefed on their tasks for the evening. Mortar fire had injured two more British soldiers and two of their Afghan allies in Musa Qaleh. There was, however, only one Chinook helicopter available to mount a casualty evacuation – a ‘casevac’.
The helicopter, with the Immediate Response Team of medics aboard, was ordered to go to Sangin first. One of the wounded, Lance Corporal Luke McCulloch, had been hit in the head and looked close to death. The casevac chopper was flown by Major Mark Hammond of the Royal Marines. The flight took twenty minutes. As Hammond began his final approach, the JOC fizzed with tension. This was when the helicopters were most vulnerable to the Taliban RPGs and heavy machine guns. The loss of a chopper would not only be a human disaster. It would be a huge victory for the Taliban, and could lay the ground for a British tactical defeat. There was already talk in London of pulling out of the farthest-flung platoon houses to minimise the risk of a helicopter being shot down.
As the Chinook swooped towards the landing site, Hammond saw green tracer fire flowing towards him from the fields, thickly planted with tall crops that lay south of the base. Reluctantly, he swung the Chinook away and headed back to Bastion.
He and his crew had been on the ground only a few minutes when they were ordered off again, this time to try to retrieve the two casualties at Musa Qaleh. The base doctor there had warned Tootal that he could keep one of his patients alive only for another six or seven hours. Musa Qaleh was the helicopter crews’ most hated destination. The landing site was in the middle of a built-up area full of insurgent firing points. When they reached the town at 8.15 p.m., the Taliban were waiting. One of the escorting Apaches saw two RPGs swish past the Chinook, missing it by 10 yards. To attempt a landing would be suicidal. Again Hammond was forced to return to base. When they arrived at Bastion they found their chopper spattered with strike marks. One round had hit the root of a rotor blade, inflicting potentially lethal damage.
Tootal decided to risk another attempt before the night was over. A replacement was found for the damaged Chinook. Artillery batteries and aircraft were put on alert to batter Taliban positions around the two bases as the helicopter darted in. Hammond, along with his three crewmates and the four members of the medical team, took off for Sangin once more. He brought the Chinook into the landing site low and fast. As it settled in a whirlwind of dust, a Spartan armoured vehicle raced up to the back ramp, where the crew snatched the casualties aboard. The helicopter had barely touched the ground before it was climbing again, chased by streams of green tracer spouting from the Taliban positions. The sound of the engine was drowned out by the ear-battering din as the crew returned the fire from the door guns.
The ambulances were waiting at Bastion to hurry the casualties away to the base hospital. It was too late for Luke McCulloch. The twenty-one-year-old, one of the contingent of Royal Irish Regiment soldiers fighting alongside the Paras, was pronounced dead before he got there.
In the course of the day Mark Hammond had experienced enough danger to last most pilots a lifetime, but he volunteered for a last, risk-laden task. For the second time that night he went back to Musa Qaleh. Tootal had racked up every aircraft available, amassing an escort of Apache attack helicopters, A-10 ‘Tankbusters’ and a Spectre gunship to shepherd the Chinook in. As the chopper arrived, just before 1.30 a.m., the aircraft strafed the Taliban firing points around the base. Despite the barrage, the insurgents managed to launch an attack and bullets cracked around the Chinook as it touched down, picked up the wounded and climbed into the night.
The Chinook finally arrived back safely at 2 a.m. Before he collapsed into bed, Stuart Tootal found time to write up his diary. It had been an extraordinary day, one that those involved in its dramas would never forget. He had spent the previous fourteen hours ‘endeavouring to get our wounded out from three different locations. Two died on the way and three have had legs amputated. Some will return to combat and some will not.’
There had been many times since the Paras had deployed when he had turned to RSM Hardy before heading to his cot and said, ‘That was a day of days.’ But there had not been a day like this one. There had been tragedy, he wrote, but also ‘much courage, both by the wounded and those who went to get them. There has been sorrow, sadness, fortitude and even humour. A difficult day, no doubt, but one to be proud of, having seen the way people have behaved.’
His last thought before he dropped into an exhausted sleep was, ‘I really don’t want tomorrow to be like today but it just might be. It might actually be worse.’