Remembrance – As veterans we stand together… in order to feel closer to those who are no longer here.

As the sun began to set over Camp Bastion, we gathered in the only area big enough to fit the
thousands of British troops who called this vast base home. Gone were our floppy sun hats, proudly
replaced with an array of distinctive Regimental head dress. It was the only time the whole camp
stopped, the only time we could stand together and sadly it was happening all too often.

Of course not everyone on parade knew personally those who were being remembered, but all of us
felt a connection, a sense brotherhood and collective grief. As the final soldiers arrived on parade I
composed my thoughts and prepared to pay my tribute to the legend that was Bombardier Craig
Hopson. A man who up until four days ago had called me boss.

It was a Friday morning in the summer of 2009, I was a Captain in the Royal Artillery working with A
Company, 3 SCOTS. We had left our base just before dawn to patrol through the fields and irrigation
ditches and meet with local villagers. A relatively unforgettable patrol, that was until I heard the
explosion, the unmistakeable sound of an Improvised Explosive Device.

As I turned into our compound I was greeted by the sight of the Company Sergeant Major welcoming
home the patrol, which struck me as unusual. He was standing by a small gap in the mud wall and
nodded to each of us as we made our way into the base. A normal patrol wouldn’t warrant such a
greeting…it was clear today was different. Although I’d mentally prepared myself for bad news I’d
hoped he’d had a miraculous escape. But seeing the Sergeant Major welcoming the patrol back to
the relative safety of the compound I knew there had been no miracle.

I took my day sack and body armour off and lent them against a wall in a small courtyard. It had only
been a relatively short patrol but the relief of taking the weight off my shoulders and allowing the
heat to escape from under my body armour was bliss. Walking through one of the mud buildings I
entered another courtyard where the headquarters were based. As I strolled past the half a dozen or
so soldiers who were manning the radios, I felt as if many were trying to avoid making eye contact.
Trying to hide the news from me, but by this time the conversation that would soon follow was a
mere formality.

My Company Commander then emerged and ushered me into a small room just off the main
courtyard. The compound we were living in was owned by local villagers, we had paid them a small
amount of money to live there for a few days. Whilst they had taken many of their possessions with
them, in this small dark room the floor was still covered in Afghan rugs and in the air lingered the
smell of a culture far different from our own. Matt stood in front of me and told me the news I’d
been dreading to hear, “Hoppo didn’t make it, I’m very sorry.”

Bdr Craig Hopson

Bdr Craig ‘Hoppo’ Hopson

The details of exactly what happened could wait, all I could do now was try and process the news and control the grief that was making my legs and stomach weak. I lit a cigar and sat in the darkness. I’ve never been much of a smoker but during this tour of Afghanistan I’d found comfort during many of the toughest periods through the dirty habit.

Bombardier Craig Hopson was my second in command. A large and brash Yorkshireman from Castleford, his passions in life were Rugby League, his fiancée Eleanor and of course his newly born daughter Amelia. Despite only being twenty four he had the self-confidence of a soldier who’d served since the Falklands (which at times I confess could be challenging). He was a soldier who you couldn’t ignore even if you tried and a brilliant second in command. I always knew he was watching my back and his technical knowledge of artillery was second to none. Often when calling in an artillery strike I would be astounded by his ability to multi-task. For him, calling in artillery on many targets simultaneously was a walk in the park.

I walked out into the bright Helmand sunshine, by now most of the patrol had taken their kit off and were lying or sitting around the edges of the compound, smoking, cleaning rifles or getting some sleep. My Fire Support Team consisted of seven soldiers. Hoppo was second in command, Willie and Danny helped Hoppo with the Artillery. Gus and Jamie controlled the mortars and Ross was responsible for the air power. My part was very much to identify targets and co-ordinate all of those weapons to assist Matt, the Company Commander.

As Danny and Willie were closest to Hoppo I went to them first. I found them sorting out their kit, both clearly shaken and more subdued than normal, Willie’s face clearly showing the redness of grief.

We sat down on a small raised area to one side of the courtyard. Sat between them, I battled hard to keep the tears at bay as I told them what had happened. This is the moment you can’t train for, no matter how many press ups you can do, no matter how fast you can run or how many hours you spend firing your rifle. Telling your soldiers that one of their mates is dead is something you can’t prepare for and I still to this day don’t know how I handled it.

They already knew there was bad news coming, but it was up to me to confirm their worst fears.

Hoppo had been manning the machine gun on the back of a Jackal vehicle, when it had driven over a large and deep improvised explosive device (IED). The seven tonne vehicle was tossed into the air by the force of the huge blast and Hoppo was thrown twenty metres or so. Despite the best efforts of the medics on the ground and a swift helicopter evacuation, he never regained consciousness.

Looking back on that summer I often ask myself how it affected me? Would I be a different, perhaps a better person if I hadn’t deployed to Afghanistan? I can still clearly remember one evening lying in a compound staring up at the stars. That day I’d called in artillery fire on my first enemy target. I knew that after that experience my life would never be the same again. When I was in Afghanistan I thought I’d taken everything in my stride and I didn’t think it had changed me, but when I returned home it wasn’t long before I knew some scars ran deep. It was after our welcome home party that a good friend approached me and asked how I was feeling? I shrugged and said fine, of course. He then took me to one side and asked how I was really feeling, I burst into tears and sobbed.

Danny Venter, Gus Millar (KIA 31/08/09), Willie Ewens, James Banks, Craig Hopson (KIA 25/07/09), Ross McBride, Jamie Steele

Danny Venter, Gus Millar (KIA 31/08/09), Willie Ewens, James Banks, Craig Hopson (KIA 25/07/09), Ross McBride, Jamie Steele

Leaving the Army the following year and embarking on a new career wasn’t an easy decision and there have been some really tough times adjusting. In the first few months of civilian life I would sometimes find it hard to respect anyone who hadn’t been and done what we had…“who are you to talk to me like that?” In the Army if you had a tough day you could chat to someone who you knew had experienced similar things, but in day to day life you can bottle it up or worse take it out on someone who clearly doesn’t deserve it. I also at times found it hard to take ordinary life seriously…

“what does it matter what we have for dinner” or at work perhaps “why are you getting so angry about the wrong font on my PowerPoint?…No one died.”

Six years on, there is seldom a day that passes when I don’t reflect on those summers in Afghanistan. Be it travelling on the tube or shopping in the local supermarket, Afghanistan and the friends I lost will always be with me.

We gathered on Remembrance Sunday as we do every year, next to the Royal Artillery memorial on Hyde Park corner and listened as the city fell silent. As we reflected we were transported back to a time and place that causes so much mental strife.

There are painful memories that many of us are trying to leave behind, but there are also treasured memories of fallen friends who we will never forget. That’s why at the strike of eleven, as the traffic slowed and the sound of Big Ben was heard echoing across London like distant artillery fire, we stood together… in order to feel closer to those who are no longer here.

If you’d like to donate to the Royal British Legion then please do so by clicking here.

Four years on…what advice would I give to Captain James Banks???

Last week I was asked to make a speech at the monthly meeting of the Liquid List. A networking event hosted by retired Royal Artillery officer Mike Nicholson at the Liberal Club in Whitehall. The evening aims to offer advice for those leaving the Armed Forces and the chance to meet those who’ve left the Military and moved into civilian employment (and have a few beers!)

Why was I was asked to speak? Well I few years ago Mike was kind enough to allow me to film at the event for a report I was doing for BFBS on military redundancies and resettlement (see below), so I thought it was about time I repaid the favour.

What was I going to talk about? Well it wasn’t going to be about how to become a journalist, as clearly this is a particular narrow and specialised field. Plus I hoped none of my audience would be daft enough to follow the same path as me! Instead I decided to focus on the advice that I wish I’d been given four years ago when I was leaving the Army. What would I tell Captain James Banks and I how would I prepare him for the challenges that lay ahead?

Use your time wisely

If you’re still serving or if you’re still on your resettlement leave, then you are in an incredibly strong position to prepare for civilian employment. Don’t be afraid to send speculative emails to people in the industry you think you might want to work in. Use you tools like LinkedIn and search for contacts online and don’t be worried about approaching senior industry figures. Tell them you’re interested in what they do, and you’d like to have a coffee and chat sometime. Trust me you’re a lot more likely to get a good reaction now whilst you’re an exciting member of the Armed Forces, than in a few years when you’ll just be another email asking for a job. You’re in a great position so use it!

Whilst the Queen’s still paying your wages should also go out and gather as much experience as you can and offer your services for free. Use your leave wisely, ask to go and shadow or spend a couple of days doing work experience in your desired post military employment. This will not only give you the chance to check whether your chosen future is for you or not, it will also provide you with invaluable on the job networking. Getting your name known in your desired industry is so important. Not only will you make great contacts but also when applying for jobs your CV will hopefully stand out as “that bloke who came in last week – he’s new to the industry, but hey I liked him.” Also remember the support you have whilst still serving, the military will pay for your accommodation during any work experience, the money’s there…so use it!

Be prepared

Whilst in the military the “no bluff too tough” is an extremely well known mantra, but it simply won’t wash when entering the civilian world. Whilst your charm and wit might have got you into your desired Regiment, I’m sad to say I doubt it will get you your dream job in civvy street (although it will helRANglian_AOSB_250p!) Always over prepare for any meeting, if someone offers you a casual chat over a coffee, don’t treat it as that. Prepare as if it’s a formal interview. Think about what you want to get out of the meeting, and be ready to answer such questions as; What package are you on/want, salary expectations, pension plans? All of which in the military we are all rather guilty of taking for granted.

If you have the time then why not try and get yourself a mock interview arranged? Apply for as many jobs as you can and if you get offered an interview (even for a job you don’t want) go along, use it as rehearsal. If like me until leaving the Army, the only interview I’d every had involved wearing a numbered bib and lots of barrels and planks of wood. Thankfully those days are now over so you need to make sure you’re ready!

Don’t be too modest

“If you don’t back yourself then no one else will.” Make sure you maximise the skills you’ve learnt and sell yourself to any potential employer. In the military we’re awful at being too modest and playing ourselves down. If you stepped up to command you’re Company as a Captain or command your Regiment as a Major, even for a short time (perhaps on just one exercise) make sure you put this on your CV. Don’t worry about the fact it was only for a brief spell, you did it, so sell it! Make no mistake those competing for any job will certainly not be sending in a modest CV. The challenge of course is always civilianising your experience, making sure those military skills are transferred into civvy-speak. Also remember your CV is an ever changing document always, always, always alter your CV/Covering Letter for every job you apply for. A generic JamesBanksCV2012.doc sent for a job in 2014 won’t impress!!!

And finally…Think carefully about your ambitions and know what you want to achieve. Think about that commonly asked question…”Where do you want to be in 5 years?” Also don’t forget your military colleagues, they are incredibly useful network and great for offering for support when the civvies in your office are driving you mad!

3 PARA – ‘Airborne in Africa’ is finally on your screens!

Well it’s finally gone to air, our documentary following the men of A Company, 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment in Kenya is now being shown on Forces TV. You can watch the channel of Sky 299, Virgin 244 and Freesat 652. If you missed any of the four episodes then go to the Forces TV website to catch up with them online.

Lee Rigby Memorial update.

Latest statement from Department for Communities and Local Government.

A Government spokesman said:

“Britain has a long tradition of memorials to pay respect to the fallen through public subscription, including memorials to mark acts of IRA terrorism on the British mainland.

“Provided such a memorial has the support of Drummer Lee Rigby’s family , the Government is happy to endorse a proposal for an appropriate memorial, such as a memorial plaque, in Woolwich.

“Calls for a memorial have already attracted broad support from the public. We disagree with those who have suggested that a public memorial would encourage extremism. Instead, extremism in all its forms should be challenged and we should not cave in and abandon long-standing British traditions.”

3 PARA – Airborne in Africa

3 PARA web

At the end of October 2013 myself and my colleague Charlotte Cross flew to Kenya to join 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment as they began one of the British Army’s toughest exercises. Over the next 6 weeks we would live amongst the Paras of A Company, filming every aspect of there lives.

Our home!

Our mission was to produce a 4 part documentary for BFBS on what it takes to be a Para, hopefully revealing what its like to be a soldier in one of the Army’s most elite units.

Interview using Canon 60DFilming on Sony HDR-AX2000’s and CANON DSLR we filmed the soldiers as they trained and bonded as a unit. I’d arrived with a preconception that majority of the lads would be hardened veterans of Afghanistan, but that simply wasn’t the case. Over half of A Company were more or less straight out of basic training. This was a new generation of Paras, a generation who it likely will never travel to Helmand. We watched them develop from fresh faced, recently qualified recruits into established members of a Battalion.

During our time in Kenya, we would from time to time (when a break in the training allowed) send back news reports for Forces News on the progress. Focussing on the main events of the exercise, these reports can be seen below.

This was the first time that either of us had filmed a documentary, and the learning curve was immense (something we’re only truly starting to grasp now we’re in the edit). Returning in early December we set about logging almost forty hours of rushes in preparation for entering the edit suite at the start of 2014.

Progress at the moment is slow but steady, we’ve almost finished three episodes (rough cut) and we think it seems to make sense. As of yet we’re not sure when the series will go to air but it looks like it will tie in with the launch of BFBS’s new channel which is scheduled to be launched around Easter.

How did the Taliban get close enough to Camp Bastion to mount an attack on Prince Harry?

An investigation is now underway to establish how almost twenty insurgents mounted an attack on the UK’s biggest military base in Helmand Province. Camp Bastion which has been the home to thousands of British Troops since 2006, had up until now been as its name suggests a bastion or stronghold for coalition troops.

When it was first occupied it was a small tented settlement surrounded by miles and miles of the Afghan Dasht-e (desert). This meant it was isolated and separated from the Afghan people and most importantly the insurgents, but over the years its size has grown and grown. Driving south from Highway One (Afghanistan’s one and only main road) visitors are now greeted by a vast sprawling city which is home to thousands of multinational troops (not to mention a Pizza Hut, a KFC and dozens of coffee shops). Where there was just one camp, there is are now Camp Bastion zero, one, two and three as well as Camp Leatherneck (U.S) and Camp Shorabak (ANA).

But how could a group of insurgents get close enough to mount an attack on this huge military garrison in the sand? Whilst its size makes it a daunting target it also makes it harder to defend, and where it was once surrounded by nothing but sand and rock, its wire fences and guard towers have now migrated out further towards the Afghan people. The base has also attracted groups of Afghans to move and live on its boundaries, to benefit from the security and the trade of living under the watch of its menacing guard towers. But this means that it is now normal to see people moving around its perimeter, allowing any potential attacker to get closer to the base by using the newly built settlements as cover.

This however isn’t the first time that there has been a security breach at Camp Bastion this year. In March a locally employed civilian (LEC) protested over the burning of copies of the Koran at Bagram Airbase. He drove around the camp allegedly attempting to run over members of the Armed Forces before attempting to drive his car onto the runway. It was there he was stopped, however not before he could set himself on fire.

The report below shows how the size of Camp Bastion has meant that its security is more challenging now than it has ever been, it was filmed in March 2012 on the same day as the security breach mentioned above
whilst I was working for British Forces News.

31st August 2009

Be careful what you wish for is a phrase that I’ve muttered many times over the last five months and I stand by it now more than ever. We’d had a quiet couple of weeks because of the elections, but our last operation saw us once again on the front. On 30th August A Company flew to FOB WAHID to begin Operation TOR KAT.  The plan was to support the Welsh Guards in the removal of several crossing points along the Shamalan Canal. The canal is the stretch of water that separates the CAT Triangle (northern Nad-e-Ali and a Taliban hotspot) from the area of Babaji. British Military Forces deployed in Afghanistan - Photograph James BanksThe basic scheme of manoeuvre was that we would patrol to the west of the canal into the CAT before taking up a blocking role to the west of crossing point 7 allowing the Royal Engineers to deny the crossing to the enemy.  Sounds simple enough, but to the west of the canal was a Taliban strong hold and the guys on the crossing points had been taking fire from the area on a daily basis.  We now needed to get in there, disrupt the enemy and give the Engineers enough space and protection to take down one of the crossings. But before all that we had our final orders and rested up in FOB WAHID.  We even had time for a quick swim in the canal than ran along the northern edge of the FOB.  Then just before we due to step off  Cpl Jamie Steele (one of my Mortar Fire Controllers) was involved in what can only be called an extremely bizarre accident! Steely was resting under the shade of a HESCO wall (the large protective walls that surround many of the FOBs) when a helmet that was resting on top was blown off by a sudden gust.  It landed smack bang on his face and broke his nose!  So even before we had stepped out of the FOB we had our first casualty (albeit not a particular glamorous one!) I took the decision that Cpl Steele and his broken nose had to stay behind.  Lucikily Sgt Gus Millar (my senior Mortar Fire Controller) was always eager to get forward and always volunteering for more action.  So I decided to push him forward with 1 Platoon (to take Steely’s place) rather than his usual spot in the Company Tac with me. Whilst Cpl Steele was not happy with the decision, it was the sensible and right decision to make. Although this bizarre twist of fate would prove to be more significant than I could have imagined as the events of the next twenty-four hours unfolded. At 0100 on the 31st we set off 1Plt, 3Plt Tac and 2 Plt. The plan was for 2Lt David Parsons and 1 Platoon to lead us down in a company snake and then take up a position of over watch in numbered compound 20 before 3 and 2 platoons formed a block. 1 Platoon would then become the reserve.

Danny Venter, Gus Millar (KIA 31/08/09), Willie Ewens, James Banks, Craig Hopson (KIA 25/07/09), Ross McBride, Jamie Steele

Danny Venter, Gus Millar (KIA 31/08/09), Willie Ewens, James Banks, Craig Hopson (KIA 25/07/09), Ross McBride, Jamie Steele

The insertion tab went without too many dramas although the constant climbing in and out of drainage ditches and wading through flooded maize fields did wear a little thin. The threat of IEDs and booby-trapped compounds was extremely high as we were pushing into the area that had previously been used by the insurgents to engage the crossing point of the canal. As we approached the objective our progressed slowed as the Valons (metal detectors) took over. 1 Platoon pushed into compound 20 and 3 Platoon to the South. Tac took up position to the East of the objective. Whilst it was a good position for balance of the company our arcs were poor and we immediately realised that we would have to relocate. During our tab into the area the enemy activity had been limited, but by 0700 the intelligence was suggesting that it was beginning to ramp up. We then received intelligence suggesting that an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) attack was imminent. This was shortly followed by the sound of 3 RPGs followed by bursts of small arms fire. During our tour in Afghanistan we have had many RPGs fired at us with little effect and so therefore we had little cause for concern. At this time I was sat on a rooftop with my FAC (Forward Air Controller) Sgt Ross McBride and the A Company Commander Major Matt Munro. I shouted down to LBdr “Taff” Price (my second in command) to get hold of Gus on the radio and instruct him to try and call mortars in on the firing points, but he got no reply. This immediately struck me as unusual, Gus was usually the first man on the net when we were in a contact, but this time he was silent. There seemed to be little information coming from his compound and I was getting limited information over my personal radio. After five minutes of trying to get a grid reference of the firing points I saw the Doc (Capt Will Charlton) putting on his Bergen, I then heard that 1 Platoon had taken a direct hit from one of the RPGs and that they had taken multiple casualties. Suddenly I realised why Gus wasn’t on the radio. The Doc and his force protection crashed out of the compound and towards the incident. After much frustration I got a firing point grid reference and bring in mortars (I couldn’t see the target so had to rely on information relayed to me over the radio, a risk I had to take). I was then allocated two Apache Attack Helicopters and as they came into the overhead I was told that we had 2 x KIA, 2 x CAT C and 1 x CAT B casualties. My worst fears were then confirmed when I heard Gus’ ZAP number over the radio as one of those that had been killed. The other was Private Kev Elliot.

Sgt Gus Miller

Sgt Gus Millar

Gus and the others had been on the roof of compound 20 when the RPG (fired from approx 250m West) had impacted on the roof. A one in a million shot it had been fired directly over the compound and dipped at the last second impacting on the roof . Gus and Kev Elliot had taken the majority of the blast with David Parsons standing in between them, he amazingly survived without a scratch. Sgt Eddie Nichol had also been seriously injured but would survive. Gus had sustained a large injury to the back of his neck. I was told that the medics did get to Gus before he died, but it was too late and his injuries were too severe.  By all accounts when the medics approached him they couldn’t see the main injury and reassured him that he’d be ok.  But Gus knew his fate was sealed.  He knew he couldn’t be saved and that he was bleeding out, he instructed them to leave him and help the others who had been injured.  Only then did the medics notice the blood.  His final words showed the true measure of this man they were words of immense courage, bravery and selflessness.  An extraordinary act, by an extraordinary man. I broke the news to Ross on the roof of our compound. Taff and Gunner Danny Venter had by this point figured out Gus’ fate but the final member of my team LBdr Willie Ewens was deployed forward with 3 platoon and had to be told by their platoon commander. The surviving casualties and the bodies of Gus and Kev were brought into our compound.  Their bodies on stretchers covered in ponchos.  I’ll always remember staring at Gus’ boots sticking out from under that desert coloured poncho.  He had bought them just before the tour and was always been banging on about how good they were (to be honest I never really like them) and now the sight of them dangling off the edge of a stretcher would be my last memory of this heroic man. It was a surreal morning and I didn’t expect to lose another member of my team and certainly not to an RPG. As the Blackhawks took Gus and Kev’s bodies away we were able to use imagery from a Hermes 450 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to locate and kill 2 x insurgents close to the firing point, hopefully the RPG team that killed Gus. After the MERT and the PEDRO helicopter callsigns had extracted the casualties we moved forward to gain a better position of over watch. At our new position with 2 Platoon I had clear arcs to the West in the direction of the earlier firing points. The following day it soon became clear that there had been a change of plan and we were to withdraw back to the crossing point and move back to Wahid in a vehicle move. As we began to formulate our plan we were engaged from the west from a series of firing points. GPMG gunners and the Javelin team identified and engaged the targets approximately 300 m away and intelligence suggested that they were grouping together to prepare for an attack on our position. It also became apparent that they knew that we were preparing to withdraw. I called in mortars and adjusted them onto a likely enemy forming up point. Major Munro by this point had pushed back towards the crossing leaving a section of 2 Platoon and my Fire Support Team as the forward line of friendly troops. I remember feeling quite isolated, we were expecting the Taliban to assault our compound at any minute so I received a message over the radio from Major Munro that it was to be a “robust withdrawal” I was pretty relieved. I called in 5 minutes of mortar fire and began to move. We hurriedly scrambled out of the compound conscious that we were the last to withdraw and it was clear the enemy were keen to get on our tails.  It was perhaps the only time during the tour that I had wanted revenge on the enemy and I made sure the weight of mortar fire was heavy…I wanted to give them a bloody nose. I increased the rate of the mortar fire to cover our withdrawal and the last mortars were falling as we approached to the Mastiff vehicles that would take us back to the relative safety of FOB WAHID. The Battle Damage Assessment and Intelligence we received when we returned to the FOB suggested that my mortar fire had been accurate and the Taliban in the area had suffered significant casualties.  Listening to the enemy radio chat, we’d heard that the local women had been told to go into the fields and collect the bodies of the fighters that had been killed by the mortar fire.  It wouldn’t bring back Gus or Kev of course, but it felt like we had won the battle.  I walked over to the Mortar line inside the FOB and spoke to the guys about what had happened.  As a Mortar Fire Controller, Gus was extremely close to the guys on the mortar line and the news hit them hard.  But knowing that their mortars has inflicted significant damage on the enemy that day and perhaps even killed the team the RPG I know gave them some comfort.

James Banks

Operational smoker!

That evening we were extracted back to Kandahar by Chinook support helicopters. As a parting gift the Welsh Guards presented Major Munro with a box of cigars in way of a thank you for the support we had given them and losses we had suffered. Outside the Black Watch accommodation the following day I sat with Major Munro and almost became a casualty myself following the smoking of the gifted cigars. Whilst I had taken up “operational smoking” on the tour, I was clearly not ready to take on Cuba’s finest. Operation TOR KAT and the cigars that turned me green are mentioned in Toby Harnden’s book Dead Men Risen (P474).

Boris Johnson thanks the Armed Forces and talks of the legacy of London 2012

Lord Coe thanks the Armed Forces for their role at the Olympics

The Olympic Torch reaches Blackpool