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
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 ‘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
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.
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