Corporal Mick McConnell Experience AES AFGHANISTAN

Mick-McConnell-Experience-AES-AFGHANISTAN

As you read this I am beginning a long period of rehabilitation at DMRC Headley Court. Not where I expected to be after I was informed in May 10 that after years of pestering the Provost Marshalls Dog Inspectorate (PMDI’s) for an operational Arms Explosive Search (AES) tour, I had been given my chance to deploy to Op Herrick as an AES handler.

After completion of a very informative and eye opening Pre Deployment Training with the RAF Regiment at RAF Wittering, I had hoped for a quick 3 week re-team then off to Afghanistan. However as the increased need for search dogs was highlighted throughout Task Force Helmand, the RAF Police decided to step up and take on the challenges of supporting our frontline troops, directly. Changes to how we deployed and trained before arriving in theatre had to be made to ready us for such an important task.

No quick re-team for any dog handler going on Op HERRICK 14, or any future detachments for that matter; the decision was made to embed all RAF dog handlers with their Royal Army Veterinary Corps (RAVC) counter parts going on the same tour. This would remove the system where individual augmentees arrive half way into a detachment, not knowing anyone or anything about how that Sqn operated. More importantly it gave us the time to train with the men and women we would be deploying into theatre with. Any issues or problems could be ironed out while the Army ‘put us through our paces’ around Sennelager.

The AES and Vehicle Search (VS) handlers arrived in Sennelager early in November 2010 to start their training with 103 Military Working Dog Squadron. We were given one day to settle in, then training began in earnest. I won’t go into the finer details of producing a search dog capable of going to Afghanistan. The shock to the system came from the amount of Physical Training that we had to take. This wasn’t a ‘let’s go for a gentle jog round the airfield’, it was ‘let’s sprint in boots until you are sick or near collapse’! It was a rude awakening to most of the RAF handlers. Personally I found it very difficult to keep up with the pace. We persevered and it became easier in time with all of our handlers completing RAF and Army Personal Fitness Tests (PFTs). The Combat Fitness Test was a little more difficult as we were not used to tabbing in boots with a fighting load on our backs and carrying rifles. This took a lot of getting used to and supreme effort from all our men and women to pass with flying colours. Not one of the RAF handlers dropped out, however it wasn’t a hundred percent pass for everyone, enough said. I didn’t realize it at the time but I would be extremely grateful to the PTI’s for pushing me and getting me prepared for the rigors of tabbing across Helmand.

December saw us deploying to Jordan to take part in a Mission Rehearsal Exercise alongside the Royal Engineer Search Teams. There was enough scope and time throughout the 3 weeks in the Jordanian desert to get us all involved. We even managed a trip to the ancient city of Petra one of the Seven Wonders of the World. This was a great experience although it was mainly due to the fact that the camp had mostly blown away during a horrendous sand storm!

On 6 March 2011, RAF Police dog handlers and handlers from 103 Squadron, arrived in Camp Bastion and became the Theatre Military Working Dog Support Unit. We would be there for the next 6 months 21 days (not everyone would do that though!) providing dog teams throughout Task Force Helmand’s areas of operation. All disciplines of dog teams would deploy forward with the infantry and Royal Marines.

All handlers completed a 7 day arrival package, as all teams would be based forward at some point during the tour. I licensed with my search dog Memphis at 1700hrs on the 24 March. At 2100 hrs we were on a Royal Naval Sea King heading for Patrol Base (PB) 2 and then onwards to Check Point (CP) Shaparak. I had been instructed to pack for a month and would be attached to 2 Parachute Regiment for the duration. Welcome to Helmand!

Patrolling from PB 2 down to CP Shaparak was a nerve racking experience. This was the first time I had been outside the safety of Bastion and was walking very lightly indeed! As this was my first operation I had packed far too much kit! (Real understatement) I was thankful of the trailer the Parachute Regiment had brought up. This patrol was about 3km and stopped at CP Perka before heading off to my new home for the next 3 weeks. This was probably my easiest tab of the tour as it was all on paths as the route had complete over watch. After this it was always cross country and through rivers, ditches, ploughed fields and worst of all flooded fields which made it hard going. The best part of all this is that between rations and tabbing I dropped about 1.5 stone in 3 weeks! The Osprey diet really does work.

Check Point living is very basic. What you carry in is what you have to live on. It is explained to you like this: you eat from a bag, sleep in a bag, wash from and well you can imagine the rest! The new rations are actually very good with some good curries and plenty of fruit, however I did miss the oatmeal biscuit and let’s not forget biscuit brown.

Shaparak is a run down compound and from this location we conducted daily patrols. The intent was to dominate the ground and prevent insurgents from having freedom of movement. More importantly our mission was to reassure the locals that they are safe and that International Security Assistance Force was there to stay and ensure their security thus improving their way of life.

Once in from patrol it would be; dog watered and fed, then rifle cleaning, kit admin, wash and finally feed yourself. Routine in a CP would often be very relaxed and the only duty would be stagging on. Usually, being a RAF ‘bod’, I ended up on radio watch as I apparently missed the lessons on General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG), Mini Mi, Light Anti-Structure Machine Gun (LASM) and Javelins. A Sanger in the green zone normally had a variation of this selection of weapons as you never knew when an attack would happen. The threat was never far away.

On some occasions we would mount a helicopter assault or HAF from the CP. This was pretty exhilarating! Chinooks or Merlins would pick us up and land us at the compound of interest at first light. ‘Flying like they stole it’ would spring to mind on the approach to the target. Once the cordon was in place my role was to search up to the compound. After the infantry gained entry I would use Memphis to search the interior and rooms. We usually waited for the insurgents to show up and engage us. If engaged on patrol, the return would be with everything from 5.56 to (GPMP) and anything else the patrol had. Often there would be helicopter support or even fast jet and always mortars and artillery. Usually we would use the helicopters back to base but on several occasions we waited until night time and to tab or yomp back (depending if it was the Army or Royal Marines (RM)). Not an easy task crossing fields and ditches using night vision. Harder still with Memphis dragging me around.

During the second half of my detatchment I worked for Lima Company 42 Commando. Initially I patrolled out of CP Lightening before moving south to CP Toki. The Helicpter Landing Site was classed as red which meant the chopper didn’t hang around enough for us to unload the bergans and flew back to Bastion. They did come back and threw all the kit out while in a hover, which didn’t do my iPod and Kindle any good. So no music or reading at Toki.

This check point had just been taken by Lima Coy, 42 Commando, the previous week with the loss of 3 Marines. The atmospherics were to say the least not right and everyone was constantly on edge. I was involved in various contacts while based here, including one where the Apache ran out of ammunition! It really was the frontline, however working with RM you knew they could take the insurgents on and win.

I left Toki for Rest and Relaxation (RnR) and on my return to Bastion I was told that Toki is where I would see out the remainder of my tour. I landed back into Toki on 3 August and carried out an evening patrol, it was good to be out with people who you trusted.

On the morning of the 4 August we departed the CP with 7 troop, heading west to search a compound of interest about 1km away. As the patrol moved up to cross a vulnerable point about 200m from Toki, I initiated an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). I was given immediate first aid by one of the guys who also told me I still had all my limbs and other body parts, thank goodness for tier 1 and 2 protection! The patrol cleared a HLS and I was on a Medical Evacuation Recovery Trip (MERT) within 14 minutes and on my way to hospital in Bastion. I would later find out that the IED only partially detonated, things could have been so much worse.

After an operation in Bastion to reset my dislocated foot, I was moved to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. I was confined to bed for a month, with my foot raised to reduce swelling. During my time there surgeons operated to fix several dislocations and complex fractures to my left foot and ankle. They also removed fragmentation from my right leg and dressed the burns caused by the blast.

It was a long time in hospital however, the constant visitors, well wishers and messages of support from all my colleges helped to see me through. For all of this I cannot thank people enough as it really does mean so much.
I take a lot away from Herrick 14. The main things being the fact that the RAF Police have men and women in a wide variety forward positions, having a direct impact on operations. It shows the other services that as a trade we are agile, adaptable, and capable and person for person we are second to none. We should be proud of the product that we deliver. I have seen first hand how much we are appreciated when working with our fighting troops. It will be difficult in the future to feel the job satisfaction of being an AES handling on operations again. I am just happy to have shown other services what we are capable of.

Mick McConnell