Tim Minns – columnist of the year

The award-winning columnist who knows things better than anyone

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Staff Sergeant Kim Hughes recently told Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth about the need for “more troops on the ground”, as British forces were currently “stretched”. To have a man like Hughes say such a thing should serve as a massive wake-up call to the Prime Minister, who has ignored this issue for far too long. The reason Hughes gave for this was that it would allow the formation of a counter-IED taskforce to train ground troops better. Indeed, I myself know this better than anyone, having written extensively about the shortage of British troops in Afghanistan from as far back as 2006. In fact, in a column I wrote back in April of that year, I actually put forward the idea of forming a taskforce specifically aimed at training ground troops, having identified this need through my time spent working alongside the armed forces.

Knowing Staff Sergeant Hughes as I do, I can honestly say he is a man of great composure and integrity who gets on with the job in hand and never complains, no matter how desperate a situation he is faced with. I know this better than anyone, having had the privilege of being one of the few journalists invited to observe alongside his regiment at the newly-formed Camp Bastion in March 2006. Throughout my time at the camp I saw first-hand the kind of discipline, dedication and bravery that would put the vast majority of British people to shame. Although I was confined to the camp for my own safety, I was still able to witness what these incredible people went through on a daily basis – and I have to say it was a truly humbling experience.

One can only imagine what it must be like to be stranded in an arid desert, miles away from civilisation and battling daily in the face of the constant hostile threat posed by the Taliban. The emotional anguish of being separated from loved ones thousands of miles away coupled with the very real potential of death every day is something which most people would find unthinkable. Indeed, it was initially very difficult for me to come to terms with during my time at the camp. To see Sergeant Hughes’ regiment go about their profession completely unfazed by any of these things was a true honour and something which I will remember for the rest of my life.

The sheer power of the weaponry these troops use on a daily basis is awe-inspiring and towards the end of my stay I was privileged to become the first journalist invited to fire an assault rifle within the boundaries of the camp. For this manoeuvre I was required to wear ear defenders and an old S.W.A.T. helmet, as even this relatively small weapon possessed incredible firepower. I noticed that the “S” on the side of my helmet actually looked more like a “T”, though when I asked Sergeant Hughes about this he told me that a bullet had ricocheted off it causing the “S” to become misshapen, though the helmet was still perfectly safe to wear. He also told me that the soldier who originally wore this protective hat had since died in the course of duty and that no-one could bring themselves to wear it since. He stifled a laugh just after saying this, though he explained that this was an involuntary reaction to grief from which he had suffered since childhood.

I fully understood their reluctance to wear this particular helmet due to its history and I was more than proud to honour their fallen colleague, “Twatty” Tony Watt. I’m just glad my wearing of the helmet seemed to raise everyone’s spirits against the sobering backdrop of such an unrelenting and bloody war. It’s important to keep a sense of humour in such situations and I take my hat off to these guys for being able to find enjoyment in these unforgiving and spirit-crushing circumstances.

The enjoyment was short-lived, however, as the very next day a young soldier no older than my daughter was brought back to the hospital. As I saw her extensive injuries I imagined my own daughter lying on that bed injured and helpless and I became completely overwhelmed. It was damn hot in that tent and the smell was so putrid that I vomited into my hands and narrowly avoided several members of the surgical team as I stumbled towards the door. I’m not ashamed to admit that I sat outside and sobbed throughout the entire procedure, as I myself know better than anyone what it’s like to have a daughter. That experience changed my outlook on life forever and although I didn’t actually see anything they did, the surgical team can be rightly proud of their efforts on the day.

I certainly learned a great deal about myself during my time at Camp Bastion and I feel that I owe much of this to the impressive calibre of everyone I encountered throughout my stay. I am forever in debt to the courage and indomitable spirit of Sergeant Hughes and his comrades and only wish I knew of a way I could fully pay tribute to their wonderful hospitality during such difficult times. Their incredible guts and moral fibre make them a true credit to their country.

I salute you all…

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