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'Resilient' soldiers reflect on Afghanistan deaths

Young soldiers preparing to be deployed to Afghanistan have been reflecting on the deaths of six comrades on Tuesday - but insist they want to get on with the job.

On an overcast Salisbury Plain, the men and women of 12th Mechanized Brigade are taking part in their final pre-deployment exercise.

It is the last chance to train together before the rest of the brigade leaves for Helmand.

But the death of six of their comrades this week has cast a long shadow. It also makes the parting from their families for the next six months that much harder.

"It's been a tough week," admitted one commander.

"But the men are remarkably resilient. Now they just want to go and get on with the job now."

Private grief

The young soldiers from the 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment were putting on a brave face as they spoke to Defence Secretary Philip Hammond and the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, who visited the brigade on Friday and spoke to many of them in private.

Five of the six men who died when their Warrior armoured vehicle was caught in an explosion served with the same regiment.

Some of those training were friends of the men who died, and their grieving will be done behind closed doors. But nobody denies their comrades' deaths have had an impact as they prepare to leave for Helmand.

Private Craig Taylor is 21 and will leave behind his girlfriend and his newborn son.

"Obviously my family are going to be scared for me, especially with the casualties we've had - they're always going to be scared," he said.

"And I've got a newborn son, but I signed up for this job and you've got to do it."

He says they're keen to get going, after months of training.

"I deployed to Helmand before as a battlefield casualty replacement, and it will be nice to get back and see if there's been a change."

Keep safe

Those here are keen to reassure their families they are well prepared. Lt Rob Townsend, 28, is also from the 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment.

"I haven't had a chance to speak to my family yet because I've been on exercise," he said.

"But I know my mum is proud of what I do, and I want to do, I want to reassure her we've had all the training for the past nine months and are making sure we're fully focused and able to do the job - and keep ourselves safe out there."

He admits he and the others feel slightly apprehensive, but insists that is no bad thing: It should make them doubly aware of ensuring their 'skills and drills' are as good as they can be.

All are well aware of the dangers that lie ahead, few more so than the medical emergency response team or MERT for short, also in training here.

The presence of these flying medics in an RAF Chinook provides reassurance to the troops that even if they are injured in Helmand, rapid help should be at hand.

Sgt Andy Thomas is one of the RAF paramedics working in the back of the Chinook.

He says: "I think [having the MERT] has a massive impact on morale.

"The troops know on the ground that when the MERT comes to get them, we will make them pain-free very quickly on their way to the field hospital, and then get them back to their families."

'Very humbling'

Mr Hammond came here in person together with General Richards - an indication, perhaps, of a wish to reassure the public that the sacrifices made in Helmand have been worth it.

Image caption Defence Secretary Philip Hammond spoke with military personnel

General Richards said he was humbled by the troops he had met, and defended the Army's equipment following the lethal attack carried out by the Taliban.

"I've just been with the battalion and the commanding officer, and there is no doubt in their mind that they are doing something that is really worthwhile and they want to do it properly," he told journalists.

"It's very humbling, I have to say, listening and talking to them. You'd expect them, as they are, to be thinking pretty seriously about what they are about to confront. But there is absolutely no loss of resolve or determination, and I'm just feeling rather lucky that I have such people under my command."

The incoming Commander of Task Force Helmand, Brigadier Doug Chalmers, echoed those comments, as he prepares to take his brigade to Helmand on the deployment known by the military as Herrick 16.

"Having been out to Afghanistan before, and having seen the Afghan forces slowly gaining strength, I believe that our mission is progressing in the right direction - and the sacrifices made have delivered changes in the security environment there," he said.

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