'Bombs, bullets and handshakes' in Afghanistan

As we boarded the flight to Kandahar, all eyes were glued to the television. The newsreader was talking about another British soldier killed in Afghanistan.

On the plane, the first thing you see is a section filled with empty stretchers. It is reserved for injured soldiers on the flight home.

I am on my way to Helmand Province to meet troops from the East Midlands. Soldiers fighting a war that has claimed well over 300 British lives.

But they are also trying to win a battle for local people's hearts and minds. And they are being greeted by a combination of bombs, bullets and handshakes.

We are not the only civilians. There is a group of performers going out to entertain the troops. But most passengers are servicemen returning from leave, or "R and R".

There is banter. Some watch DVDs on laptops, or play computer games. This is how you commute to war.

Image caption Some troops say they have been surprised by the warm reception from locals

At the end of the flight, our plane is plunged into darkness. You put on a helmet and body armour, and everyone goes quiet.

The plane weaves and dives to avoid being shot down. As we land, the soldier sitting next me breaks the silence, with the words, "I want to go home".

Outside, Kandahar air base looks as though it is shrouded in thick fog. It is the aftermath of a vicious dust storm. And it has grounded our connecting flight to Helmand Province.

This is where Cpl Phil Ackrel is based. Cpl Ackrel is from Newark. He is an armourer who prepares weapons on the RAF Tornados - jets which are called in to protect troops on the ground. Cpl Ackrel is working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. It is "work, gym, bed, work" for three months.

And across the base, I meet two flight nurses from RAF Wittering near Stamford. Emily Davis and Sophia Aschettino are working with soldiers who have been shot, or wounded in explosions.

Emily Davis says it is a rewarding job: "These troops are on the front line. They're fighting for us. They just need that reassurance, that support from us."

All around this base, there are huge concrete blast walls and notices explaining how to take cover when rockets are fired inside. American soldiers carry their rifles to breakfast, and even on the backs of bicycles. There is a shop selling digital cameras and novelty mugs - and the incongruous sight of armed US troops queuing up for ice cream and KFC.

Eventually when we make it to Camp Bastion 100 miles away, there is a different feel. The main British base in Helmand Province is much more austere. This is staging post for soldiers on the front line. A mass of low-rise tents and military trucks in the middle of the desert.

This is where Sgt Leon Reeve is based. He is from Calverton in Nottinghamshire. Sgt Reeve is part of the elite "Brigade Reconnaissance Force".

It is a team of more than 100 soldiers who move behind enemy lines, taking on the Taliban on their home turf.

Sometimes they are dropped out of helicopters at night. "You're wondering what's going to be out there as that ramp goes down", Sgt Reeve says.

"Are you going to be shot at? Will there be IEDs there?. We don't fight like normal troops, we chase them down. It's pretty much fixed bayonets, a couple of grenades in, and kill the Taliban."

He shows me a scar on his arm where his watch was shot off - "a bit of a war wound to tell the grandkids". Five of his comrades have had bullets fired through their helmets. And one of his close friends was killed when he stepped on an improvised bomb.

"That was hard to take, but you move on", said Sgt Reeve. "I'll probably do my grieving when I get home… go and see his grave and pay my respects."

He admits it is terrifying, "the world's scariest fair ride". But combat is what these soldiers enjoy. "You're waiting for the Taliban to come out and play, to take pot shots at you. It's a good buzz."

The ground troops are being protected by Apache attack helicopters. They can fire 10 rounds of high explosive every second.

Cpl Mark Bone and L/Cpl Max Waddingham prepare the ammunition and fuel. "The insurgents really don't like it [the Apache]", Cpl Bone told me. "The sight of it makes them pack their bags".

L/Cpl Waddingham says it is not uncommon to see infantry soldiers wearing "thanks for Apache" T-shirts.

Image caption The Apache helicopter is a major asset in the fight against the Taliban

Cpl Bone painted a mural on one of the blast walls at the helicopter landing strip, listing the names of everyone who has served here with 664 Squadron.

I asked them about the differences between life in Afghanistan, and back in Nottingham. "There's less gunfire over here", L/Cpl Waddingham jokes. Cpl Bone adds, "and less beer… and less women."

It is especially tough for the soldiers who have young children at home. Staff Sgt Tony Round is from the Queen's Royal Lancers. He has been living away from his family near Nottingham for five months.

"I've missed out on so much", he said. "They're doing things that I want to be doing with them, and it's absolutely destroyed me".

L/Cpl Robert Britton is one of two soldiers from Mansfield who showed me photos of their babies. He still has not met his newborn son.

And Pte Aaron Prudence was deployed here only two weeks after his daughter's birth.

Now she is almost six months old. "It's really quite upsetting", Pte Prudence said. "It's harder when you get time to yourself and you have time to think. That's when it all catches up with you."

In one of Camp Bastion's two churches, I met Father Darren Brown. He is a priest from the Nottingham diocese, who is working as a padre. Father Brown is helping soldiers whose comrades have been killed.

"Soldiers are always crying for their mates and they're distressed. We're asked to go out to [front-line] bases to do memorial services for their mate. And we simply say a few prayers. We have minute's silence, and give them some kind of bereavement counselling".

On one visit, Father Brown heard an IED explode. He said: "We've been in helicopters. They've had to turn away because there's a battle in progress. All sorts of things".

So why are soldiers from the East Midlands risking their lives here? And what are they achieving?

The politicians say they are protecting us from terrorism back home, by stopping the Taliban re-taking control. That is because Al-Qaeda was allowed to run terrorist training camps, when the Taliban was in charge.

And soldiers are training Afghan security forces to do the job themselves to pave the way for British troops to leave Afghanistan.

Hearts and minds

Military chiefs know that strategy will not work unless the local population is onside. So now the main focus is on "winning hearts and minds" - persuading people they are better off - and safer - without the Taliban in charge, and avoiding civilian casualties.

Leon Reeve told me he had been surprised by the warm reception he had received. "I thought they'd all be against us. They're not. Some of them are really nice. They're welcoming. It's just the odd bad person that's dotted about," he said.

Some soldiers told me how local people offered them drinks and bread during patrols. I heard one story about a man who came to tell them where IEDs were planted so he could take his daughter to school.

But others said their patrols were being pelted with rocks and stones. And Taliban fighters can simply melt into the local community. So it is hard to tell who is really friend or foe.

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