Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sergeant Duane Edwards: you grow up fast fighting a war

Sergeant Duane Edwards was one of the first British troops to enter Iraq, and will be among the last to leave. Since arriving on the first day of the invasion in March 2003 he has been wounded during a riot in Basra, lost a good friend in a mortar attack and spent seven months under a terrifying barrage of enemy fire. But he still believes that the six-year campaign was worthwhile and is proud to have served his country.

Taking part in a war “makes you grow up a lot”, he said at the main British military camp next to Basra airport. “You can’t be immature about it, you can’t act silly, you have got to do your job. It doesn’t put years on you age-wise but it puts years on you in maturity.”

Sergeant Edwards, 27, from Shropshire, joined the Army aged 16 because he was “bored of Civvy Street”. He has lived through the evolution of the war from invasion, to initial calm, to insurgency and finally to a sense of stability.

His most dramatic moment was in May 2006 when he was based with a company of about 110 soldiers in a barricaded compound in the centre of Basra known as the Old State Building. A Lynx helicopter crashed a few hundred yards away, brought down by a surface-to-air-missile. All five British military personnel on board were killed and an angry crowd had begun to swarm around the flaming craft.

“It was a mess, to be honest” said Sergeant Edwards, who was dispatched to the scene in a Warrior armoured vehicle to help to retrieve the bodies.

The helicopter “landed on top of a civvy house. There were around about 1,000 locals . . . It got quite manic in the end. They were throwing stuff at us, firing in the air, RPGs on the street,” he said.

When they finally got back to base, 15 mortar shells crashed all around. At one point, he and his sergeant major were talking outside the cookhouse door.

“We walked back in and five seconds later a mortar landed right where we had been standing. The sergeant major got shrapnel in his leg and I got a little bit just here,” he said, pointing to his right ear.

The injured men were driven to a larger base with better medical facilities. However, “as soon as we left our camp they (the insurgents) started again. We had RPGs going over the vehicle so it was quite interesting.”

The invasion three years earlier had been a completely different experience. Sergeant Edwards, then 20 years old, remembers the nerves he felt sitting in his Warrior at the border between Kuwait and Iraq, awaiting the command to move forward. “We did not know what to expect. We did not know what Saddam Hussein had for us: will it be chemicals, will it be other things? We just hoped for the best and thankfully it was not as bad as it could have been.”

After two months, with Iraq under coalition control, the soldier and his unit were sent back to their base, Alanbrook Barracks in Paderborn, Germany, with instructions to prepare for another, six-month tour in November.

Southern Iraq, where the British military is based, was peaceful by that time, with soldiers patrolling in soft hats and without body armour. But he and his colleagues saw the tide beginning to turn as Iraqis grew impatient with the slow rate of reconstruction and the lack of jobs.

One day a riot broke out in the centre of Basra as about 2,000 unemployed men protested in the street. Sergeant Edwards was among 200 British soldiers trying to secure the area when an explosion, probably caused by a grenade, took 16 of them out. He was wounded by shrapnel in one of his legs.

“You do not feel the pain straight away because the adrenaline kicks in,” he said. He was taken to a hospital at the airport base for three weeks then flown home.

The first that his family heard of his injury was when his mother, Jackie, opened the door of their home on a council estate in Shrewsbury to find uniformed officers on her doorstep. Immediately she feared the worst. “My daughter saw them and just started crying,” she recalled. “It’s an awful moment.”

She had supported her son’s decision to join the Army, seeing it as an escape from the poor opportunities available at home. But she could not have foreseen what would happen.

“I never thought when he first went he’d be going back so many times,” Mrs Edwards said. “Every time you see on the TV that a soldier has been killed in Iraq, it’s just horrible. I really feel for every family who sees that on the TV, because you always think, is it him?”

Sergeant Edwards’s third tour to Iraq, May to November 2006, was the most violent of all. By that time, the Iranian-backed insurgency was in full swing. His base in the Old State Building was an easy target, with structures all around from which snipers could shoot. Mortar attacks were a near-daily occurrence.

“Whoever says it isn’t quite scary is lying because as soon as you hear those big bangs and you know it could kill you,” he said.

is close friend, Corporal Matthew Cornish, was killed after being caught outside during an early morning mortar attack.

“It affects you quite a lot,” Sergeant Edwards said about the death. “He had a wife and kids. I had known him since the day I joined the Army.”

Corporal Cornish was 29. His widow, Abby, had to tell her toddler son, Ethan, that his father was not coming home. “Daddy’s gone to Heaven,” she told him. “At night time when it’s dark you will be able to see him. Daddy will be the brightest star in the sky.”

Sergeant Edwards, however, believes that the sacrifices are worthwhile. Returning to Iraq for his fourth and final tour as part of A Company, 5th Battalion The Rifles, in December, he was struck by the improvement in security. He has been helping to secure the airport base, rather than patrolling the city. “It is a lot quieter,” he said. “There are not as many things happening that are bad . . . So I think progress has been made.”

The Iraq deployments forced him to grow up fast and forge lifelong bonds with fellow soldiers, some of whom are now his closest friends. Back home, his mother says, his old school friends treat him as something of a hero. But each time he returns he has less and less in common with them. “He doesn’t say a lot, he keeps it to himself,” his mother said. “If I say anything, he says, ‘Mum, you don’t understand’.”

The family are already planning for his return by mid-summer. They will gather together on a Saturday night and go out on the town for a meal.

“The first time after the 2003 war, when they came back, everyone put flags out,”Mrs Edwards said. It has not happened since and she does not expect it this time, as the Iraq War winds down quietly.

Her son is a hero — of that she has no doubt. “He’s done so well,” she said with pride. She has nothing but scorn for the Muslim protesters who disrupted a recent army homecoming in Luton, but that does not change her firm views on the war. “I think it was a waste of time,” she said. “I don’t think they should be in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s nothing to do with us, is it?”

Nonetheless, Sergeant Edwards is bound for Afghanistan next. “It is part of the job,” he said. “We have got to go out there.”

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