Tuesday, March 3, 2009
By JOHN ROSS
SHORTLY after noon they emerged from their plane into the sunshine – and a heroes' welcome featuring massed pipes and drams.
The last Scottish unit to serve in Iraq were back on home soil and ready for an emotional reunion with loved ones.
The 150 members of the RAF 51 Squadron and 2622 (Highland) Squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, who have spent the past six
months in Basra, were piped off the plane at RAF Lossiemouth, where a small crowd of families had gathered to witness their return.
Also waiting for them was a welcoming array of whisky supplied by a local distillery.
Group Captain Al Monkman, the base commander, paid tribute to the ground troops who were responsible for security at Basra airport and worked on "hearts and minds" operations, building relationships with the Iraqi people.
He said the troops had completed six months of hard work in 50-degree heat. "It's a selfless role they play looking after the lives of people in the base and, most importantly, getting outside the wire, talking to the locals and explaining to them why we are there and what we can do to help the Iraqis."
He said work in the region was paying off and there had "barely been a shot fired in anger" during the tour and no casualties. "Not only have the attacks on the base down there dwindled, but the local elections have had a kick-start," he said.
"There is now a generation of Iraqis for whom British troops is not a dirty word but a team of friendly people who came and helped their own security and left them in a better place.
"If you compare Iraq in 1990 to Iraq in 2009 it's nothing short of a transformation. These guys have added the last bricks to the wall. To leave a country in such good shape is a natural end to a campaign."
Group Capt Monkman said simple things such as a football match between the troops and an Iraqi village team showed the progress made: "Two or three years ago that would never have happened, and it was proof of the goodwill and the improved security situation."
While it is hoped they will not have to return to Iraq, the troops are already planning a return to Afghanistan next summer.
Group Capt Monkman said deploying to two wars has presented troops with a "challenging operational tempo" over the past few years. "Hopefully now we will get back working in a single theatre," he added.
At yesterday's homecoming there was relief from family as well as troops.
For Senior Aircraftsman Alan Wells, 22, it is only the second time he has seen his son Jake, who was born four months ago during a spell of leave. He and his partner, Amanda Orton, now plan to marry later this month.
He said: "It's great to be back and now I plan to spend as much time with Jake as possible."