Wednesday, April 22, 2009

'We've made a big difference'

AS THE conflict in Iraq draws to a close, Plymouth soldiers are counting the days until they will be reunited with their family and friends.

City troops arriving in Basra in 2003 were generally welcomed to the city by locals with open arms, celebrating the imminent downfall of long-standing oppressive president Saddam Hussein.

In the following years, however, many British lives were lost in fierce fighting in the city, as organised insurgent groups such as the Mehdi Army launched a barrage of attacks.

Patrolling soldiers were at best stoned by locals – and at worst forced to engage in frantic firefights. Most of those who have served on four tours speak of missing fallen friends and colleagues.

But the Charge of the Knights operation in March last year, an Iraqi Army-led military operation aimed at rooting out extremists, was a turning point for the country and local lads are now looking forward to leaving Iraq for the final time.

For Whitleigh man Corporal Steven Stringer, the priority is getting back to his five children at his family home near Paderborn, Germany, where his battalion, 5 Rifles, is based.

The 36-year-old has missed numerous birthdays and other milestones since arriving in Basra for his second tour.

"Spending Christmas and New Year away from my family was tough," Cpl Stringer says from the back of a Warrior on the way to a training exercise. "It's been a long old stretch out here and I'm looking forward to getting back."

Rifleman Karl Bennett, from Ivybridge, will be moving into a new house when he touches down on UK soil again in May.

The 23-year-old, a former pupil of Stowford Primary School and St Boniface's Catholic College, is proud at how things have changed in Iraq since he was last there just over two years ago.

"It's improved amazingly," he says. "Compared to what it was like in 2006 it's come on dramatically.

"Things have moved on and it's only getting better. We've done what we came here to do, but I'm looking forward to getting back to Plymouth."

Rfn Bennett is one of dozens of Plymouth soldiers to have lost friends in the war, but he says he's convinced the most important thing is the welfare of the Iraqi people.

"Obviously there have been deaths and without a doubt that's the worst thing for anyone," he reflects.

"The families I feel for still to this day: but, in general, I think the Iraqi public thinks we've done a good job. It's good to see and it's good to leave with a good, positive attitude."

Serjeant Karl Dobson has seen Operation Telic from start to finish.

The 29-year-old, from Saltash, vividly remembers spending two months living off ration packs in the back of a cramped and unbearably hot Warrior armoured vehicle with seven other soldiers during the 2003 invasion.

"I just remember it all being so fast," he recalls.

"When we got here we were greeted with handshakes and open arms – but then Iraq went through its darker periods. They didn't want us here at all.

"There were a few hairy moments: but coming back here you can see the difference that the British have made with regards to the Government, the police, their army – and what a difference six years makes.

"I can confidently stand here and say the police and their army are 100 per cent better than what it was.

"I believe the British have done a good job and it will be good to know that we've started something and we're going to finish it."

Passionate about his job commanding a Warrior, Sjt Dobson is nonetheless looking forward to returning to Saltash to see his mum, dad and brother.

By the time he leaves at the end of May, he will have spent a total of more than two years in Basra.

"I believe we came here for a reason," he adds. "We've done what we came here to do.

"I've seen it from the start, through the bad times, to the end state and it's time to go. We're going home, and I'm happy knowing that."

Young Rifleman Craig Ruff, 19, from the city centre, says he's enjoyed his first tour to Iraq – but is eager to test his skills in Afghanistan.

"At this point, though, I'm really looking forward to going back and seeing my family and friends," he says.

"You train and you want to do what you train for – it's your job – but obviously it's a great thing that the fighting's coming to an end."

Tomorrow: How the Battalion's soldiers have been working with locals in Iraq to help them rebuild their lives.

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