Monday, May 4, 2009
As British forces hand over control of Basra to the Americans and begin their phased withdrawal from Iraq, The Sentinel spoke to local soldiers abou ttheir memories of serving in the Middle East.
ASK Tim Sandiford how it felt to be the last commander of the Staffordshire Regiment on an operational tour and the emotion that shines through his every word is pride.
The 46-year-old was a Lieutenant Colonel in charge of the 580 or so members of the 1st Battalion (Staffords) during their second tour of duty in Iraq as part of Operation Telic 9 between October 2006 and the end of April 2007.
Stoke City fan Tim, now a full Colonel and based in Warminster where he is in charge of training for UK troops, looks back on those six months as one of the most exciting periods of his career in the services.
He said: "It was, undoubtedly, a very exciting experience and, looking back, I wouldn't have missed it for the world. I am so very proud to have been part of a team in Iraq during some of its darkest hours.
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"The Staffords were out there while some of the bitterest fighting was taking place, and the way in which our fine young men and women conducted themselves in the face of some extreme provocation never ceased to amaze me.
"They displayed courage, resolve, comradeship and self-restraint which belied their years and, if truth be told, I miss being around them immensely."
During the Staffords' Battle Group's second tour they suffered three fatalities and 51 soldiers were wounded – with 16 suffering what Tim describes as 'life-changing' injuries.
Based in the northern half of Basra city, their job involved assisting and developing the Iraqi security forces – both the Army and police, protecting outside agencies rebuilding the country's shattered infrastructure (Operation Sinbad) and carrying out offensive operations to tackle insurgency. The latter involved rounding up scores of terrorists and taking thousands of illegal weapons and tons of munitions off the streets.
Now that British troops are finally leaving the country, does Tim feel that, overall, the mission has been a success?
"I don't have the knowledge of being on the ground out there, recently," he said. "However, from everything I have seen, heard and read, Basra is definitely a better place than when we arrived in late 2006. The people have a far greater degree of freedom and that speaks volumes.
"You never leave an operational tour saying there is nothing left to achieve. By the same token I can honestly say that when the Staffords left we had executed every plan and that very significant advances had been made in terms of the state of the Iraqi security forces, and the general security situation.
"As we were leaving, one local man said to me 'we still face some real challenges, but they are a far different set of challenges than when you arrived'. I think the Staffords can take that as a huge compliment."
North Staffordshire has always been immensely proud of its links with the armed forces and Sentinel readers have demonstrated time and again their support for our troops serving overseas.
But were the Staffords aware of the debate in the UK over the rights and wrongs of British troops being in Iraq?
"Absolutely," said Tim. "We don't live in a bubble. We may all hold private views on the situation but, as soldiers, we are servants of the state and get our orders from a democratic government we all elected. We have a job to do and try to do it to the best of our abilities."
Summing up, what are the Staffords' commanding officer's overriding memories of his time in Iraq?
"There's no doubt that the Staffords left Iraq with their heads held high. They did a fantastic job – a difficult job – with no fuss and no dramas. They fought hard when they needed to and I was honoured to be with them.
"There were times of great sadness, such as when we lost one of our own or we suffered injuries, and there were also – believe it or not – times of great humour and constant camaraderie.
"My one regret is that more of my soldiers weren't recognised with awards when they were dished out, because I firmly believe far more of them should have been for their endeavours."