Suffolk and Essex soldiers on life on the frontline of Afghanistan evacuation
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
Soldiers based in Colchester and Woodbridge witnessed "some horrendous things" as they endured the heat, stress and pressure of evacuating 15,000 people from Afghanistan.
They have been sharing their experiences of the fast-moving operation put into action as the country fell under Taliban rule.
The evacuation took place at very short notice and lasted two weeks, with 750 soldiers deploying from the 16 Air Assault Brigade Combat Team to Kabul on August 15.
Private Shayne Wilkinson, 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, left his job as a construction site supervisor after 10 years to join the army and found himself deployed to Afghanistan only a month after completing his training.
The father-of-three said: "I was laying on the sofa watching a movie with the missus. I remember flicking over to Sky news and seeing another one of the lads that I know through Catterick landing in Kabul.
"I was thinking, am I meant to be somewhere else?"
Within an hour we were contacted and told to come back to Colchester and start preparing.
- 1 Andy's Angles: Six observations after Ipswich Town's 2-1 win over Fleetwood
- 2 Man in his 50s dies after head-on collision on A143
- 3 'Unique' café with 250 plus board games to play will open soon
- 4 Revealed: The most expensive towns to buy a home in Suffolk
- 5 Ambulance service apologises after woman left lying on Cornhill for 2 hours
- 6 Hadleigh home with loo in master bedroom hits the market
- 7 How Suffolk are you? Take our quiz to find out
- 8 'One of the favourites for the division' - Fleetwood boss Grayson on Town
- 9 Business units set to be converted into new seafront flats
- 10 'Kind and gentle' retired Ipswich Hospital orthopaedic consultant dies
"My partner was pretty good with it, she's very supportive but obviously worried," he added. "The kids didn't have a clue because they were asleep.
"I rung them as soon as I could, actually told them I was in the jungle training because I didn't want them to worry because they are quite young."
Shayne said the most difficult moment for him was when he was working holding a riot shield as a part of crowd management.
He described the work as mentally and physically draining, having to manage thousands of people in 30 degree heat.
Of all the evacuees, 5,000 of them were British and 8,000 were entitled Afghans, 2,100 of which were children.
Woodbridge-based Lance Corporal May Percival, 23 Parachute Engineer Regiment, was driving out of the barracks on the way to her summer leave until she received the call.
Rather than hiking up the three peaks she spent the next two weeks on her first deployment searching and processing people fleeling the Taliban, particularly women and children.
Recalling her most difficult moment she said: "When families didn't have the right documentation we couldn't allow them to be processed to come back to the UK, was probably the hardest."
The living conditions for everyone were far from pleasant, with the Afghans having to sleep where they stood as they had no alternative.
She added: "I was definitely out of my comfort zone, but I just put on a brave face and got on with everything I needed to do."
They would bring in families and once their documentation was checked they and their belongings would be searched
"It's such a great experience to go out and help those that are vulnerable and needed our help.
"We helped those that we could. But it's also sad that we couldn't help more."
Elmswell born Major Fiona Lankester was involved in looking after soldiers' wellbeing upon their return, which included Covid isolation periods and helping them deal with stress.
She said: "Every operation that we deploy on is very unique. with regards to the service personnel coming home they will all be affected differently by the individual events.
"You could have 20 people see one event and each person would respond very differently."
Major Lankester described the operation as an intensely humanitarian based deployment can make it more difficult for people to adjust.
The soldiers who returned will have seen "some horrendous things" and the first thing most want to do is return to their families and their homes but their care is important.
Lieutenant Colonel Justin Baker, Commanding Officer of the 17th Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery is a senior member of the 16 Air Assault BCT who was involved in the planning team at Kabul airport.
Despite his experience he said he "felt nervous and excited" about deploying to the operation.
"I don't think anybody could appreciate what the full task would entail until we got over to Kabul and actually were presented with the situation," he said.
"There was clearly a level distress from the Afghan citizens and a pressure and a stress to hopefully get through that system and find a life in the UK.
"It was hard as human beings, despite being soldiers, to not absorb that experience."
Reflecting on the experience he described it as a testing and emotional for time for the soldiers as the environment was quite chaotic, it was also "an immensely positive experience" that gave 15,000 people a chance at a new life or a better life.