On June 4, 2006, a young private soldier of mine put himself in clear view of the enemy with a light anti-tank launcher balanced on his shoulder to engage a Taleban position.
Minutes before he had been hit by a bullet that struck and ignited the magazines on his chest, but he ignored the rounds that cracked in the air around him; he wanted to make sure the rocket he was about to fire counted — and it did. But the paratrooper in question received no medal for the obvious risk he took; when asked about his bravery he simply replied that he was doing his job.
That this individual was not decorated says much about the exceptional nature of the acts of courage recognised by the awards made to more than 150 British servicemen and women of 19 Light Brigade yesterday. But they reflect not only the gallantry of the individual recipients, but also the collective bravery and self-sacrifice of UK troops in Afghanistan as a whole. The award of two George Crosses, six Conspicuous Gallantry Crosses (second only to the Victoria Cross), 16 Military Crosses and a host of other medals is testimony to the nature and intensity of the fighting last summer in which 81 members of the UK-led task force died.
The award of two George Crosses is unprecedented, as the medal is on a par with winning a VC. To win either decoration, the recipient has to knowingly face a 90 per cent certainty of death; the differential is that the GC is awarded for extreme acts of valour when not under enemy fire. The awards to Sergeant Schmid, who gave his life attempting to defuse an IED, and to the exceptionally gallant Sergeant Hughes is an unimistakeable acknowledgment of the scale of the threat from Taleban roadside bombs.
There has been a consistent rise in the number of gallantry and bravery decorations won by our troops since first entering Helmand in 2006. At the end of its first British tour in Afghanistan, 16 Air Assault Brigade received more than 40 awards. The medals included a VC, a George Cross (both posthumous), three Conspicuous Gallantry Crosses and nine Military Crosses that were won by members of the 3 Para Battlegroup, which I was privileged enough to serve with. Unprecedented at the time, this haul is now perhaps less remarkable, as following British brigades have demonstrated similar courage. Even so, the scale of awards won by 19 Light Brigade remains impressive.
But in its own way the number of acts of bravery and gallantry that will go unrecognised is just as impressive. In 2006 I drafted more than 100 citations for my soldiers, ranging from a VC to mentions in dispatches and commendations. Roughly two thirds resulted in no award.
A year later when I interviewed former members of my battle group for my book about their exploits in Helmand, I was struck by the many stories of courage of which I was unaware of at the time. I’ll give you just one example: one young officer from another regiment attached to 3 Para, though gravely wounded by shrapnel, selflessly refused medical assistance so that others could be treated before him. But I only knew of this when I interviewed the medic that had tried to treat him.
The military system for deciding who receives what is a complex process. It depends not only on the individual act of bravery, but also who witnesses it and how it is then written up by an individual’s commanding officer. Then each citation is examined by a series of military headquarters and MoD committees made up of senior officers and officials. The last stages come with the final sanction of No 10 and then the Queen.
But whether a citation is successful or not also depends on other less obvious factors. The balance of awards between units and the political background to a campaign play a part. In the minds of those who decide there will also be concern about medal inflation devaluing the awards system.
In 1982, for example, the award of a third posthumous VC to a member of the Parachute Regiment was apparently rejected by an MoD board and was downgraded to a lower-level medal. The feeling was that giving out another VC, on top of those given to Lieutenant-Colonel H. Jones of 2 Para and Sergeant Ian McKay of 3 Para, might not only have been seen to diminish the medal, but also provoke claims of regimental bias.
The more cynical might argue that the recent proliferation of awards reflects an attempt by the politicians to make up for underfunding the military. However, when you read of the stories of raw courage and self-sacrifice that scepticism rightly melts away.
The awarding of medals is not a science, but the British system, which jealously guards its quality and standards, is the envy of foreign armies. No doubt some soldiers may feel disappointed at being overlooked, some may even think that getting decorated is something of a lottery, but that is not how most soldiers see it. One of my bravest officers received nothing, despite leading his men in some of the most vicious fighting in an isolated location where casualty evacuation of his wounded was not guaranteed and ammunition was often in danger of running out. But afterwards he talked not of any personal disappointment, but only of what his soldiers had achieved.
Whether one receives a decoration or not, to climb into a helicopter and fly into battle, or to go back out on patrol in the full knowledge that a Taleban ambush is likely to be waiting for you takes courage. I regularly hear stories of soldiers so sick with fear at the alarming frequency of IED explosions that they vomit before venturing out of their bases. But still they go and do so repeatedly, day in and day out, throughout their tour of duty.
Such daily feats of bravery, of facing fear, cannot be specifically recognised with medals. This in itself makes the decorations awarded to 19 Light Brigade so remarkable. They remain not only an enduring tribute to the individual recipients, but also to the general courage of their units. Though yesterday was tinged with the sadness of those who did not live to share the honour, the medals represent a collective achievement of which every soldier, airman or sailor who served in Helmand should be rightly proud.
Colonel Stuart Tootal, former commander of 3 Para (the first UK battle group to enter Helmand) and the author of Danger Close.