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Army officer recognised for repeated gallantry under enemy fire

A soldier who served in one of the most dangerous areas of Helmand province has been awarded a Mention in Despatches for immense courage in the face of repeated enemy fire and helping to save gravely-injured comrades.

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Lieutenant Thomas Onion was based at Checkpoint Zarawar in the south of Nahr-e Saraj district - one of the most heavily improvised-explosive-device-seeded areas in Helmand. Amid this threat he led 75 patrols in just 12 weeks, coming under attack during 20 of them.

In the first of three attacks mentioned in his citation, Lieutenant Onion, aged 25, from 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment (attached to 5th Battalion The Rifles), was central to the swift extraction of one of his soldiers who lost both legs and suffered severe damage to one of his arms when he detonated an IED during a patrol.

Lieutenant Onion said:

There is no feeling like the devastation you experience when one of your soldiers becomes a casualty and you hear the words ‘man down’. It is heartbreaking.

Equally, you know exactly what you have to do. Being in command, you have the responsibility to ensure he lives and has the best quality of life he can.

The patrol was driving into the heart of an enemy stronghold where a large cache of weapons was known to be stored. Villagers were also subject to extreme intimidation.

Lieutenant Onion continued:

We were going across a ditch where there had been a history of IEDs and we had been told more were laid.

Suddenly there was a huge bang and the front searcher was badly injured. I reported what had happened and arranged a helicopter landing site.

He was in hospital at Camp Bastion in 27 minutes. It felt like an eternity. Time moves so slowly in those situations.

The speed of Lieutenant Onion’s reactions to get the casualty to safety undoubtedly helped save the soldier’s life.

Just six days later, Lieutenant Onion again reacted with speed and compassion when another IED was detonated during a patrol through a village seeded with the deadly devices.

The blast hit one of the soldiers who had been providing fire support, amputating both legs and inflicting massive injuries to his torso.

Lieutenant Onion said:

I heard someone shout his name and I just went in.

Regardless of the risk to his own safety, Lieutenant Onion raced the 40 metres to the casualty’s side, narrowly missing two further IEDs hidden nearby.

He added:

I thought about the threat of other IEDs but I needed to get to him, otherwise he was going to die.

Together with another soldier, Lieutenant Onion dragged the casualty to safety and administered first aid while simultaneously organising a casualty evacuation - getting the casualty into surgery within 21 minutes of the blast.

Without the bravery and skill of his comrades and the world-leading surgical care at Camp Bastion, the victim would certainly have died.

Lieutenant Onion said:

If he had sustained those injuries anywhere else in the world, he would not be alive today.

He was the most seriously injured double amputee in the British forces ever to survive. Blood was pooling in his body. We can treat external bleeding but not internal.

We needed to get him to hospital fast. I have spoken to him since and he thanked us all for what we did.

Both soldiers are carrying on with their lives and have the unbelievable attitude of ‘same life, different plan’.

With little time to recover, Lieutenant Onion was on patrol again four days later in an enemy-dominated village when he came under attack from insurgents with automatic weapons.

Rounds flew past, hitting one of the soldiers in the arm. At the front of the patrol, and under enemy fire, Lieutenant Onion decided to attack. Screaming orders, he advanced on the enemy.

As they moved up the village road, the enemy renewed their fire, injuring another member of the patrol. As bullets whizzed around him, Lieutenant Onion put himself in full view of the enemy as he assessed the casualty and dragged him to safety before safely extracting the whole patrol.

Lieutenant Onion said:

Despite the casualties, I resolved to press on to show the enemy and the local people we would not run away.

For the first four months of the tour we were constantly engaged. After this, there was hardly a shot fired. The insurgents fled and the Afghan Police and Army came into the area for the first time in a long time.

Handing control over to the Afghan authorities is ultimately what we are aiming for and is what we achieved in this area.

I cannot emphasise enough how tenacious the lads were, how aggressive with the insurgents, how well they interacted with the local nationals and how well they understood what our commanders wanted.

Lieutenant Onion’s citation concludes:

His gallantry shone through when in the face of the enemy and his well of courage has remained undiminished throughout his numerous contacts. His conduct was inspirational.

The Mention in Despatches is one of the oldest forms of recognition for gallantry within the UK Armed Forces. Since 1993 the Mention in Despatches has been reserved for gallantry during active operations.

The announcement was made on Friday 28 September with the release of the latest Operational Honours and Awards List which includes some 106 personnel. The awards are for actions taken during the period of Operation HERRICK 15 from 1 October 2011 to 31 March 2012. See Related News.

Published 12 October 2012