The British forces' latest combat helmet has been responsible for saving the lives of three soldiers from 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment in the last month of operations in Afghanistan.
Ranger Silbert Wilson, aged 20, Corporal Tommy Creighton, 25, and Ranger Alan Hawthorne, 23, all from Northern Ireland, walked away unscathed after Taliban bullets aimed at their heads were stopped by the recently-introduced Mark 7 combat helmet.
The three separate incidents follow another escape by their colleague Ranger Ryan Boyd, 26, also from 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment, who walked away with just a bruise after an insurgent round fired directly at him was stopped by his Osprey body armour.
Ranger Wilson, from Antrim, was the first to test the helmet’s strength. That day he went out with A Company on a normal morning patrol in the Nad ‘Ali district, part of furthering the soldiers’ understanding of the local area and people.
The patrol had been on task for almost two hours, moving around compounds and interacting with locals, when they suddenly came under enemy small arms fire. The soldiers took cover in a 5-foot-deep (1.5m) irrigation ditch and got ready to return fire - but the incoming rounds then stopped as suddenly as they had started.
After a couple of minutes’ wait, the patrol was moving out of the ditch into another, shallower irrigation channel when the Taliban fighters opened up on them again, this time with machine gun fire and single rounds coming from at least four different firing points.
Ranger Wilson recalled:
A single round landed about two metres in front of me. I was moving to get into better cover when suddenly it felt like someone punched me on the side of my head. I was pushed off my feet and ended up submerged in the water.
There was no time to think. I got up, fired my weapon back at the enemy firing points; once the magazine was empty I reloaded a fresh magazine, and only then started to check myself. My face first - no blood! I thought ‘thank **, that was really close!’. I was still confused and a bit dazed. My head was ringing - but I was OK.
Ranger Wilson and the rest of the patrol subsequently conducted a fighting withdrawal out of contact, eventually returning to their checkpoint unscathed. Once they got back it became apparent he was not the only one to have experienced a close call that day - his colleague Lance Corporal Keith Morrison, from Templepatrick, had taken a shot clean through his daysack.
Corporal Creighton, from Carrickfergus, was the next to feel the benefit of the Mark 7 helmet’s cutting-edge technology. He was out on patrol with B Company in Nad ‘Ali in the early hours of the morning, having been dropped off in a Mastiff vehicle operated by the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment.
The patrol was not far from a patrol base when they heard the sound of a round being fired in their direction. Corporal Creighton saw movement from a compound wall off to his side and, looking through his weapon sight, he identified an insurgent with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on his shoulder. When the insurgent noticed that Corporal Creighton had seen him, he panicked, fired off the missile in his general direction and quickly ducked back behind the wall.
Bullets then started coming at the soldiers from all directions, from multiple firing points.
Corporal Creighton, along with colleagues Lance Corporal Fraser Stirling and Ranger Kevin McMaster, took cover in a dry drainage ditch and returned fire at identified firing points:
The Taliban opened up with some accurate small arms fire in our direction, and we were returning fire,” said Corporal Creighton. “As I was observing forward, confirming new enemy positions, it seemed like it happened in slow motion.
I saw the strike of a round hit the ground in front of me. I could actually see the strike - the dirt lifting. My reaction was to lower my head, tilting it slightly forward, and then I felt the thud against my helmet as the round struck me.
I thought ‘**!’. My right leg started to shake. But I composed myself, identified the compound from where the round had come and engaged back returning fire.
The contact with the insurgents carried on for a further three hours (a total of four). Eventually an Apache helicopter was called for and engaged the remaining insurgents, bringing the contact to a conclusion.
Corporal Creighton added:
When we got back to the patrol base, the lads were all looking at the helmet and saying how lucky I was. The round had struck me right on my ‘shamrock’ regimental badge, which I guess is kind of symbolic! But at the end of the day it’s a great bit of kit and that’s what it’s designed to do.
Ranger Hawthorne, from Dromore, was the third Royal Irish soldier to walk away after a bullet to the head. He had been conducting a clearance patrol with C Company in southern Nad ‘Ali and his platoon had taken up position in a local resident’s compound, with the owner’s permission.
The first thing the soldiers do when they occupy a compound is to secure it and build a good overwatch position. As the one who carries the machine gun, Ranger Hawthorne is usually the first to give protection for the remainder of the patrol.
On this occasion, just as his section commander had radioed through to confirm they were in place, shots began firing over their heads.
Ranger Hawthorne recalled:
As we identified muzzle flash from the insurgents’ weapons and located their positions, we returned fire. As I was firing my machine gun, I felt a big thud - it was like someone had dropped a block on my head. It was a shock, but, with the enemy still firing at me, I had no choice but to keep returning fire.
When things quietened down, my section commander, Corporal Kyle Scott, tapped me on the shoulder - he was pointing to my head. That’s when I realised what had happened. I’d been so involved in the shooting that I had thought nothing more about the thud!
When the shooting finished, Corporal Scott called me down from my position. I took my helmet off. Lots of the boys gathered round and they were all pointing at the big gash the bullet had made in the side of my helmet. I have to say, I feel like a lucky boy, but it just shows the quality of the kit we have.
Captain Jeffrey Herbert, spokesman for 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment, said of all the incidents:
These guys are all entitled to feel pretty lucky after what they’ve been through, but the fact we’ve now had three soldiers saved by this helmet goes to show what fantastic personal protective equipment we now have in the British Army.
Aside from that though, I think the way all three of the lads kept their composure after being hit and carried on fighting, only thinking to assess the damage after the contact was over, says a great deal about the character of the Royal Irish Regiment. These lads are as much a credit to the British Army as the helmets that saved their lives.