Lieutenant Colonel Frazer Ross, of 23 Engineer Regiment (Air Assault), is commanding a 650-strong body of men making up the Task Force Helmand Engineer Group. It is his regiment’s fourth tour of Afghanistan since 2002.
His soldiers deliver close combat support to the infantry, carrying out specialist tasks that allow them to fight, move and live. This can range from the construction of buildings, roads or bridges whilst under fire, to the finding and clearing of improvised explosive devices, and much more.
Most of the Woodbridge-based troops have been in Helmand since September. As they look forward to their return to the town in March, Lt Col Ross - who himself lives in Woodbridge with his family - has offered his thanks for the support local people have given his regiment. He said:
I would like to thank sincerely the Woodbridge community for their marvellous support that they give the regiment - those in Afghanistan, the families back in Rock Barracks and my injured soldiers - whilst we are deployed and when we are at home.
The link that we have with our local community is the envy of many an Army regiment. It is a close relationship that, as the Commanding Officer, I hold very dear and am extremely proud of. The regiment is looking forward to coming home in March, when we will continue to strengthen the connection with our town.
The strength and support that we and our families receive from Woodbridge Town Council, Suffolk Coastal District Council and the wider Suffolk community is also second-to-none and we are all hugely grateful.
Lt Col Ross also acknowledged the sacrifice of Army families, left back at home while their relatives serve:
For the significant sacrifices they make for our country, the loneliness and constant fear in which they live when we are deployed, our society owes them a significant debt.
And for the soldiers who have suffered life-changing injuries and the families who have lost loved ones, they deserve the full, continued and unlimited support of our society.
British troops in Afghanistan are responsible for driving out the insurgency and improving security for the ordinary Afghan people, while at the same time training up their Afghan counterparts who are increasingly taking over responsibility for maintaining security in their own country. The ultimate aim is to ensure that Afghanistan can never again become a safe haven for international terrorists who threaten the UK and the western world.
The Royal Engineers in Helmand play a vital part in that team effort, conducting tasks which enable other troops to do their jobs. Since their deployment last year, 23 Engineer Regiment have racked up several notable achievements, in addition to their routine work. These include:
• the construction of two logistic support bridges on ‘Highway 1’, one of the most important roads in Afghanistan, following an insurgent IED attack which destroyed the existing road bridge.
• the continuing involvement of five High Risk Search Teams from the regiment in the battle against IEDs, the Taliban’s lethal weapon of choice. They are currently engaged in the largest British counter-IED operation for over a year, clearing a village to allow local people to return to their homes after they were forced out by insurgents.
• the building of Route Trident, a vital new tactical resupply route through the heart of some of the most dangerous parts of Helmand province, which will be completed by the end of February. Working in constant danger of enemy attack, the engineers have overcome huge technical challenges, requiring the most novel of construction solutions, with limited resources, in some of the most arduous conditions in the world.
• the provision of combat engineering support to Operation TORA ZHEMAY (‘Courageous Winter’), the clearance of insurgents from the tactically important town of Sayedabad. The operation lasted more than two months and involved the loading and movement of 614 aggregate trucks, under enemy fire, on fragile routes which required continual upgrade. It also required the construction of a new bridge, a new patrol base and five new checkpoints, and demolition of four old checkpoints. Throughout the operation the soldiers lived in constant danger, in the most arduous of conditions, throughout the bitterly cold Afghan winter.
Reflecting on these and the other achievements of his men over the recent months, Lt Col Ross said they had proved themselves to be second-to-none:
The challenges and subtleties of military operations in Afghanistan, at every level, cannot be overestimated. Every soldier and officer in the field must be at his sharpest every second. This is a thinking man’s war, one of many contradictions and contrasts not widely appreciated beyond the military.
The physical challenges are extreme, the danger intense, but it is the ability to think and win through uncertainty and complexity that succeeds in the sophisticated and subtle battle for the people and the intense fight against the insurgency.
But Lt Col Ross, who joined the Army in 1990 and has seen previous service in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia, Cyprus and Rwanda, added that all the signs are pointing to a successful outcome for British forces in Helmand:
As a military, we are taking the fight to the Taliban and they are reeling. We are creating the safe conditions in which governance and commerce are really gaining momentum amongst the people of central Helmand - progress is tangible.
The population is now growing the confidence that will enable them to turn against the Taliban and shape their own democratic futures, free from intimidation, placing their trust in the Afghan Government.
On a personal level, Lt Col Ross said he is finding his tour both fulfilling and, on the whole, enjoyable:
Leading soldiers is a fantastic experience - seeing their boundless loyalty, infectious enthusiasm, dogged determination, unswerving bravery and resilience in the face of true adversity and real danger. They are the bravest of the brave and their long-suffering but wonderful families truly are the very best of British.