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Sappers help build a brighter future in Helmand

Staff Sergeants Mark Smith and Eddie Morrison of the Corps of Royal Engineers are both four months into a tour of Helmand province with the …

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Staff Sergeants Mark Smith and Eddie Morrison of the Corps of Royal Engineers are both four months into a tour of Helmand province with the Military Stabilisation and Support Team (MSST) in Nahr-e Saraj (North).

Both soldiers have enjoyed careers packed with action in operational theatres all over the world. During his 20-year career, SSgt Smith has deployed on operations in the Falklands, Belize, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. SSgt Morrison has served in Ireland, Iraq, Kenya, Canada, Belize, Cyprus, Germany, Denmark, and is now on his third tour of Afghanistan.

Military Stabilisation Support Teams (MSSTs) are made up of regular personnel and reservists from the three Services, and have been working with villagers in the southern Afghan province for nearly four years.

With security improving all the time, the MSSTs help create prosperity by establishing new infrastructure projects. Their aim is to break the insurgents’ sway over the region, and establish enduring solutions – both practical and behavioural – to Helmand’s problems.

In Nahr-e Saraj (North) (NES(N)), the MSST regularly meets with mayors, district governors and community councils to help them reach out to local communities and earmark potential projects to improve daily life. The MSST also provide financial grants for projects and ropes in the expertise of the Royal Engineers for structural and infrastructure advice:

Every day is different,” says SSgt Smith. “We’re always out and about talking to the locals and finding out what infrastructure they need. We work closely with the community elders dealing with issues no matter how big or small.

His mixed-sex military team recruits personnel for their diverse skills, ranging from reconstruction, project management, and agricultural expertise, to project- and site-management. Each village has differing access to schools, clinics, markets, mosques, clean water and food, so the MSST works on a case-by-case basis, with locals prioritising decisions.

The next step is for the MSST to accommodate these needs, instructing contractors, ironing out practical or structural problems, and trying to ease freedom of movement. Ultimately though, it is the locals who have the final say on how they want their communities to look in the future.

SSgt Smith and his team hold shuras - traditional Afghan meetings - to understand the needs of local people:

They’re a lot like village hall meetings,” says SSgt Smith. “We sit down, drink tea and discuss what reconstruction and development projects would best benefit the community. Then, we work with local government officials and Afghan contractors to plan how a project can be turned from an idea into a reality.

The Provisional Reconstruction Team (PRT) decides what projects should be supported, and the MSST advises and mentors local agencies, providing guidance through each phase to help build capability and leave a lasting legacy.

SSgt Smith explains how military engineers are trained from early on in their careers to project manage and supervise build sites. He joined the Army as an apprentice tradesman, and reckons that his lifetime experience is helping the Afghans to build a future:

The Afghan contractors come up with the plan, and we offer advice and guidance if they need it,” says SSgt Smith. “This can range from writing quotes to tendering and agreeing contracts. During the build, we visit the sites to make sure everything is on track and see if any further assistance is required.

Working on the re-development of the Noorzai bazaar, SSgt Smith will witness the construction of a purpose-built market and taxi rank to encourage economic growth outside of the Gereshk city centre. Two wells and a mosque have already been completed, and building work will shortly begin on 880 shops, while a road, footpath, drainage ditch, water tower, and a permanent water supply to local shops, are all in the pipeline.

For SSgt Smith, the highlight of his tour is a project to install 144 solar streetlamps along the Bandi Barq road in NES(N). The lighting will help reassure locals and improve security by deterring insurgents.

SSgt Smith helped to advise the Afghans to tender work to contractors, select the best quote and draw up contracts. This project is about to begin, and is on track to be completed before SSgt Smith finishes his tour:

I’m really looking forward to seeing the Bandi Barq road project completed,” he said. “This has been a great tour, and seeing those lights go on will top it off perfectly.

Coming from a long line of sappers, SSgt Smith recalls how, as a child, he would listen to his dad, Robert, tell him about all the exciting places he’d visited and the projects he’d built during his time as a Royal Engineer.

It inspired me to join the Corps, and now I’m able to tell my own sons, Charlie and Ben, the same stories,” he smiles.

SSgt Morrison is now on his second tour with the MSST, and he has seen it evolve from its junior CIMIC (Civil Military Cooperation) role in Iraq to its current role - working closely with ISAF civilian stabilisation groups and, most importantly, the people of Afghanistan:

Uniform is a double-edged sword,” he says. “It gives us freedom to visit local communities and spread the messages needed to develop projects. However, the uniform can be seen as just another uniformed soldier. That’s why the MSST employs senior ranks specially trained and selected for their communication ability.

Both Staff Sergeants Smith and Morrison find it deeply gratifying to see the MSST development projects, years in the making, come to fruition.

SSgt Morrison says:

One project is the Mayor’s park, created to bring the community together, as well as providing a shaded communal area.

Two years after his first tour, the project that was in its infancy is now another success story for the MSST. Similarly, he describes how a new police station, which was then just blueprint on paper, is now a thriving, manned police station, helping the community to help themselves:

Based on my experience, Gereshk is a real success story as the economical capital of the region,” says SSgt Morrison. “The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) is working with ISAF to improve trade links to areas such as Sangin and Musa Qaleh. It’s hoped that the people living there will hear of the progress in Gereshk and seek to emulate the same success.

Seeing vast number of trucks come through, laden with vegetables and fruit is a testament to progress made and the opportunities that continue to appear.

Next, SSgt Morrison will work on plans for a business park and a refrigeration and cold storage plant in central Gereshk. This multi-million dollar project will improve local prosperity making it possible to store produce longer and less reliant on imported goods.

Economic prosperity is within reach of local people here,” he says. “The changes I’ve seen over the years have been phenomenal. It’s down to the hard work of our men and women and the most notably the Afghans who are driving the process forward.

Published 28 July 2011