Over the last decade, we have sent thousands of people to fight on our behalf. But what happens when these soldiers come back home, having lost their friends and killed their enemies, having seen and done things that have no place in civilian life? In Aftershock, Matthew Green tells the story of our veterans’ journey from the frontline of combat to the reality of return.
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The faces of the two young Afghan policemen would never leave him. They had both been shot while defending their position and bled to death in the back of a trailer as AJ and a medic tried to staunch their wounds. They could not have been more than 17 years old. AJ, as the former Royal Marine asked me to call him, was on his second deployment to Afghanistan. The first tour, in 2001, had been quiet. Five years later, his unit, 45 Commando, was engaged in fierce fighting with the Taliban outside the town of Gereshk. As a sniper, AJ acted as lookout for the other marines, carefully spotting enemy positions and either calling in mortar fire or counting down from three, according to his training, and pulling the trigger.
After the battle at Gereshk, AJ’s unit was deployed to Sangin, a small town on the Helmand river. It was a Taliban stronghold, and soldiers from the Parachute Regiment had narrowly managed to hold the town centre after intense fighting a few months before. AJ’s unit was based 4km away in an outpost known as FOB (Forward Operating Base) Robinson, where an outer ring of earth-filled wire cages formed the first line of defence. The marines bedded down in buildings in an inner circle nicknamed the Dust Bowl. A tower made of mud bricks stood in the centre and AJ took turns with the other snipers to man a makeshift bunker on the top, cradling their rifles and scanning the dun-coloured landscape for any sign of Taliban fighters.
Guilt — even innocent guilt — is an evil thing