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London, England (VBS.TV) -- In April this year I embedded with the elite soldiers of the 2nd Battalion British Parachute Regiment at their training facility in Thetford, United Kingdom. We went there to film the British army's much-talked-about, multimillion pound "replica Afghanistan village." The focus of the piece was to be on the younger members of the battalion. Some of them are as young as 18 and only months away from their first visit to Helmand province in September 2010. The majority of British casualties are all recorded in that area.
I'd heard about the Afghan village training facility from an ex-Para turned photographer called Stuart Griffiths. A couple of years ago, Vice Magazine published a photo essay in which he visited the homes of badly injured soldiers returned from Iraq or Afghanistan. Perhaps more shocking than the horrific injuries the soldiers had sustained was the lack of support of these men from the British government of the time -- particularly those who suffered psychological problems as a result of combat shock.
Stuart served his time in the Paras on tours of Northern Ireland in the late 80s to early 90s. But after being discharged he fell on hard times. He became homeless and spent a long time wandering the streets of London. He slept in cardboard boxes in doorways, often coming across fellow army veterans who faced a similar lack of support and sympathy from society, the government or the army. Happily, Stuart managed to get himself off the streets and, inspired by the stories of his fellow homeless veterans, became a campaigner of sorts for veterans rights, using his photography. His story and those of other ex-Paras is now available to watch in a moving British documentary called "Isolation."
A week before we set off for the embed, I asked Stuart what kind of experience we were letting ourselves in for and he said: "Not only are the Parachute Regiment Britain's most elite soldiers, they are the most brutal of British troops. That means the rest of the British army are simply in awe of them. I would say around 90 per cent of the SAS (the British equivalent of the Special Forces) comes from the Paras. And so the troops you are going to be sleeping next to every night are some of the hardest men in the world."
"Recently what's happened is that many former veterans have had a "call to arms" and returned to the forces again. Life in civvy (civilian) street has been a huge disappointment for many of these guys. Once you've fought 'in-theater' a number of times it's really hard for you to come back and fit in with the hum-drum of modern life. Especially if you're a Para. They miss the camaraderie and the discipline and the action that you get when you're in combat."
"When Afghanistan first kicked off, all three battalions of the Paras were sent straight there because of their reputation for violence and bravery. I remember it was in Helmand 2006 that Afghanistan became very hairy indeed. The Parachute Regiment were there when it became very intense and at the time a Member of Parliament called John Reid was quoted as saying, 'I'd be quite happy that a single shot is not fired in Afghanistan.' In reality the Parachute Regiment were firing off more rounds in Helmand than the entire Korean war!"
Grinning nervously, I asked him if there's anything else I should know and he looked at me and said, "They all drink rivers of lager."
Before we set off to meet the Paras, Stuart introduced us to a young man named Richard Dare who'd been a private in the Royal Anglians. Richard had a significant part of his brain blown out of his head by a mortar attack and was slowly rehabilitating himself at his home in a small town near Leicestershire. Richard talked to us about his love for the army and for war. The severe injuries to his brain didn't seem to change his love for army life one iota. The more we spoke to him, the more we knew we had to include him in our film.
But first we had to go meet the Paras. With the help of my co-producer Jason Mojica, we packed two small cameras into our bags and traveled to the middle of the British countryside to try and ingratiate ourselves with the most brutal soldiers in the whole of the British army.
It all started off nice and civilized. We were met on the door by a dashing officer who arranged for a private to show us our room -- a basic little number in the middle of the barracks which, while not five star, would certainly meet our needs for the week. I remember feeling pretty pleased with ourselves that we'd been given this amazing access, thinking we'd have carte blanche to wander around and check out the comings and goings of the most elite units in the world.
"Ah," we thought, "This should be an informative and relaxing few days in the countryside. I don't know what we were worried about at all."
Soon we were put in jeep, driven an hour-and-a-half away to a gloomy brick building in the middle of nowhere and told that the next time we slept in a bed would be in five days time. As we stepped out of the van about 200 Para troops stared at us with eyes that said: "Who are these wimps?"
The dark fell fast. A cold wind started blowing and I suddenly realized we'd left all our warm clothes in the barracks miles away. Then the sergeant major introduced himself and told us to get in line with the rest of the troops.
And off we marched into the night.