Moral Courage

"Speak up if something seems wrong or unsafe. We all know what the standards are supposed to be in Naval Aviation and in the Corps. Enforce them! When we fail to enforce the existing standards, we are actually setting and enforcing a new standard that is lower." - Lt Col Raible’s Commander's Guidance, 9 December 2011

On 14/15 September 2012 US Marines Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Raible (40) and Sergeant Bradley Atwell (27) were killed in action on Camp Bastion/Leatherneck airfield when counter-attacking Taliban forces who’d breached the NATO Main Operating Base's defences. My last guard duty was one week before, when I’d seen clear indications of an impending attack but then failed to communicate the threat clearly enough for any action to be taken. 

From guard tower eleven I’d watched our defences being surveyed and probed, specifically by a figure crouching in a ditch 300-metres from our fence-line at approximately 21:00 on Friday 7 September. The attackers were dropped off about six or eight hundred metres further up the same road at about 21:00 the following Friday. They breached our fence line by the purple highlight in the adjacent map. That purple highlight marks the unsecured earthworks between the airfield’s fence (blue line) and the public road (white line) that ran parallel to it. The green highlight shows the bounds of Nowabad village on the airfield's south-eastern corner, where poppy fields were irrigated with the treated effluent of 30,000 occupants of NATO's main operating base in Helmand.

The view east from Camp Bastion’s guard tower 11; the location of the figure seen
crouching in a ditch at about 21:00 on 7 September 2012 is marked by the arrow:

bob bastion panarama copy 2

When I reported the suspicious activity on 7 September to the guard commander (who located and viewed the figure crouching in a ditch using a camera on an overhead ISTAR balloon) I was refused permission to fire an illumination mini-flare and told not to worry about it. When the figure began moving a few minutes later, from the ditch into the thick vegetation on the far side of the road, I radioed the guard commander again and repeated my request to illuminate the valley with a mini-flare. I was refused permission and despite being sure our defences and reactions were being tested I didn’t dare radio the guard commander a third time and risk being seen as questioning orders. 

That’s when I came off guard duty, fearful of an impending attack and literally terrified by the guard command’s apparent disinterest. I could have broken the chain-of-command the next day and reported my concerns to my own unit, 4 Battalion REME (Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers), but previous experiences made me wary of doing that. During my first airfield guard duty on 21/22 April the Battalion 2IC (second in-command) had visited my guard tower. I had security concerns then, specifically about the opium harvesting occuring 200-metres from the fence (the right hand field in the panoramic image above) and our orders to stop the Afghan security forces from harrassing the farmers. The 2IC & his sidekick’s reaction was to laugh, say they couldn’t see anything [the opium harvesting] and exit the tower post haste, still laughing. On another occasion during a Light Vehicles Platoon parade a junior officer had accused me of endangering soldiers lives by my refusal to throw stones at children when out on patrol, telling my platoon to ‘deal with me’ themselves (a clear threat). The Recovery Mechanics Platoon, who I did top cover for on their vehicle patrols, corrected that by saying they supported my desicion not to stone the children because they saw my other tactics work (taking the children’s photo stopped them harrassing our patrol). My Light Vehicles Platoon sergeant had taken a dislike to me and his bullying attempts became so outrageous they caused one of his own junior officers to report him to the Light Vehicles Platoon commander (a Captain S Dickson) for unjustly targeting me. I was called into Captain Dickson's office and was plainly threatened, told he’d destroy my career by writing a damning personal appraisal about me if I supported the junior officers complaint. I didn’t pursue the complaint, thereby letting down the jumior officer who had enough integrity to raise the matter. There were other incidents - such as a junior officer caught in a Catch-22 pointing a loaded pistol at my face because I refused to take a photo of him with the gun held to his head - and they were the reasons I daren’t break the chain-of-command - I already knew it to be utterly dysfunctional & corrupt. Looking back, there were people I could have told who would have listened, such as 4 Battalion REME’s Regimental Sergeant Major, a particular Staff Sergeant & at least one Sergeant but I was seperated from them by my immediate superiors in the Light Vehicles Platoon. And at that late stage in my tour, after previous experiences, my focus was overwhelmingly on surviving the toxic atmosphere within the Light Vehicles Platoon. It felt akin to a Lord of the Flies scenario, with ‘end-of-tour’ go-kart building and racing competitions & Park Runs going on whilst the base perimeter was effectively an open door to any observant enemy.

I could have and should've sought out the individuals within 4 Battallion REME who might have heard me out. I pondered approaching allied forces, specifically the Americans based on the airfield, but I was a 42-year old Private on my first tour who’d be trying to tell them that the entire British command didn’t know its arse from its elbow when it came to securing the base. Ultimately I decided to do nothing other than securing myself by moving my bedding from a hammock outside to the middle floor of the concrete tower. I also took these selfies at about 22:30 on Friday 7 September, recording my ’scared face’ and sense of despair. And that’s the origin of my ‘survivors guilt’ - I had predicted the attack a week before it happened. I had enough information (photos and guard tower logs) to alert the command, but not enough confidence to challenge their disinterest and nonchalance. If I had done more to raise the alarm in the week before the attack it would have been stopped, then Lt Col Raible and Sgt Atwell would have got to go home to their families like almost everyone else did. If I had spoken just that little bit louder the Taliban attack would've been stopped before it had even got to the fence, I am sure of that and have written extensivey about it here.

My ‘survivors guilt’ is mild. I didn’t know the deceased and I watched the battle from about a mile away in the security and comfort of my own accommodation area. I helped check the runway for battle damage/debris the next morning and although we didn’t find anything I was overwhelmed with a sense of professional shame. Two allies lay dead in the morgue a few hundred metres away, casualties of what should’ve been the easiest attack to have stopped. That haunts me but I accept it happened and that life carries on, it has to. 

What ails me still is my ‘veteran’s anger’. I’m angry that I failed in my duty to adequately raise the alarm; I’m angry that the British commanders who lied to the parliamentary inquiry got promotions and honours instead of being held to account. I’m angry at defence ministers Philip Hammond and Gavin Williamson who were both complicit in the coverup. I’m angry at the military and civilian police who have lied and insulted me in order to hide the Generals’ crimes. But what really riles me, makes my blood boil, is the fact that the British military appear to have learnt nothing. Fifteen heavily armed Taliban walked between our guard towers and onto our main operating base, killed two American allies and destroyed approximately $400-million of aircraft and kit. I believe a repetition of such a catastrophic failure is as likely today as I felt it was on 7 September 2012. Frontline British forces, the entire country in fact, are being left hung out to dry by a command more focused on profiteering and media operations than they are on Britons’ security.

The most apt surmation of military adventures I’ve read since returning from Afghanistan is by Major General Smedley Butler, another US Marine, the most highly decorated of his day with thirty-three years service, from 1898 to 1931:

"War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable,
surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one
in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives."

The profits in this case was a corrupt £400-million precurement deal for the £1-million each Foxhound patrol vehicle, intended to replace the Snatch Land Rovers. Despite the Foxhound repeatedly failing hot weather trials (it overheated and broke down in 2012 and it was still doing it in 2017), it was still decided to sign the vehicle into service and order the additional vehicles to complete the procurement deal. How does that relate the the Taliban’s14/15 September attack on Camp Bastion/Leatherneck? Directly, all the way up to the highest office, the defence secretary Philip Hammond. 

On 11 September British defence minister Philip Hammond was in Camp Bastion and other than a photo opportunity that visit had another purpose - to complete the Foxhound vehicle procurement deal. And so the entire British contingent in Camp Bastion engaged in a web of deception. A patrol of the Foxhound vehicles was arranged to drive up the public road running parallel to our airfield with Mr Hammond watching from an airfield guard tower. The two recovery mechanics I had done top cover for told me they’d been part of the deception - parking their recovery vehicle in the valley by the airfield a few hours before Hammond arrived, and out of sight of his guard tower. They were one of two recovery vehicles staged along the Foxhound patrol route, pre-placed incase the £1-million Foxhounds being showcased to Philip Hammond overheated and broke down. The demonstration went well, Philip Hammond reported his findings to parliament and they fulfilled the procurement deal. No other army has adopted the vehicle since and the last report on the British army’s fleet of Foxhounds was a proposal to convert them into battery powered electric vehicles.

In summary, the entire military industrial complex - Generals, corporations and a government minister - squeezed into an airfield guard tower to play their part in a sophisticated operation of outright procurement corruption. And three days later the Generals left guards in some airfield guard towers without basic kit: night vision equipment on a moonless night. That was why the Taliban were able to walk onto the base, the soldiers in the guard towers in the fence breach area were left effectively blind. 

The view north from Camp Bastion’s guard tower eleven & a close up of the attackers route and targets on 14 September 2012:

BoB order of battle Screenshot 2022-10-22 at 02.15.49 copy 7

There was nothing wrong with those guard's soldiering, it was the General’s decision to save money by not buying enough night vision equipment and blowing hundreds of millions on doomed vanity projects instead. The patrol vehicles were an urgent operational requirement, identified on 28 January 2004 when British soldier Private Jonathan Kitulagoda was killed by a suicide bomber who attacked his unarmored Land Rover in Kabul. It took British commanders till 2010 to order the Snatch Land Rover replacement vehicle and then they ordered the most expensive, least tested, prototype Foxhound. 

Their procurement corruption cost NATO personnel their lives, British lives and it could be said Lt Col Raible and Sgt Atwell's lives too. We were supposed to be watching their backs but were watching a pantomime patrol of Foxhounds prance past the airfield instead, using the same public road the Taliban attackers used to launch their attack from three days later. The corruption and dereliction of duty by those British Generals should warrant court martial but instead they got medals, job promotions and personal honours from the Queen while frontline British forces got sold out again, lumbered with the failed British concept vehicle the Foxhound. 

I’m continuing with my battle for the Truth to be known for two main reasons. Firstly for the sake of today’s frontline forces, trying to ensure their lives are not risked by profiteering Generals again. And secondly for the reasons set out in Lieutenant Colonel Raible's Commander’s Direction:

"When we fail to enforce the existing standards, we are actually setting and enforcing
a new standard that is lower."
 - Lt Col Raible’s Commander's Guidance, 9 December 2011

I’ve spent nearly ten years detailing and reporting the criminal failures of senior British officers responsible for the camp’s defence, but I also acknowledge my own guilt. I had an opportunity to be a hero, an example of moral and professional courage, but when it really counted I shied away. I was too fearful of the personal risks. I will concede that it would have taken significant courage for anyone to approach a member of an allied army with such a warning, perhaps as much courage as men like the Lieutenant Colonel and Sergeant Atwell displayed seven days later. And I guess that is what separates the majority of us from heroes like those Marines – they didn’t turn back after weighing-up the personal risks, they charged forward knowing only one thing - that those behind them would be that little bit safer for their actions.

These men are and will be Remembered across the globe for their courage, professionalism and heroism, and their families honoured for the sacrifice and loss they have endured on all our behalf.

I hope my admission will show people that there really is an extra-mile you have to go to do the right thing. In my case it was literally a question of walking about a mile down the road to the US section of the camp and knocking on any door and asking to see a commanding officer. I didn’t have the courage or confidence to walk that extra-mile then, but I know there’ll be another extra-mile up ahead before too long and I will not make the same mistake again. As the Lieutenant Colonel said when quoting one of his inspirations, sportsman Roger Staubach:

“There are no traffic jams on the extra mile

I hope by sharing this I can inspire others to find that last bit of confidence or courage they may need
to do the right thing, whatever circumstances we may find ourselves in. Signed
Anthony C Heaford

Rest-in-Peace Marines

Truly, for some of us nothing is written, unless we write it 
© Anthony C Heaford - The Quiet Mancunian