FOR most it will be their toughest and most dangerous challenge yet.
Hampshire soldiers are deploying to Afghanistan for a gruelling seven-month tour in one of the deadliest places in the world.
Only a small number of men from the 1st Battalion, Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (1PWRR), have experienced the war-torn country before.
But now, for the first time, the entire battalion will deploy together as part of 20 Armoured Brigade, who will take over control of Helmand Province at the start of next month.
A total of 450 soldiers from 1PWRR – nicknamed The Tigers – are putting their lives on the line as they fly out to the war zone.
They will have to face up to the continuing threat of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) which have claimed the lives of scores of men. And they will confront the newer threat of shootings by Taliban fighters, which accounted for two deaths of Royal Marines in the past week alone, bringing the current British troops death toll in hostile action to 338.
Yet their fears and concerns remain unspoken.
In fact, the pending tour is a life-changing experience that the majority of these men are relishing – it is, after all, what they have spent the past two years solidly training for.
As the last of their number departing for the hostile territory make their final preparations to leave their German barracks the soldiers appear eager to go.
The men from A Company will be the last to depart Barker Barracks in Paderborn and are busy packing away their kit, completing last minute paperwork, including medical and next of kin details, and ensuring they are ready and fit for what lies ahead.
There is now a noticeable, and understandable, air of anticipation at the barracks.
Most of the soldiers I meet don’t want to have to wait to board flights over the coming days – they’d be happier to go now and get the job started.
There’s also an undercurrent of trepidation – but the worries they have about the dangers they will face in Afghanistan is more centred on what could happen to their friends working alongside them, not the risk they face themselves.
Much of their mission-specific training, which got under way in January when The Tigers were instructed on what their role would be in Afghanistan, has centred on police mentoring.
It’s a rapid change in direction for The Tigers, who will move to a light infantry role – meaning there will be no heavy fighting vehicles out in Afghanistan like the Armoured Warriors which were used during the Iraq War. Instead it will focus on support and training for Afghan police officers so they are capable of running security in their region alone.
And it’s a move which shows how the campaign in Helmand Province – the centre of British operations in the country – is evolving, says Lt Col James Coote DSO, the new man at the helm of The Tigers.
He may only have taken up the reins as Commanding Officer last September, but he’s no stranger to The Tigers having served with the regiment for 16 years.
Last year Lt Col Coote spent many months in Lashkar Gar, Afghanistan, and he says he’s “amazed” by the transformation he has witnessed.
“It’s incredible – the shops are busy, there are plenty of goods in the markets – it’s a positive step. The Afghans seem to have really grasped the metal on this and they are keen to take over security, which is what this is all about. Time is now short – we have been set a deadline by the Government to be off their streets by 2014. My sense in Lashkar Gar is that they are really stepping up to the plate and it’s heartening to see the progress that is being made.”
Lt Col Coote tells me he believes his men are ready for the task ahead.
“I think you’ll find they are keen to go. We are soldiers and this is our business.
They are well equipped, well trained and I am entirely confident that they are ready to carry out their duties in Afghanistan.
“We always adapt to the threat and IED training has become a large part of what we do now, with every soldier given basic training in that area. It’s absolutely right that we are prepared for that.”
Lt Col Coote added: “I am sure there is some apprehension – it’s human nature and it would be slightly unusual if there wasn’t. As my old sergeant major would say to me ‘nobody runs to war twice’. But we are certainly keen and ready to deploy.
They are looking forward to putting their training into practice and I’m confident that once they get there they can get on and do the job in hand.”