First published in Sunday Times.
THE men of B Company gathered in whispers on the hilltop, helmeted silhouettes against a tapestry of stars.
Tonight, until first light, they would take turns at sentry duty � “stag”, as they call it � protecting the body of their fallen comrade. He was lying in our armoured vehicle. No helicopter was available that night to fly him home.
Major Jake Little, 36, the officer commanding, knew that emotions were running high. That morning, in front of us all, Sergeant Lee “Jonno” Johnson, one of the company’s best-loved soldiers, had been killed by a mine. His death came only hours after an afternoon of fierce fighting with the Taliban. Many felt they had just cheated death.
Little, his stubbled face weary with emotion, dug deep to find the right words. “I’m s*** at this,” he confessed to the men. He spoke of the gap Jonno would leave behind and how he had died doing what he loved. “Jonno would have been proud of each and every one of you,” he said.
“It’s a hard thing to be spending the night here with Jonno,” one highly experienced soldier said. “The men are quite bitter that they couldn’t find a helicopter for him.”
The company was from the 2nd Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment (the Green Howards), a regiment that Jonno, 33, from Stockton, Teesside, had joined in his teens. For some, he was not only a comrade but also their best friend.
Important though it was to mourn for Jonno, Little knew the emotions would have to be suppressed for now. “We have to move on,” he said, “but not forget.”
As they stood their watch, the men could see a skyline lit by tracer, flares and the flashes of heavy bombardment. Within hours, they would move off towards this awesome battle for the Taliban stronghold of Musa Qala.
The night before he died, Jonno said he had waited 17 years in the army to join an operation like this. He had cancelled his leave so as not to miss out. Back home, after being told of his death, his fiancée Lisa said: “He told me his leave was cancelled earlier this month but I knew he had offered to stay and take part in this operation against the Taliban.”
Jonno, who represented the battalion at boxing and the army at judo, left a son, Ashley, and a daughter, Lilly Rose, who still thinks her daddy is coming home for her third birthday in February. He and Lisa planned to get married on August 1.
As we stood by his body, the photographer Nick Cornish and I worried that as journalists we were intruding into these men’s grief, but they asked us to stay. “So many times, deaths like this go unreported,” said Little.
The mine had exploded in a wadi, or dried-up watercourse, last weekend, just 25 yards away from us. Jonno and three others were travelling in a Vector, a new six-wheeled armoured vehicle. It was commanded by Captain Nick Mantell, 26, who coordinated the rescue afterwards, his face streaked with blood from a gash on his forehead.
The vehicle had struck the mine as it passed a broken-down Afghan army lorry. and was thrown down a slope. Jonno, who was killed instantly, was pronounced dead by an American special forces medic.
The next morning, a helicopter finally came for his body. After the truck and the Vector were cleared of ammunition and secret technology, B Company drove a couple of miles across the desert plateau and waited until a jet had dropped a bomb on each vehicle.
“This is also about closure for everyone,” said Royal Marine Warrant Officer Neil “Brum” Warrington.
We returned to camp, where a 12-mile convoy of Afghan and Nato troops was ready for battle. The commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Simon Downey, drew the Green Howards into a huddle. It was his farewell to Jonno. “He’s a man whose death will leave a huge hole in the regiment,” he said. A two-minute silence followed, interrupted only by the sounds of warplanes.
Later, Little gathered his men around him again to test their mettle. “Whatever the situation now is, it doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be a s*** lot of fighting. Put your fear to one side � be aggressive, fellas � go for it!”
In the hours before battle on Tuesday, the men had risen from their bivouacs and cleaned their kit for the final time. Little went round and shook every man’s hand. Then the cry went up: “All on Fong.” Private Fong, a Fijian, is the company’s unofficial chaplain. His prayer was spoken in a language that no one understood, but everyone knew its purpose and all said “Amen”.
Just before we left, one of the survivors from Jonno’s vehicle, Private Lee Bellingham, came up to say he could not believe he had emerged unscathed from that twisted vehicle. He described trying to save Jonno.
“I knew in my subconscious that he was dead already,” he said, “but I just felt I ought to do something. I didn’t want to let go.”
Bellingham had said a prayer the morning of Jonno’s death. “I never normally pray,” he said, “but I said something that day. And I feel someone looked after me. I’ve said a prayer again this morning.”
Was Jonno’s sacrifice worth it? “Nothing that’s happening here makes his death worthwhile,” said one soldier that first night. Others were more philosophical: “You know, it’s a risk in what we do. We know death may happen, and there’s no way to really calculate what one man’s life is worth.”
As it turned out, the men arrived at Musa Qala to face not a bloody battle but a ghost town. After seven days of bitter fighting, the Taliban had fled.
But all know that the danger has not yet passed.
“The enemy’s still out there,” said one officer, “and the war continues.”