Afghanistan veteran looks back on Kajaki tragedy: ‘Decisions are made by people in suits who have never fought a battle’
Written by Hit Music Radio News on 04/07/2021
A British army veteran of Afghanistan has described as “disgusting” the circumstances in which he and fellow soldiers were left trapped in a minefield, resulting in multiple casualties and the death of his friend.
Sergeant Stuart Pearson detailed the real-life events that inspired the 2014 movie Kajaki, in which a dozen soldiers became stranded in the minefield near the Kajaki Dam in Helmand Province for four hours.
By the time US Blackhawk helicopters lifted them to safety, four mines had exploded, wounding eight soldiers. One, 27 year-old Corporal Mark Wright, died from his injuries.
The ordeal, on 6 September 2006, began when a soldier stepped on a landmine.
Sgt Pearson, then a corporal with the 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment, was part of a rescue team along with Cpl Wright. They appealed over the radio for a helicopter, equipped with a winch, to lift out the casualty in relative safety, only to be told that none were available.
During the subsequent attempt to effect a rescue on the ground, four mines exploded including one that blew Sgt Pearson’s leg off.
He told Sky News: “I took my left foot off a rock and put my foot on the ground and that’s when I heard the explosion.
“I got blown up and twisted round and landed on my backside. I told nobody to move because that pretty much confirmed we were in the middle of a minefield then. I lifted my left leg to see what damage I’d done and I could see it was gone, about boot height.”
Cpl Wright, from Edinburgh, tended to his friend and colleague as he lay injured on the ground. However, when a Chinook helicopter landed to attempt an evacuation, the downdraft detonated another mine which inflicted further injuries to Cpl Wright and others.
Sgt Pearson said: “Unfortunately, Mark was straddling over me, protecting me from the downblast of the helicopter, he got blasted by that (and sustained) injuries to his face, neck and upper body.”
Cpl Wright suffered further injuries when another mine exploded but, as he lay injured, he continued to help coordinate a rescue over the radio and to sustain critically injured colleagues. Sgt Pearson credits Mark with saving his life.
He said: “Although Mark was badly injured, he still kept us in touch with what was going on, what information he was being fed.
“We then got told that some Blackhawks were being released by the Americans but they were coming from Kandahar and it would at least an hour before they were coming to get us and I remember just lying there thinking ‘I don’t know if I can hold on for another hour here’.
“I was wanting to fall asleep but Mark wouldn’t let anyone fall asleep, he kept shouting at us.”
When US Blackhawk helicopters eventually arrived to winch the casualties to safety, Sgt Pearson said Cpl Wright shouted his last words to him as he was being lifted aboard.
He said: “As Mark was getting winched up by the Blackhawks, he shouted down ‘tell my family that I love them’. And I said ‘shut up Mark, this time next week we’ll be back in the pub’.
“I was then placed on the helicopter and I thought ‘Thank Christ that’s over’ and I looked beside me and Mark was lying there and I looked again and paramedics were giving him CPR and then I looked again at him and he was gone.”
At the subsequent inquest into Cpl Wright’s death, the coroner called him an exceptional soldier whose death was down to a series of failures, including a lack of appropriate UK helicopters with a winch, the downdraft from the Chinook and the delay in sending a suitable helicopter.
The coroner, Andrew Walker, concluded: “That a brave soldier is lost in battle is always a matter of deep sadness but when that life is lost where it need not have been because of a lack of equipment and assets, those responsible should hang their heads in shame.”
In 2011, Sgt Pearson successfully sued the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for negligence.
Since recovering from his injuries he has devoted himself to raising money for the military charity Blesma, which supports veterans who have lost limbs. He has raised thousands of pounds through challenges including lengthy cycles, hill walks and the London Marathon.
Looking back, 14 years after his injury and Cpl Wright’s death, he told Sky News: “I would say a lot of these decisions are just made by people in suits in Whitehall that have never fought a battle at all, taken one day and fought an enemy, so I’m quite disgusted by it.”
Cpl Wright’s parents are similarly angry at the circumstances in which they lost their only son.
His mother, Jem Wright, told Sky News of the moment she was told he had been killed.
“The two chaps came to the door and I knew right away it was bad news.
“They said ‘can we come in?’ and I said ‘you can come in if Mark’s just been hurt but if not, you’re not coming in’ and they said ‘we have to come in’.”
“It just took the breath away, I just thought ‘that’s our life over’. Mark was our life.”
Mark’s father, Bob, questions the UK military involvement in Afghanistan and the human cost.
“Why did they go there in the first place? Everywhere they go, they never seem to finish the job.
“They have lost all those lives, boys and girls, all these people that have lost limbs, families that have been traumatised through it, for what?”
“That’s them pulling out. What about all those lives that were lost? It’s sad. To me, that shows you the mentality of the MoD.”
Following the events in Kajaki, Cpl Wright was posthumously awarded the George Cross and Sgt Pearson received the Queen’s Gallantry Medal. Lance Corporal Paul Hartley and Fusilier Andrew Barlow were awarded George Medals.
:: Special coverage of events – Afghanistan: Endgame – is being shown throughout the day, with an Afghanistan Special hosted by Mark Austin at 7pm
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