Headquarters 22 SAS Regiment and North Devon
The OC of the Squadron was holding his weekly State of the Union meeting, with the training officer and the Squadron Adjutant. He asked the adjutant for an update on Operation Moshtarak, currently the Squadron’s main effort in Afghanistan.
“The operation has had reasonable success and a number of Taliban commanders have been killed,” the adjutant explained, “But it’s a habitual problem that those in the lower orders simply replace the ones killed or captured. That’s the nature of COIN operations for you.”
“And the rescue of the Canadian couple. What happened?” asked the Squadron Commander.
“Well, sir, it was a hastily put together, ad-hoc operation. We didn’t have enough bayonet strength and there were only four SEALs. As the operation was in the American AOR, the SEALs took the lead for fighting up to the compound, that should have been cleared by our men. Unfortunately, there were many more Taliban in the compound than we had ascertained. Corporal Porter was killed inside the complex as they tried to fight their way out. The woman hostage was killed despite Sergeant Jarvis’ best efforts to save her. Jarvis was wounded and is undergoing rehab at RAF Cosford.”
“And I understand there was dislike between the SEALs and our teams? Why couldn’t the rest of the Americans join in the operation, instead of watching an empty village?”
“Because Jarvis thought they were going to move the hostages the following day. There was no time to go and pick up the majority of the SEALs, brief them and work out a scheme of manoeuvre. Mr Hogan concurred with the decision, so the attack was mounted with the limited forces we had. There was also a problem with the comms.”
“So, what happened, Adj?”
“The SEAL team radioed that they had landed and were on their way up to the compound. They went straight into a Taliban ambush, very well sited and they lost a man.”
“And what happened with Staff Sergeant Edge?”
“Reports from Mr Hogan and Sergeant Boothe say there was bad blood between the SEALs and Edge. Edge reacted quickly to enfilading fire and kept the momentum going. Back at Kandahar he accused the SEAL commander of killing his own man by firing along his own gun line. He says the wound on the dead SEAL was indicative of his being killed by a small calibre, high velocity round. It’s impossible to say otherwise as the Americans have repatriated the body.”
“Is Edge problematic?”
“He is a damned fine soldier, sir, a decent patrol medic and the holder of the Military Cross. He had the misfortune to make an enemy of an anti-British American of Irish descent.”
“Is it true that Edge provoked him?”
“Possibly, but Sergeant Boothe and Corporal Bell have stated in the report that the SEAL pulled a knife on Edge, so Edge clobbered him. The SEAL Lieutenant is not too happy about the incident, however, their own investigation has found that their men acted in an unprofessional way. The Petty Officer was sent home and they would prefer it if we did the same with Edge.”
“Hmm,” the squadron commander said reading the report, “Clobbering which includes breaking an allies’ nose and loosening his two front teeth.”
“Sir, Edge can be a difficult person to quantify. He is insular, quiet and thoughtful and his family live away in Devon, so he lives in the mess but rarely attends mess functions. However, he has a circle of friends, including Mr Morrison. He brought Sergeant Jarvis up to speed when he joined the squadron and is a steadying influence on the newer personnel. He operates very well on his own. Personally, I think the continual tours in Afghanistan and Iraq are wearing him down, and he has been in combat for a number of years.”
“What does the Training Officer think?”
“He is fully up to date with his continual training programme. He scores highly on the soldier conditioning review and is current in his fitness and swimming tests. He needs to complete his annual refresher training on static line and HALO, but you know sir, the difficulty of getting slots on the C130 fleet and the A400m when it comes into service.”
“I think he needs a change of environment. Close protection or a training tour,” suggested the Adjutant, “Or perhaps a secondment to another country’s Special Forces. The French in Mali as an example.”
The Squadron Commander pondered the problem and an idea formed in his mind, “Gentlemen, leave this with me. I’ll make some phone calls this afternoon to see if my idea holds water. Could you come and see me tomorrow, Adj? I hope this works because that little bit of metal and its pretty ribbon has a sell by date. He’s too good a man to lose, so let’s give him the best chance and keep the Americans off our backs.
Cooper drove Edge to Kandahar’s departure area, a number of interjoined tents inside Hesco Bastion walls complete with dozens of Portaloos. Mr Hogan went with them, mainly because he had a soft spot for Edge. He was going back to the UK on a C16 freight load and an aeromed team.
“Well, it looks like it’s going to be the Womens’ Auxiliary Balloon Corps for me,” Edge said as he hefted his equipment and weapons valise out of the back of the Land Rover. “Honestly, all I ever ask for is a quiet life, but trouble follows me like a bad smell.”
“You’ll be alright, Edgie,” Mr Hogan said, “Just tell the truth, no embellishment, serve your penance, but they know what happened because I told them.”
Edge waved as he went into the air terminal and Cooper waved back. He sighed and they walked back to the Land Rover.
“Do you know what Edges problem is, apart from his shocking bad luck?”
“I wish I did, Lad,” Hogan replied.
“His temper. That’s how his face ended up being “displaced,” courtesy of a German policeman who assaulted him. He made sure that bent copper would never walk unaided. And a shit hot lawyer got him off the charge of ABH. He also pissed off a Serbian warlord by shooting his dog.”
“Bloody hell,” said Mr Hogan.
“It gets better, or rather worse. It was while he was in Bosnia, Edge was seeing a local woman, a forensic anthropologist who was investigating mass graves. It was a big, love job. The Serbs warlord had a pretty dim attitude to losing his best fighting dog so he abducted her, tortured her to death and dumped her body at the dig site as a warning to Edge. That’s why he is sometimes a melancholy and insular guy.”
“The poor bastard.”
When they got in the Land Rover, Cooper looked at the Warrant Officer.
“I really hope that Edgie isn’t in too much trouble. I like him, warts and all.”
“I have to confess, I have a soft spot for Mr Edge. He’ll be OK, providing he can avoid trouble.”
Easier said than done, thought Cooper.
The Dauphin Medium Utility Helicopter swept across Pen y Fan and hovered on the summit to let out a man in military combat uniform. As he ran towards the checkpoint, he noted the men below, labouring up the steep slope to the checkpoint, wearing florescent covers on their bergens. Safety first, he thought cynically. Soon it would become very hard, traversing the “Fan Dance” alone at night.
“Do you know where Staff Edge is?” he asked the SNCO manning the checkpoint, as the helicopter swept over their heads.
“He’s coming up with this next bunch of candidates. In fact, you can see and hear him shouting at the stragglers.”
Down on the path up to the summit, Edge was at the rear with a group who were struggling.
“Come on you slackers, only two hundred metres to the summit. Dig in! The worst is over,” he lied.
At the checkpoint the candidates checked their timings and guzzled down some water, “Not too much! That’s got to last you another twelve hours!”
The officer from the helicopter sought out Edge, “Staff Edge, the Squadron Adjutant would like to see you, tout suite.”
This was the moment Edge had been dreading, “OK, sir.”
The officer raised his arms and the Dauphin circled round and went into the hover on the crest of Pen y Fan. Edge climbed in the rear and the officer got in next to the pilot. The helicopter left the Beacons behind and was soon flying over Herefordshire’s rolling countryside. The Dauphin made a single circuit of the Credenhill Barracks and landed on the parade square.
“Straight in please Staff Edge. The Adjutant is expecting you.
Edge exited on the two-o-clock position and walked towards the buildings, ducking down until he was clear of the rotor blades. He searched in his many smock pockets for his beret and went into the squadron admin department. The young female civil servants working in the offices looked at him with interest.
The middle-age woman who was the Adjutant’s PA stood up and said to Edge, “You can go straight in, he’s expecting you, Staff Edge.”
Inside the Adjutant was sitting in an easy chair, reading some file or another. He looked up and smiled, “Hello, Mark.”
“Take a seat and relax. The Training Officer sends his thanks for helping with the guys on selection, by the way. Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“No thanks sir.”
“In which case I’ll wait,” said the Adjutant. He looked at Edge as though coming to a decision, “Mark, I have no intention of trawling over the incident again. I’ve read the report from WO Hogan and the witness statements from Sergeant Boothe. I would just observe that perhaps you might want to walk away the next time.
“Now that leaves what we are to do with you until the rest of the troopers return to the UK. I’m sorry but you need to hear a bit of a history first.
“In the 1980s the Colombian Special Forces were trained by members of Two-Two, in jungle warfare. It’s been many years since members of the Squadron were involved in the jungles of Colombia, which has seen a war between the FARC and the Colombian Government. I’ve got a file here and I’d like you to read it, regarding the state of the ongoing insurgency. It will be useful background.”
“You want me to go to Colombia, sir?
“Not alone. The US Green Berets are currently in theatre, working with the Colombians, their main effort is training the Colombian Special Forces. They are trying to choke the flow of cocaine north and into the States. The area of South Colombia is where cocaine is produced, refined and packaged for distribution. We have requested that you are seconded to the Green Berets and they have agreed.”
Edge realised that this was a fait accompli and decided to make the best of it, “When do I go, sir?”
“Just over a week. When you get out there you will be reporting to the Assistant Military Attaché in the Embassy in Bogota, although you will be working further south in the country. There will be an American from their embassy to meet you in Bogota and make the introductions to Major Martinez and the Green Berets. You can draw your weapons and ammunition and they will be allowed on the flight sealed with the Diplomatic paperwork. One more thing, can you speak Spanish?”
“Get a crash course in Spanish from the education centre. Then go on leave and report back here to draw weapons, your kit and air tickets.”
“How long will this detachment last, sir?”
“Around three months. One more thing, Edge.”
“No fisticuffs with the Americans, please.”
Edge smiled ruefully, “Hopefully not.”
He signed for a Spanish course in the education centre and went back to his room in the mess to pack. It was a pretty lonely experience living away from his family, but at least he could continue with his watercolours. He was going through a period of nudes and he knew that despite her earlier exuberance for all things carnal, Moira would regard the tastefully painted nudes as something pervy. She had two children to look after now.
It was early afternoon by the time he stowed his limited kit in the rear pannier of his Triumph Tiger motorbike. He headed out along the A49 and picked up the M4 and M5 after crossing the bridge and arrived at the cottage on the Torridge at 15:30. He would give his wife a surprise, not ringing to tell her he was back from Afghanistan, hoping that it was not him who would get the surprise.
He wheeled the Triumph down the drive and pulled off his helmet. The air smelled sweet and he could hear the river running past Weare Gifford. Edge felt truly that he was home. His heart gave a little lurch as he thought about his family and this modest cottage above the flood meadows and felt a deep gratitude.
He went in and his wife Moira looked at him with astonishment, “Mark? What the hell are you doing here? I thought you were in Afghanistan?”
She had been in the process of feeding their son and he could tell she looked tired and a little emotional.
“I was. Where’s Sarah?”
“In the sitting room, watching kids TV.”
Edge put his head through the open door, “Hi Sarah.”
“Hello, daddy,” she said and went back to the garish puppets on the TV. It was though her father arrived home unannounced every other day.
“Is he being difficult to feed?” he asked his wife.
She suddenly burst into tears, “Every time. He just won’t latch on and my nipples feel like they’ve been sandpapered!”
Edge sat at the table and unzipped his leathers, “Why don’t you feed him from a bottle?”
“Because the health visitor said breast is best…”
“But not necessarily for you. How many children does that middle aged old bat have?”
“Oh, I don’t know, but I want to do what’s best for him.”
“How about I get you some nipple shields from Boots tomorrow?”
Less than a week he had been locked in close combat with the Taliban and now he was discussing breast feeding, with just a week back at the Lines decompressing. Life is a strange, old thing, he thought.
“Why are you home, Mark?”
“They want me to do something else.”
“Who have you fallen out with?” It was amazing how she knew.
“I clouted somebody.”
“Oh, he’s on thank God. Steady and don’t munch on me. Who did you hit, Mark?”
“An American SEAL.”
“A bloody seal? Where were you, Kabul Zoo?”
“No. We were fighting with the American Special Forces and one of them got one of his own men killed.”
“So you hit him?”
“That’s about the size of it, although he was showing a great deal of hostility to the Brits.”
“Oh, Mark. You bloody idiot.”
The Edge’s cat Monty made an appearance, looked at Edge and miaowed, then jumped up on the kitchen table. Edge rubbed under his chin and the cat dribbled
“You got him a nice, new, tartan collar I see.”
“He nearly strangled himself with the old one. Sarah found him dangling with his collar caught on a branch and don’t change the bloody subject.”
“Sorry. I was sent home for them to find something else for me to do.”
“Could you be discharged?” Moira asked hopefully.
“Moira, I’ve got less than two years until my engagement is up and the pension is not bad.”
“So, what do they want you to do?”
“Go to Colombia as an exchange with the Americans. I guess one of theirs will join our squadron. Oh, and I have to learn Spanish. I have the discs and the booklet in the bike.”
“Well at least it’s not Afghanistan or Iraq. How long for?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Mark! The kids will miss you, or Sarah will. Francis will be at university, never having known his father.”
“Don’t exaggerate. Three months will go by in a flash, and you’ll always have your loving Mummy and Daddy to look after you, and you can tell them what a bastard your husband has been.”
“That was cheap, Mark.”
He stood up and opened a bottle of wine, “Yeah, I suppose it was, sorry. I believe Henry was visiting Angela.”
“Yes, he was. They both popped in to say hello.”
“Could she walk?”
“Don’t be naughty, Mark.”
“Why don’t we go out one night for a meal and get away from the kids for a couple of hours one of these nights?”
“We can’t just leave them.”
“I bet Angela would babysit for a couple of hours. And before you start, you could express some milk.”
“I don’t know…”
“Three months? All that cocaine. I’ll come back with a white face and no nasal septum…”
“I’ll phone and ask her, but I’m not sure.”
“I am. Carpe Diem: Seize the day. And when we come home…” He grinned.
“No chance!” but she knew they would.
They were in the Riverside Restaurant in Bideford, having finished their main meal and waiting for a coffee. They had been talking about the possibility of Henry Morrison marrying Angela when Moira suddenly changed the subject, catching him off guard.
“Mark, what do you think about when you’re fighting, and do you feel frightened?”
“Err, making sure everyone knows what is going to be happening and being ready to command clearly and calmly. Sure, I feel frightened, terrified sometimes, but that gives me the edge.”
“How can you reconcile that with being a husband and father?”
“Because you compartmentalise the family and life to a different part of the brain, in order to concentrate on your immediate job.”
“And what does it feel like to kill somebody?”
She had never asked this before, “Sometimes I feel elated because I survived, and other times I feel sick to the stomach, and physically throw up.”
“So why do it?”
“Because somebody has to and you knew what I was and what I did when we first met.”
“I liked your uniform and those little, blue wings. I thought you were fit and you were. So fit I could hardly walk. I rather imagined you saving people, not killing them.” Suddenly a thought struck her, “Mark, have you had enough?”
He looked in her eyes and she thought there was a shadow. Pain?”
He stared down and fiddled with the sugar bowl, “Yes,” he said so quietly she nearly missed it, “I’ve had enough.”
© Blown Periphery 2021
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file