REBECCA RICKS, defence reporter for the Herald Express’s sister title the Plymouth Herald, has just returned from Afghanistan. Rebecca, 22, was born in Paignton and is a former Churston Ferrers Grammar School pupil. Here she writes of her time in Helmand province, including standing in a dinner queue with Prince Harry
WEARILY stepping out of the RAF Voyager aircraft, the distinct smell of fresh air hits me.
After two weeks in Afghanistan I'm back at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.
It's been 48 hours since I left the relative comfort of my sleeping bag in Camp Bastion and I'm not the only one eager to see the back of 'Brize'.
Dozens of soldiers and marines are returning home with me, be it for a two-week break or to be reunited with their families for the foreseeable future; we are all champing at the bit to get through customs.
In the arrivals lounge, families watch the door with intent ready to welcome their loved ones home.
Others who have been reunited leave the airport in the arms of their families.
Two weeks ago I sat here and watched a young boy tearfully say goodbye to his father. It's no surprise the troops don't look fondly on the place.
I've been in Helmand province reporting from Nahr-e Saraj, Nad-e Ali and Lashkar Gah on the progress south west-based Royal Marines are making in the region and the teams operating the trauma hospital in Camp Bastion the UK's main base.
Having never been to Helmand before, the prospect of two weeks of reporting from the frontline was daunting.
Snippits of my pre-deployment training rattled around my head as I stood in the arrivals room at Bastion attempting to take in the indirect fire drills.
Because I was embedding on the 'frontline' I needed further training once I was in Afghanistan.
We rehearsed how to get out of the armoured Mastiff vehicles I would travel in in the event of one rolling either because it hit an improvised explosive device (IED) or simply due to an accident.
Every time I was tipped upside down by the simulator I prayed I'd never find myself in that situation having to deal with my own or someone else's injuries.
Before I left I was warned Afghanistan would be freezing cold.
Having spent a year working alongside Royal Marines young officers I'd learnt to pack for every eventuality.
Frankly, I could have survived the temperatures of Norway with my kit.
But oddly the cold was different. It was dry and -3C felt like 5C. Warmer days when we peaked at 7C it felt like a May day.
At night the mercury dropped to -6. Wrapped up in my sleeping bag, thermals, fleece jacket and a hat I'm still not warm.
For the first few nights I'm regularly woken by the lightest noise in my tent.
After watching countless reports of rogue Afghans killing ISAF troops before I left, I find myself sleeping in the fear of an insider attack.
I asked myself was I at less risk or more being a female journalist?
I just didn't know but as the days pass I realise this was unnecessary angst. Camp Bastion has to be one of the safest places in Helmand.
If it's safe enough for the third in line to the throne, it's safe enough for me.
It certainly was an odd feeling to stand in the dinner queue with Prince Harry.
He looked like any other soldier, queued like every other soldier.
In some ways I felt sorry for him. In order to have that normality I think he craves he has to come to a war zone.
The night before I'm due to fly out to main operating base Price to join 40 Commando an echoing announcement falls over the base.
"Standby for announcement. Op Minimise, Op Minimise, Op Minimise."
Communication lines are down because there has been an 'incident'.
As I hear it, a sinking feeling drops through my stomach. I know harm has come to a British serviceman or woman.
This time it was an alleged green on blue attack. Six soldiers were injured and one was killed. Sapper Richard Walker, a young father barely a year older than myself, was fatally wounded during the incident.
It hits home and I just imagine the crucifying pain and torment his family will face from the second they hear that dreaded knock on the door.
After reading his eulogy, I spent a lot of time thinking about him. I'd never met him, I never knew him but now his name will never escape me.
This is the harsh reality of the world I find myself in.
Before I left for Afghanistan I was told the Role 3 hospital had the best trauma facilities in the world.
By no means did I dispute this but after spending three days watching the team work, I walk away in complete agreement.
The nurses and doctors have a genuine, compassionate care for their patients and the job they do. I find it almost overwhelming to witness.
I particularly remember a young boy in the hospital.
He had been brought in after part of his hand was blown off by a detonator.
When I was in Camp Bastion he had been there for almost five weeks and was due to go home but while he was in the hospital, the staff put their utmost effort into making his bed child friendly.
Pictures decorated the wall and toys were scattered on his bed.
The children I met in Afghanistan were curious, their smiles infectious.
One boy, perhaps no older than five, hopped off his father's motorbike at a check point in Gereshk and came bounding up to the marines standing by me.
What he wanted I don't know, maybe just a wave, a smile or perhaps sweets but looking up at a Commando, his face lit up. I watched intently before he bounced the 20 metres to get on the back of the bike.
I find myself thinking about his future. Perhaps he will become a farmer or maybe join the Afghan National Security Forces. I just hope he doesn't fall into the wrong hands.
While in the smaller outposts in Helmand I visited bases for the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police.
On one occasion I find my brain working overtime taking me back to the insider attacks as I remove my body armour in the company of armed Afghan soldiers and police. Here the issue is trust.
If I'd left my body armour on they'd know instantly I didn't trust them — like a number of the marines escorting me. Taking it off I'm vulnerable.
During my brief visit, the Afghans are intrigued by me — a western female, perhaps the only one they've seen in person.
They stare continuously, wanting to touch my hair and shake hands.
The culture was as much an eye-opener as the 'war' itself.
From the small section of Helmand province that I saw I sensed an element of progress.
In years gone by I've watched the reports as Nahr-e Saraj was ravished by fighting; now I see a bustling city centre, children playing and dozens of frustrated Royal Marines.
The Commandos want to be doing the fighting like they train to do for so long.
But now with ANSF striding ahead, the marines are almost redundant from that role.
The guys I interviewed spoke of their annoyance at the lack of 'kinetic' activity but equally realise it's a 'good sign'.
Such a good sign that some of them will fly home for good three months early.
From just two short weeks in Afghanistan I come home after a truly eye-opening experience.
Progress is being made.
Whether it lasts once ISAF leave next year, who knows?
But the way the soldiers and civilians cope when the reality of war hits them is humbling.
It takes me away from the trivial problems I might moan about at home.
Once again, I think of Sapper Richard Walker.