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'For some of us, the war is never over'

By This is Exeter  |  Posted: November 11, 2009

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IT TAKES a moment before the pain hits, before it shivers through his body and begins to bite down.

For the world to stand still, and the seconds to slow.

Then the searing, bone-shattering, blood-spilling agony overcomes the adrenalin and overpowers the senses.

The body goes into overdrive, the breath quickens and the heart speeds to an uncontrollable gallop.

Noise, heat, blood, the taste of desert earth in his mouth.

Lance Corporal Karl Dobson stares at the sky, a blue ceiling filling with black acrid smoke, and realises he has been hit.

He is on his back. A moment before he had been reading letters from home.

Morale was high. He had served eight years in the army and never even been scratched.

Then suddenly staring at the sky, accompanied by that god-awful, hammering pain.

A voice starts to scream for help. It is his own.

He knows he has been hit, but how and why it happened is anyone's guess.

He waves his left arm trying to brush off the unexploded bomb which his scrambled mind thinks has lodged itself unexploded in his combat clothes.

'Move! Run! Get up!' his mind shouts.

If he stays where he is Karl will certainly die. He has minutes, perhaps even seconds.

Summoning a strength from deep within he gets to his feet and runs for cover.

He doesn't hear his army boots running on the dull earth, but the stones around his feet are dancing as the impact of bombs, launched from outside the base, continue to pound the ground around him.

"A bomb isn't going to finish me, they'll have to shoot me through the head to kill me," he tells himself.

He bursts into the armoured accommodation compound where fellow soldiers have taken cover.

One door. Nobody there. Second door, empty. Third door — friends.

They will save his life and in a few hours Karl will be in a hospital bed, having a 4cm piece of rocket shrapnel taken from his right shoulder.

He is lucky to be alive. An inch to the left and his lung punctures. The blood that spilled out of his shoulder would have filled his lungs instead.

He is a British soldier, hit by a Chinese rocket, fired by an Iraqi insurgent, during an Anglo American-prosecuted war. But he lives to tell the tale.

One of the four men who take him to the medics, risking their own life by crossing the open compound with an improvised stretcher made from a bed, will die a few years later in Afghanistan.

"The war never leaves you," Karl says. "It goes on for soldiers even after they have been rehabilitated.

"People need to know it's a never-ending story. Every time I hear about a death on the news it stops me in my tracks."

Born in Paignton to a Grenadier Guardsman, Karl freely admits he had little or no ambition on leaving school.

"My dad never forced me into the army or anything," he says.

"Of course it was always in the background and it was probably natural that I followed in his footsteps.

"I walked into the recruiting office in Torquay when I was 16 and just signed up. I loved sports and being active and it was the adventure which attracted me."

At 18 the Grenadier Guardsman passed the rigorous physical training course required to join up with the Parachute Regiment.

With the Guards' Para Platoon, he was physically fit and ready for battle.

In March 2003 he was stationed in Colchester and the call to arms came. Within a few hours they are all bound for Kuwait.

The invasion of Iraq begins and 16 Air Assault Brigade is one of the first to see action.

"We were sent to Kuwait to acclimatise to the conditions before the invasion began.

"We noticed the kit we were issued with was left over from the First Gulf War. The combat shirts and trousers smelled and had obviously been in storage for years.

"We had to buy a lot of kit of our own. The boots were totally unsuitable for the desert and I bought a pair before I went out, they cost about £100 and lasted me for about five months.

"There wasn't enough kit to give out to everybody, I suppose you'd call it teething problems. Soldiers have always bought some of their own kit."

After three months waiting, the British troops headed north towards Basra in a mechanised convoy of Land Rover and armoured vehicles.

"We stopped just outside Basra and press from all over the world were there," said Karl.

"The truth is we were never prepared for modern warfare and the press being around.

"I remember I was lying on the ground with my machine gun targeting an arc around me and this man came up to me carrying a big lens and stood right in front of the barrel.

"I thought, 'surely this shouldn't be happening' and told him to get out of the way.

"I was a bit taken aback but at the same time I could see what he wanted. A young face, gun, all the army gear, in the face of battle."

They got the signal to move and entered Basra without a struggle.

"Our biggest fear before that had been the chemical weapons. Nobody actually knew back then whether they had them or not. That's a dirty way to fight.

"We had been briefed that the enemy were in Basra and we were expecting the worst because if you don't you are going to have a hell of a shock.

"The heat was immense and we were carrying 1,000 rounds plus kit and the weight was phenomenal.

"But we had been so well trained by the Paras that we had no time to be afraid or nervous.

"We had immense support from leaders, by that I mean army officers, from the commanding officers and sergeant major down to the lance corporals.

"Fear is a bit funny because we were so well-trained it had made us confident. We knew exactly what we were doing and knowledge really was power.

"We had the confidence to carry out our duty to the full extent, there were no limitations to what we could do.

"We were not scared of opening fire, which is the biggest fear a solider has, because we knew the rules of engagement.

"In 2003 the rules were that if someone shot at you, you could shoot them back but not if they were turned with their back to you."

In Basra the Iraqi people treated the British soldiers like gods. And the biggest and best were the Paras, to which Karl was attached.

They accomplished their mission of dominating the ground without sight of Saddam's men and with the praise of locals ringing in their ears.

Three years later and the mood had changed. The welcome has turned to fear.

Not fear of British troops exactly but fear of reprisals from insurgents should an ordinary Iraqi be seen too close to an occupying soldier.

Back in England Karl had handed in his notice and was waiting to leave the army.

With four months left in the military he was waiting to leave, kicking his heels, performing his duties and ready to take on a fresh challenge in civilian life. Maybe a physical training instructor or a teacher — something working with young people.

"I didn't reflect too much about the first tour of Iraq. We were kept busy. The routine of army life is to clean kit, perform duties, take courses."

As a Grenadier Guardsman he had stood on sentry outside Buckingham Palace, two hours at a time, 'performed' for tourists at Trooping of the Colour shared barracks and the mundane trappings of army life with men he was proud to call friends and fellow warriors. They were just taking time out from the battle zone.

"I was happy with what I'd achieved and felt the time was right to leave. I had four months left when I was called to a meeting with an officer who said they needed a second in command for a 10-man team to go back to Iraq.

"I didn't want to go. I asked them why they needed me and they said they knew I didn't want my time to end like this. They said 'it's you'."

"If you don't go you feel you're letting you're mates down."

Karl was sent to Iraq with a team attached to the Queen's Royal Hussars to assess enemy propaganda being handed out to Iraqi civilians. Iraq was now in a state of civil war.

"We were there to assess propaganda videos and leaflets the enemy had given out to civilians.

"We would have videos of somebody speaking but we'd be aware that there was music in the background that to us didn't make any sense.

"But if we got an interpreter involved we could tell there were two messages, the spoken and the music.

"It was interesting work and we were pretty much left to ourselves and we became really close."

The team could rely on their own interpreter and vehicle support on demand. They needed it because their work was mostly done on foot.

There were spies all around and the civilians were cagey.

Patrolling the streets of Al Amara, involved speaking to ordinary Iraqis, gathering bits of information which would help them to target the enemy — all the time wearing body armour and helmets.

"At that point there were a lot of fatalities. When we were briefed we were told that the teams before us doing the same job had usually suffered one fatality or injury. We were going straight into hostile territory.

"If you start worrying about it then it's going to affect your job and people are definitely going to get killed because you will put your men in danger."

The camp at Al Amara was fortified by steel walls around the perimeter, with manned watch towers and helicopter landing area.

The accommodation block was in the centre. A square muscle of a building, spartan with a deep roof filled with earth above the living area designed to take the impact of a bomb.

In July 2006 it was attacked almost every night. Rockets were fired from a kilometre away.

"The first night I was there we were attacked and I had never experienced anything like it. The alarms went off and the drill is to run to the nearest hard-standing building putting your body armour on as you go."

At 3.30pm on July 16 Karl puts down the letters he was reading from home and goes for a breath of fresh air.

"The letters said 'keep your head safe, see you when you get back', that sort of thing. I was quite happy.

"Without any warning — I didn't even hear the whistle of the bomb — it had landed and it was too late to do anything.

"I was completely disorientated for a second but then well aware of why I was on the ground. Basically I knew I'd been struck. I was on the floor losing a substantial amount of blood."

The black smoke filling the sky is the aviation fuel tank which had also been hit.

Later Karl finds out that the bomb landed 10 to 20 feet away. Most of the impact had been taken by steel fortifications but a piece of shrapnel found a chink of flesh in his body armour between his arm and shoulder.

"If I wasn't as hard and robust as I was then I wouldn't have been able to pick myself up and run 150 metres."

His friends, all Grenadier Guards, administer first aid and take him to a medic.

"I met one of the men not long ago and he reminded me that they had run with the stretcher to the medic while the bombs were landing around them. Those four men risked their lives to save one. It could have wiped us all out but that is just soldiers' instinct when you see one of your mates. One of them was a new soldier, maybe 18 or 19 years old.

"The thought of death didn't cross my mind. I thought 'I'm in good hands now'."

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