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The soldier who went back to Hell

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A new war film is inspired by a tale of courage and sacrifice in Afghanistan. Sam Rowe meets the man who survived – and returned...

No matter what your feelings are towards conflict, you can’t deny the courage of soldiers in war zones. And Alex Craig is braver than most. In February 2012, the commissioned officer arrived on the dusty plains of Afghanistan, an expert in bomb disposal in search of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and mines. The fact he was returning to the country six years after a tragedy – involving the very mines he was now here to defuse – only makes it more astonishing.

Flash back to 6 September 2006 – since dubbed ‘The Day Of Days’ by those in the British Army – and Craig, then a lance corporal deployed as a combat medic within the Afghan National Army, was called for medical assistance. En route to investigate a Taliban roadblock, 3 Parachute Regiment (3 Para) soldiers stationed in Kajaki Dam were walking along a dry riverbed when an anti-personnel mine, laid by Russian forces some 25 years earlier, was detonated. Lance Corporal Stuart Hale claimed it felt like he’d slipped on a banana skin, but upon looking down he realised things were far more severe. The little finger on his right hand was hanging off, and the bottom part of his leg was gone.

“When the first mine went off [Corporal] Mark Wright radioed down to me,” remembers Craig. “He said, ‘We need another medic up here.’ Immediately, I said, ‘I’m on my way.’”

Adding medical aid alongside Hale’s fellow 3 Para comrades, who’d rushed down the ridge to help, Lance Corporal Craig and co soon learned they were in the middle of an active minefield – one misstep could mean another casualty, or a corpse. 
“This is gonna sound stupid, but I didn’t really think about it,” says Craig. “I just thought, ‘It’s my job, I better get in there.’ It’s far from being a hero – probably more stupidity than anything else."

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Commissioned officer Alex Craig

Medals of honour

As Corporal Mark Wright tried to organise a helicopter to winch his wounded soldier to safety, disaster struck once more. Corporal Stu Pearson – one of the first on the scene to care for Hale – triggered a mine on a path he thought was safe. He, too, lost a leg.

Along with Wright, Craig leapt into action and risked his life again, rushing across the minefield to Pearson’s aid – applying a tourniquet to stem the bleeding and pricking him with morphine – before, incredibly, the gruesome scene got even worse. A Chinook helicopter arrived to rescue the troops, but without a winch to airlift them to safety, landing the chopper could result in more explosions. After they ordered it away (“We were all screaming at it to f*ck off,” Pearson later said) the Chinook’s downdraft detonated another mine, sending shrapnel into Pearson’s right leg, and into Wright and Craig, who’d hunched over to protect him. 

“I remember a loud bang,” says Craig. “I was launched to the side, and I could see a big bit of something wedged into my hip. [The pain] didn’t kick in until later; at the time I was more shocked."

Craig’s injuries and position on the minefield meant he was able to be extracted – with an attending doctor piercing his chest to save his right lung from collapsing. The others weren’t so lucky: a fourth mine explosion injured Wright and Pearson further, blowing off Fusilier Andy Barlow’s foot. Though the seven casualties were eventually airlifted out – after nearly four hours bleeding in the sweltering heat – Corporal Mark Wright did not survive the flight. He was posthumously awarded a George Cross medal for his courage.

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From the film: the moment after Stu Hale steps on a landmine

Brotherhood

Nearly a decade on, the memory of Kajaki still burns bright for Alex Craig, who’s now 34. This is largely due to the feature film recently released – and soon heading to DVD – about the horrific ordeal (a “very strange” thing to watch, he says), while the hunks of shrapnel that still sit under his skin provide a visual reminder. Though Kajaki: The True Story is as much about brotherhood as it is tragedy, what Craig and his fellow soldiers endured on that ridge in 2006 could understandably put even the most loyal recruit off life in the British Army. Yet Craig was back at work within a month, and returned to Afghanistan in 2012 – this time as a specialist in bomb disposal, IEDs and, yes, mines. But why?

“I felt it was a job that meant I could stop that happening again,” Craig says. “I’ve always felt guilt that I didn’t do enough on that day. This way, I felt I could do a little bit more for the guys. My wife wasn’t very impressed, but it was something I needed to do.”

Craig is not alone. Though 452 British servicemen lost their lives in Afghanistan, and thousands more were injured, there is a strain of soldiers that returned to the region to continue serving their country, in spite of their life-altering war wounds. Corporal Stu Hale – who lost his leg in the first Kajaki mine explosion – became the first amputee ever to go back to Afghanistan, returning in 2008 with a prosthetic leg. Lance Corporal Jonathan Lee longed to be the second, telling a local newspaper: “No soldier wants to leave a tour uncompleted.”

It’s this sense of duty and closure that seemingly led Craig and others to return to the place where they experienced such horror. What’s more, you can’t discount the widely reported difficulties veterans can face – from post-traumatic stress disorder to struggling to integrate into civilian life. For Craig, he felt his return was simple. “This is what I live on,” he admits. “I enjoy risk, and it’s what I’m trained to do.” 

Remarkably, in 2008 Stu Hale returned to the very hill where he lost his leg. Alex Craig was not afforded the same opportunity (the area of operations had shrunk by the time he went back), but, with a smile, claims he’d feel comfortable revisiting the hill that permanently altered his life.
“I’d feel much safer now,” he says. “Going back – I’d know exactly where the mines are.”

Follow Sam Rowe on Twitter.

Kajaki: The True Story is out on Blu-ray, DVD, VOD and Digital Download on 8 June

[Images: Amber, Red]

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