Afghanistan adventure: MP visits troops in war zone

The MP for North West Cambridgeshire, Shailesh Vara went to Afghanistan for two days last week. In an exclusive interview for The Hunts Post, he told ANGELA SINGER what he found there. AS the MP arrived in Afghanistan and stepped off the plane he learned

The MP for North West Cambridgeshire, Shailesh Vara went to Afghanistan for two days last week. In an exclusive interview for The Hunts Post, he told ANGELA SINGER what he found there.

AS the MP arrived in Afghanistan and stepped off the plane he learned that a marine had been killed at the place he was about to visit.

The Royal Marine was killed in an explosion last week at Camp Bastion, an outpost still being built. The base and the older base at Kandahar, which dates back to the 1950s, was visited by Shailesh Vara, the MP for North West Cambridgeshire.

A party of 15 politicians, 13 MPs, a member of the European Parliament and a Lord set off from RAF Brize Norton to fly out to Afghanistan as part of a scheme to familiarise those who make the decisions with the living and fighting conditions of those obliged to carry them out.

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Mr Vara, speaking exclusively to The Hunts Post, said he was struck on the aircraft going out by the presence of stretchers - there to carry the wounded back home. On the way back, on Thursday, one of the stretchers was filled.

A special detour was made to collect a soldier who had injured his spine in Iraq. The detour to fly to Kuwait to pick up the injured man and on to Birmingham to take him to hospital added six hours to the return journey.

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Mr Vara, 48, and a father of two boys aged four and two, said: "I was shocked by how young these troops are. I thought I heard one of them say they were 18 but I could have been mistaken. They are very brave, some of the finest people we have in our country, and we should be very proud of them. They are doing a brilliant job.

"They are very positive. I did not hear one person complain the whole time we were there. They are determined to do the best job they possibly can."

Among the people the MP met were troops from his constituency in RAF Wittering and the former station commander there, Group Captain Rowena Atherton. It was she who advised her troops not to wear their uniforms walking around Peterborough because people had jeered at them.

Mr Vara said he was also struck with the weight of the equipment that military personnel have to carry - not just the body armour and the equipment but also their food and water - a burden of more than four stone in conditions that were extremes of heat and cold and "dust, dust and more dust".

He also met Afghan civilians risking their lives by working as interpreters for the combined forces who used Camp Bastion as their base.

"They know they are putting their families at risk. One of them said to me that he recognised the dangers, but his family owed a lot of money to the village elders and working for the military meant he could be released from the debt.

"He had borrowed money to pay for a big wedding so his family could keep face but now he owed several thousand dollars - the kind of money he would not earn in a life-time."

The politicians party was travelling under the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme set up in 1997. This offers politicians a chance to travel for 20 days each year with one of the services and be given an honorary rank for the duration of the visit. Mr Vara chose the RAF and was made an honorary squadron leader for his trip.

On leaving Britain, mobile phones are turned off - only to be turned on again on returning to British soil. Mobile phones are banned for personnel in Afghanistan because they could be used by the Taliban to track down where people are.

On arrival, the group was told to put on helmets and body armour, making them aware that they were in a war zone.

Mr Vara said: "It was a very intensive two days. I had never been in a war zone. I was aware of the dangers immediately outside the perimeter. This was an extraordinary experience and very worth while.

"MPs are in the business of discussing war issues in Parliament and I will find it very helpful to have been in that theatre of war with men and women in the conditions I have seen. I have seen at first hand, the equipment they use, the vehicles, the aircraft and their living accommodation."

Mr Vara said he did not once see a mobile phone in use on the trip and he understood there would be no e-mail communication. There was television but mainly playing news or music channels - there were films being shown but these could have been DVDs.

"It was comforting to see that some of the troops had put up Christmas decorations in the post room. I spoke to one of them but sadly he did not think he would be spending Christmas at home with his family in the UK.

"The troops were delighted to see us. They were pleased that we were not just going to sit in a Westminster bubble.

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