By Stephen Paul Stewart, Scotland.
I owe my life to a dog.
I went to Afghanistan as a reporter in 2009 and was gobsmacked by how many dogs of all shapes and sizes there were.
Military working dogs and their human handler were everywhere. They were trooping on to helicopters and armoured vehicles at all hours of the day and night, going out into the badlands to sniff out bombs, weapons and drugs, the Taliban’s main source of cash.
My experiences gave me the idea for my book A Soldier’s Best Friend which highlights the largely overlooked role of our canine heroes. During my time embedded with 3 SCOTS, the Black Watch, in Kandahar, Afghanistan, I was lucky enough to get the chance to go out on a big operation to smash the Taliban in their own backyard.
I also got the chance to come face to face with a silent hero…called Benji. This black Labrador and his handler Private Edward Buckland would be at the forefront of Operation Tyruna – a surgical strike on a Taliban bomb making factory.
After a nervy couple of days of preparation, we boarded a twin rotor Chinook helicopter to fly us out to the target. A total of nine Chinooks, three Black Hawks, two Sea Kings and four Apache attack helicopters tear out of the darkness and sweep across the vast, almost oceanic expanses of open desert.
Some 300 3 Scots soldiers, a US Army engineering detachment and scores of crack Afghan troops are taking part. Our destination: a heavily guarded insurgent fortress in the small hamlet of Malmand Chinah in the infamous Sangin Valley.
Photographer Lesley and I hit the ground, stomachs churning, as bullets pop and whizz overhead. After a series of raids on compounds and a number of blasts that nearly knock me off my feet, we head out to be picked up to the designated chopper landing site.
Walking with Benji and Pte Buckland, I am struck by the incongruous beauty of the landscape. It feels like walking on the surface of the moon despite the choppers whooshing over us. Eventually, the moonlight fades and the sun gradually appears from behind the awe inspiring mountains of the Sangin Valley.
Attack helicopters in the air behind us launch a series of chaff and flares, designed to deflect any heat seeking missiles, and as the brightly coloured fireworks die down I realise that we are threading our way past an old cemetery.
In Afghanistan,the dead are buried above ground with rocks piled over them to deter scavengers. The rags used as markers above the stone cairns flutter in the wind that sweeps down from the mountains.
Normally, this sight would have seemed gruesome but, with dawn drawing closer, it seemed oddly tranquil. There are no such distractions for Benji, whose job is far from over.
As we walk, I spot several small stones stacked into a pyramid, a tell-tale marker used by locals to indicate either IEDs or Soviet era landmines. Benji and his two legged comrades walk in single file in the footsteps of the person in front.
We have no time to worry about the possible dangers as we must be at the landing site just after 06.00 hrs for our extraction. With moments to spare, we arrive at the LZ, or landing zone, kneel down and await the churned up rocks and sand which will herald the Chinooks’ arrival.
Feeling horrifically exposed we slump on the flat ground at the foot of several mountains. Time seems to telescope and a minute feels like an hour. Benji, of course, maintains his professional composure, sitting tired but relaxed at the feet of Pte Buckland.
After what seems like a lifetime, the roar of a helicopter is heard in the west. Sure enough, our airborne taxis, a fleet of Chinooks, roar in, slamming down a few hundred feet in front of us.
Grabbing cameras and rucksacks we run for the rear doors, diving into the chopper, which speeds off in an undulating, defensive manoeuvre to foil any watching Taliban snipers.
It has been a rewarding night’s work. Benji and his team located 250 kilogrammes of wet opium, worth more than $1.5m, as well as a cache of deadly weapons that would have been used to target British soldiers, and seven Taliban fighters were killed.
One by one, the soldiers on the flight slump on their weapons, drifting into a deep and well deserved sleep. It is hard to quantify just how valuable arms and explosives search dogs like Benji are.
How do you work out how many arms, legs and lives that Benji and his four legged comrades have saved. This surgical strike on the Taliban’s backyard emphasises the importance of our dog teams.
I eventually slumped on my Army bunk bed in the relative safety of Kandahar Air Field feeling like I had won the lottery. Thanks to Benji, I had made it back to base in one piece.
A Soldier’s Best Friend by Stephen Paul Stewart is available from Amazon, Waterstones and all good book shops.
Stephen is a news reporter with one of Scotland’s biggest selling newspapers, the Daily Record, and has reported on subjects as widely diverse as neo-Nazi terror groups to X-Factor finalists.