It will be their last tour of duty before their battalion is disbanded – and their chance to add another achievement to its lasting legacy.
And now troops from the West Midlands have completed their final training exercise ready for their ‘last hurrah’ on the frontline in Afghanistan.
The eight-month tour will be the last for the 3rd Battalion Mercian Regiment (3Mercian) – formerly The Staffords – before it is disbanded as part of plans to cut 20,000 from the strength of the regular army.
Lt Col Chris Davies, their Commanding Officer, was today preparing to leave for trouble-torn Helmand Province following the final stages of training on Salisbury Plain.
“The elephant in the room is that when we return we will go through reorganisation,” he said.
“This is our last hurrah – a chance to leave a legacy that goes forward with the heritage of the battalion.
“It is the final opportunity for us to represent 3Mercian and the Staffords and my troops are hungry to do justice to the occasion. We want to leave behind an important addition to the proud heritage of what was once the Staffordshire Regiment.”
Pte Michael Marston, aged 20, whose family live in Doxey, Stafford, joined 3 Mercian 12 months ago and will be on his first tour. He said: “It will be a privilege to be on the final tour.
“I am excited and cannot wait to get out there. I have no worries about how I will react the first time I engage the enemy because we have been well trained and that experience will kick in as soon as the firing starts.”
The former King Edward V High School and Stafford College student, who completed two months of intensive training in Canada with his comrades, added: “I had a couple of jobs in civvy street after leaving college but was bored.
“This is nothing like ordinary work. I had wanted to join the Army since I was a kid and it has lived up to all my expectations. My parents are obviously worried. It will probably be worse for them waiting at home than it will be for me in Afghanistan.”
His mother Joanne, 42, admitted at the family’s home today: “I am very nervous but extremely proud. He has worked very hard and is really excited about going out there and so I try to be excited for him.
“He was not finding life fulfilling and had mentioned the army as a possible career on numerous occasions and so I told him to give it a go.
“The change in him since he joined 3Mercian has been enormous. He is a lot more grown up although there is no sign of him getting any tidier when he comes home on leave.”
Pte Patrick Coggins, aged 18, whose parents Sandra and Stephen live in Westcroft, Wolverhampton, joined the Army as a 16-year-old boy soldier after leaving Wolgarston High School in Penkridge.
He explained: “3Mercian are my local battalion and I wanted to serve in the infantry, so it was a perfect fit for me.”
Pte Coggins joined the battalion last December shortly before his 18th birthday and immediately volunteered for action in Afghanistan.
He said: “I was determined to get on the tour because it is the last for 3Mercian and British troops are being pulled out next year anyway. It was a once and for all opportunity and there was no point in just sitting twiddling my thumbs after I joined.”
His mother Sandra conceded: “It will be a nerve wracking time for his father and I while he is away but we fully support him. Patch, as we know him, said there is a potential for danger everywhere. He pointed out that he could go up town and never come back.
“We know he is well-prepared for Afghanistan. We were reassured after being invited to a family day and shown the weaponry he and his comrades have to protect them and the local population out there.”
Former school friends Ptes Chris Chapman, 25, and 23-year-old Adam Avery lost touch after leaving Woodhouse High School, Amington, near where they live in next door streets but are now comrades in arms after independently deciding to join 3Mercian 12 months ago.
Pte Avery revealed: “I could not believe my eyes when Chapman rocked up. We are even serving in the same platoon.” His pal added: “We are Staffs lads and 3Mercian is our battalion. We are proud to be representing it on its final tour.”
L/Cpl Andrew Barton, 33, from Solihull, who was promoted to L/Cpl this week after joining 3Mercian in October last year, is nicknamed ‘Doc’ because he has a degree in biomedical material science and a PhD in medical diagnostics during which he developed stroke sensors.
He admitted: “People might find it strange that I had such a dramatic change of direction in my life but I suddenly realised this was what I really wanted to do.
“Everybody says how much happier I am since I joined. I feel mentally and physically fitter.”
The 322 soldiers from 3Mercian serving in Afghanistan will be split into two companies and a brigade advisory team.
A Company has already arrived at their their base in Lashkar Durrai at a key junction of Highway 1, the main road round Afghanistan.
They will shortly be joined in Helmand Province by comrades from C Company who will operate out of a base near the logistically important town of Gereshkh. Both companies will be supporting the Afghan National Army at two of the four remaining patrol bases outside Camp Bastion where British troops are still stationed.
At one stage during the 10-year conflict there were up to 200, but they have been systematically closed or handed over to the Afghan Army as part of the draw down that will see all combat troops leave the country by the end of next year. There were 9,500 British soldiers in Afghanistan, but this will have dropped to 5,200 by Christmas and rapidly reduce further early in the New Year.
Many of the 3Mercian troops may return home before the end of their projected eight month tour and close the final British bases for good as they pull out.
The Brigade Advisory team from the battalion will work closely with senior Afghan commanders providing round the clock assistance.
They will do so with intelligence from British surveillance devices, back up troops from the Quick Reaction Force, air cover and Casevac, that takes badly wounded soldiers by helicopter from the battlefield to hospital at Camp Bastion. Lt Col Davies explained: “They can do most of this on their own.
“But the knowledge that we can help if they get in trouble means that the Afghan warrior has the will and confidence to fight the insurgents and win. They are still sustaining significant casualties.”
L/Cpl Barton, who studied at Manchester and Cranfield Universities after attending Solihull Sixth Form college, added: “I was in Afghanistan last month and was immediately struck by the advances that have been made.
“The sense of fear among the population has disappeared and they are getting on with their normal lives. They smile and wave as you pass.”
3Mercian will merge with the 1st and 2nd Battalions Mercian Regiment next summer but he insisted: “Both will have the name of the Staffords in their title. This is not the death of the old Staffords. It is the birth of two new ones, each with Staffordshire soldiers in them.”
The troops and families will leave their current barracks in Germany next summer and move to join either 1Mercian in Bulford or 2Mercian at its new HQ in Chester.
But there will be an emotional homecoming for 3Mercian before disbandment.
They will exercise their right to march through places in the West Midland and Staffordshire where they have been granted the freedom of the town or city one last time after their return from Afghanistan.
The battalion’s colours will then be laid up in Lichfield Cathedral alongside those of the former Staffordshire Regiment.