FOR a young soldier new to the army or on their first operational tour, nowhere is more daunting a posting than the dusty alleyways of war-torn Helmand province in Afghanistan, writes Mark Entwistle.
And while they can have the very best state-of-the-art 21st-century kit and equipment and be able to call on levels of support firepower that their soldiering forebars could never have dreamed of, what they will rely on most are their fellow soldiers who have experience.
Currently on his seventh operational tour, Sergeant Major Keith Harris, from Hawick, is one such combat veteran and is serving with the Royal Highland Fusiliers – 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Scotland (2 SCOTS), based in the Lashkar Gah district of Helmand.
On operations, Keith is employed as a company sergeant major, or CSM. This is a busy and demanding leadership role with a variety of elements to it. One moment he could be ensuring that the men of his company have enough food, the next he could be leading them on a patrol to meet local people or tackle insurgents.
He has an array of kit available to him both for protection and to be able to do his job. The personal equipment that he uses includes Osprey Mark 4 body armour, ballistic protection goggles (eye protection that has been specifically designed to protect the eyes from shrapnel) and hearing protection that is designed specifically to fit into his ears.
He also uses an upgraded version of the standard issue rifle, with better sights and a grenade launcher attached to the underside, to provide greater firepower should it be required.
For his personal safety and the safety of his soldiers he can utilise the Vallon metal detector. These have saved countless lives over the last few months as they are used to detect improvised explosive devices (IEDs) buried beneath the ground.
But, just as important, Keith can also call upon his experience gleaned from almost 20 years in uniform.
“Being the CSM is demanding yet enjoyable. Every day is a busy day for me but ultimately it is rewarding. Getting out on the ground and leading patrols is a fascinating experience and it allows you to see the progress that we are helping to bring about at first hand,” he told us.
“I’ve been in the Army for a long time and carried out many jobs but not many experiences are as unique as what we’re doing here in Helmand.”
Since joining the Army in 1992, Keith has travelled all over the world. Previous operational tours have included demanding postings such as Northern Ireland and Iraq, and this is his second visit to Afghanistan. During an action-packed career, Keith has also been fortunate enough to visit Kenya, Belize, America, Canada, Germany and Cyprus.
He is currently based in Penicuik, the home of his battalion. Originally from Hawick, he still has strong ties to the area. His parents live in Hawick, and although he lives a little further north these days, he still has plenty of opportunities to come home and visit the place where he grew up.
Keith is due to return to the UK in April where he has a lot to look forward to.
He is due to marry his long-time sweetheart Gina Leask in May. As well as Gina, Keith is looking forward to getting home to see his 3½-year-old daughter Rhea.