Bommer's Afghan tour is a gripping soldier's story
Archant copyright 2011
A Norfolk-based soldier has published a vivid true-life account of his experiences as one of the deadliest soldiers on the battlegrounds of Helmand province.
Sgt Paul “Bommer” Grahame is a Light Dragoon based at Swanton Morley, near Dereham, but in 2007 he was embedded with 2 Mercian Regiment for a seven-month tour of Afghanistan.
His book, Fire Strike 7/9, tells of his crucial role as a JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) – one of a handful of elite soldiers trained to co-ordinate air strikes and reconnaissance in the intense heat and confusion of combat.
The paperback, which was released yesterday, is a frantic page-turner with relentless accounts of enemy contacts relayed at a rapid-fire pace.
Working under extraordinary pressure and constantly under fire himself, Sgt Grahame was responsible for directing a high-tech aerial arsenal onto precise targets – often within “danger close” proximity to British troops.
He would feed map coordinates to pilots and instruct them on their heading and choice of weaponry, knowing the slightest mistake could bring the firepower of A10s, F15s, and Apache helicopters onto his comrades below.
Sgt Grahame destroyed countless Taliban targets to save the lives of troops as they moved towards potential ambushes in the notorious Green Zone, the narrow fertile area between the desert and the Helmand River.
But despite plaudits from his commanders, he remains modest about his former job and his fledgling writing career.
“It is just work,” he said. “For me, it is just about keeping as many of our lads alive as possible.
“Every soldier who has spent time in the Green Zone could write a book. I have just been lucky to have the opportunity to do it.
“I missed the Light Dragoons’ last tour, but some of the stories we have heard around here... these boys could write a much better book than me. What those lads achieved for their regiment was unbelievable.
“I have had mixed reviews. I have had some good ones, but I have had my pants pulled down a few times. I think the general consensus is that its good that someone from the regiment has written a book. I just don’t think they could believe it would be me – I could hardly spell at school.”
During a five-day period, Sgt Grahame controlled 160 air missions, dropping multiple bombs and missiles onto enemy positions despite being constantly under fire himself.
One reviewer of Fire Strike 7/9 describes a JTAC’s life-or-death responsibility as “feeling like one of the gods” – an exaggeration which the Light Dragoon shrugs off.
“The ‘playing God’ thing is just not the case,” he said. “We have to go through protocol. You cannot just drop bombs on people just for the sake of it. Using bombs is always a last resort. It can end a contact very quickly, but there can be a lot of consequences with all that shrapnel flying around.”
The book contains a vivid account of a 12-hour battle in the Sangin Valley during which Sgt Grahame had to protect 125 British assault troops trying to locate a Taliban stronghold.
It includes his agonising decision to abort an air strike on an enemy mortar team which had targeted his mates, but were using Afghan children as human shields.
“We have always got to make sure there are no civilians, because that’s what the Taliban like to do – using human shields,” he said. “I was going to kill that mortar team but there were children around the barrel.
“How do you drop a bomb on kids? I couldn’t do it. I knew our boys were down there, but we knew exactly what the line of flight was from the mortars, so we could work out what cover they needed to get behind to get away from the shrapnel.”
The book’s rough-and-ready army humour includes the kind of language you might expect from battle-toughened squaddies.
But there are also sombre moments – not least, the “man down” call during the same battle which heralded the loss of Cpl Paul Sandford.
“It is an act of combat, but when your friends get killed it is not fun at all,” said Sgt Grahame. “In my opinion, that’s when it starts becoming real. Sandy was the first injury we had, but it was fatal. It was not the best day.”
During his time in combat, Sgt Grahame said he “talked down” the dangers of his role during calls home to his wife, Nicola.
“Most boys do that,” he said. “You don’t tell your families what you are up to or they would leave you as soon as you got back. All Nicola knew was that I talked to planes. But she soon got the gist of it when the hardback came out. I didn’t get much grief from her – but I did from my mother, because of all of the bad language.”
The book is co-written with Damien Lewis, the author behind “Apache Dawn”, which details the accounts of two pilots who were operating under Sgt Grahame’s guidance in Helmand.
Originally from Redcar, the 33-year-old joined the Light Dragoons in 1995 and started his eight months of JTAC training in 2006.
As a serving soldier, Sgt Grahame is not permitted to profit from his stories, but his book has already raised £87,000 for military charities since the hardback was released last May.