By Jason P. Howe
!WARNING! - the video contains graphic images that may find find upsetting
Photojournalist Jason P. Howe was embedded with the Army in Afghanistan last year when a soldier with whom he was on patrol stepped on an improvised explosive device, losing both legs.
For the first time since the 10-year campaign began, pictures of the immediate aftermath of an IED attack on a British soldier, including photographs of Pte Stephen Bainbridge being treated at the scene, can be published after Pte Bainbridge gave his approval.
Click above to watch an audio slideshow on Jason P. Howe's time with the Army.
Still stunned and half deafened by the explosion, with his face bleeding from shrapnel wounds, 2nd Lt Robert Weir discovered one of his men was lying gravely wounded on the ground in front of him.
There are words that no soldier ever wants to say, but he began to shout into his radio. “Contact IED! One times casualty T1. Wait out!”
It was early on the morning of Remembrance Day last year, and as soldiers everywhere prepared to hold two minutes’ silence to honour the glorious dead, Lt Weir and his men were about to begin a race against time in Afghanistan to save the life of Pte Stephen Bainbridge.
I was embedded with 1 Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment and was just yards from the 25-year-old when he stepped on a landmine that blew off both his legs.
Through the remarkable bravery and skill of his comrades, his life was saved, but only now, after Pte Bainbridge granted approval for my pictures to be published, can the full story of his rescue and road to recovery be told.
Three hours earlier that morning, Lt Weir’s squad from 3 Scots (The Black Watch) had been dropped into open farm land near Loya Manda, Nad-e-Ali, in Helmand Province along with soldiers from 1PWRR.
They were taking part in an ongoing series of operations called Tora Pishaw that has successfully disrupted insurgent activity in the area.
“When I got off the chopper I had an eerie feeling about the surroundings,” Lt Weir later recalled. “There was something spooky about them, it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
“The first contact came within minutes of landing, just a short burst from a PKM belt fed machine gun, and I thought ‘this is not a good sign’.”
The mission that day was to clear a series of compounds, but as they entered one of them, almost to a man they instinctively felt something was wrong.
Pte John Cameron, 21, was called forward to use his mine detector to sweep a doorway found hidden behind a blanket, which led to an adjacent compound.
After deciding it was safe, he pushed on and swept the area beyond, followed by several others, including me, who also came to no harm.
Then Pte Bainbridge, who had been providing rear protection, stepped through the doorway.
|Pte Bainbridge is attended to by medics after stepping on an IED (Jason P. Howe)|
“As he did so I was hit by a wave of sound and debris,” said Lt Weir. “It seemed to be moving in slow motion; I got launched a few metres and landed on my back. Initially I thought it was me that had stood on the device.
“I gave myself a quick limb check and realized I was not in any pain apart from my face. For an instant I thought maybe no-one was injured but then thought that was silly because these things don’t just go off.”
Before he was even back on his feet, Lt Weir sent the initial contact report back to HQ.
“Contact IED. Wait out.”
Lt Weir got up and: “I saw Bainbridge lying just inside the doorway. One of his legs was missing, his hand was very swollen and he was missing the tip of one of his fingers, I saw the other leg was definitely damaged but it was still there at that point. I called for a medic and then started giving my initial first aid.”
Unable to see through a cloud of dust spread by the explosion, other soldiers shouted “Any casualties? Any casualties?”
A weak voice replied: “Me, me, Bainbridge, I’m a casualty.”
The squad’s medic, Cpl John Goode, aged just 21, had never dealt with a battlefield casualty until then, but ran forward without hesitation to take control.
Knowing that a man with his legs blown off can bleed to death in minutes or even seconds, he ordered Lt Weir to apply pressure to the arteries in Pte Bainbridge’s legs while he tied tourniquets around them.
Morphine was injected into his one uninjured limb, and a large capital M written on his face in pen, with the time it was administered, as a message to doctors who would treat him later. Meanwhile another soldier filled in a casualty report, giving the medics who would meet him on a helicopter scrambled from Camp Bastion the details they needed.
“When I got up to Bainbridge I had never seen anything like it in my life,” said Lt Weir. “Part of me thought ‘Good Lord, what am I going to do here?’ But Goode didn’t appear to show any shock, he just treated it like an exercise. He saved his life.”
Pte Chris Watson, 21, cradled Pte Bainbridge’s head and tried to keep him conscious and talking.
“At one point Bainbridge tried to sit up and look at his legs,” he said. “I held him down and told him he was going to be OK.”
Others joined in, telling him: “Hang on Bainbridge, the heli is on its way.”
Before he could be airlifted out though, the men would need to find a safe route out, meaning another painstaking sweep for hidden IEDs.
As the men dug deep and pushed back out of the compound they could see the other squad had secured an emergency landing site for the helicopter.
|photo by Jason P. Howe|
But the Taliban were not quite done yet. The crack of bullets split the air as a sniper tried to put the Chinook out of action. The stretcher-bearers dashing for the helicopter heard nothing above the noise of the turbines, but further back their comrades were returning fire.
Suddenly the ground only 50 yards in front of the soldiers erupted in smoke and flying dirt as an Apache attack helicopter escorting the Chinook strafed the area with 30mm cannon to force the insurgents back.
Amid the deafening storm of gunfire, shouted orders and the scream of the helicopter’s rotors as it lifted off, Pte Bainbridge was on his way. Incredibly, he would be in hospital just 36 minutes after the explosion happened.
Pte Bainbridge, from Kirkcaldy, is a quiet man who keeps himself to himself, an avid reader who hated PT during his training. He is also a soldier who is good at his job, whose kit was always squared away and who never moaned about anything, accepting and completing whatever task he was set.
|photo by Jason P. Howe|
Doctors at the Headley Court military hospital in Surrey have noticed the same qualities in him as his rehabilitation continues.
“He’s a very determined man,” says his physiotherapist, Claire Painter, one of the team teaching him to walk on prosthetic limbs.
Recalling the day he stepped on the mine, Pte Bainbridge says: “I was blown into the air, I felt the heat blast. As I was coming back down it didn’t feel like I was falling, more like floating.” He laughs as he adds: “That was until I hit the ground.”
Pte Bainbridge regained consciousness in hospital on Nov 20, but said: “Before I woke up I pretty much knew the legs were gone. I suppose I was conscious of the doctors talking. It still hit me when I woke up but not as badly as if I believed I was still all there. It wasn’t a pretty sight.”
Yet he has no regrets about his decision to join the Army.
“I wouldn’t change anything, he says. “I chose the job, I chose to be with 3 Scots. There was no second choice, it was always going to be them.”
By Jason P. Howe