Teen soldier tells of Iraq terror

A VOLUNTEER soldier today told of the terrifying moment he was injured while protecting a convoy of vehicles travelling through the Iraqi desert.

Grant Sherlock

A VOLUNTEER soldier today told of the terrifying moment he was injured while protecting a convoy of vehicles travelling through the Iraqi desert.

Grundisburgh teenager Matthew Finch is back on duty with his Territorial Army colleagues but fresh in his mind is the ordeal which left him in a Basra army hospital nursing wounds to his neck and cheek.

In his latest report on Ipswich's TA troops serving in Iraq with 202 Transport Squadron, chief reporter GRANT SHERLOCK hears how the cool heads of Private Finch's army colleagues helped ensure the 19-year-old a quick recovery.

IT was a routine weapon check which went horribly wrong.

Sitting in the back of an army Land Rover as it headed north to Basra, Private Matthew Finch was fixing a problem with his machine gun when part of his equipment snagged a flare in his body armour.

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The split-second mistake caused a sequence of events which led to a medical emergency on an exposed Iraqi highway.

Without warning, the flare exploded in his armour, sending a metal cap flying into his jaw.

Inside the cramped confines of the 'Snatch' vehicle, the flare had ignited, filling the cab with phosphorous smoke and setting Private Finch's helmet on fire at his feet.

With blood pouring down his face and the convoy of army and civilian vehicles as yet unaware of the drama unfolding within, it was Private Finch's friend Alan Thompson, who had taken over his position providing 'top cover' from the hatch in the roof of the vehicle, who leapt to his aid.

Pte Finch, 18, said: “It is recognised practice that you tuck mini flares into your body armour. They are used as one of the last resorts in stopping vehicles getting too close to our convoy, or when stopped at junctions.

“We were about an hour-and-a-half into the route, a fair way into the desert, approaching the oil refineries. I had to come off top cover because I had a problem with my machine gun.

“My mate Private Alan Thompson went up on top cover. I came down to sit in the back of the Snatch Land Rover to resolve this problem by stripping it, resolving the problem and putting it back together.

“I then carried out what's known as a function test on the weapon which is when I caught something on the striker of the mini-flare, which discharged it.

“Due to where I was sitting, the metal cap, around the size of a one pence piece, fired up first and this is what got lodged into my throat.

“The flare itself shot out, bounced around in the back of the Land Rover, landed at my feet, and burnt off my helmet cover and scorched the helmet.

“On hearing the bang Pte Thompson came down and treated me straight away, by putting his hand on my neck to stop the bleeding, then a field dressing.

“I believe he did save my life...there was a lot of blood!”

He added: “It felt like I had been punched in the jaw, it stung a bit too, and felt hot.

“Looking back, the force of the explosion and the cap knocked my head back. I think this is what moved my head from the flare going off. I was lucky that the flare didn't get stuck in too.”

As Pte Thompson treated his friend, the driver of the Land Rover stopped and the convoy was alerted to their injured colleague.

“The helmet got kicked out of the Land Rover as we stopped, still on fire,” Pte Finch said.

“By this time the message had been passed to my vehicle commander and the whole convoy was halted. A civilian lorry driver passed up my helmet which had stopped burning by this time.

“Another troop of force protection from our squadron in Germany, many of them good friends of mine, were passing the same route as us at the same time southbound to Kuwait.

“I was led out of the vehicle by Pte Thompson to the ambulance Mastiff, surrounded by a lot of my mates too. I was so embarrassed, holding my neck, with blood down me. They all looked shocked to see it was me.”

Pte Finch was then treated in the heavily armoured 27-tonne Mastiff vehicle - the latest weapon in the army's attempt to provide protection for its troops in Iraq - but due to the extent of his injury he was taken to a road junction about 30 minutes away where the vehicle was met by a helicopter which airlifted him to the field hospital at Basra airport.

He said: “I had X-rays, then straight away had the cap removed and was stitched up. I was kept in hospital for 24 hours for observation and also so they could give me antibiotics on a drip.”

Pte Finch was placed on light duties but was back with his colleagues in about three days.

“I phoned mum at work and said 'mum, don't panic because I'm here talking to you, but I shot myself with a flare. It's OK, I'm OK, don't worry'. I asked her to pass on the message to my girlfriend Jessica too.

“I am extremely grateful to my mate Alan Thompson for the manner he helped me in. He heard the bang, and straight away he was down treating me, with no hesitation, knowing exactly what to do.

“And from all the medical staff, medics out on the ground and the hospital staff. They treated me so quickly, and they were so professional, but still gave me some stick for shooting myself.”

- Send your message of support to Ipswich's TA troops. Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

IPSWICH'S TA troops have been running convoys between Kuwait and Basra, helping to supply British soldiers with vital supplies.

They underwent months of training in England and on British and American bases in Germany before being deployed.

There are about a dozen part-time soldiers from the TA's Yarmouth Road centre in Ipswich, mostly hailing from Ipswich and the surrounding area but including a couple from Essex and one from Norfolk.

Among them are boat builders, lorry drivers, supermarket employees and Private Matthew Finch - a former lab technician at Specsavers in Felixstowe.

Today Private Finch said: “The convoys are going really well.

“The contrasts in the land and culture are vast.

“From Kuwait and through the border it is sand, nothing to see but sand. You see the old Iraqi army tanks from 1991 in the dessert.

“You know there are mines and all sorts of nasties there. You go through the oil refineries, and you see the fires.

“This is only what people see in films, I see it for real every day.

“You get to the smaller villages nearer Basra and there are only a few houses, but the small roads are lined with people, children all happy to see you, waving running along the convoy shouting hello.

“You see cars on the roads, being driven; full of people, wherever there is a space, there is somebody sitting in that space, if it's a pick-up truck the flatbed is full too.

“You go through towns and you are just a magnet to people.

“It's madness but I really enjoy it out here. I enjoy getting out of the vehicle and speaking to the Iraqis, their English is as good as my Arabic so it's an interesting conversation.

“Obviously there is a risk of bad things happening along the routes, IEDs (roadside bombs), insurgents, kidnapping, hostile crowds but it doesn't bother us really.

“We are all trained to deal with anything that faces us. I feel safe around the people I work with because I know they have all had the same training as me. Anything I do for them I would expect them to do the same for me.”

ONE of the Ipswich TA soldiers deployed to Iraq has returned home early and was today reacquainting herself with life in civvy street.

Nicole Tonner, 19, spent six weeks in Kuwait and at the British base at Basra airport before returning to the UK early after discovering she was pregnant.

She said: “When we first got there we had to do eight days acclimatisation.

“You did fitness in the morning and then we did medical stuff, such as if something happens on the ground you learn how to deal with it or if a truck rolls over how to get out.

“It was hot but your body gets used to it. At night it went down to about 28C.”

During her stint in Iraq, Private Tonner, from Onehouse, was part of a convoy traveling from Basra to the army's FOB (Forward Operating Base) Campbell - a drive of about one-and-a-half hours.

She said: “We went out with the Royal Anglians. I wasn't really nervous, it was more like excitement.

“I wanted to get out and see what it was like. When we went out all the little children waved at you.”

The rest of the Ipswich contingent is expected back at the end of October.

Ipswich's TA troops in Iraq:

Tahnee Hearn, from Ipswich

Andrew Brown, from Ipswich

Dan Coote, from Ipswich

Gabriel Naimhwaka, from Ipswich

Bradley Hambling, from Ipswich

Chris Roberts, from Ipswich

Matt Finch, from Grundisburgh

Paul Campbell, from Newbourne

Nicole Tonner, from Onehouse (now returned)

Lisa Jones, from Bressingham, Norfolk

Chris Gilbert, from Braintree, Essex

Paul Southernwood, from Colchester, Essex

Moses Millard, from Colchester, Essex