Sunday Times From the heat of battle to cold indifference at home Last week troops returned from fierce fighting in Afghanistan to shabby barracks and little fanfare. They deserve betterPeter Almond Post your comments on the troops' return on the feedback form at the bottom of this story The name, Barrack Road, suggested there was indeed an army barracks somewhere among the semis and terraces and light industry of suburban west Hounslow. But otherwise I might have struggled to find Hounslow barracks on my map. On this dull, cool, midweek afternoon Staines Road carried traffic as normal; airliners droned overhead from nearby Heathrow airport. Only a small Union Jack, a handful of balloons and a welcome home sign at the narrow main entrance to the old battlemented barracks suggested that I had found the right place. But welcome home turned out to be not the half of it. For the return of the 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment from Afghanistan last Wednesday to emotional scenes captured on television and in the newspapers the next day encapsulates much of what has been happening to our troops over the past few years. Heat, dust and bayonet charges: life on the Afghan front line Surreally, the battalion left for its tour as the Worcester and Sherwood Foresters but was transferred into the new Mercian Regiment mid-battle in the Sangin Valley on September 1. Nine of their number were killed during their six months on the front line and they return with 17 seriously wounded sharing with the Royal Anglians the highest number of British casualties in Afghanistan. They returned to what the Commons defence committee said a few days earlier is the worst army accommodation in the country a shabby, damp collection of buildings condemned in the 1960s worse by far, they said, than their quarters in Afghanistan. Normally, soldiers leaving the country get 24 hours or more in Cyprus on their way home for decompression, a modest effort to let them unwind, drink some beer, sit on a beach and tell each other war stories before facing up to home and family. Aircraft problems meant the 120 men of A Company came straight home: on Monday they were under mortar attack near Lashkar Gah, on Wednesday they were on the parade ground at Hounslow. I had somehow thought the army would have united the men with their families privately before the media got to see them. After all, thoughts and emotions are not what the Ministry of Defence usually encourages the press to see. But it had not and for a couple of hours in the barracks gym I joined families impatiently and nervously awaiting their loved ones. There were Keith and Jo Henshaw, parents of Private Mark Henshaw Fred, his nickname said on their specially made Welcome Home T-shirts his girlfriend Dominie and two cousins, who had all come down from Ilkeston, Derbyshire, that morning. I was afraid for him, I can tell you, Jo Henshaw told me over tea and cakes. But hes always wanted to be a soldier and he knew what he was getting into. I am very proud of what he has done. The whole street is. But I dont think a lot of people understand. We were interrupted by the regimental band and a fresh bit of video on a large screen that showed the battalion in action in Afghanistan: machineguns blazing, bombs exploding, men running, sand billowing. The nervousness increased among the balloons, the presents, the welcome home daddy and I love you signs. The young men average age 21 were in their desert uniforms, tanned from months in the hot sun, and all looked straight ahead as they marched onto the parade ground, forcing themselves not to glance left where their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children and friends were screaming their cheers and welcomes. As the two sides came together I admit that I was choked and could not have asked any questions if I had wanted. My own two sons are little older than these lads. I went over to talk to the padre, Captain Nick Todd, whose birthday it was that day and whose wife had a balloon and a present for him. Hed had his work cut out in Afghanistan, I suggested. How did he and the troops manage with so many casualties? When tragedy hits its what you are there for, to be able to say something of solace, he said. Then I met Sergeant Michael Lockett and Second Lieutenant Rupert Bowers. They did not have family waiting for them but together relived with me an eight-hour battle near Garmsir at the beginning of September that other soldiers told me is almost certain to result in one or both receiving medals. Their section was approaching a treeline on foot, said Lockett, when they were caught in a Taliban ambush that immediately took down five soldiers, including one shot in the head and stomach and another in the head. Flat on the ground, but with screams and shouts coming over the radio, Lockett and Bowers could not locate the fallen men. Then Private Johan Botha, a South African, was hit and could not be found. Lockett and Bowers heard shouts over their shoulder-borne personal radios Theyre coming to get him! as Taliban fighters approached to drag a wounded soldier away, and then another shout: Dont leave me! It is thought that Botha crawled forward to continue to fight but was hit again and killed. Over the next few hours Lockett and Bowers extracted their injured men to behind a wall, but Lockett knew he could not get to Botha. He radioed Sergeant Craig Brelsford (Brelsy) about Botha. Lockett recalled: He said, No dramas. Ill get him back for you. But then Brelsford was shot and killed. Another soldier, Private Stacey, was a legend on the night, said Lockett, but he, too, was badly injured when a 500lb bomb struck so close that a piece of wall collapsed on him. Later on I saw Corporal Ben Umley, 26, a friend of Brelsford, put a finger through a hole in his helmet where a bullet had penetrated. Was it all worth it, I asked Lockett. Personally, its hard to see the end result, he answered after a little thought. Yes, we killed Taliban, but I dont think we made a difference. We lost a man [Botha from his section] and I dont know if it was for a valid reason. Another young man joined us. Lance Corporal Lee Weston, 27, was in casual civvies because he had been shot and wounded and had been in and out of hospital for the past six weeks. I was lucky, he said. The bullet went in my upper left shoulder and came out the back of my neck. It didnt hit any bone or nerves or arteries, just tissue. He showed me the vivid scar on the back of his neck. Ill be back at work on Monday, he said. Later on I caught up with Brigadier John Lorimer, the just returned commander of British troops in Helmand province. He insisted the troops have made a huge difference there and that reconstruction is forging ahead. Where reconstruction is desperately needed now is at Hounslow barracks, with its overcrowded housing blocks, decaying married quarters, overflowing drains and broken windows. Some of the soldiers told me that they would be counting the days until they could get out of there and onto their next posting Belfast. As I drove out through the gates into bustling, civilian Hounslow I had a sense of what American troops used to say on returning from Vietnam, Back in the world, a world that doesnt seem to care much about the extraordinary things these young men have gone through. A spokeswoman for Hounslow council said she knew of no parades or council recognition planned for troops. It hasnt come up, she said. We dont have much involvement. Approaching Staines Road it struck me that neither I nor many of the soldiers really cared that much about public parades either, but I did think of Bowers and Lockett, shivering there in their thin desert uniforms only hours off a plane from being mortared in Afghanistan, and I wished people could either see them more in uniform to say thanks, or at least buy them a beer down the pub.