Soldiers support each other on return from Afghanistan

Airborne soldiers who deployed to Afghanistan in mid-August to secure and enable the evacuation of British nationals and entitled Afghans have returned home to the UK.

As 16 Air Assault Brigade returns to Merville Barracks in Colchester, it will reset itself to be ready for the next potential short notice operation in its role as the British Army’s Global Response Force.

Afghanistan is on the Government’s coronavirus red list, with all people arriving in Britain from the country having to quarantine for ten days. In recognition of the Brigade’s role at the tip of the Army’s spear, Defence has been granted an Essential Activity Exemption from quarantine where personnel are ‘returning from undertaking essential or emergency work outside of the UK’.

The intensity and unique nature of the operation in Afghanistan has required a bespoke solution to address the physical and mental healthcare needs of returning personnel, so initially even with the exemption, they haven’t gone home.

The health and wellbeing of soldiers is our top priority Colonel James Loudoun

Major Matt Collins, Medical Support Officer from 16 Air Assault Brigade Headquarters explained:  “A tailored approach has been implemented for personnel returning from this operation which balances the risks against public health for potential COVID-19 outbreak within the community, enables effective Post Operational Stress Management of those troops returning from Afghanistan, and maintains the high readiness of 16 Air Assault Brigade for future operations.

“During a five-day package soldiers returning from Op Pitting have been kept in controlled group isolation either here in Colchester Garrison or at RAF Linton-on-Ouse. This enabled them to maintain regular contact with each other. They have had regular briefings and appropriate oversight, so they were provided with the welfare and mental health care support they needed. They have received regular tests and medical support where required, and importantly they are working together to support each other’s wellbeing.”

These controlled conditions have been specifically designed for the military. Drawn up with Public Health England, the system helps troops recover from a demanding mission, while maintaining their very high readiness for operations, and keeping their wider colleagues safe from potential COVID infection.

Soldiers have been isolating together in controlled bubbles set up in buildings around the barracks, which allows them to maintain social contact. The bubbles allow troops arriving back from Afghanistan at different times to be managed separately and safely. A comprehensive welfare package has been rolled out to make the process as pleasant as possible with all of the soldiers having access to Wi-Fi, television, games, and access to mental health resources and 1-2-1 counselling if needed.

The intent has been to create a structured and medically robust system that allows troops to quarantine together safely and to support each other as they return from overseas exercises or operations amid coronavirus restrictions.  After five days if the soldiers have produced two negative coronavirus tests they are released from isolation.

Colonel James Loudoun, Deputy Commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, said: “The health and wellbeing of soldiers is our top priority, both to look after them as people and because they provide the building blocks of our military capability. Managing the risk of coronavirus is vitally important, but it is also imperative that troops are able to be together to talk about the shared experiences with each other and medical professionals on what was a very intense and most demanding, physically and psychologically, mission. Part of being a soldier is about looking after each other in difficult situations, before, during and after the tour.  This is the environment we aim to create here.”