A day in the life of the Specialist Team Royal Engineers, by Gary Sullivan, managing director of construction logistics specialist Wilson James


The day begins like most in construction. Up at 6am, breakfast, a quick check to make sure I have all I need for the day. The only absence is the dreaded BlackBerry, no mobile devices. The other difference is the 20kg of personal protective equipment I must wear.

Major Pete Helme of 517 Squadron STRE briefs on the day’s work and gives an overview of the current security situation. What action we take if our vehicle is hit with an IED, what to do if we are shot at and how to spot a suicide a bomber. Just a normal day in Helmand province.

Our first stop today is at the Bolan Bridge, over the River Helmand and a major artery for trade in Lashkar Gah. Our Husky armoured vehicles, escorted by two Jackals (all-terrain high mobility weapons platforms) pull up just short of the bridge. The Royal Engineers, who are first and foremost soldiers, carry out checks on the passing vehicles and locals before moving to the bridge to investigate the crumbling supports. Measurements are taken and remedial measures discussed as we look across the river to a 17th-century fort, a reminder of previous conflicts.

We move on, just a short distance down to the river where the local suppliers of aggregate and asphalt are based. Colourful trucks wait to be loaded with aggregate for the substantial road building program. Today our interest is in the blacktop.

Greeting the Afghans with smiles and handshakes, our discussion quickly turns to the quality of the blacktop. The ancient machinery, billowing smoke, would never reach UK standards. But Staff Sergeant Dave Lafferty assures me that, while it looks like it’s on fire, the Afghans know exactly what they are doing, and a sample is produced for the team to take back to camp to test. While everything seems friendly, our Jackal escorts remain alert. Not just for our safety, but also for the Afghan contractors who are also taking risks when working with the army. They face intimidation and attacks too.

The security situation has improved in recent years in this part of Helmand. The threat has not gone away, but by helping the community to govern and self-police, it is much safer now. Community liaison is crucial and I am invited to attend a “shura”, a meeting of elders, like a village or town council meeting. Once it would have been led by the army, but now they take a back seat to answer technical questions as the local contractors discuss progress with the community. Swiss roll and cans of pop all round.

After nine hours, darkness brings an increased security threat, and it’s time to return. But the day is not done. After a quick scoff, it’s into the office to write up today’s findings, plan the next day’s work, chase materials and sift through the calculations. The glow from the laptops continues long into the night.

Read the rest of this story, and more about UK construction professionals’ work in Afghanistan here.