THE heat is searing and the going slow as British armoured vehicles patrol across the Afghan desert.
Members of the RAF Regiment, including young Sheffield gunner Jack Burrell, aged 21, from Grenoside, have to carry out the duty daily.
The aim is to get to know Afghan residents, protect the runway at the main Camp Bastion base and keep an eye out for suspicious insurgent activity.
But temperatures reach as high as 50C in the summer and troops have to drive on difficult terrain across sand and boulders rather than use established tracks, to minimise the risk of hitting deadly improvised explosive devices.
The Star joined Senior Aircraftsman Burrell and other airmen for a seven-hour trek to parts of the desert between Camp Bastion and the ‘green zone’ beside the Helmand River which had never been visited before.
Former Yewlands School pupil SAC Burrell, who drives Jackal armoured vehicles on the patrols, said: “We cover an area that is about 15 to 20 kilometres in length from north to south and similar east to west.
“The mission is to go out with an interpreter and see the local population. It is called ‘human terrain mapping’ and we have troops out every day.”
The desert south of Camp Bastion is inhospitable for the first couple of miles but further south, water is closer to the surface meaning wells can be dug and crops planted.
Many of the mud-walled farm compounds the patrol passed had remains of opium poppies - used to make heroin - drying out in the sunshine but SAC Burrell said: “We are trying to change the culture by giving out wheat seeds.”
Such an approach has helped in other parts of Helmand, where crops of poppies and cannabis are becoming fewer - despite reports of insurgents attempting to disrupt the change.
Interaction with locals happens regularly on the patrols, with armoured vehicles stopping outside compounds and troops, accompanied by interpreters, calling in.
SAC Burrell said: “When we see the locals, we ask them if they are alright, whether they need anything like tools to fix their wells and if they have noticed any Taliban activity.”
Much of the interaction is in line with commanders’ aim to win ‘hearts and minds’.
SAC Burrell, whose soldier cousin Michael Bainbridge, of Arbourthorne, is also in Afghanistan with Third Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment, said: “Other patrols have had problems. On one, the patrol hit an IED.
“Nobody was hurt but 20 minutes after, we came under fire and the engagement lasted four hours. We had to call in an Apache attack helicopter to disperse the enemy.”
His other duties have included providing protection for medics on helicopters collecting battlefield casualties.