LISBURN based 40th Regiment Royal Artillery returned home on Wednesday after completing a gruelling six-month tour of Helmand province Afghanistan. The Thiepval Barracks based unit provided fire support to troops as they carried out patrols and engaged with the Taliban insurgents from the various Forward Operating Bases occupied by British Forces.
The gunners flew into RAF Aldergrove after a five-hour flight from Cyprus. Upon disembarking the Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Owen Adams and his troops were met by the Director Royal Artillery, Brigadier Colin Tadier.
Family reunions took place back at Thiepval Barracks where family members and friends greeted the troops as they were piped home by the Pipes and Drums 40th Regiment Royal Artillery.
As they return home to their family and friends their Lt Col Adams spoke of the "most the most demanding operational tour of their lives so far."
He said: "For the last six months 40th Regiment Royal Artillery has provided 19 (Light) Brigade with Command and Control Cells at both Task Force Helmand and the six Battle Groups (based around Infantry Battalions), along with 16 specialist forward observer teams, known as Fire Support Teams, or FSTs.
"It also provided four Light Gun Artillery Troops spread across Helmand along with a number of logistical and communications specialists to coordinate and sustain this powerful capability.
"During the tour, the Helmand Battlespace has fundamentally changed as we enabled the smooth arrival of the United States Marine Corps into the South and West of the Province.
"We supported a full Brigade operation lasting over two months, known as Operation Panther's Claw, while also supporting the security effort for the Presidential Elections.
"The soldiers slept in the compounds or under the sky in mosquito nets. They mainly ate army rations which were supplemented with fresh where possible. They had very limited access to welfare facilities, most often TV or internet shared amongst them all. They washed under solar showers in the open.
"It has been an almost medieval existence for the soldiers; but they are well trained and hardened.
"The Regimental echelon was based in Camp Bastion. They have worked exceptionally hard to support every Artillery soldier in theatre.
"They have understood the challenges facing the deployed force, and worked every hour to improve their lives through the provision of either operational or welfare support. The home team in Northern Ireland have been outstanding, supporting the deployed force in every way practicable.
"Unfortunately, Bombardier Craig Hopson and Lance Bombardier Matthew Hatton were killed in action during the tour.
"We have all been devastated by the loss of these fine young men who died in the service of their Battery, their Regiment and their country.
"They died on the Battlefield leading soldiers in the most challenging of situations; they were both exceptionally brave, proud and professional soldiers who relished the opportunity to serve in Afghanistan and were an inspiration to us all.
"This has been a fascinating and successful tour. The soldiers of 40th Regiment feel very proud of their performance in the most demanding operational tour of their lives so far."