Lucy Chatton was at a friend’s wedding in the UK this summer when she got a text telling her to prepare to be on a flight the next day. Less than 24 hours later, the 24-year old Lance Corporal was in Kabul, helping thousands of people to escape the Taliban.
The militant group had quickly taken back control of Afghanistan when international troops began withdrawing from the country, after a 20-year US presence.
It led to chaos at airports as people tried to get out, and Lucy was one of 750 British soldiers sent to the country in August to help.
She’s been in the Army for five years and describes the call-out as “exciting but nerve-wracking”.
It was the first time she, and many others from the Parachute Regiment, had been deployed on an overseas operation.
“The wedding was for another soldier so loads of us got the text to be back on base the next day – but luckily not the groom,” she tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.
During the two-and-a-half weeks British troops were in Afghanistan, 15,000 people were evacuated, including more than 2,000 children.
Since then, there has been widespread international concern about starvation, malnutrition and the safety of women and girls left in the country.
‘I helped women stay calm’
As the only woman to have been deployed in her unit, Lucy’s role of processing people and helping with searches became really important.
“Culturally, the guys weren’t allowed to search or touch the women so that was a large part of my job,” she says.
“For the women, I think seeing another female face made a difference… it seemed to help calm them down.”
She says although her family were worried about her, it was her friends who were most concerned.
“I have a big group of girl friends and when I WhatsApped them to say I was going, they couldn’t believe how quickly it was all happening.”
It was also Private Leon Strong’s first time working on an overseas operation.
The 21-year-old was mainly helping with searches and to keep the crowds settled, and believes it showed a very different side to the Parachute Regiment.
“You normally think of the Paras as fighting in combat, but this was about reacting to a humanitarian crisis,” he says.
‘It’s why we signed up’
Like Lucy, Leon got the call-out when on summer leave.
“It was Sunday night and I was trying to get back to sleep, but my phone kept going off,” he says.
When Leon looked at his phone, he was so excited that he headed back to base for 5am.
“I was absolutely buzzing,” he tells Newsbeat.
“This is ultimately why we signed up.”
Reflecting back now, he says it was a tough few weeks but feels “immensely proud” to have been involved.
‘Seeing it through a dad’s eyes’
Sergeant Rob Reynolds has been in the Army for 15 years, so this summer was his third time in Afghanistan. But it was a very different experience to his previous tours.
“We were ready to go within 10 hours of getting notice – you normally get at least 24,” he says.
“From the moment we left it was very quick tempo, working with very little rest. I was so impressed with the lads’ commitment,” he says.
“We processed around 100,000 people of all different nationalities and within the time we had, it was an amazing achievement.”
However, Rob’s well aware that some people were, inevitably, left behind.
“If we’d had longer, we’d have done more.”
Four months after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan the situation remains unstable, with serious concerns about how many will survive the winter.
It is still being reported that some people are trying to flee the country.
The British Armed Forces no longer has a presence out there, and says there are no plans to return at the moment.
Rob says he managed to get home from the evacuation in September, just in time for his wife to give birth to their fourth child.
“As a father I could understand the struggle of Afghans wanting to protect their children and get them to safety.
“If they needed us to go back tomorrow, we’d go back. We are here and ready for anything when it’s needed.”
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