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Royal Navy hero inspires sailors at Culdrose

28 June 2019
A Royal Navy medic decorated for bravery has told sailors in Cornwall how she battled to save a soldier’s life while under fire in Afghanistan.

Medical assistant Kate Nesbitt, from Plymouth, dashed across 75-yards of open land to reach the stricken soldier as bullets ripped up the ground around her.

Pinned down by upwards of 150 Taliban fighters, she pressed her fingers against the soldier’s neck to stop him bleeding to death.

Now a chief petty officer, she spoke to sailors at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose about that fateful day ten years ago when her patrol was ambushed by the Taliban. For her bravery under fire, CPO Nesbitt was awarded the prestigious Military Cross.

She was just 21 years old at the time – of a similar age to many of the trainees and personnel beginning their careers at the naval air station near Helston.

She was one of four inspirational speakers who spoke at Culdrose on Tuesday, June 25. The other speakers included Rear Admiral Andrew Burns, who commands the navy’s surface ships, entrepreneur Keith Knowles, founder of pub and backpacker hostel business Beds and Bars, and three-time Olympic gold champion rower and Royal Navy lieutenant commander Peter Reed.

Turning to the events of 2009, CPO Nesbitt described how she was attached to 1st Battalion, The Rifles, on tour in Helmand Province working alongside Afghan Army soldiers.

“Our patrol was based at a checkpoint and we’d go on daily patrols on foot to show our faces and have a presence,” she said. “We were also sent out if we’d been given a mission by HQ to carry out.   We usually carried out two to three offensive operations each month.

“At first, the Afghan National Army soldiers were a bit standoffish and didn’t really know how to talk to me,” she said. “Then, about two or three weeks after I arrived, three Afghan soldiers were blown up in an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) and seeing me treat their soldiers and how I worked, that quickly built up trust.

I heard the call go out on the radio: ‘man down’. If it has been a minor hit, in the arm or leg, I am sure the boys would have been able to deal with it, but I heard it was head-shot and I could hear the panic in their voices. The officer in charge came on the radio and calmed everything down. I knew then I had to go back and I ran over to the trench. The running was fine and it wasn’t until I got back to the checkpoint and people were talking about it that I realised quite what had happened – that I was the only person standing up at that time.

Chief Petty Officer Kate Nesbitt

“Every time I had someone killed or injured in my patrol, they would be right by my side offering to carry weight or help. All the Afghan Army soldiers I worked with were incredible and you couldn’t fault them at all.

“They were also really unpredictable though – I remember once eating a Pot Noodle and one of them came into the checkpoint holding an IED they’d ripped out of the ground.

“I used to walk at the back of the patrol behind the interpreter. He would listen to the Taliban radio messages and translate them verbatim. That was the scariest part for me.

“I remember one particular day hearing them say there were eight Americans – they always thought it was the Americans – patrolling towards a mosque and to get a sniper out to shoot them in the head. Well, this day, there were eight of us patrolling towards a mosque.”

She said it was worse waiting for an imminent engagement with the enemy – known in military jargon as ‘contact’ – than the actual fire-fight itself.

That feeling of tension gripped CPO Nesbitt on March 12, 2009, as she crouched down awaiting orders along with three patrols, a total of 24 British soldiers. Drone reconnaissance had revealed up to 150 Taliban fighters ahead of them.

“We’d been in this trench for about half an hour,” she said. “In front of us was a large open field with bushes all around. We were given the heads-up that there were Taliban in the bushes.

“We were the front patrol and I was the only medic there that day. It felt like being at the start line of a race. You know what’s coming but it just hasn’t started yet.”

She said the order came to leave the area by filing away to their right. But as the last patrol made its way out of danger, the Taliban suddenly open fire.

Lance corporal John List, who was just 22 years old and from Holsworthy in Devon, was shot in the head.

Kate said: “Just as the last man peeled off to the right, it all kicked off. The first shots are always the most accurate as you are moving more slowly. Within ten seconds, John was hit.

“I stayed with John for 45 minutes. He’d been shot through the cheek and the bullet had knocked out his teeth and come out through his neck. I had to put a new airway in through his nose and I pressed my fingers to his neck to stop the bleeding.

“Another solider told me afterwards that the bullets were ripping into the ground around me but because I was so focused on what I was doing, I didn’t notice.

“When you do your medical training, it’s drilled into you over and over again, almost to the point that it becomes tedious – but on the ground, it was the one thing I didn’t have to think about.

“The other guys on the ground were incredible too. I had a friend by my side handing me items from my medical kit and there was another person on the other side, writing down everything we needed to record. I would never have got the MC without all those people.

“When they heard there was a man down, they threw all the units and everything in the area into it. I could hear the sounds of machine guns from the Apache helicopters that came in.

“Hearing the MERT (the helicopter of the Medical Emergency Response Team) coming down was just the best feeling. Someone threw a smoke grenade and we were able to run back with John on a stretcher through the smoke – it was all very movie-esque. It was a 15-minute run to the MERT.

“I heard back at the checkpoint that John had been taken into theatre for surgery. That was a huge relief. Going out to Afghanistan, I was really nervous - not about the tour, but that I would get something wrong. You are making life and death decisions. This whole thing made me much more confident.”

Kate was able to meet John a few years later at an awards ceremony, who had by then had a new set of teeth.

She retold her story at RNAS Culdrose to inspire the sailors how they too can train and push themselves to overcome challenges and develop confidence and leadership qualities.

Culdrose commanding officer Captain Anthony Rimington thanked the speakers for taking the time to share their inspirational stories.

He said: “The purpose of this day is to inspire everyone at Culdrose, particularly the junior personnel, by bringing together these four people who have achieved remarkable success in their careers and by giving them an opportunity to share their experiences.”

“Chief Petty Officer Nesbitt’s outstanding bravery stands as a testament to her courage and professionalism in what was a very real life and death situation. Her story continues to resonate and inspire sailors throughout the Royal Navy to this day and I am delighted that she was able to meet with the personnel here at Culdrose.”

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