It’s not every day one is asked to get involved in making a war film, so when I got an email about the Kajaki movie project, I was intrigued, says surgeon and parachutist Mr Eddie Chaloner
The outline of the incident was familiar to me – a group of Parachute Regiment soldiers guarding the Kajaki Dam in Afghanistan, inadvertently become entrapped in an unmarked minefield – a legacy from the Soviet era.
Ensuing injuries lead to the death of the section commander, the serious wounding of several other soldiers – and multiple awards for gallantry.
There were many aspects of the project which resonated with me.
While I was still a junior surgeon, I had done two tours in Afghanistan with the HALO Trust landmine clearing charity in 1992 and 2000 and further stints in Mozambique, Angola, Sri Lanka and northern Iraq.
[quote]Unusually for a doctor, I had been present on two separate occasions when people were blown up in front of me in minefields.[/quote]
I had also served in the army as the surgical support to the Airborne Brigade and with 144 Parachute Squadron (Royal Army Medical Corps) – experiencing the rigours of ‘P’ Company selection and the unique bond and cameraderie of the Airborne Brotherhood.
Initially, I was concerned that the film-makers might produce a Hollywood-style product which bore little resemblance to the reality of war and do a disservice to the sacrifices made by our soldiers – I need not have worried.
Within a short time of meeting director Paul Katis in a London café in early January 2014, I was impressed by his intense commitment to telling the story, as he had been trying for nearly two years to raise the money to make the film and was determined to succeed.
Although I was approached as a potential investor, during the course of our discussion, it became apparent that I had technical knowledge and experience to contribute as well as finance.
I think Paul may have realised this when I produced a PMN Russian anti-personnel landmine from my daysack to show him the type of weapon that caused the injuries on the day.
From the outset, my analytical brain told me that, as a potential investment, this was way beyond a risky proposition – there were so many things that could go wrong that it made no sense at all as a commercial venture.
On the other hand, I was extremely impressed with the determination of the film makers to tell the story in a realistic way and finally the subject matter was so intensely personal to me that I decided to let heart rule head and pitched in.
My value to the project ranged from advice about what a live minestrike looks, sounds and smells like close up, to analysis of the injuries caused and the type of weapons that produced them.
For example, explosions are often portrayed on screen as involving large amounts of flame and bodies being thrown in the air, but that’s rarely the case for a minestrike in Afghanistan. There the fireball is suppressed by large amounts of dust and debris and an 80kg soldier usually just falls over after standing on a buried landmine.
Paul was also interested in how injuries look and how to present them to a non-medical audience in a realistic way, but without making the viewers throw up – not an easy line to tread!
Crucial to the film was an accurate portrayal of the timeline and development of injury from the point of wounding to the evacuation – for example, how long a 15mg shot of morphine is effective and the physiological effects of prolonged bleeding on consciousness and human actions, along with advice about how people react and perform in moments of extreme stress.
Reading the witness statements of the soldiers involved was a sobering experience, particularly when the medic, Corporal Hartley, described how, needing to reach one of his comrades but without a mine detector to clear the way safely, he decided to whack the ground in front of him with his rucksack as a way of exploding any buried mines.
If he had hit a mine, he would certainly have been severely injured himself.
[quote]Reading his bald account of cold courage and dedication to duty in the heat of the moment brought tears to my eyes.[/quote]
For his actions that day, Corporal Hartley was awarded the George Medal, as was Corporal Mark Wright, the section commander, who died of his wounds. That decoration is the equivalent of the Victoria Cross for conspicuous gallantry while not directly facing the enemy.
I would urge everyone to see this movie – and not just because I am an investor in it! In the final analysis, it is a tale of ordinary men doing extraordinary things in circumstances beyond the imagination of most people in the UK.
It is a truly remarkable and important portrayal of the realities of the Afghan campaign from the soldier’s perspective. I am very proud to have played a tiny part in making it happen.
Mr Eddie Chaloner is a consultant vascular surgeon at Radiance Vein Clinic in London and Kent