Engineer Staff Sergeant Mark Smith’s part in Afghanistan’s Regeneration
“When I was young my dad, Robert, used to tell me about all the exciting places he’d visited and the projects he’d built during his time as a Royal Engineer. It inspired me to join the Corps and now I’m able to tell my own sons, Charlie (8) and Ben (4) the same stories”.
Carrying on the sapper family tradition, Staff Sergeant Mark Smith (36), from Chepstow is four months into a tour of Helmand Province with the Military Stabilisation and Support Team (MSST) in Nahr-e Saraj north.
During his 20 years in the Corps of Royal Engineers Staff Sergeant Smith has been on operations in the Falklands, Belize, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. He learnt about the MSST a few years ago and last October he decided to volunteer for a tour.
Military Stabilisation Support Teams (MSSTs) are made up of TA and regular personnel from the three services and have been working with villagers in the southern province of Afghanistan for nearly four years. Now that the areas are safer, the MSSTs help to create prosperity by establishing new infrastructure projects. The aim is to break the insurgents sway over the region and establish long-lasting, non-military solutions to Helmand’s problems.
“Every day is different, and we’re always out and about talking to local people and finding out what infrastructure they need. We work closely with the local community elders dealing with issues no matter how big or small”.
His team includes male and female service personnel who are recruited to the MSST for their diverse skills. This ranges from reconstruction, development, project management and agricultural expertise to project and site management. Each village and community has different levels of access to schools, clinics, markets or mosques and water and food, so the MSST work on a case by case basis with the locals making the decisions as to what should take priority.
It is the MSSTs’ job to facilitate these needs. So while they might instruct contractors, iron out practical or structural problems and try to keep the freedom of movement open, it is the local people who decide how they want their communities to look in the future.
“In the Engineers you’re trained from early in your army career to project manage and supervise build sites. I joined at 16yrs old as an apprentice tradesman, completing a two year apprenticeship in plumbing and pipefitting.
It’s all of these skills and experiences that we’re sharing. The Afghan contractors we work with come up with the plan, and we offer advice and guidance if they need it.”
Working on the re-development of the Noozai bazaar is one of the projects he’s been working on. This will see the build of a purpose built market and taxi rank to encourage economic growth outside of the Gereshk city centre. Two wells and a mosque have already been completed and work is shortly to begin on the build of 880 shops.
The highlight of his tour has been a project to install 144 solar lights along the Bandi Barq road in Nahr-e Saraj North. The lighting will help to reassure local people and improve security by deterring insurgent activity.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing the Bandi Barq road project completed. This has been a great tour, and seeing those lights go on will top it off perfectly”.