THE ditches and alleyways of Helmand gave us a lot to worry about. There were ambushes of small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades, assassinations, shoot and scoots, mortar attacks; the usual.
What really worried us though were the IEDs. The hidden, homemade bombs the Taliban had laced the ground we cautiously crept over with. They are the biggest cause of death in Afghanistan, to both civilians and soldiers, and we were no exception. We lost Ranger Justin Cupples, from Cavan, to one just weeks before we were due to return home. The IED threat got so bad that we preferred to be ambushed, because at least then we could fight back.
In June 2008, myself, and lads from Dublin, Wicklow, Kildare, Laois, Kerry -- all over our island -- were involved in what was one of the biggest helicopter raids on the Taliban until then. Handpicked to fight alongside the Parachute Regiment, we air assaulted at night into a Taliban stronghold, landing on a 'hot' landing zone, with incoming fire all around.
In those situations our Irish sense of humour served us well.
It quickly became apparent that we had entered a hornet's nest as 150 fighters swarmed around us in what developed into a pitched battle the likes of which none of us had seen before, or have since.
It went on for 13 hours in 45 degree heat, with both us and the Taliban expending all of our ammunition, and involved the use of attack helicopters, artillery strikes and fighter jets.
A senior soldier from Wales was shot dead right in front of me, and for long periods of the battle our Royal Irish platoon was completely pinned by extremely accurate sharpshooter fire. It was a testing day, but we were all proud we were there and that we had held our own. In a way it was like making our own, small, history. One of the lads, from Belfast, later won a gallantry award that day for braving the bullets to allow a helicopter to land with ammunition.
But the thing I learnt from experiences like this during my time in Afghanistan was the mundanity of courage. You just try and get through the day. In summer it is 53C and you are carrying 35kg of kit, so after walking 100 metres you are slurring your words with heat exhaustion. Simply moving about was impossible. In my platoon of 28 we had two battle stress casualties.
One of these was probably the bravest man of all because he was the most scared -- but didn't want to let down his mates. It is a battle of wits. Your best defence is your eyeball, to spot the IEDs which are everywhere. There was a suicide bomber very close to our call sign. Then you get to see the absolute detail of war -- the bits of body parts flying up on to the roof, heads on the tops of buildings and there's the smell of blood mixed with cordite. You are exposed to extremely graphic violence on a daily basis.
At the start of the tour I had some level of compassion. I used to think about the enemy and that they were probably a young guy like me who hadn't been put on the earth for this purpose. But by the end of a tour you couldn't give a damn.
The Taliban are an extremely ruthless enemy. They planned to attack us when we were returning the body of one of their bombmakers who our medics treated after he blew himself up. They threatened to kill children if we gave them a chocolate bar.
Sometimes you feel your rules of engagement make you weaker -- they know this and exploit it. And they could be very media-savvy and attack us from civilian compounds hoping to provoke a reaction. Sometimes we turned the ordinary people we were there to defend into targets simply by our presence. At Sapwan Qala we got involved in a 13-hour battle with the Taliban, an air assault alongside the Paras. A British sergeant-major was shot in front of me. The bullets went past my head and my hands. I don't know how I am still here.
At the time you are proud of the part you have played -- but in terms of what we achieved it was really very little. We could have gone back the next day and had exactly the same fight.
When I was there we were under-resourced to the point where it was a waste of time and life. We should have had 20 to 25 soldiers for every 1,000 head of population; in Sangin there were 17,000 people and only 250 of us including the Americans. In terms of my military experience that was enough for me -- and a lot of soldiers felt the same way too.
Why did I join the British army? Simple. I made the Irish Cadet reserve list and would've had to wait another year for a repeat attempt. Currently, the Defence Forces get 79 applications for each available cadetship, so competition is tight.
"So, Mr Bury, are you a nationalist?" asked the British army Colonel interviewing me from behind his oak desk. "Well, I'm not a republican, if that's what you mean ... " I answered. " ... but I'm very proud of my country."
"And so you should be," the colonel replied.
This conversation, which took place during officer selection, highlights one of the paradoxes of serving as an Irishman in the British military, a paradox that has been experienced by over a quarter of a million Irishmen in the last century alone.
My mother is British, I'd nothing against the Brits, things were moving on in the North, so why not? But it wasn't just that.
Many of us southerners join for the varied deployments and careers. Many have proud family histories of service in the British military; dig a little and you will see that nearly every Irish family does.
Like many before them, others simply join for a job or to travel. Our reasons for signing up are as diverse as our backgrounds. But we all share two attributes: we are aware of the esteemed reputation of Irish soldiers and we want to contribute to continuing it.
This reputation has been hard won on battlefields around the world and through the ages. And today, the Irish regiments in the British army cherish their identity and history. It is what defines them.
It's what defined us of the Royal Irish on our tour of Sangin in 2008 and is what defined the lads when they returned to Afghanistan last September. I served with Irishmen from all over Ireland, all were aware of how they were continuing the long history of the Irish in military service. "Faugh a Ballagh!", the sanitised version of which translates from the Gaelic to "Clear the Way!", has echoed along the ditches and alleyways of Helmand province too. About 200 Victoria Crosses, Britain's highest award for valour, have been won by Irishmen. That is the highest number per serving soldier of any nation. Both the first and second men to win the VC were Irish. If you want to see one of these -- Luke O'Connor's -- visit the excellent Soldiers and Chiefs museum in Collins Barracks, right beside the 1916 exhibition, where it belongs.
As an Irishman, I am proud of both traditions. I am proud that our nation asserted its right to independence by force in 1916, and I am awed by the courage and sacrifice of the men and women who did so. Just as I am awed by the courage and sacrifice of those Irishmen who fought for Britain in the First World War, many of whom, as their political masters had told them, believed they too were fighting to gain Ireland's freedom. And I am not an apologist for the actions of the British army in the past either.
As a child I could never understand why we didn't wear the lilly and the poppy? Surely we should take pride in all of our brave Irish, from all sides. To my mind, in accepting all aspects of our shared history and traditions, however diverse, we are finally beginning to mature as a nation.
Patrick Bury served as a captain in the British army's Royal Irish Regiment in 2008. His memoir, Callsign Hades, has just been shortlisted for the British Army Military Book of the Year Award 2011 and is out next week, in Simon and Schuster paperback