Byline: Ben Glaze
THE greatest honour for any commanding officer in the British Army is to lead his men into battle.
But asking sons, brothers, husbands and fathers to risk their lives confronting the enemy 4,000 miles from home is also a commanding officer's gravest responsibility.
Being the man to commit hundreds of soldiers into the danger zone is an unenviable position - but one in which Lieutenant Colonel Nick Lock has found himself since September 2008.
Lt Col Lock, who commands 1st Battalion, The Royal Welsh, also known as The Royal Welch Fusiliers, is proud of the young men whose lives are in his hands - and their early successes in war-ravaged Afghanistan.
Speaking at Camp Bastion as 200 of his troops returned from a 60-hour operation near Babaji, he said:"We achieved all the aims we set out to achieve and all the men came back - you can't ask for more than that. I'm very pleased with how it went."
Two-and-a-half days earlier, he watched as his soldiers boarded a Lynx and four Boeing Chinook helicopters, taking off in formation as the sun set over Camp Bastion, deep inside Helmand Province.
There was the knowledge, hanging heavily but unspoken, that some may not return.
Over the next 60 hours the operations room at Bastion buzzed as Taliban gunmen targeted the Welshmen keeping watch over the badlands.
"We put more troops on the ground than in our previous operation," said Lt Col Lock, 43. "We tried to overwhelm the insurgent, so he finds it very difficult to be around you and attack you.
"There were a number of fire fights on the first day and a few on the second, so it wasn't without risk. But with the number of troops we had, it makes it difficult for the insurgent to operate."
The plan for Operation Bambirak, a classic airborne assault, was to speak to Afghans living in and around Babaji, learning their needs, wants and fears.
"What they're after most of all is security," said Lt Col Lock, who became the Chester-based battalion's CO 16 months ago.
"But they also want health clinics and clean water projects - the things the Taliban can't provide for them."
The British Government - and indeed military chiefs - believe winning this "hearts and minds" battle will, in the long term, do far more to save the lives of UK service personnel than extra helicopters and boots on the ground. Lt Col Lock, who studied history and archaeology at Bangor University in North Wales, said: "It's critical we get in there and gain an understanding of what's going on. …