MORE than 3,000 miles away a soldier opens a parcel from home. He is stationed in an inhospitable land; the air is dry and dust-ridden and somewhere in the distance the sound of gunfire punctuates the everyday clatter of camp.
Sean Griffiths, 27, is half-way through a six-and-a-half month posting to Afghanistan as a platoon sergeant in Bravo Company with 1st Battalion Royal Welsh.
But for that one precious moment he feels closer to home in Wrexham, where his wife, Claire, and his four-year-old daughter,Chloe, wait and pray for his safe return.
The parcel from Wrexham Maelor Lions contains some shower gel, a toothbrush, puzzle books, some sweets and biscuits.
Simple things, but when out in the uncaring desert of Afghanistan, a little bit of Wrexham means a lot.
Sean spoke from the heart as he expressed his gratitude to the Lions.
“It meant the world to us out there,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been on tour or how many boxes you’ve had, your morale instantly gets a boost.
“To hand these boxes to the lads knowing that they’d come from the people of Wrexham meant an awful lot and made me feel very proud. It really did hit home and I’m very grateful to those kind people.
“It makes you think that you’re not out there doing a job that no one else is thinking about.”
Sean, now home in Wrexham for Christmas, cradled a mug of steaming tea as he reminisced.
“You’re craving home comforts when you’re out there for six and a half months,” he said.
“A proper cuppa, some sweets. Even a decent toothbrush or shower gel if you’re out of them. All of these little things go a long way.
“To be away from your friends and family isn’t easy and it also means a lot to get an individual box from them. My daughter would draw me pictures and send them.
“You can’t explain it; it’s a really nice feeling to open that box.”
Sean, originally from Llanasa, a tranquil and picturesque village on a Flintshire hillside overlooking the Dee Estuary, went to Welsh-medium school Ysgol Glan Clwyd at St Asaph.
As a talented back-row rugby player who represented North Wales at school level, he spent much of his teenage years in scrums or tackling opponents on slippery mud caked fields.
He joined the Army straight out of high school in 2002.
After completing a six-month training regime at Litchfield, near Birmingham, he was stationed at Aldershot Garrison, Hampshire.
In 2005 he completed his first tour of duty, peacekeeping in Northern Ireland. On his return to Wales in 2006 he married his long-time girlfriend Claire, 26, at St Giles Church, Wrexham, one of the Seven Wonders of Wales and steeped in military tradition.
Sean was posted to Afghanistan for the first time in October 2007.
He vividly recalled: “I felt a mixture of nervousness and excitement. On the plane I felt like I was going into the unknown.
“It was a lot harder than the other two tours I’ve undertaken in terms of enemy engagement. It involved us moving through an area we believed to have been a safe haven for insurgents and clearing it out.”
Sean spent two years after the tour as an instructor at the Infantry Training Centre in Catterick, North Yorkshire, and returned to Afghanistan in January 2010.
He was deployed on his third tour of Afghanistan on April 18, 2012, at CP Hewad, in Kopak South, Helmand Province where his main role was to train and mentor the Afghan Uniform Police.
He said: “On previous tours you could never speak to locals because obviously if the Taliban saw you with them they would get the flak afterwards. When security is a lot better in areas, the villagers will open up. I used to laugh with them and say they were my neighbours.
“The best thing I did on this tour was I learned a sentence of Pashto every week.
That would break the ice really well. Because of it they used to say that I was their Afghan brother, especially with me being reasonably dark coloured after being out in the sun. They used to laugh and say that I was one of them.”
A major part of Sean’s time in Afghanistan was spent on foot patrol and on intelligence-led joint operations while also dealing with day-to-day issues such as mending roads and crop harvests.
He said: “You’d tend to find the locals would come back and bring me bread as a means of thanks. It might not have been much, but to people who haven’t got much even to share a piece of bread is really good.”
The successful tour was tinged with sadness. Sean lost two close friends: Cpt Stephen Healey, 30, from Cardiff and Cpl Michael Thacker, 27, from Coventry. He said: “They were two outstanding soldiers who will be sorely missed.”
Sean arrived back in the UK on October 31. For the next two years he will be based just 800 yards from his home in Wrexham at Hightown Barracks as a staff instructor to the Territorial Army.
He said: “It took me 10 years to get a home posting. It’s really good for the family. I love being in Wrexham and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
“We really do take security in the areas we live in for granted. If anyone was to say Wrexham isn’t a nice area to grow up, or there’s nothing to do here, I suggest that maybe they need to go and spend a little bit of time in Afghanistan and I’m sure, just like me, they will crave to come home to Wrexham.”
Army life means he can be posted somewhere else at any time. Until then he’s very happy to be home.
Gifts from the Lions
Joan Williams, president of Wrexham Maelor Lions Club, explained the organisation had been first alerted to the soldiers’ needs by a plea by the Battalion’s chaplain.
She said: “In April 2012 there was a printed request in the St Giles’ Church newsletter from Major Simon Farmer, the chaplain to the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, serving in Afghanistan, for packets of ‘morale’ to put in a shoebox for serving soldiers.
“We sent out 17 big boxes containing goods jointly worth about £400.
“We are over the moon about the whole thing and delighted to have made a difference out there.
“That’s what the Wrexham Maelor Lions are all about.
We have just sent out boxes to the Mercian Regiment and are making arrangements to send some out to the Royal Gurkha Rifles after the New Year.”