The Armed Forces most senior officer has heaped praise on the Yorkshire-based personnel returning from the first-ever operational deployment of Apache attack helicopters.
Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, presented personnel from 656 Squadron, 9 Regiment Army Air Corps (9 AAC), based at Dishforth Airfield in North Yorkshire, with their operational medals on a visit to the unit on Friday 22 September 2006. The personnel have all recently returned from Operation Herrick in Afghanistan after a three-month tour.
Sir Jock said they had all earned their spurs and the praise of the praiseworthy was beyond measure. He also highlighted the devastating firepower the Apache had delivered in Afghanistan's Helmand Province:
"As we enter the final few months of 2006, our perspective of the Apache attack helicopters of 9 Regiment Army Air Corps is very different from that which we had at the beginning of the year," he said.
"We always knew that the Apache was an enormously potent weapon system. We always knew that the people who operate and support it were brave and professional. But in the intervening months they have had to demonstrate these qualities - and more - in the most demanding circumstances.
"We knew from the outset that our forces would face a stiff challenge in southern Afghanistan. We recognised that there would be some hard fighting - which is, of course, why we sent the Apache in the first place.
"We might not have expected the degree of ferocity that fighting would sometimes reach at its peak, but we were ready for it. We were ready because of the quality, training and courage of our forces on the ground.
"But we were also ready because we had deployed the best attack helicopter in the world; and because it was crewed and maintained by people who are undoubtedly amongst the most able, innovative and brave anywhere.
"You do not need to ask them about their contribution. You need to ask those on the ground who depended on them, day after day, to provide the crucial military edge over the enemy. They will leave you in no doubt about what the Apache achieved. And the praise of the praiseworthy is beyond measure."
9 Regiment Army Air Corps reformed in March 1988 as part of 24 Air Mobile Brigade. On 1 September 1999 the Regiment became one of the Aviation Regiments of 16 Air Assault Brigade and is now equipped with the 'Apache' attack helicopter. The returning 656 Squadron has been replaced in theatre by 664 Squadron, also of 9 AAC.
"The Apache has, over the course of 2006, established itself, with friend and foe alike, as one of our most powerful and flexible weapon systems - as a battle winning capability," Sir Jock continued.
"But the weapon system can never be better than the people who wield it. The people of 9 Regiment Army Air Corps have earned their spurs in the heat, dust and fire of combat; in the face of challenging and complex operational situations; and often in the face of great danger.
"It is their professionalism, their dedication and their courage that has taken a nascent force and placed it firmly at the cutting edge of British military power. We can and should be enormously proud of them."