While his team-mates were lying on a beach or enjoying some five-star luxury, the first thing England hooker Steve Thompson did at the end of last season was pack his bags and fly to Afghanistan.
He flew into Camp Bastion – dubbed Camp Hell by British squaddies – with former England team-mate Neil Back on a morale-boosting mission at the request of Leeds kitman Dave Matthews. Thompson and Back, World Cup winners in 2003, risked their own safety to witness what Britain’s soldiers experience in the war-torn region. They were taken out on patrol in Kabul with 258 Signal Squadron where they faced the constant threat of suicide bombers.
“When Dave asked me and Backy to get involved we didn’t hesitate,” says Thompson. “Seeing the professionalism of the troops was inspiring, but when you’re told there could be a suicide bomber literally around the corner it’s terrifying.”
The men flew out with a platoon of new recruits before heading to Camp Souter for three nights’ training in searing heat.
Thompson says: “The dedication of our Armed Forces is unbelievable. They’re working in temperatures exceeding 45°C carrying packs weighing 70 pounds.”
Matthews’s nephew Marc is a corporal in 258 Squadron and suggested the visit. Says Back: “My family thought I was nuts going out but I had no hesitation. In many ways an army unit is like a rugby team, with the camaraderie, mickey-taking and teamwork.”
Thompson, 32, was put through hostage negotiation training while Back went head-to-head with a military attack dog. The pair also met troops who had been seriously wounded.
“The England rugby team has huge respect for our servicemen and women,” says Thompson. “We spend a lot of time away but at least we know we will come back alive.”
This article appeared in the August 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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