Gallantry medal for marine dubbed the new Lawrence of Arabia
A 25-year-old Royal Marine who speaks six languages has been honoured for his achievements in living and working with the Afghan security forces.
Captain Owen Davis, from South Wales, spent a year learning Pashto so he could accompany the Afghan Local Police (ALP) as they played a crucial role in taking over from international troops in steadying Afghanistan’s war-blighted Helmand province.
The marine, who was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross in the latest round of military honours, was appointed as a cultural advisor to work with 25 ALP officers in a fragile stretch of Nahri Saraj and the upper Gereshk Valley, which was being targeted by determined Taliban fighters.
Capt Davis, from Swansea, was given the award for feats of leadership in battle and for overcoming cultural boundaries which saw him live and work with his Afghan officers for several months – and physically share a bed with several of them for weeks at a time.
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The officer, who was a lieutenant in the rank of acting captain during last year’s tour, was one of a small number of military men entrusted with performing such dangerous, responsible cross-culture work which saw him in something of a free role.
Growing a beard, travelling with the Afghans and relaxing with them, Capt Davis acknowledged he went “a bit Lawrence of Arabia” as the men conversed and listened to Pashto poetry and music together.
But his 11-month tour was not simply an exercise in Anglo-Afghan relations.
Capt Davis, a former professional rower, saw fighting on a daily basis.
In one terrifying raid on a Taliban stronghold on June 13 last year, the 6ft 3in marine was blown off his feet by a grenade just seconds after an Afghan colleague was riddled with bullets while standing next to him.
Capt Davis, a member of Taunton-based 40 Commando, had been tasked with killing an insurgent sniper team in a local village which was laced with improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Having built up a reliable intelligence picture of who was coming and going from a busy compound, Capt Davis pushed his men into it targeting the Taliban marksmen who had shot three Grenadier Guards in previous weeks.
He was leading the group with an Afghan officer with more behind them. But as they entered an insurgent opened fire.
Davis’s ALP officer was killed and the insurgent threw a grenade at Capt Davis.
The blast blew him off his feet before he managed to jump backwards over the compound wall.
“He took a burst of 15 or 20 rounds from point blank range, we were pretty much in touching distance,” Capt Davis said of his ALP colleague.
“I grabbed him to take him out and a grenade came from around the corner.
“I made an athletic jump I don’t think I will ever be able to make again over the wall.”
Capt Davis recovered to continue the assault, killing all insurgents with his policemen. He would not reveal how many enemy were killed.
His citation described this job as “just one example of Davis’s exemplary gallant leadership during the tour”.
But the death of his colleague, who was in his late 20s, left its mark on the marine.
“During the incident you don’t really think,” he said.
“You want to get the job done and prevent anyone else from getting hurt and all get out in one piece. Because any time you lose a friend or colleague it is the worst feeling on earth.”
Capt Davis, who has just begun a degree at Keele University to become a doctor, was so well liked by his Afghans they gave him his own call sign, Torun, which means captain in Pashto.
He speaks English, Welsh, Pashto, Dari, French and German.
A graduate of Henley’s Leander rowing club, he rowed for Wales for two years before sustaining two stress fractures of the lumbar vertebrae.
Despite them, he still passed the gruelling Royal Marine Commando test, which he was drawn to because of its “toughness”, he said.
There is no shortage of cases of Afghan soldiers and policemen turning their guns on British troops.
And with the unpredictable climate of changing allegiances and loyalties, how long was it before the young marine fully trusted his new band of brothers?
“I fully trusted them after about a month, or a month and a half of working with them,” said Capt Davis.
“But yes, everyone knows someone who is in the Taliban, and often if you have two brothers one might be in the security forces and the other an insurgent.
“But if there had been the slightest suspicion about one of the guys the others would have picked up on it very quickly, much faster than I ever could.
“You just get on with them, it is like anyone you meet.
“The language was the main thing because you can share a joke, enjoy some banter.
“They were young guys from the villages who were keen to do their bit.”
Of the 25 men in his command, Capt Davis said he was closest to eight or nine of the more experienced, battle-hardened Afghans and they all united through combat.
“Once you have done a bit of fighting it is hard not to bond with them,” he said.
“We were in quite a kinetic area, we got engaged on a daily basis, we were getting hit every day, so you bond pretty quickly.”
Capt Davis, who went to Ysgol Gyfun Ystalfera High School in the Swansea Valley, has squeezed a remarkable amount into his young life.
And he is adamant that Britain’s legacy in Afghanistan will be positive if the country’s youngsters are allowed to be educated.
“Education is the only way to breed that bad feeling out of people,” he said.
“If we have provided enough security for that education to move forward, then we have done a good thing.”
From dodging bullets and roadside bombs, Capt Davis is now most at risk from the dangers of freshers’ week at university.
Though he has not ruled out a return to the military as a surgeon, he is devastated to have left the Royal Marines.
“I am distraught to be leaving,” he said.
“I have been really really fortunate during the last couple of years with the job I was allowed to do. I will miss it massively.”
Capt Davis, who said he always wanted to be a doctor, said of his honour: “It is really humbling.
“From the number of brave things happening on a daily basis so many other guys could have been written up for something.
“It is humbling to be singled out.
“But the amount of gallantry awards given out for Afghanistan is a reflection of how brave the guys out there really are, they are willing to put themselves on the line.”