Lance-Sergeant Markus Strydom MC

Lance-Sergeant Markus Strydom and his platoon commander, Captain Michael Dobbin, were awarded the Military Cross following actions in June 2012. Their fallen comrade, Lance-Corporal James Ashworth, also of the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, was given the highest military honour, the Victoria Cross, his being the second VC to be awarded in the Afghanistan conflict, according to the UK government. The awards were presented by Queen Elizabeth at a ceremony on the grounds of Buckingham Palace on 21 May 2013.

The reconnaissance platoon was attacked during an operation on 13 June 2012 during Strydom's second tour of Afghanistan. The Military Cross was award was not only for the June 13 mission but for several other incidents where he had gone beyond the call of duty to take out Taliban positions and protect his fellow soldiers. Speaking to a South African newspaper Markus said "Essentially what happens is that at the end of each mission our commander compiles a report of all the events that occurred and from these reports it was decided that I be awarded the MC." Strydom said that while some think his actions were those of a "lunatic", he believes he was only doing his job. "I always believe in leading the charge even if it is in the line of enemy fire," he said. He was shot from about five metres away by two rounds from an AK47."I was hit twice in the stomach and once in the side. I was then blown up by a hand grenade. "They say your life flashes in front of your eyes; that's a lie! I just thought, 'this day can't get any worse'." Strydom performed the "man down" drill, alerting fellow officers to his predicament. He was grabbed by two men who got him out the 'killing area' and behind cover. "A medic began working on me and I was in and out of consciousness."

From the Casualty Exchange Point he was carried on a stretcher for about 1.5km, then taken by quad bike to the patrol base from where he was airlifted to Camp Bastion for the night. "The next day, I was on a flight headed for the UK, but my vitals were down and I started vomiting blood," he said. The plane landed in Cyprus where Strydom was rushed to an RAF hospital for emergency surgery. His bowels had been perforated by the shock waves of the blasts and he underwent five operations in 10 days. This involved removing 10cm of small intestine as well as stomach muscle because some of the tissue had died. Strydom's wife, Claire, was flown over to Cyprus to be by his side.

Being the wife of a soldier, she was fully aware of the dangers he faced every day, but that didn't ease the sense of foreboding when she opened her door at 11pm to a uniformed welfare officer bearing news from Afghanistan. "The first thing he said was, 'he's got his arms and legs'," said Claire. "We knew then he'd been in a blast and had grenade wounds but not that he'd been shot." From Cyprus, Strydom was flown to a hospital in England and was discharged to his home in Hampshire 10 days later. Getting back into civilian life, Strydom got involved in Forces Future, a NGO that helps soldiers find jobs and acclimatise them outside the military. "Coming from the military, you have to change your mindset when you get home. You're used to being told what to do, what to wear. It's all very regimental. Some people start in the military at 16 in an army college and they don't have a support base outside the army," he explained.

Having done ceremonial duties before being posted to a battalion, Strydom was no stranger to the royal family, who have close links to the Guards. However he did say receiving the prestigious award from the queen was "awe inspiring". Describing his reaction to being awarded the MC, Strydom said he was shocked at first and although it's a "brilliant honour", he didn't do his job for the recognition. "You do it for the blokes on your left and right," he said. "I'll wear it for the men who didn't come back."

Markus lives in Hampshire, England, with his wife Claire. He originally came from eManzimtoti in South Africa. He joined the army, following closely in his father's footsteps, Lieutenant-Colonel Leon Strydom (JCD, MMM) who served for 34 years in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

Strydom said he would never forget the bravery of his fellow soldier, James Ashworth, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross - the 1,361st VC to be awarded. Ashworth was killed when he stormed a Taliban sniper team which was attacking his platoon. Despite being bombarded by a hail of bullets, Ashworth, 23, broke cover from his platoon, ran towards the Taliban position and threw his last grenade, killing the snipers. He later died from injuries sustained during the attack.

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by Stephen Luscombe