Plucky pop star Cheryl Cole touched down in Afghanistan last night – on a Daily Mirror-inspired mission to boost morale for our frontline heroes.
The 28-year-old Girls Aloud singer landed at Camp Bastion in the heart of Helmand Province on a visit to mark 10 years of UK operations in the ravaged country.
Cheryl bravely agreed to fly to the war zone to film a special tribute to members of the Army, Navy and Air Force as part of the Daily Mirror’s prestigious Pride of Britain Awards which will be shown on ITV1 next month.
It will be her first major appearance on British TV since she quit as a judge on The X Factor 10 months ago.
A beaming Cheryl yesterday said she was “delighted” to be making the visit.
A source added: “Cheryl’s amazed by the courage of all those serving our country.
“When she was invited to go out to see them in Afghanistan, she immediately said ‘yes’.
“She thinks it’s such a great cause and they deserve all the recognition they get.”
Early yesterday morning Cheryl boarded a troop carrier plane at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. During the 12-hour military flight she was issued with her own protective helmet and body armour, which had a record of her blood group taped on the outside in case of an emergency.
Even before landing in the war-torn country, Cheryl was fast on her way to becoming the new forces’ sweetheart.
Her very presence cheered up her fellow air travellers – soldiers from 20 Brigade who are just beginning a gruelling six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.
One soldier told the Mirror: “I couldn’t believe it was Cheryl joining us.
“It’s great she’s made the effort to come all the way out here. Not only does she look amazing but it’s a pretty big gesture. It’s cheered everyone up.”
Ahead of her surprise visit, Cheryl had secretly undergone hostile environment training with crack former British troops.
The petite, 5ft 3in Geordie was given tips on how to stay alive if kidnapped and told how to take cover if she comes under fire.
In a stark reminder of just how hazardous her morale-boosting mission is, as the troop carrier neared its destination, the American embassy in the capital Kabul came under heavy fire from Taliban guns and rockets.
And as the plane flew into Afghan airspace, everyone on board was told to put on their helmet and body armour because insurgent forces frequently target Nato planes.
During her visit, Cheryl will meet many of the 8,500 British soldiers, sailors and airmen currently serving on the most dangerous front line in the world – including those who have been wounded in action and are being treated at Camp Bastion’s field hospital.
Today, she is due to talk to warriors from the crack Brigade Reconnaissance Force, an elite fighting unit specially trained to work deep behind enemy lines.
The BRF, mostly Royal Marine Commandos, have spent weeks spying on Taliban forces, far from the main British battle force.
She was particularly looking forward to a ride in one of their heavily-armed Jackal fighting vehicles – a favourite of reconnaissance troops travelling into the desert. Loaded with heavy machine guns, the war-machine was brought to the front several years ago.
And she is also scheduled to meet members of the counter-Improvised Explosive Device team who search out and dispose of the Taliban’s deadly roadside bombs.
Animal-lover Cheryl, who has two pet chihuahuas called Coco and Buster, will also get to meet the hard-working military dogs assisting our troops on the front line – the spaniels and labradors that are trained to sniff out explosives and the German shepherd “attack dogs” who can break an insurgent’s arm with a single bite.
And she will be treated to a rousing performance from the world-famous Royal Marine band, the pride of 3 Commando Brigade, which is preparing to come home.