If she had been expecting to simply meet and greet our heroes on the front line, then Cheryl Cole was in for an almighty shock.
Shortly after landing at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, on a trip organised by the Daily Mirror, the pop star was handed army fatigues, an SA80 rifle and invited to join a fierce mock gun battle in the sweltering 40C desert heat.
The Girls Aloud singer screamed as crack soldiers set off explosions around her inside a specially-built compound.
She then had to run for cover while “enemy” gun fire reverberated amid the chaos. The exercise ended with her helping to carry an injured soldier to a Chinook. Cheryl, 28, said: “I went into the room and heard an explosion. It was scary. I was terrified. I’m not ashamed to say I screamed and uttered a few expletives.”
Cheryl’s dramatic welcome to army life came after she took a 12-hour RAF flight to the base in the heart of Helmand – the most violent part of Afghanistan – from Brize Norton, Oxon.
On the plane, she endeared herself to fellow passengers, servicemen and women flying out for a six month tour, by becoming a stewardess. She served dinners of sausages, mash and peas to star-struck soldiers on the Tristar jet. Cheryl also dished out drinks and snacks to the 20 Armoured Brigade troops.
Her flight arrived at Bastion, where 8,500 British troops are based, under the cover of darkness at 2am yesterday. But just five hours later she was up and ready to watch and even take part in the training exercises. She was mobbed everywhere she went and happily signed autographs and posed for pictures.
Task Force Helmand chief, Lt Col Tim Purbrick, said: “She was not afraid to get her shoes dirty.
“When everyone heard she was coming we did not know what to expect as she’s a huge star. But whatever preconceptions we had went out of the window as soon as we met her. Her smile is infectious, she was up for doing everything we suggested. She was like one of the lads.”
Cheryl Cole meets the troops in Afghanistan (Pic: DM/Rowan Griffiths)
Cheryl made the visit to film a special tribute to our frontline troops as part of the Daily Mirror’s prestigious Pride of Britain Awards, which will be on ITV1 next month. Her trip coincided with the 10th anniversary of UK operations in the country where 380 Brits have died.
She said: “I always had admiration for what the guys do out here, but seeing them here at work is awe inspiring.
“I’m delighted to be here to recognise all the hard work they do. Every one of them is a hero in my book.”
Her first day on the base began with a welcome briefing from Royal Marines Sgt Maj Ben Perkins before she was taken for a ride in a Jackal armoured fighting vehicle. After meeting troops she climbed aboard a Scimatar 2 light tank and fired a 30mm cannon.
Cheryl, wearing combat clothes with her surname embroidered on the pocket, yelled: “That was amazing.”
She was given her own helmet and body armour and expensive ICE sunglasses. Next up was a Warthog, a mine-resistant vehicle capable of withstanding powerful explosions and rocket attacks.
To cheers, Cheryl fired a massive grenade machine gun. At the driver training area she got behind the wheel of a Jackal, and declared: “It’s a bit different to driving a car in Newcastle.”
The star later went on a mock patrol with 1st Battalion, The Rifles, walking 200 metres to a specially-erected Afghan compound, built to replicate the type of buildings facing troops on patrol.
She joined the battle-hardened soldiers climbing ladders and walking along rooftops dressed in full combat kit.
Cheryl also took part in a traditional shura, where soldiers sit down with village elders to discuss problems. Then came the room clearance exercise, where she joined troops as they fired blank ammunition. Lt Col Purbrick said: “She was a little taken aback by the noise and general chaos and was a little shaken but she gamely carried on.
“I’m sure plenty of celebrities probably would have rather just observed but Cheryl was in the thick of it.”
In another mock exercise, Cheryl helped treat a soldier with a wound to the leg. She took him to a landing site, where a Chinook helicopter swooped down to evacuate him.
One soldier said of the new forces sweetheart: “She’s a stunner and having her out here has lifted morale. She’s probably the biggest star to visit. Fair play to her, it’s a dangerous place to come.”