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Journalist swaps front page for frontline in war on terror

An award-winning regional reporter who became a soldier risked life and limb to bring readers a unique inside track into the global war on terror.

Daily Record journalist Stephen Paul Stewart was given a taste of one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts in Afghanistan when he was embedded alongside British troops as they battled the Taliban.

But his journalistic mission to the front line ended with him swapping despatches to the Scottish daily for a deadly deployment as a combat infantryman.

And the Dumbarton news man’s fascinating story is about to unveiled in a pair of books being published over the next couple of months.

One entitled A Soldier’s Best Friend: The Canine Heroes of Afghanistan takes an unprecedented look at the four-legged unsung heroes of the military campaign – the canines.

While the other title The Accidental Soldier, due out at the beginning of next month, is a first-hand personal memoir of his year as a full-time solider and will be published by Trinity Mirror, owners of the Lennox Herald and Record.

Stephen, 38, first went to Afghanistan in 2009 on an assignment for his paper. He said: “When I came back, I was so keen to know more that I joined the reserves.

I was mobilised as a full-time soldier from November 2012 to November 2013 and did a tour of Afghanistan from March to September 2013. Accidental Soldier is a warts-and-all account of what it was like over there for a year.

“My time with the army was tough and incredibly challenging but was very rewarding in a lot of ways. My tour was gruelling, it was like running a marathon every day, but now that it’s over, I’m glad I did it.”

Stephen recently received his operational service medal for his tour in Afghanistan, but after serving more than three years in the reserves, he has decided to resign.

Yet he was keen to chronicle the exploits of the dogs, and his account is now due to be published on October 16 by Sandstone Press.

A Soldier’s Best Friend details how, in the long war against the Taliban, military working dogs have been a hugely important element in the often brutal battle against the insurgents.

“Stephen relates how springer spaniels such as Memphis sniff out IEDs (improvised explosive devices or roadside bombs), Benji the black lab uncovers a 250kg cache of opium, and the work of protection dogs, vehicle search dogs and tracker dogs.

The animals also provide a morale boost for soldiers working in unbelievably tough conditions – though they’re emphatically working dogs, not pets.

Stephen describes how careful training – at a cost of some £30,000 – can turn a difficult Belgian shepherd like Chocolat from being unable to sit when told to cracking a bomb-making production line in the space of a few months.

In researching the book Stephen accompanied dogs and their handlers on tense missions with the Black Watch in Kandahar. Combining front-line reportage with years of research, he tells the emotional story of the ties between the dogs and their handlers. Tragically, some handlers die with their dogs.

Advance praise for Stephen’s book came from Niall Edworthy, author of Main Battle Tank, the story of a British tank regiment at war in Iraq.

Niall said: “Just when you thought that there was no longer anything interesting to say about the British armed forces in Afghanistan, Stephen Paul Stewart produces this brilliant book. A fascinating insight into a little-known subject, A Soldier’s Best Friend is a harrowing, moving and engrossing read.”

Stephen has covered subjects as diverse as neo-Nazi terror groups to X-Factor finalists. He has won two BBC Original Journalism Awards and was a finalist for Reporter of the Year at the Scottish Press Awards in 2011.