Military bases are characterised by very straight lines and ours in Lashkar Gah is no exception. The accommodation tents, cookhouse and office areas are pitched in neat rows with the plastic decking used as walkways in between ramrod straight. If the army has been given a very small area in which to live, work and fight, then every available square inch has to be used in the most efficient manner, and the only right angle is exactly that. The outer perimeter is made up of huge protective barriers filled with stone and covered by guard towers and firing points. All very effective, but meaning the usable area inside is slimmed down even further. Any wasted space means less room to live comfortably or a tighter turning circle for the vehicles. It also means less room for the helicopters to manoeuvre and the one thing you don’t want accidentally knocking into walls or tents is a helicopter rotor blade. This happened a few months ago and collapsed a sangar on top of a soldier tragically killing him; one of those awful accidents that occur when men and machines co-exist too closely.
The demands of living inside such a rigid environment can be claustrophobic for the soldiers and it is not unusual to see flashes of ill-discipline masquerading as bids for individuality. Dress regulations are often tested, issued kit is occasionally spurned in favour of self-purchased items and hair grows wildly out of control. All boring, minor challenges to authority, but the precursors to a wider malaise if left un-checked. The British Army’s reputation in the eyes of the Americans took a significant hit in Iraq, on occasion coming across as scruffy unprofessional mavericks, and if it hurts reading that, imagine what it was like hearing it from our US partners. It doesn’t happen in Afghanistan.
The embodiment of the un-straight line, the playfully excitable and utterly individual is an animal. Soldiers see in them everything the military in combat is not: a random, carefree innocence with a complete lack of awareness of the dirt, loss and drama that characterise war. The independent nature of the scrawny camp cats in Lashkar Gah has earned them many fans as they catch the vermin that would otherwise spread disease. They are regularly seen being petted, or more worryingly, drinking from the standpipe that delivers our drinking water. But the soldiers’ real soft spot is reserved for the dogs. We have a team of Ammunition and Explosive Search dogs that patrol the camp seeking out anything that may have been smuggled in. Springer spaniels always seem to see the amusing side of life and this gang is no exception. Their tails are permanently spinning in a frenzy of barely controlled excitement as they are directed to clamber on roofs, crawl under vehicles and generally charge about the place looking for mischief. Their frivolity and impetuous manner stands in contrast to the big Belgian Shepherds, the Malinois breed, specifically bred and trained to go out with the troops and search for IEDs – Improvised explosive Devices – which are usually buried underground and rigged to explode when the victim steps on it.
Oddy was just such a victim, but Oddy was a dog. His handler isn’t sure what he did wrong but one moment he was there, clearing a route for the men following, and the next he was dead, in all likelihood having stepped fractionally outside the safe lane he had cleared and onto the pressure plate of an IED. The issue of animals in combat is emotive and divisive, but there is no doubt Oddy and his breed save lives. I won’t divulge the technical reasons, but if it hadn’t been Oddy then a man would have died that day, of that there is no doubt. Does that make a difference? Oddy had no choice and even though these animals clearly enjoy their lives and are loved, they don’t get a vote. But they do get to do what comes naturally to them, to the best of their abilities and with maximum encouragement. Perhaps that’s not a bad life, even with the risk?
Oddy’s team had a service for him, following which he was cremated. His ashes were taken in an urn to rest at the Defence Animal Centre in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. There’s a memorial to Animals in War on Park Lane in london. They also serve, just with their tongues hanging out.
This article first appeared in the Bildeston Bugle in January 2011.