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In the centre of the base here in Lashkar Gah is the NAAFI, the Navy Army Air Force Institute. Established in 1920, the NAAFI provides basic recreational facilities to the military world-wide and, whilst not exactly Starbucks, is a good place to have a few quiet minutes with a coffee. In Afghanistan it serves as the main social hub of the base where a brew with your mates is a major highlight of the day.

A lot of the NAAFI staff are ex-servicemen so I was surprised recently when one didn’t answer back to a soldier he was serving who flew into a rage about civilians in a combat area, the war in general and how squaddies get a tough time while NAAFI staff remain nice and safe in base. The NAAFI chap kept calm and explained later that he’s used to the occasional blow-up from troops letting off steam, with most of them returning later in the day to apologise. He also said that quite a number seek him out for a chat, seeing him as a ‘normal’ bloke and enjoying a brief spell away from the military. Welfare provision to the forces takes many forms and the pressures out here on the fighting troops are sometimes overwhelming, so as one man may go to the chapel on base to rest his mind, others choose to chat to the NAAFI staff. Both work in mysterious ways.

This will be my last letter to you as we are approaching the end of the tour in Helmand. Home soon, but it is unwise to shift the focus just yet. The time has gone quickly, for us at least, the families back home will have a different view. The military works hard to support the families and has to tread a delicate line between those for whom there can never be enough information and those who want nothing to do with the army or to be reminded of the environment their loved ones are in. It’s tough for those we have left behind and having gone through it myself when my wife deployed I know how dislocated the world feels, with your mind permanently in two places at once. One becomes acutely aware of time – the hour, the half-hours – because that’s generally when news bulletins occur on radio and TV. It is impossible to stop listening out for “…a British soldier was killed today in Afghanistan…”. That’s why they always end the reports by stating that the next of kin have been told; it’s not news, it’s a message to the other families.

In many ways we were the lucky ones: training together, deploying together and supporting each other throughout. Out here you’re in a bubble, completely divorced from normal life in the UK and the self- centred laziness and petty annoyances one occasionally experiences. A soldier’s life on an operational tour is uncomplicated precisely because the stakes are so high – literally life and death – rather than in spite of them being so. There’s room only for the things that matter: family at home, the job and the blokes out here. You understand loss. Question: is it better to lose a mate in the first week of tour or the last? Think about that for a while and you’ll come close to understanding how a soldier feels about war. You are judged according to a different code with words like honour, pride and integrity and it is easy to understand why the profession of soldiering has endured throughout history. There is much about this place I will miss. Like the NAAFI manager talking quietly with a soldier, war brings out the worst in some but the best in many. Perhaps that’s why we do it.

In memoriam: Corporal David Barnsdale, Private Mikkel Jorgensen, Sapper William Blanchard, Ranger Aaron McCormick, Lance Corporal Jorgan Randrup, Guardsman Christopher Davies, Private John Howard, Corporal Steven Dunn, Warrant Officer Class 2 Charles Wood, Private Joseva Vatubua, Private Samuel Enig, Private Martin Bell, Ranger David Dalzell, Warrant Officer Class 2 Colin Beckett, Private Conrad Lewis, Private Lewis Hendry, Lance Corporal Kyle Marshall, Lance Corporal Liam Tasker, Lance Corporal Stephen McKee, Private Daniel Prior, Major Matt Collins, Lance Sergeant Mark Burgan. This article first appeared in the Bildeston Bugle in March 2011.

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Others

BOY SOLDIERS ON THE FRONTLINEAs well as the British military headquarters, Lashkar Gah is also home to the Provincial Reconstruction Team, the joint UK and US governments’ civilian department working with the Afghan government on economic development, reconstruction, governance and rule of law structures. Their existence is more comfortable than the military’s when it comes to accommodation, working hours or being shot at, but they generally serve longer than the military in Afghanistan, with all the privations that entails. A big advantage of being co-located with the PRT is that the company running the contract for feeding Lashkar Gah gets extra money from the UK government for the civil servants. As a consequence the food here is excellent and a world away from the ration packs the soldiers out in the patrol bases live with.I was queuing behind two soldiers who were passing through Lash recently, when one turned to the other and remarked, “how the other half live, eh?”. I smiled to myself. It’s important for the soldiers living with the increased threat out in the patrol bases to draw strength through adversity and consider themselves different from us base rats in our supposed Ivory tower. I’m happy to be thought of as a soft-palmed staff officer, at greater risk from paper cuts than the Taliban, as long as it keeps the blokes sharp out there, and the other half keep living.

Theirs is an austere existence: washing their clothes by hand (or cement mixer if they’re lucky) and using specially designed disposable foil bags stretched over a wooden shelf-like construction for lavatories, with one lucky fellow burning the lot each day. They shower infrequently – they are issued equipment to hang up and wash under, but have no means to heat enough water and rarely enough to spare anyway. Groin, feet, teeth, armpits, are the priorities when water is scarce.The kit we’re issued has had to keep pace with the demands of both the enemy and the climate. The issued underwear contains an anti microbial element to allow prolonged wear over a number of days and extra thick chemically treated silk layers to provide ballistic protection and minimise internal injuries or infection in the groin and stomach cavity from dirt thrown into the body following an IED blast. Armoured underpants sound like a joke but they work and are popular with the soldiers having been perfected through combat, which is both a good and bad thing.

The British public mainly have to rely on the media for news and information about the other half serving out here. We see a huge number of journalists flowing through Helmand and it is amusing, enlightening and disappointing in equal measure to then read their copy and their interpretation of events, especially when you know the individuals. Much stands in contrast to our own experience, with a propensity to favour the violent and graphic over a more measured and broad ranging approach. I have rarely seen reporting on political, economic or social developments – positive or negative – that dig beyond the obvious, despite these being important and accessible issues for all visitors to see. There are, of course, exceptions, and some really good reports that accurately and concisely highlight the little known stories that track the deeper currents of the situation out here. (Try Googling ‘Afghan Elvis’ and notice how different papers report the same event.)

A story was recently printed that read more like a Boys’ Own Adventure than a news report and as I was with the unit involved that day I could make a direct comparison with reality. I accept I may be inoculated against the drama of Helmand, but is it news that there are firefights, explosions and bombs dropping out here every day- it is a war after all? The journalist was asked why he had chosen the obvious story of destruction rather than taking the opportunity to report anything deeper or more challenging. His answer? “Reconstruction doesn’t sell copy.”

This article first appeared in the Bildeston Bugle in February 2011.

Dogs

16x-2011-TFH-045-110Military 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.

Dust

UK ENGINEERS PROVIDE DECISIVE POWER TO KANDAHAR OPERATIONThe dust in Helmand is unlike any I’ve ever come across before. As soft as talcum powder, it floats on the air like smoke, coating every surface. Even the leaves on the trees have the soft brown veneer which seems to be the dominant colour in this part of Afghanistan. The land near to, and irrigated by, the River Helmand is called the Green Zone, and it is, compared to the desert just a few kilometres away from the water. But the dust doesn’t let it feel very green.

In the summer the crops stand higher than a man and the fields are a maze of confusion with visibility reduced to just a few feet in every direction. It’s a haven for the enemy, dashing in to fire on the soldiers who lose all their numerical advantage when they can’t see each other. A rifle is not the ideal weapon amongst the crops as it is designed to hit targets hundreds of metres away in a very flat trajectory. To counter the hidden enemy the army has had to re-introduce shotguns onto the front line in order to blast as much metal into the air in a broad spread as quickly as possible. Shotguns were last used in the anti-personnel role in the jungles of Malaya in the 1960s. Modern technology will never trump a timeless, simple solution, and a shotgun in the steady hands of a cover man stalking through the green zone is certainly that. Crude, but effective; a soldiers’ answer.

It’s winter now and the crops have gone; advantage us. The rules change and the enemy retreats behind his Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs, the inaccurately named road-side bombs. Inaccurate because they can be anywhere: roads, paths, walls, streams. They took on an almost mythical, boogie-man status, at once invisible, indiscriminate and unbeatable. For a couple of years we allowed them to dominate us and we wavered, unsure of ourselves as an army and as a nation. Make no mistake IEDs are killers, brutally effective. The US Marines had a terrible day recently when four soldiers were hit by IEDs, all surviving but losing eleven limbs between them. Eleven. One of our soldiers stepped on an IED yesterday but it didn’t explode properly and only broke his ankle. I wonder how he’s feeling today.

IEDs shook the army more than any issue I’ve ever seen before. But cool heads steadied the ship. We learnt to deal with this threat, to stare it down and give confidence back to our people, out there every day placing one foot in front of the other. IEDs are made by men; the attacks planned by men. And men make mistakes. We’ve learned from our enemy, we understand him and think like him, grudgingly respect him. So we turn his mistakes against him and are better able to defeat him, and his IEDs. And we do, everyday, finding more than go off, and those that do explode do so mainly against our armour that, finally, is up to the job. We’re not there yet, but IEDs are no longer the phantoms they once were; they fear us now. That’s a good way to finish the year. We won’t make a big deal of Christmas. A time to celebrate will come, but for now the focus has to be on the job. The generosity of the British public in the parcels and messages they send out to us is humbling. So we’ll pause, briefly, then crack on. But I do wish you all a very happy Christmas and New Year.

This article first appeared in the Bildeston Bugle in December 2010.

Helicopters

We’ve settled into a routine in Helmand.  I share a 20’ by 20’ room with three other men and a lot of dust.  With all our kit and weapons it’s a squeeze.  The trick is to be more tolerant than usual, especially with us all working different routines and sometimes getting up in the middle of the night to do a stint on guard duty in the sangars that ring the base.  You work together to get along as to do otherwise would make a difficult situation unbearable.  There’s no privacy, but you deal with it and pull together, settling into an easy intimacy and getting to know things about your mates only their wives would recognise.

I get up at 6 and go to the gym before it gets too hot.  We work 7 days a week but have a late start – 10:30 – on Fridays as it’s the Islamic holy day and we try to be aware of cultural sensitivities.  Breakfast, then a short walk to work.  We carry our helmet, body armour and weapon to work and back again in the evening so we’ve always got them to hand in the event of an attack on the base.  Into the headquarters for 8 and wait for the TICs to roll in.  TICs are reports of Troops In Contact, a firefight with the enemy – a benign phrase that does little to convey the fear and sweaty effort that goes with trying to outthink and outmanoeuvre another man trying to kill you.  A man who regularly uses children as human shields, knowing we don’t shoot if there’s a chance of killing civilians, especially kids.  The Taliban routinely use children to attack soldiers, sometimes paying them with money, sometimes giving them radios, a much sought after item for an Afghan child, the irony being that the Taliban banned music when they were in power.

I’m in charge of planning the helicopter operations the Brigade conducts.  Rest assured, all the times the Apaches make a racket flying over the village has been worth it.  They are doing a phenomenal job out here, as are all the other aircraft and crews.  The Chinooks, the big troop carriers and work horses of the Brigade, regularly take fire going into hot landing sites, rounds punching neat, deadly holes through the fuselage and Rocket Propelled Grenades taking chunks out of the airframes.  To fly into a landing site knowing the enemy have ambushed the ground troops specifically to target you, the emergency response medical helicopter that will undoubtedly follow, takes a coolness and focussed detachment that I have seldom seen outside the bizarre arena of armed conflict.  Don’t think for one moment our pilots don’t make it as hard as they can for the enemy to get a result: the Apaches swirl and dive, clearing the way for the huge Chinooks, bringing fire down so accurately their rounds can land within a few feet of friendly forces.  The Chinooks themselves may be nearly 12 tonnes but are hurled around the sky like sports cars, firing their own weapons as they run in to try to ruin the opponent’s day or at least make him lose interest in the fight.  They fling themselves at the ground, each landing more like a controlled crash.  As soon as the casualties are on board the cab’s lifting, 20 seconds tops, and if you’re getting on too you’d better be in and strapped down fast because it’s not waiting.  Blasting back into the air and sprinting for cover, popping flares to confuse any heat seeking missiles that may be chasing you, the pilot stands the cab on its tail to get high, through the small arms threat band that’s the real aircraft killer out here, into the safety of altitude.  The American General in charge of all aircraft in this part of Afghanistan said a few weeks ago, “You Brits fly your helicopters like you stole ‘em”.  Yessir, we do.  That’s why the peaceful Bildeston afternoons are sometimes shattered.

I normally knock off about 10 o’clock, grab a quick shower and listen to my iPod for a while.  When I realise I’m dreaming the sound I force myself awake and take the headphones off.  My book lies next to my bed, practically untouched.

This article first appeared in the Bildeston Bugle in November 2010.