So blog no 1:
It’s Monday, and by the end of the week I’ll be back ‘in theatre’.
My last tour there was a few years ago, I’ve also bounced in and out of Iraq a few times so I’m reasonably prepared for what is to come but still aprehensive. I’ll be flying an Army helicopter in support of ground troops; we are the lucky ones, the quote is “big sky, small bullets” and I have the utmost respect for the guys on the ground and I am fully aware how privaliged I am to do the job I do. I couldn’t do what they do and I dread the sorties when I have to pick up injured personnel, ours and theirs.
Mrs Peleton is currently cross; we had a few drinks at work and I arrived home a: late and b: a little tipsy. Its always harder for our loved ones, we deploy as a unit so have spent the last few months training together, gelling into a cohesive unit, whereas we leave our loved ones behind to cope (admirably) in our absence and on their own, then expect them to support us when we phone with low spirits whilst forgetting to ask how they are coping.
We have trained non-stop for the last three months, conducting everything from firing our personal weapons – rifles and pistols – to firing the ‘crew-served weapon’ -a very large, noisy, half-inch calibre machine gun – from the aircraft. We have ticked every box in the pre-deployment list and now sit, awaiting the call-forward to the airhead for our flight out.
Jobs to do: SORN the car, fit the battery charger, fit the new TV aerial, finish packing, say sorry to Mrs Peleton for getting home late.
So, until next time, and I hope you find the read worthwhile…
Well I’ve had better journeys…
The trip over was, at best varied! Our plane broke (literally) on the runway just before take-off so we started our journey with an 18 hour delay whilst the RAF ‘magic’d’ up another plane from its aged and rapidly depleting fleet…needless to say, Paul Daniels doesn’t work for the forces so in stepped a charter company with a shiny new plane to take us to Dubai…not quite Afghanistan but at least in the right region! The next RAF plane at least got airborne before starting to cough and splutter so around we went back to Dubai. Step up the Dutch Airforce who graciously got us as far as Khandahar, then another trip with our boys in blue (third time lucky) and I landed at Camp Bastion, some four days after kissing Mrs Peleton goodbye!!!
Also a big thank you to all the well-wishers, it’s truly humbling.
OK, so lets start with something obvious: its quite hot here, 40+ daily (if your lucky it may only reach 38!) I have no idea how the lads and lasses out on the ground do what they do; their body armour, bombs, bullets and water weighing upwards of 25 kgs, plus radios and whatever else they are expected to carry, then the heat burden. I had to walk from one side of Bastion to the other at lunchtime today, about a mile or so, by the time I got to the unit I was briefing a was soaked in sweat, thats without any of the above kit, just me in a loose fitting (getting more loose already!) uniform.
The terrain here is weirdly stunning, yes the desert is barren but the couple of miles either side of the Helmand river – we call it the ‘green zone’ – especially up towards the Kajaki dam, is stunning. Over the centuries the farmers have terraced the foothills and dug irrigation ditches from the river enough to bring life to the desert and it is truly beautiful. It is quite easy to forget sometimes, from my privilaged vantage point at least, just how harsh life here can be.
Speaking of Kajaki, last time I was here the Battlegroup was planning a huge operation to move a new hydro-electric generator the 100 miles-or-so from Bastion to the dam. Well it was moved, most of the way under sustained Insurgent fire. Its fitted, working and now provides electricity to a huge population all along the Helmand who before had had nothing.
Is the progress here slow? Painfully, and at the cost of many British lives. Will the progress be enough for us to withdraw with our heads held high and some semblance of law and order established in what is, for all intent and purpose, a middle aged society? I don’t know. What I do know is that, whilst I miss Mrs Peleton intently, not fogetting my little red car, I love my job and, as I write this after another 15 hour day, wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.
I trust all is well at home. God bless.
OK, so a little about day-to-day life out here:
There are two ways to spend your tour in Afghanistan; at Camp Bastion, which is effectively a large town where everyone wears the same clothes and carry guns, or out in one of the patrol bases. I’m lucky as I get to see both on a daily basis. I live at Bastion in a very comfortable two-man room with one of my colleagues. We have AC, a kettle, a duvet and a laundry a few hundred metres away. We also have the NAAFI shop which includes a Pizza Hut and if you fancy a couple of mile walk there is the American camp next door that has all the usual facilities they expect! Yep, life out here can be pretty unremarkable considering where we are in the world. Hundreds of troops will deploy here for six months and never leave the wire except on arrival and departure and it is very easy to forget that, just a few miles from the comfort of Bastion, people are trying to kill each other.
Then there are the Patrol Bases (PBs). Hundreds of them strung all along the Green Zone from Kajaki all the way down to Garmsir, these are very much a multi-national effort. In the area I see daily we work with the more obvious British and Americans, but also Danish, Dutch, even Estonian troops, this makes for some interesting radio conversations. Life in the PBs is very different. Austere in nature the guys have no running water, all replenishment is in the form of a well-protected convoy that will roll through every now and again, dropping off ISO containers full of everything needed for survival, from food and water to washing powder and loo rolls! This, in my eyes is where the really gritty stories you read about from here stem. The soldiers in the PBs live in the same conditions as the locals just the other side of their compound walls. And life here is incredibly difficult. We come from our insular, Western lives, with all its comforts, to a society where the very survival of your family is at threat daily from both the elements and the current conflict. These are an incredibly resilient people who for centuries have known nothing other than war and hardship, from the British a couple of centuries ago, through the Russian campaign and into todays struggle, the people of Afghanistan have always survived.
I spent a few hours yesterday working with one of the convoys who were resupplying the PBs, very rewarding stuff for us from the relative comfort of a few thousand feet as the insurgents rarely attack the convoy whilst aviation is present; we sit in the third dimension that they can rarely reach, they know they are out-gunned and simply fade back into the Green Zone and wait for another day. It is quite surreal, talking to the convoy or the PB, knowing that they are from the same small island as me, thousands of miles away, yet we all find ourselves here, with a common purpose. In a typically British way the guys I speak to on the radio are always chipper, bouyant and never sound scared. I don’t know how they do it.
I hate days like today.
A pretty unremarkable day, nothing out of the ordinary happened, no great story ‘from the front’. But this evening, along with every other man and woman in Bastion, regardless of rank, cap-badge or Service, I stood at sunset to say goodbye to two fallen comrades.
A young Royal Marine and a Scots Guard have been killed in the last few days. By now their names will have scrolled across the bottom of your tv screen, their faces appeared in the press but my guess is you can remember neither of these details now. They are just another two young men killed in an ever-growing list, another two families destroyed.
Vigils are our way of saying goodbye, of trying to get on with tomorrow but, as an agnostic, I cannot rest in the knowledge they are now in the care of God, instead I am just reminded of my own mortality, and how much I fear death. Our lives are so precious yet precarious. The ‘enemy’ do not fear death, life is cheap here and it makes the loss of these two young men even harder to accept.
We stood, in the middle of camp, through a blowing dust storm. Silent and still as the bugle played the last post, a lone piper playing a solem piece as he walked away into the noise of the wind. Not a word was spoken by anyone but I promise you all secretly thought “at least it wasn’t me”.
After the service life returned to normal, I went to dinner, returned to work to sort the last few things for tomorrow, then came back to my room to write this. I am crying as I do so.
OK, a better day today so piccy time:
First off, desert landings, the dust is fine as talc, plays havoc with the avionics and is a right bugger to land in!
Next off, more dust, this time a storm…needless to say we turned around and went the other way
The Red Desert, stunningly beautiful and the wadi to its north (bottom left os pic) separates the Green Zone from the open desert. At sunset the red of the sand is mesmorising.
Our playmates out here, The Apache:
And finally, the memorial to all the fallen of Op HERRICK, the memorial has been moved since I took this pic in ’07, sadly it now has many more names listed.
More to follow in the coming weeks…
So whats it like doing this job? This was something my son asked me a while ago and I couldn’t really answer easily.
Out here I am constantly humbled by the can-do attitude of all the guys and gals that leave the wire on a daily basis. We work closely with the convoys – you may have seen the series on C5 (Road Warriors I think) that followed them, very gripping but didn’t really portray the difficulties involved in their job. I was covering a convoy the other day, it was a little under 40 degrees, more in the aircraft, what with all that machinery whirring around just above our heads, I wear two layers of Nomex fireproof clothing, gloves, a helmet and body armour, complete with pouches containg water, 9mm and 5.56mm bullets, a pistol, a radio and various other bits that we have to carry; in all it adds about 25% to my body weight and causes my feet to go numb after protracted periods in the seat! Relate that to the men and women in a lorry: no doubt hotter, same kit – minus the nomex, plus bouncing around along pretty poor dirt roads…oh I nearly forgot, the risk of driving over a roadside bomb!
Then what about the infantry, they are carrying far more equipment, in the same temperatures but on foot. We had a journalist out here during my last tour from one of the weekend supplements of a well-known broadsheet. He soon became known as a real pain-in-the-bum as he kept demanding things that, quite frankly he had no right to ask for. Anyway, we took him out to one of the PBs to join up with a patrol that was going out for the day, the idea being he was going to follow the patrol, then write a piece on life for them. He had walked 7 kms when he ‘went down’ with heat exhaustion. The patrol had barely got into their stride and were no more than a third the way along the route they had planned to follow. All he was carrying was his own water and a bullet proof vest and helmet, the troops had all this, plus the other few stone of kit they needed to do their job.
Needless to say we went back early, picked him up, left the troops to get on with their job, dumped him unceremoniously at the hospital landing site and never saw him again. In his defence he did write a very good piece on the troops, though he never mentioned the problems he had caused in getting the story!
My point? Well? What is it like doing this job?
Varied, dangerous, tiring, challenging, rewarding, frightening, exciting, stressful, frustrating but never boring! And each time I struggle into the cockpit, soaked to the skin in sweat, I remember the troops we are about to go out and support and suddenly my job seems a whole lot easier!
Its a little after midnight here and I’m trying to swing my body clock round for a late one later so a quick dit on teamwork.
A few days ago it had all gone wrong for one of the ground callsigns, as a result we spent the afternoon, into the evening trying to support them. I finally got to bed about 2 knowing I was up again at 4.30. I then had to get back to bed around 10 to try and sleep through until late-afternoon to then be ready to fly again later that night.
Needless to say I slept straight through my alarm and would have really dropped the ball if it wasn’t for my good friend who, knowing I was on the fly-pro and that I’d had a rough night previously, came in with a fresh mug of filter coffee and woke me. A small gesture but one that has played on my mind since as I wonder if I would have been so concienscious…
Fast forward a night or two later, a convoy is moving through open desert en-route to resupply one of the PBs and one of the vehicles hits an IED. The guy in the truck is the chap we speak to on the radio whenever we are working with this particular callsign, a soft-spoken man full of humility. He is, at this point, suffering the typical medical signs post-explosion: bleeding from the eyes and ears, difficulty in breathing etc, but he point-blank refuses to be CASEVAC’d (casualty evacuation). The medic says he is ok but really should get airlifted back to Bastion for the once over but again he refuses. “I stay with the convoy, I stay with the guys” he says. A few hours later I found myself back over the same convoy, giving them top-cover as they travelled through a particularly high-threat area. I thought about this chap every time we flew over the medics’ Mastiff (the huge armoured vehicles we use out here) and promised myself that, once he’s back here I’m buying him a brew.
Teamwork in my mind is the sense of belonging, of purpose; the comradarie, the common goal. Whether that be a car club, a group of friends or just the guy you speak to on a radio. Without each other we are just individuals, insignificant, insular. Together we are unbeatable.
I remember being in the car driving down to Wales once with my wife and there was a lady who had phoned up the radio presenter to wish her husband luck (saying that she would miss him terribly) as he went away for three days on a course. We looked at each other and laughed as our entire relationship has been interrupted with long spells – up to 6 months – apart.
So you would think I am used to being alone for long periods, have somehow built up an immune system to the feelings of insecurity that lonliness brings. Well sadly not and the last few days I have been feeling pretty low. It’s Mrs P’s birthday on the 25th, and our wedding anniversary in early Sep and, once again, I manage to miss both. Now please understand that Mrs P is the most understanding, patient, tollerable and forgiving person I have ever met. I have always felt that she deserved better in life than I am able to give and I have never felt good enough for her. It is simply because I am dearly in love, besotted by her, and fear that all the pressures of Service life may finally be enough to break the bond between us, especially when I don’t phone for weeks at a time whilst away. After all, what is to stop her finding a better man who is there now in her time of need?
These feelings are (I’m reliably told by the Padre) perfectly normal, and just highlight how much I feel towards my wife, and therefore, naturally, how much I fear losing her. Its probably worth adding that there are 13 Padres here at Camp Bastion and they have a habit of finding those in need of a chat, whether they realise it or not!
I don’t generally get homesick; the job out here can be hugely frustrating, yet incredibly rewarding and whilst it can be difficult to find the precious minutes to walk over to the sat-phone portacabin and queue for our 30 minutes a week call, it is easy to get swept up with whatever the next thing is that has to be done right there and then and leave it another day. But the feelings of homesickness leave a gut-wrenching hole in my life, lead to all sorts of questions of insecurity and doubt that, whilst irrational and childish, eat away at the very foundation of my sanity.
Its strange that I have only shared this with a man that wears a cross on his collar, haven’t said a word to Mrs P, yet feel I can be open to whoever reads this…
This is a few days old now as I had to wait until the individual concered was safely back in the UK, which he now is.
“Troops in Contact”:
We fly around Helmand monitoring a common frequency, its main use is flight safety – with visiblity in the dust down to a couple of kilometres at times, its far too easy to fly into one another! – but the ground troops can also get us on the channel as and when they need us.
We were out a few days ago, on a routine tasking day when we heard “TiC, PB **” over the radio. We were only a few miles south so, as we had time, fuel and the ‘big gun’ on board, we offered to help. A few minutes later we were in the overhead, trying to identify the enemy firing points when the radio buzzed again “contact IED” someone had sprung a booby trap. My gunner spotted the smoke first, about a mile away from our position, thick black smoke surrounded by all the dust lifted by the shock wave. My heart sank, this was a big one. The radio buzzed again, one casualty, British, multiple injuries.
As a crew we all went quiet, we are not roled for casualties, there isn’t much room in the back for a strecher and whilst all our rear crewman are Team Medic trained they do not have the skills to deal with a major trauma, his primary role being to operate the weapon system. I radiod back to Bastion, no word of the incident had reached them yet and they couldn’t launch the medivac without authority from the medical chain – it commits too many assets to what might be a false alarm when other incidents may require the helicopters more urgently. I felt helpless, useless. One of ‘ours’ was injured yet I could do nothing. My brain whirred as fast as our rotors. “F*** it, Mike prepare the back for casualties” I looked at my pilot, who nodded his agreement, over my shoulder my gunner needed no other direction as he folded the passenger seats out the way and stuffed all our kit into the spare ammo tin to clear the floor.
Fast forward a few minutes, we land, just outside the patrol base. There are troops everywhere, all looking through their sights out from the HLS to protect us at our most vulnerable time. Four guys come out from the compound with a strecher, the medic running alongside. All of them are covered in blood, I’m guessing it’s not theirs. Mike grabs the strecher and drags it into the aircraft, quickly securing it to the floor, the medic passes the details of injuries, fragmentation to lower limbs, torso and face, hand badly injured, fingers missing, 10 mg morphine.
We are all silent on the 10 minute transit back to Bastion. Now that we are at height, safely out of range of small-arms fire, Mike passes obs onto me so that I can pass them forward to the waiting medical crash team via the radio. Condition, stable but he’s a mess. The smell of blood fills the cabin, sickly sweet but with a tang of burnt meat.
Within minutes the casualty is in the ambulance and away, we return to our dispersal and, with another task waiting, quickly wash out the back of the aircraft with clean water without shutting down. I notice my hands are shaking and my pilot, on his first opertional tour, looks pale too.
12 hours or so later, we have finished the days tasking, been to dinner and now stand on a hospital ward. We could be in any A&E in Britain, all the equipment is immaculate, every surface squeeky clean, the only giveaway to our location is that all the staff are wearing desert clothing. The young man we carried turns out to be a little older than we had thought, funny how the mind plays tricks, but he is sat upright in his bed, smiling and more importantly in one piece. He has already been into surgery, his legs well bandaged, bits of metal have ben removed from his stomach, chest and arms and his missing fingers were actually still there, just ripped back, so the surgical team just stitched them back where they should be!
We say a few words, crack a couple of gutter-humour jokes – something about he’s going to have to learn how to abuse himself with his other hand – and then, aware that there any many other people on the ward who have not been quite so lucky, say our goodbyes. He has one of his mates by the bedside who nods his gratitude as we leave and then they go back to talking football.
He is at Selly Oaks Hospital now, no doubt enjoying the company of some rather attractive nurses and reliving the events of the past few days. He certainly won’t have to buy a drink in the mess for a while to come. I wonder if he will ever realise how lucky he has been.
An apology to start with, its been seven days since the last update, mainly because things here have been a little busy, plus ‘Minimise’ has been on. Minimise is effectively an IT lockdown where all the welfare phones and internet services and turned off, the reasons for it usually being that somewhere there has been a British casualty and it is important that the next of kin find out via the official means rather than facebook or the like. For us it is mearly an inconvenience, nothing compared to the pain and suffering the family of the fallen must feel. Whilst I have to be careful about what I say, it is fair to say that, recently, minimise has been on an awful lot.
The dust here is so fine that it lingers in the air for hours. Walking from the accomodation to the flightline (no more than five minutes) will leave a fine layer of dust on your clothes and stick to the sweat on your face leaving a ghostly appearance. Everyone here suffers from horrendous nose-goblins, regardless of sex or rank it is perfectly normal to see people walking along digging for gold. Oddly those in Khandahar seem to suffer different coloured snot-rocks to those of us in Bastion, but that is probably more information than is required.
The last couple of days have seen the prevailing winds swing around (something to do with all the weather Pakistan has been suffering) and so fresh dust, as fine as talc, has blown in from the Red Desert and efectively ‘fogged’ us out. Visibility has been anything from a couple of kilometres to just a few hundred metres. Now we can fly in fog-like conditions, you just keep climbing and eventually you pop out the top of the weather, but at some point the little light on the dash starts to blink reminding you that its time for fuel. I’m told that if you ignore this light you will eventually, via the laws of physics, return to earth rather more quickly than you had intended. But flying around in these conditions is fraught with danger – particularly the approach to land – and sometimes, its just best just not to.
So a couple of days ago I looked at my flying programme and decided that the risk to my crew of flying into an object we simply hadn’t seen was far greater than the risk of not achieving the planned tasking. So we washed the aircraft instead and watched a movie in our rest tent in the hanger while cleaning our rifles and pistols.
The medivac crew however do not have the same luxury, they are expected to lift in all conditions for all serious casualties out in our area of operations (AO). The medivac helicopter here is similar to the air ambulances dotted around the UK, ours just happens to be slightly bigger – capable of carrying multiple casualties – carries a full medical team, and has an Apache escort, after all, the enemy don’t stop shooting at us just because we are picking up the wounded, even when the wounded is one of theirs. We all looked at each other with suprise when we heard the Chinook start up and I watched with horror as the aircraft followed the Apache into the murk. It is the height of summer here yet the sun was a mere dim orb in the sky, its strength incapable of penetrating the thick layer. At no more than a couple of hundred fett both aircraft had dissapeared, even the noise of four gas turbine engines muffled by the dusty haze.
A while later the two aircraft returned. We normally take casualties direct to the hospital landing site but, due to the conditions, the crew flew GPS approaches to the runway and were met there by the ambulances. They dropped off the injured soldier, refuelled and taxiied back to their parking spot next to us. End of story? Not quite.
Later that day we were talking to the surgical team that had recieved the patient. It turns out that his injuries were quite horrific – the result of a ‘penatrating injury’ or a bullet to you and I. He had almost ‘bled out’ in the helicopter (something else that our medivac differs from UK air ambulances in is the fact that they carry fresh blood on board) and was very lucky to be alive. I do not know his condition but do know that he was in the very best of hands and could not have had any better care anywhere in the world.
Now I know the phrase that the difference between bravery and stupidity is success, well, in my humble opinion every single person invloved in that rescue were indeed brave. Forget for a moment the weather conditions. The Chinook approached the emergency landing site (an area that could have been laced with IEDs) under fire. The Apache was engaging targets as the Chinook approached. The medical team recovered the injured soldier whilst been shot at themselves.
We have a huge amount of inter-Service and aircraft type rivalry out here, it feeds professionalism, and rarely do I praise the other crews. But in this case, both the pilots of the Chinook and the Apache and all the medical and force protection guys-and-gals in the back were indeed heroic.
But I leave you today with one thing I know for sure, They all will have had massive bogies when they got back
We (apparently) are now in a routine…now routine to me suggests a pattern, an order, possibly a cycle.
To some extend this is true, we work a five day cycle: tasker 1 (usually picking up the early tasking – in around 3am, lifting at first light etc), tasker 2 (takes over form tasker 1, possibly working as a pair with tasker 1), Duty Authoriser (think duty grown-up, or addressing the various issues that crop up during the day and planning the next day’s fly-pro), airtest and then rest day. Five days, six weeks here so far so theoretically about eight days off to date…so how come I’ve managed three and my next one (Friday) seems to have become an overnight flight to Khandahar for a meeting followed by another overnight trip back?!
It is really odd how routine keeps us grounded, I was a gardener before joining the Army and I loved the fact that, Monday to Friday I would be out doing stuff, or in the greenhouses if the weather was bad, then Sat and Sun were my own. Of course I was too young then to understand or appreciate the fact that every weekend was my own, it just ‘was’. Now our routine is “theres the plan, expect it to change” and, all things considered, its hardly a suprise as the people we are here trying to defeat don’t seem to plan their working week quite the same way as we do!
For instance, yesterday I was on airtest. As the name suggests, our technicians take the aircraft we have broken (or that has managed to just break itself, more common than you may think), fix it then give it back to us. Generally the guy that did the work on the cab will hop in the back for the check-flight a: to check his side of things during the test, b: I’m not getting in anything that has had spanner-benders working on it that they are not happy to get into themselves and c: they get flying pay for each day they fly on an airtest. I’m pretty sure its the latter that drives their enthusiasm for airtests, regardless of risk! We climbed into this particular aircraft seven times, each time going through all the checks, starting procedures, radio calls, weapon checks etc etc and each time lifting into the hover, sometimes even achieving forward flight. Each time landing back on with varying faults, it was just ‘one of those days’. We spent six hours chasing our tails until finally my will broke more than the aircaft and we called it quits. In six hours we had logged an hour and five minutes flight time! In hindsight I should have stuck with it because no sooner had we called an end to the airtest we were told to re-role into another airframe to continue tasking for a crew that had run out of hours rather than patience.
So at 10 o’clock last night I finally managed to phone Mrs P and wish her happy anniversary, having spent the previous few hours with a set of night vision goggles strapped to my head, with the usual splitting headache that comes from staring through them for too long. NVG: imagine two toilet roll tubes stuck to the front of a crash helmet with little round tvs in them, but the only colour the tv shows is green, so your now flying a helicopter in three dimensions, using a two dimensional image and having lost all peripheral vision because they only have a 30ish degree field of view. Then add dust, very low light levels and tight landing sites, usually surrounded by high blast walls and you get the idea!
So this is my routine…and I wouldn’t change it for the world. At some point I’m going to have to grow up, get a proper job and then my life will be full of routine, until then I guess I’ll just remain flexible.
When I started writing this I knew there was a chance I would be writing about being ‘in contact’ with the enemy and was a little nervous as to how to tackle it. It seems pretty obvious that when you go ‘to war’ there is a strong possibility that at some point someone is going to have a pop at you and, as such, it only seems gentlemanly to have a pop back. However I’m also aware that the way we talk, act, respond to situations out here would not be tollerated in the UK. Life here soon taints peoples decision making, it has to, especially when lives are on the line. As I found out one afternoon a couple of weeks ago, sometimes the need to open fire on the enemy is a simple case of ‘us or them’:
We were flying a standard sortie, early start, wheels off just after 1st light and then bounced from PB to PB covering the support helicopters as they shot their approaches into the landing sites. Pretty much a normal day out here. We we’re in the process of covering our final Chinook into an area renowned for being particularly kinetic and, as the aircraft sat on the ground the radio buzzed with the area commander asking if we could assist about five miles down the road at another PB. I asked what the problem was and he answered ‘Troops in Contact’. His voice had risen slightly, his speach faster than normal (we speak to these guys every day and you get to know them, even though you’ve never met). The Chinook crew got a wriggle on, hurried up their passengers and then made a quick exit from the Green Zone in order to free us up and we made best speed for the area.
There are various things happening around now, my pilot was looking across cockpit into the rough area we had been given, trying to identify friendly troops, my gunner was making the final checks on the weapon system ‘Big Vern’ and removing the safety catch ready to open fire if required, and I was trying to plug the grid reference into the nav-aid, whilst also drawing a quick line onto my map of the hot mortar to target line that I had just been given. It gets bloody busy, even with a well-drilled three man crew all quietly completing their individual tasks but, within a couple of minutes we were circling the right location, clear of ‘hot’ airspace.
We managed to get comms with the ground callsign, though just (I have since learnt that it was because the guy I was speaking to was flat on his belly laying on top of his radio!) and learnt that the friendlies were stuck in an irrigation ditch. Enemy forces were in their ’12 o’clock’ with flanking forces working their way round to the East. If the enemy managed to flank them, they would be able to shoot straight down the ditch these guys were hiding in. I asked the guys on the ground to give me a reference point – I can’t just open fire sporadically as I may hit friendly callsigns in the area – everytime the guy raised his head the bullets came back in reply, and every time he spoke to me I could hear the whizz of the rounds going past him over the radio.
Unable to positively ID the friendly location my only choice was to get them to pop smoke, tactically unsound however it was obvious that the enemy knew their exact location! Immediately blue smoke rose from a ditchline “Are all friendly troops between those two trees?” I asked “affirm” was the reply. “From ditch, 200 metres South warning shots in open, watch my tracer” I said, my gunner, without replying to my radio call swung the gun around, pointed into the area I had described and pulled off two bursts with the .50. Bloody hell that things loud and in the ‘fog of war’ I had forgotten to close my window. Smoke, percussion waves and noise bounced into my workspace making my left ear ring. “Good rounds, adjust 100 metres South, 100 metres East, tree line running North-South, enemy positively identified in Southern half of treeline, cleared to engage” my rounds had fallen into a clear open area and it had been easy for the ground troops to see the ‘splash’ as they hit the ground. The adjustment was a bold one, normally we will ‘walk’ the rounds onto a target but in this case the area was wide open and a simple correction was all that was needed. “Roger, firing now” I hadn’t even finished the sentance before my gunner started to fire rounds into the area, his first rounds hitting the exact point we had been corrected onto and no easy feat considering that he was firing from a moving platform a couple of thousand feet up in the air.
We continued to supress the area whilst the ground troops withdrew under our covering fire. Not easy for them as they were on a facing slope with no discernable cover and only our bullets to keep the enemies’ heads down. It took six minutes in all, with us having to preserve our rate of fire into smaller than normal bursts even so using up all our ammunition in the process but as soon as the ground troops called clear we immediately withdrew ouselves from the area and called “off-station, returning to Bastion”.
“Thanks guys” was all we heard back, no one was injured, all I’m sure were soaked in sweat, filthy and knackered but all were ok.
I gave one quick glance back over my shoulder at the treeline, now no longer a treeline. 500 or so armour piercing, high expolsive rounds, interspersed every fifth one with a tracer round had descended at three times the speed of sound into the area. We had pretty much levelled everything that had been growing and I am in no doubt that anyone who was hiding there had perished in the previous few minutes.
On returning to the airfield we refuelled, shut down and re-armed ready for the next mission. As it was the rest of the afternoon went quietly. I managed to phone the PB later, just to put my own mind at rest that we had provided the best service we could have and to make sure that they were happy we were legally within our rules of engagement which to both counts they were and we were. It may seem strange that we have to consider rules of engagement when we are fighting insurgents who clearly don’t however we have the moral duty to do all we can to minimise civilian casualties, even damege to civilian property, but thats the war we are currently in. Its called hearts and minds and it works. Slowly, but it does work. I debiefed our Colonel on our contact, something that happens after every single engagement from a British helicopter and again, part of the legal and moral fight and had a cup of tea.
Another day in Afghanistan.
I can’t remember what the turn out was at the British elections recently, I seem to remember the figure being quite low. I have just finished a chaotic week and a half in support of the Afghan elections. It was a strange dynamic because the coalition forces took a step back and allowed the Afghan National Army and Police to lead with the security. Turn out was quoted by the BBC yesterday at 40%, admittedly an average figure across the country with rural area figures being far lower but in a country where most villages turn to the elder for advice and life is very tribal I was suprised at how many had felt safe and secure enough to go and vote. My view? Definately a step forward, maybe a step closer to internal stability here.
The Afghan Air Force have a small fleet of ex-Soviet Union aircraft out here and they have been provided with Western mentor-pilots to help train them up. We have been supporting them over the last few days in the ‘armed escort’ function, providing their mutual support whilst they delivered and then collected the ballot boxes and personnal involved in the running of the elections from around the Helmand area. In fairness I was a little nervous about working with them; an unknown quantity and not even fully qualified pilots (as we would consider them) yet I was completely humbled by their abilities and bravery in poor weather and challenging, threatening landing sites. Needless to say they got shot at, it really is to be expected out here and even more so considering we were visiting some of the more austere, hostile areas to the North of Helmand, but someone shooting at a helicopter out here is the Afghan version of someone writing a noise complaint to the MOD back home and, after seeing it enough times now, its got to the point where I don’t even worry about the odd tracer round.
But the whole election process has shown me that progress has been made. Coalition forces were on a higher than normal alert. We expected the Taliban to try and disrupt the process to show that they still had influenece in the area, we stood up extra aircraft in the medi-vac role in case of mass casualties (fearing suicide bombers) and had double the normal amount of armed aircraft ready to respond to whatever happened. Two British guys did loose their lives, a third very seriously injured (VSI) when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb but I cannot directly link this event to the elections, there are IEDs laced up and down all the major access routes here and, sadly, in war sometimes these things just happen. But the ‘spectacular’ that we were all fearing never happened, the influence of the enemy not as great as anticipated, and, as far as I can tell, the election process has been a success in as much as many felt safe enough to vote whilst being protected by their own people. From my perspective the elections have seemed fair and fairness, in this country, is definately progress.
So 10 days have swept by since I last updated this, and to be honest, not much has changed. On a deployment the time comes when you have learnt the Area of Operations (AO), got into the mindset of wherever you happen to be (in this case learnt to accept that life can be cheap and that death, sadly, is never far away and a constant threat to friendlies), and just ‘get on with the job’.
I’m currently lying in bed suffering what all men will appreciate as the worst of ailments, what women call a common-cold! There is a bug going round here at the moment, it started not long after the temperature started dropping off and the flys returned and it seems that its my turn to suffer the Taliban-flu! Clearly I could just go to work and get on with it but we cannot fly with a cold due to the risk of popping an eardrum and also of sharing our germs with those still fit-to-fly, so I am sentanced to a couple of incredibly dull days in bed.
I’m just trying to think what we have been up to over the last couple of weeks, lots of interesting stuff as well as the more routine but sadly, a lot of things that I cannot share with you on an open forum. We’ll just have to save that for a beer as-and-when I finally manage to get to a rally!
The one thing I will take away from this tour is what a difference we really have made out here. When I was last here the green zone stretched about a mile either side of the Helmand river – essentially the limit of the canal works that brought enough water to the desert to make it capable of sustaining arable farming. In places the green zone hasn’t changed, mainly due to topography, but, just South East of Bastion by a few miles, people are now moving out into the desert and starting to build new settlements, drill deep wells below the surface and slowly dead land is turning green. I only noticed it a few weeks ago, whilst we were flying low level over an area that I had videod on my helmet cam during my last tour here, I suddenly realised that these people were moving towards Bastion for the security that it brings. I had never thought of Bastion as anything more than a defensive location for us, a Main Operating Base (MOB) from which to push out into the PBs and act as a logistical platform for providing to the troops, but to the locals, to those that have no interest in the fighting, in 9/11, in the ‘War against Terror’, to the simple people of Afghanistan that just want the opportunity to live in peace, without the threat of hunger, we have inadvertantly given them that security and they are slowly responding.
I am not niaive enough to think that we have solved all the woes of this country, far from it. But it is important for me, as a professional Soldier, to feel that my efforts, my losses and the losses of my friends and comrades, have been worthwhile, with reason and not for nothing. I see Afghanistan everyday from a privaliged perspective and I stand by my comments that this is a very beautiful country, with a very proud people. With a little under 5 weeks to go before I leave here (and probably for the last time in my career) I feel a little sad that I will not get to see the red desert, the Kajaki dam, the terraced fields that rise up from the river around Sangin again. When I look back on my years in Service; at Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and here, I have some wonderful memories of beautiful places. Temporarily ruined by mans greed, tainted by his reliance on questionable religous beliefs.
Once I am home I will endeavour to put a few more pics into here, to complete the circle as it were. We only get a 20mb/day allowance on the emails so I have to be choosy about what I put in. This blog, borne from a rogue idea whilst sat at home, surrounded by cats in front of the fire, has hopefully been as useful/interesting to those who read as it has been to me as I have written it 1000s of miles from everything that I hold dear. I’ve never been open with my thoughts, fears or wishes and this has been a welcome release whilst allowing me to compartmentalise and rationalise things in my own mind. Returning from an Operational tour often brings hidden demons home with it, hopefully I will be able to leave mine here.
Sadly, due to the Official Secrets Act and Operational Security, many of the things I would love to share on an open forum I cannot. Needless to say, over a pint I will be able to be a little more vocal!
It is true to say this very pretty country has an equally colourful history. Trade routes still exsist that have been travelled for thousands of years. Alexander the Great passed through here, and many of his castle ruins still remian, some largely untouched. There is a huge fort just south of Lashkar Gar (edit: below) that really shows how advanced these people were; round battlements where we had to wait for the cannon to stop using square ones. Another is in the centre of Gersesk, we tend not to fly directly over built-up areas if we can help it but I’ll try and get some pictures.
So I apologise for my lack of prose over the previous couple of weeks, it can be difficult to know what to say when, actually, life here revolves around much the same thing on a day-to-day basis. However, here goes;
Wasn’t it Churchill who said of Britain and America?
“Two great Nations, separated by a common language”.
It is as true today as it was back 60+ years ago and we still struggle at times to communicate: Accents (apparently us Brits “talk funny”), slang and general misunderstandings (never ask an American if he can spare a ***, particularly if he is from the deep South and 8th generation homophobic) have led to some pretty awkward situations, and some pretty amusing stories, of which I’ll save for the bar as and when I get to meet those people I so hope to through this forum.
Anyway, getting back on par. We have been working with the USMC or ‘Marines’ as they like to be known, a lot recently; all part of the shared ownership and partnership scheme that we are pushing toward in order to eventually secure enough stability through the Afghan Army and Police to allow us to leave here having achieved success. And I fully understand that a military and/or political version of success may differ from that of the average man on the street, but, in my humble experiences out here, we are achieving a form of stability, and one that suits the nature of the people who call this land home.
So, Marines. I implore you to watch an HBO series called ‘Generation Kill’. It follows the USMC 1st Recon through the few weeks of war fighting that was Gulf War II, or Op TELIC 1 to me and the rest of the British Forces. Of course then it was just Op TELIC, none of us having the foresight to realise there would be a total of 13 Op TELICs by the time we withdrew from Basra in 2009 (of which I have served on four). The series was commended for its realism, accuracy and downright honesty in the way it portrayed these young men and, I have to say, that having crossed ‘the berm’ between Kuwait and Iraq and pushed through the same territories as them, at least as far as Al Almarah before we stopped, it is bang-on what I remember it to be. The series also captures the way that a group of individuals become a tight-knit team, particularly in the face of adversity, and very much hits the right note when it comes to war fighting; it isn’t like the movies, its hours, often days of boredom interspersed with moments, sometimes mere seconds, of absolute fear and adrenalin-fuelled controlled violence. I have never been an Infantryman, but I have worked closely enough with them (both on the receiving end and delivering our various deadly wares), to know firsthand the highs and lows of modern warfare. By the way, if you do watch the series, it is full of obscenities and very graphic from the beginning. Be warned!
I like Marines; they are raw, disciplined, professional, some may say institutionalised warriors. They do exactly what they are told, and when they are told, without question and whilst their methods may differ from ours, they do what they do bloody well. I was given a USMC fleece and a unit coin not-so-long back and I will treasure both. The coin sits in my shirt pocket every time I go flying and has become my lucky charm, something I have never felt the need for before this tour. The fleece will get a lot of wear once I get back to Blighty I’m sure!
I picked up a task a few weeks ago – a standard recce task up to the North – and who were my passengers but three guys from 1st Recon, it’s a small world!
The common British Soldier (and I very much consider myself to be one) has always held a certain envy of his American counterparts. The phrase ‘all the gear and no idea’ springs to mind.
I have a colleague out here who I have flown a few times on various missions, she is a Marine and works in their PR department. Her main weapon is a camera, her job being to try to capture, for all to see, what goes on out here (in fact the picture I posted in a previous entry, of us flying with an Afghan helicopter is one of her images). But she also has a pistol and a rifle. The thing is her pistol is a Baretta, its flippin’ huge and looks menacing and her M-16 is the really cool, lightweight one with lots of little add-ons like laser sights and torches. I too have a pistol, it’s a 9mm Browning and has a date stamp on it that reads 1954. I too have a rifle, and not the normal one most guys get. Mine is a carbine; smaller and with a hand grip at the front. But it just looks a little, well, pikey. She wears a set of lightweight body armour that has all sorts of little cool pouches and bits that I can only imagine what they do. I have body armour, and it weighs a hell of a lot more and looks a lot less!
But please don’t think I am whinging. I have seen the trials done on our kit and I know that the breastplate my carrier houses will stop exactly the same incoming rounds as hers, it’s just ours just doesn’t look as good! The Americans just have cool kit and I want what they have simply because it looks good.
You may remember around the time we were spooling up for Gulf War II the papers running stories like ‘Soldiers buy their own boots’ etc. And it was very true. Indeed I bought my own boots, and a lot of other stuff besides, and have done routinely on every single tour I have deployed on. But it, in my case at least, was not because I didn’t have the necessary kit issued, I did. It’s just the kit they give me looks rubbish and I, like everyone else want to look a little ally. My body armour has a strapping system that allows me to move and replace bits to where I want them. Mine only has one issued pouch left on it, and that is only because I cannot find a cool-looking one that fits the radio that the issued one contains, even my pistol sits in a little quick-release thingy that, to be honest, would be more suited to someone that would routinely need to quickly release a pistol.
So what is ally? Ally is having your hair just a little too long and always looking slightly too unkempt to keep the Sergeant Major happy, your sideburns shaved to a point rather than flat, and a little more bushy than you would ever get away with back in Barracks. Ally is having those pouches that let your ammunition magazines sit slightly proud, allowing all to see your first three rounds are tracer ready to mark enemy locations and badges that can be seen by satellites. Ally is having clothes that looks a little too worn, or a little too baggy, or the sleeves neither up nor down but hovering mid-forearm. Or walking around with your combat knee pads worn loosely around the ankle, just because you can. Ally is having that fine layer of dust over everything so that you permanently have a slightly ghostlike appearance and yet seem not to care that every time you inhale you breathe in half the desert.
Ally, essentially, is being everything you do not expect of the modern, professional British Soldier. Ally is looking a little, well, dishevelled.
But here’s the thing: Americans can’t do ally. Granted they have all the ‘Gucci’ kit, but it always looks too pristine, too tidy, too regimented. And from what I’ve seen out here, they really hold our Combat Arms in high regard for the way they look that little bit more like rough-and-tumble street fighters, that little bit more raw.
And looking ally is only getting better. The Paras are currently conducting their relief in place with the Royal Marines out here and all troops now arriving here have the new ‘multi-cam’ gear. Neither the old dark green and brown nor the standard issue desert camouflage but more a mix of both, with matching – and improved – body armour, webbing and backpacks, so now the guys are starting to look both ally and even give our American colleagues a run for their money on the cool front too!
So remember next time you see Trooping the Colour, or the Remembrance Day parade. Those soldiers, smartly and proudly marching along in their pristine uniforms and highly polished boots, all have a box of ally kit stuffed away somewhere ready for the next time they rotate back to here.
And, referring back to the bit about the press around ‘03, if I may I’ll leave you with an analogy:
If you go and see your Bank Manager, have a look on his desk and you’ll find a nice, shiny, expensive pen. No doubt perched in its nice shiny presentation box. Now Barclays didn’t give him that pen when he became a manger, they gave him a biro, because that’s all he needs to do his job. No, he bought the pen because he feels that, as the manager, he should look like the manager. And that shiny pen is his way of looking just a little bit ally.
Time to Come Home.
Yesterday the first few of our detachment departed Camp Bastion, bound for Khandahar and then onward to the UK. Late last night I stood in the departure tent shaking the hands of some of our junior-most, all of whom have impressed me intently out here, and then sharing a long hug with some of my oldest friends, one of whom being the guy I have shared a cockpit with for the last three months. I had to say my goodbyes quickly then leave as I felt myself welling up with tears. We have all shared some of the most memorable moments of our lives, things that none of us will probably talk about once we are all home, except maybe after one too many beers in the Mess when our masculine facades have weakened slightly. But, as the first few of our number started to peel away back to normality, I realised I’m not ready to go, I don’t want these memories to end, not just yet.
I sat on an ammo box outside our hanger a few days ago and watched two crews, six of my dearest and closest friends, taxi off to refuel and collect their passengers ready to go out on another mission. As the aircraft turned, the .50 cal guns hung menacingly out the door; weapons designed to kill, but used out here to protect. I never get bored of watching these machines go about their business, and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise as the pair lifted off into the dusty sky.
If I could bottle the feelings from out here and send them home for you to experience I would for the emotional roller-coaster that is Helmand is as intense as any place on earth I have experienced. I have found myself often sat quietly with a brew, watching the various aircraft come and go. I don’t even hear the noise any more; it has just become the normality of life here. For me this tour, whilst almost over, could carry on again and again. Although I have a job back in the UK, this is what we train for, this is where we put all that training into practice and this is where we make the real difference. This is where I have laughed and cried, loved and lost. This is where I have stood in silence to remember the fallen, and this is where I have witnessed so many young men become heroes.
I have thought a lot about the morals and ethics of what we are doing here – partly due to writing this – more than I have on any tour before, and I try to catch my thoughts and feelings in order to record them here later. Sadly I find that I have become numb to the feelings and emotions we consider so natural back home, I am sure, partly, due to some inner self-defence mechanism.
I don’t fear death, even when I am threatened on a daily basis. Yet I hate being forced to face my own mortality when I stand at a vigil. I no longer fear the sight or smell of blood. Yet I hate the sound of an aircraft landing at the hospital HLS, knowing that someone on board has suffered life-changing injury. I have found it increasingly difficult to pity or feel compassion when I read of people ‘suffering’ hardships at home because of the credit crunch, maybe because out here the suffering is real, life threatening and ever-present. And I fear returning home, because for the last few months this has been my home and all the excitement, the fear, the fatigue and routine alike have become my norm. The paradox of this place; of taking life to save life, of rescuing with one hand and killing with the other are emotions that are hard to comprehend and almost impossible to relate to what we would call ‘normal’ life and I hope that my efforts to explain my confusion, go at least some way, to describing the internal conflict I feel at present.
Afghanistan for me represents man and his conflict with man, at its very worst. I have witnessed acts of great courage by some of my colleagues and heard many stories from out on the ground of acts of sheer bravery by very young men. And yet I have also been privy to acts of great cowardice by the enemy: a child given a grenade and ordered to throw it over the wall of a patrol base, the Taleban knowing full well that we will not shoot that child yet them caring not for her welfare. Our moral high-ground actually becomes our Achilles heel, but we would be lesser men for lowering our standards and values.
I have seen Afghanistan from a privileged vantage point and have had the pleasure of working with some of the most dedicated and professional Soldiers that work here under the NATO banner. With my crew I have spent many hours in the skies over Helmand; sometimes we have become the hunted, occasionally we have taken the fight back to the Taleban. Whilst I have often seen their bullets I have never seen a single member of the ‘enemy’, they are simply ghosts that slip into the shadows; evasive, invisible. But I know that on more than one occasion, my rounds have found their targets.
But what I have seen with my own eyes is young women going to school un-harassed, kids playing with kites in the street, a fair election conducted by the countries own people, markets full of locally grown produce. Families, whole communities, rebuilding after years of instability and ravage. I have witnessed progress and a growing strength, one that will allow the Coalition Forces to eventually leave with heads held high.
I am scared of going home because I am scared to leave Afghanistan. In a strange way I have grown to love this country, for behind the pain and suffering is pride, humility and a simplistic beauty to the people that will always make me pray of hope for their future. And I know my life will never be the same after my experiences here.
A quick update from my office as I look out over a very wet and slow-moving A1…and sift through the three-hundred odd emails I returned to 🙁
We all got back safe and sound, a five day journey in total, via Cyprus for a day’s ‘decompression’ essentially a day in limbo, trying to reset and return to normal (lying on a beach, having a few beers and a couple of lectures from a mental health specialist and the local Padre, just so that everyone feels a little more at ease with the alien and sometimes unwelcome feelings that come from going from the relative chaos of modern warfare to the more routine norm of life at home). We got back to Yorkshire late evening on Saturday and Mrs P and I have shared a few hugs, and tears, over what was left of the weekend. Sunday dinner in a local pub found me welling up and feeling very uneasy as we sat surrounded by ‘normal’ people. I am so used to everyone around me being in uniform I suddenley felt like the odd one out and very alone. I’ve talked with Mrs P about a few of the things that have gone on out there, but always with a lump in my throat and with a continual urge to cry. All normal reactions to what has been an incredibly rewarding, but nonetheless stressful few months away.
However, I may be returning to Afghanistan sooner than expected, maybe as early as late December for a few weeks. So I guess the story may not be quite over just yet. As with all things in life, time will tell.
Until then, to all those that have given their support to me, either privately or openly through the thread, thank you. I hope you have learnt a little about what really goes on out there, just as I have learnt a little about myself thorugh recording my thoughts and experiences. As I sit here, back in normal ‘green’ uniform, I cannot help but think about the thousands of British men and women, still out there, and I look at the poppy on my chest, and wonder what the future holds for us all as we approach the time to remember those that gave their today for our tomorrow.