Thelma in Helmand Province
Hello from Afghanistan!
I am now over 70% of the way through my tour and have just under two months left in theatre. However my return flight is yet to be confirmed so I am not pinning too many hopes on getting home by a particular date! I have been overwhelmed by the amount of support (and food!) that I have received from friends and colleagues so I wanted to provide you all with a bit of an update on what I have been up to. I hope this finds you well.
The arrival of our team out here was staggered over two and a half months with LCpl Wadlow the first to arrive five weeks before me and WO2 Coleman the last to be in post in mid January. During the past couple of months we have beenrotating through R&R, with at least one person out of theatre most of the time.
We are now a complete team for only a few more days before WO2 Coleman goes on R&R, by the end of which Lcpl Wadlow will have finished his tour and his successor will be in place. It’s these milestones that help us keep track of timeas otherwise most days are pretty routine and it can all blur together!
In February I managed to get to Kandahar for a two day visit and to see the Theatre Map Depot where another colleague from my TA unit is working. It was good to catch up with him and to see another base; it is completely different to Bastion which feels really quiet in comparison. Kandahar is based around the airfield and there is a lot more permanent infrastructure there including brick buildings, tarmacked roads and the famous Boardwalk which is an area of shops and restaurants (including TGI Friday’s!) on a raised wooden walkway surrounding a square where they play basket ball etc. It has almost a village green feel to it. Kandahar also has it’s very own tourist attraction in the form of a poo pond where all the waste is deposited and aerates and bubbles away. It is the done thing to go and have your photo taken next to the biohazard sign and I even managed to find a T-shirt advertising the Poo Pond Cafe (I was disappointed not to find the actual cafe though!) Kandahar generally felt a lot more sociable than Bastion as there was definitely a lot more to do outside of work.
At the Poo Pond, Kandahar
I also managed to get out to Lash Kar Gah for a day a few weeks ago. The city is in the Green Zone, about a twenty minute helicopter flight away from Bastion. I went down to deliver some maps and to meet the Geo Cell that are based there. The flight was by Chinook and I took the opportunity to film it from the window. The loadie saw me with my camera and I thought he was going to tell me to stop filming but instead he invited me to sit up next to the door so I could get a better picture! He then spoke over his mic to the pilot who then flew us low over the town and for the first time I saw normal Afghans going about their daily business. There were people on bikes, in trucks and walking their donkeys. At one point we were so low that the wash from the back of the helicopter was making peoples washing flap up violently around on the washing lines in their compounds. It gave me a very brief glimpse in to the world of the every day Afghan and made me wonder about the challenges they face dealing with the insurgency that are all around that area.
Being stuck on base at Bastion can be frustrating at times and I would love to be able to get out more but the job I do does not warrant it. I can’t complain though; at least the chances of me coming home in one piece are pretty high. The base at Lash is tiny in comparison to Bastion and the perimeter fence is only a mile or so long but it seemed friendly and more relaxed Also there were flowers there – tulips, marigolds and poppies (of course). It was the first time in three months that I’d seen any form of vegetation as opposed to just sand, dust and rocks and it was delightful. We travelled back that night by Merlin helicopter in pitch darkness; they switch the lights off to make it less of a target for anyone aiming an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) at us.
Arriving at Kandahar Airfield
I had my R&R during March and it was great, but over far too quickly. Amazingly the RAF got me back to Brize Norton on schedule and we landed at lunch time on my birthday, which was a lovely birthday present in itself. On the way to Salisbury and within an hour and a half of landing I managed to do a skydive, still in my uniform (we were passing Netheravon Airfield anyway and the sun was shining so I took the opportunity!). I visited my family in Somerset and then I went skiing for a week in Austria, where the snow was fantastic and I treated myself to a new pair of skis with my hard earned army wages! I then just had time to see some friends for dinner in London before driving up to Brize Norton and flying back that same night.
All this was lovely but the dashing around took it’s toll (a rookie mistake I’m told – the more experienced, wiser ones just go home and do nothing!) and I returned to theatre ill with a cold…and then got worse not better! After a week of trying to “griz it out” I eventually dragged myself to the med centre where a doctor listened to my chest, confirmed bronchitis and prescribed 7 days of penicillin and as much rest as work would allow. It took another two weeks to start feeling anywhere near 100% again though and it took me a long while to get back into any kind of routine fitness wise with a lot of ground to make up! Sadly there has been another vigil service to attend for another lad who was shot by a rogue Afghan soldier. He was only the second British soldier to die in the time that I have been here which I believe is an improvement on last year but we are only really at the beginning of the Taliban fighting season so incidents could start to increase again soon. However the move towards the transition of power over to the Afghan Army is continuing apace and they are now in the lead for the majority of operations. This means that there are less of our boys out on the ground doing the actual fighting than previously so hopefully the numbers of deaths and serious injuries should remain low. However it also means that the afghans are the ones taking the brunt of the casualties now as the insurgency are not simply giving up. Every so often we get an IDF attack on the base (Indirect Fire – someone trying to rocket us) The loud bang is preceded by tan alarm as there are instruments which detect incoming fire and we have to don our body armour and helmets and get ourselves to the nearest blast shelter (which are located pretty much everywhere). The last one was at 2am on Sunday night and it was the bang and not the alarm that woke myself and my room mate up (although we’re told it did sound). We had to leave our room and congregate in a shelter at the end of our pod while a register was taken and we waited for further information. Apparently there were six rockets in total and eventually the all clear was sounded and we were allowed back to our beds after about 45 minures. Sunday was the Mujahadeen Victory day and we were told to anticipate some kind of action as it is the day that marks the official beginning of the fighting season for the Taliban so things could get more interesting from now on in!
The future of this country relies on the Afghans being able to run effective operations against the insurgency and it is no secret that huge numbers desert the army every year when they have enough of battle conditions. At the end of next year ISAF (international Security Assitance Force – ie us, the USA etc) support will be withdrawn all bar special forces and small mentoring teams so everyone is feeling the pressure.
The team I work in is training a small group of Afghan soldiers to be geo technicians so they can produce their own mapping. These people however did not grow up with computers so it takes them a long time to grasp even basic concepts so the training objectives are constantly being revised and adjusted to fit in with what is feasible as new challenges come to light. Also they do not have the same levels of discipline and timings are not as key in their culture as in ours so they turn up when they feel like it. The training is all conducted through our interpretor, Abdul, a native Afghani who escaped to Canada with his family when the Russians invaded. He is a lovely man who is very patient and humble and is excellent at his job which he has been doing for three years so has worked with many versions of our team. The other day during a tea break in the training he was interpreting for one of the soldiers who was telling us a little about his life. I always want to ask more but there is never enough time. Here we are enjoying a break in training with the Afghans and partaking in tea and some of the cakes and treats sent by friends and colleagues at both Southwark Council and the City of London.
In other news our team chill out area that we started working on before R&R is now finished – complete with decking and hammocks! My contribution was to source all the materials from around the camp and I managed to acquire decking wood, nails, paint, paint brushes and rope. Lcpl Westhead and WO2 Coleman did the construction work and Lcpl Wadlow added the finishing touches by painting Royal Engineers Crests on the walls. We also acquired a barbeque and have had a couple of Saturday evenings eating al fresco, which has made a pleasant change to the noisy and over crowded chow hall!
Also on the entertainment side of things, every so often there is a CSE show (Combined Services Entertainment) for the troops. Celebrities and entertainers arrive and travel round to the different bases for a few days doing a show in each location. Katie Melua was over here a while ago did a gig outside the NAAFI which was very good and drew quite a big crowd. The comedians who did the warm up act though were probably the highlight for most people as they had the whole audience in stitches. Needless to say the humour was pretty rude and appealed to squaddies of all ranks. In the cookhouse after the show I found I was in the queue next to one of the comedians and he invited me to join him on their table for dinner where I got to meet Katie herself.
For more information please visit http://www.serfca.org/en-gb/reservists/ta/135independentgeographicsquadronre.aspx