C Company: the Royal Marines who mean business

First published on Sky News on 29th May 2010.

marines

It is the middle of the night as the men from C Company march down to the Helicopter Landing Site on the Forward Operating Base in Sangin.

The last time these boys left camp, they came back without one of their most popular and experienced Royal Marines.

As the two Chinooks roar out of the pitch darkness, the tension is palpable.

These men mean business – loaded with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, bridging equipment and mine detecting kit, they move swiftly and efficiently onto the aircraft.

We’re crammed in, hanging off ceiling straps as the aircraft lurches over the hills just feet from the ground.

Then suddenly we’re off the ramp and piling into a huddle on the ground in the hope that our chosen landing spot is clear of IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

Mine-detecting kit is deployed and we set off gingerly across the fields. Every marine is quite literally checking his every footstep, staying low and wading through rivers on the way.

C Company is heading for a suspected Taliban compound a few hundred metres away. Just last week a local teenager struck up a friendly conversation with a passing patrol here.

Having identified the commander, he ambled off to collect his suicide vest from a neighbouring compound. He then walked back over to his new ‘friends’ and blew himself up.

The young Taliban recruit failed to take anyone else with him on his suicide mission, but C Company know there are more where he came from.

Assisted by soldiers from 1 Scots, the marines watch over the Afghan National Army as they clear through a series of compounds and question locals.

And all of this in the face of an intensely frustrating challenge – “courageous restraint” dictated by their rules of engagement.

This means using as little force as possible, sometimes staring an insurgent in the face and letting him walk away.

The idea is to protect the surrounding local population, win them over, and strip the Taliban of support.

But when your best mate has just been killed by an IED set by an enemy who doesn’t play by the rules, that’s a very big ask.

Today the mission was a success; the Royal Marines with the men from 1 Scots put “boots on the ground”, disrupted Taliban activity and reassured the local population.

But most importantly for the Marines from C Company, everyone came back.

Safely on the ground, Troop Sergeant ‘Smudge’ Smith gathers his boys into a huddle.

As every man remembers the mate and colleague they’ve lost, he tells them how proud he is of them.

They’ve held it together and teamwork has got them through a horrific couple of days.

They’ve got a job to do and giving their friend a proper send-off will have to wait until they get home.

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Rite of passage on an Afghan patrol base

First published on Sky News on 28th May 2010.

footie in helmand

He only has to shave once a month, is desperate to learn to drive and has a chilled pint – his first legal drink – with his name on it down his local pub in Dumfries.

But Private Anton ‘Ando’ Anderson will have to wait another three weeks for all that; first he has a job to finish in Afghanistan.

The young soldier from 1 SCOTS Battle Group is based in Helmand Province.

He is among a handful of British soldiers who have set up a home of sorts in a Patrol Base near the town of Sangin, and is one of the youngest.

Just a month after his 18th birthday, Anton was sent out as a Battle Casualty Replacement for a few short weeks.

He has now served almost four months after he volunteered to stay on.

And what a rite of passage.

Nicknamed ‘Bacha’ – ‘young boy’ in Dari – Anton holds his own on patrol.

In charge of the life-saving and cripplingly heavy Electronic Counter-Measures equipment, at a skinny 5ft 7in, he carries more than his body weight in kit patrolling the Green Zone in temperatures in the 50s.

Bacha takes the unrelenting army banter with a chuckle and says he hides when the older lads try to put him on latrine-emptying duty one too many days in a row.

“It doesnae help when I look like I’m 12 years old!” he grins.

His mother may be worried about him, but it is fairly obvious the more senior soldiers have taken him under their wing and created a family environment in the small dusty compound in this dangerous part of Afghanistan.

His patrol buddies do however draw the line at eating the teenager’s food after his toxic attempts at making porridge and his own home-cooked favourite “mince and tatties”.

That is no doubt something his mum will gladly give him a few tips on when he gets home next month.

An Afghan country garden: life on a Helmand base

First published on Sky News on 30th May 2010.

Bright pink magnolias, deep red roses, lush green grass, pergolas that Charlie Dimmock would be proud of and even the odd water feature.

No, this is not a lovingly manicured English country garden, this is thousands of miles away in one of the most dangerous places in the world – Sangin, Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

In 50C heat, British troops are doing their laundry in basins by the river during a few precious moments of “personal admin” time on the Forward Operating Base.

Others are catching up on reading, preparing for their next patrol or having a blissfully refreshing dip in the Sangin river.

But for their Afghan National Army counterparts, it seems nothing beats a spot of gardening.

Just a few metres away from rows of armoured vehicles and pockmarked buildings stuffed with sandbags, the Afghan soldiers have created an incongruous oasis that stands out from its hard, dry, dusty, beige surroundings.

They are meticulous about watering their flower beds and lawns and coaxing creepers over gateways and walls.

And it seems civilian Afghans are no less green-fingered.

Roads and tracks through Sangin are bordered by large allotments of intricately irrigated land.

One soldier told me as we patrolled past an embryonic orchard that they are also streets ahead of us at genetically combining different fruit trees.

So it seems the English may have competition in the gardening stakes… and an unexpected hobby in common with the Afghan people.

It’s a dog’s life in Afghanistan patrol base

First published on Sky News on 31st May 2010.

Frankie

By Lorna Ward, Sky News Producer

His large red and white blanket has pride of place under the main operations-cum-dining table in the Patrol Base. He’s had his jabs, and he dines on leftover rations.

Frankie may not be a pedigree, but he’s won the hearts of the soldiers on a small and dusty Patrol Base in Sangin.

The scruffy white and brown dog is only about nine months old but has already been through the mill.

As a puppy, he was destined to be trained up as a fighting dog.

This meant grooming him according to Afghan rules, including cutting off his ears and tail.

As it turned out, he just wasn’t aggressive enough, so his career ended and he was left homeless.

Cue the arrival of the boys from 1 Scots.

Sgt Jamie Campbell arrived ahead of the rest of the soldiers who would call this small patch of land on the edge of the Green Zone home for the next six months.

He found cockroaches and rats, and one mangy, lonely dog with no ears and no tail.

Ridding the place of pests and turning it into a liveable hygienic base was a priority. Along with the rats and the cockroaches, the mangy dog had to go.

But the disfigured, mournful looking mutt won his first battle – the animal was spared and Christened Frankie.

Just under three months later, Frankie is part of the furniture.

So much so, that he insists on following the soldiers on patrol into the Green Zone.

Despite being firmly instructed to stay on the Patrol Base and left with his water bowl and snacks, he occasionally manages to escape.

Blissfully unaware of the improvised explosive device threat and the serious job the men are here to do, he bounds towards the gate of the Patrol Base, before being shooed back to safety.

Sgt Campbell has taken a particular shine to the camp mascot and plans to take him home as a family pet.

It’ll mean jumping through a number of administrative hoops and raising money – but with the process already under way, this is one ‘rescue’ dog that looks set for a loving home in Scotland in a few months’ time.

A day in the life: Media Advisor to Deputy Commander ISAF

(First published in the Pen & Sword “Scratchings” March 2013)

‘Poacher-turned-gamekeeper’, ‘spy’, ‘Colonel meeja’…the nicknames were endless. It may not have been the most conventional role for a journalist but the contradictions between my recent operational post and my day job are what made it challenging, rewarding, fascinating and occasionally infuriating all on a daily basis.

I was mobilised from my job as Deputy Foreign News editor at Sky News and deployed to Kabul for five months to create the role of Media Advisor to the ISAF Deputy Commander (and commander of British forces in Afghanistan), Lt Gen Adrian Bradshaw then Lt Gen Nick Carter. Privy at the highest level to the most sensitive information and thinking, input to some of the most important decisions on the campaign and a close working relationship with the most influential military figures in the British Army today. The kind of access and headline-rich environment a journalist could only dream of. But a privilege and situation which with my military hat on meant careful management of those potential stories, anticipating how my alter-ego might interpret the campaign’s every move and decision and turn them into news.

People always think the hardest part of sitting in the no-man’s land between the media and the military must be to adhere to the Official Secrets Act and resist the temptation to ‘make’ my hack’s career on a scandal or sensitive information that I’ve acquired during military service. The reality is that’s relatively easy – a decision when I first joined the TA that the line would never be crossed and classified information and behaviour shared on trust stayed just that. And, contrary to popular belief, integrity is a quality valued in journalists and service personnel alike.

What is far harder is reconciling what are two very different, independent, antiquated and stubborn professions and institutions and attempting to get them to work in a more collaborative and less combative way; a task which is all the more difficult when under operational pressure and tempo.

The military is all about discipline, protocols and the chain of command. There are drills for everything. God help you if you put a comma or tab in the wrong place in a Fragmentary Order, Warning Order, Operational Order or any other kind of ‘service writing’. Every type of briefing has a format and powerpoint is a must, with a gold star if you can include flow charts. Officer cadets spend half their first term at Sandhurst marching back and forth across a drill square at 140 paces a minute in painstakingly bulled boots. But it is exactly that regimented way of life that makes the British Army one of the best in the world.

Journalism on the other hand is about thinking laterally, finding the point of view others have not considered. It means questioning authority, exposing imperfections and mistakes, and where the military is concerned, making sure nothing uttered by senior commanders is taken at face value or left unchallenged. Your writing and style are your signature. And the idea that any briefing or report should require anything other than your magnetic storytelling or charisma – let alone follow a dictated structure – is abhorrent. Mention powerpoint to a journalist and you’ll have them running for the hills.

So when the two come together it can be fairly interesting.

The sceptical glances I got initially as a journalist ‘in advisor’s clothing’ disappeared early on. I would like to think that it was because people realised I was a professional and started to believe that it is possible to be a journalist and still have a modicum of integrity. I think it’s more likely though that they thought that if I was put there somebody somewhere must have trusted me and at the end of the day I might actually be useful if I could shed some light on this ‘meeja’ lark.

One of my closest allies was a colleague working on the very opposite end of the information spectrum. That caused a few eyebrows to be raised until people understood that in order to be prepared for the worst possible leaks and stories in the press, and mitigate against the damage they might cause, I had to be conversant with everything that was going on in the campaign, including and most especially the most sensitive reports, intelligence and decisions – material most likely to cause the most controversy and therefore the most damaging headline if it ever hit the press.

There was a steady stream of stories and incidents to respond to as well as media engagements and embeds to plan and manage for the General. They were busy months of Insider Attacks, Prince Harry on the front line, the Camp Bastion attack, troop drawdown announcements, not to mention the ISAF commander coming under investigation. But for me what took the job beyond its media advisor tag and what made it all the more fascinating was that it was all about diplomacy, building and nurturing key relationships and enabling the passage of information to the right people at the right time. Those relationships outside the military machine – with both the Afghan and international press – were key but ironically more straightforward than those within it. It was a time-consuming and painstaking process of making sure the various headquarters across Afghanistan were talking to each other and to the Pentagon and to Whitehall, and to the various military institutions in the UK. And that they were all following the same ‘narrative’, and saying the same thing or would in the event of x, y or z. And if they weren’t, then finding a compromise they could all agree upon. And that meant tiptoeing through the different personalities, different agendas as well as coalition and national politics on the one hand, and making sure the UK position was represented in the ISAF decision-making process on the other.

A minefield to negotiate, an exhausting pace and level of pressure and constant demands and questions from three timezones to keep up with. There were occasions where I breathed a quiet sigh of relief when what I had predicted happened on cue; when advice I had pushed hard was borne out; when risks I had taken to achieve an aim under time pressure paid off. I hadn’t expected it to be easy; after all I’d agreed to deploy at 24-hours’ notice, to a job that didn’t exist, in the media management of the UK’s most unpopular military campaign in the last century. But to be privy to decision-making at that level, working with military minds at the top of their game, and battling to bring media and communication considerations to the forefront of military campaign planning was exciting, challenging and rewarding. I enjoyed it so much I would have stayed on well beyond the end of my tour. I was given the freedom of manoeuvre to have real impact and use my specialist knowledge and experience to best effect. I handed over a job which is now firmly on the map and made it one which I think justifies the continued investment in specialists and their deployment to the right jobs, where they can contribute unique skills which the military lacks and add real value.

HIGHLIGHTS: The future of British military engagement with the media

March this year will mark ten years since the invasion of Iraq. In those ten years in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the media has embedded with British troops in an effort to report the conflicts.

We will be joined by an expert panel to look at the nature of the engagement between the British military and the media, in light of more than ten years of conflict overseas.

As we see changes in the British military, the media and the nature of conflict zones, how will this relationship develop? We will be examining the management of the media and the judgements that are made about what to and what not to show.

Chaired by Stewart Purvis, Professor of television journalism at City University London. He is a former Editor-in-Chief and CEO of ITN, and Ofcom’s Partner for Content and Standards.

The panel:

Lorna Ward, deputy foreign news editor at Sky News, currently deployed as Media Advisor to ISAF Deputy Commander, Afghanistan. In her position at Sky she runs the international news input and has spent a considerable time in the field as a reporter and producer. Previously, she was mobilised while in the TA; deploying in charge of a Combat Camera Team attached to British infantry units across Iraq, and US special forces in Baghdad.

Vaughan Smith is a news pioneer who founded the Frontline Club in London in 2003. Since the 80s Vaughan has worked as an award-winning independent cameraman and video news journalist covering wars and conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo and elsewhere.

Robert Fox has worked as a journalist and broadcaster since 1967, and is defence correspondent for the Evening Standard.He is member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Royal Institute for International Affairs, Chatham House.

Major General Jonathan Shaw was chief of staff of UK Land Forces between 2007 and 2008. He joined the Parachute Regiment in 1981 and went on to serve in the Falklands, Kosovo and Iraq before joining the MoD. He currently advises Digital Barriers plc and OPTIMA Defence & Security.

Poacher-turned-gamekeeper

Article published in Pen And Sword Club magazine March 2013.

‘Poacher-turned-gamekeeper’, ‘spy’, ‘Colonel meeja’…the nicknames were endless.

It may not have been the most conventional role for a journalist but the contradictions between my recent operational post and my day job are what made it challenging, rewarding, fascinating and occasionally infuriating all on a daily basis.

I was mobilised from my job as Deputy Foreign News editor at Sky News and deployed to Kabul for five months to create the role of Media Advisor to the ISAF Deputy Commander (and commander of British forces in Afghanistan), Lt Gen Adrian Bradshaw then Lt Gen Nick Carter.  Privy at the highest level to the most sensitive information and thinking, input to some of the most important decisions on the campaign and a close working relationship with the most influential military figures in the British Army today.  The kind of access and headline-rich environment a journalist could only dream of.  But a privilege and situation which with my military hat on meant careful management of those potential stories, anticipating how my alter-ego might interpret the campaign’s every move and decision and turn them into news.

People always think the hardest part of sitting in the no-man’s land between the media and the military must be to adhere to the Official Secrets Act and resist the temptation to ‘make’ my hack’s career on a scandal or sensitive information that I’ve acquired during military service.  The reality is that’s relatively easy – a decision when I first joined the TA that the line would never be crossed and classified information and behaviour shared on trust stayed just that.  And, contrary to popular belief, integrity is a quality valued in journalists and service personnel alike.

What is far harder is reconciling what are two very different, independent, antiquated and stubborn professions and institutions and attempting to get them to work in a more collaborative and less combative way;  a task which is all the more difficult when under operational pressure and tempo.

The military is all about discipline, protocols and the chain of command.  There are drills for everything.  God help you if you put a comma or tab in the wrong place in a Fragmentary Order, Warning Order, Operational Order or any other kind of ‘service writing’.  Every type of briefing has a format and powerpoint is a must, with a gold star if you can include flow charts.  Officer cadets spend half their first term at Sandhurst marching back and forth across a drill square at 140 paces a minute in painstakingly bulled boots.  But it is exactly that regimented way of life that makes the British Army one of the best in the world.

Journalism on the other hand is about thinking laterally, finding the point of view others have not considered.  It means questioning authority, exposing imperfections and mistakes, and where the military is concerned, making sure nothing uttered by senior commanders is taken at face value or left unchallenged.  Your writing and style are your signature.  And the idea that any briefing or report should require anything other than your magnetic storytelling or charisma – let alone follow a dictated structure – is abhorrent.  Mention powerpoint to a journalist and you’ll have them running for the hills.

So when the two come together it can be fairly interesting.

The sceptical glances I got initially as a journalist ‘in advisor’s clothing’ disappeared early on.  I would like to think that it was because people realised I was a professional and started to believe that it is possible to be a journalist and still have a modicum of integrity.  I think it’s more likely though that they thought that if I was put there somebody somewhere must have trusted me and at the end of the day I might actually be useful if I could shed some light on this ‘meeja’ lark.

One of my closest allies was a colleague working on the very opposite end of the information spectrum.  That caused a few eyebrows to be raised until people understood that in order to be prepared for the worst possible leaks and stories in the press, and mitigate against the damage they might cause, I had to be conversant with everything that was going on in the campaign, including and most especially the most sensitive reports, intelligence and decisions – material most likely to cause the most controversy and therefore the most damaging headline if it ever hit the press.

There was a steady stream of stories and incidents to respond to as well as media engagements and embeds to plan and manage for the General.  They were busy months of Insider Attacks, Prince Harry on the front line, the Camp Bastion attack, troop drawdown announcements, not to mention the ISAF commander coming under investigation.  But for me what took the job beyond its media advisor tag and what made it all the more fascinating was that it was all about diplomacy, building and nurturing key relationships and enabling the passage of information to the right people at the right time.  Those relationships outside the military machine – with both the Afghan and international press – were key but ironically more straightforward than those within it.  It was a time-consuming and painstaking process of making sure the various headquarters across Afghanistan were talking to each other and to the Pentagon and to Whitehall, and to the various military institutions in the UK.  And that they were all following the same ‘narrative’, and saying the same thing or would in the event of x, y or z.  And if they weren’t, then finding a compromise they could all agree upon.  And that meant tiptoeing through the different personalities, different agendas as well as coalition and national politics on the one hand, and making sure the UK position was represented in the ISAF decision-making process on the other.

A minefield to negotiate, an exhausting pace and level of pressure and constant demands and questions from three timezones to keep up with.  There were occasions where I breathed a quiet sigh of relief when what I had predicted happened on cue; when advice I had pushed hard was borne out; when risks I had taken to achieve an aim under time pressure paid off.  I hadn’t expected it to be easy; after all I’d agreed to deploy at 24-hours’ notice, to a job that didn’t exist, in the media management of the UK’s most unpopular military campaign in the last century.  But to be privy to decision-making at that level, working with military minds at the top of their game, and battling to bring media and communication considerations to the forefront of military campaign planning was exciting, challenging and rewarding.  I enjoyed it so much I would have stayed on well beyond the end of my tour.  I was given the freedom of manoeuvre to have real impact and use my specialist knowledge and experience to best effect.  I handed over a job which is now firmly on the map and made it one which I think justifies the continued investment in specialists and their deployment to the right jobs, where they can contribute unique skills which the military lacks and add real value.