Bleary-eyed and disorientated, our little group of about twenty-five stragglers snaked its way into Akrotiri air terminal off an RAF Tristar.
After a couple of days travelling in-country to get to Camp Bastion, we made our way safely out of Afghanistan in between two roaring thunderstorms. On the tarmac in Cyprus, our small group left the bulk of passengers on board to head directly back to the UK for their R&R. Those of us who had completed our tours headed towards the ‘decompression’ camp in Cyprus for some compulsory fun and relaxation.
Having collected our daysacks with our one change of civilian clothing, we were asked to show our passports – ostensibly to make sure none of us had left it on-board the aircraft and to be fair it was probably a reasonable assumption to make considering the scruffy andexhausted bunch the ‘decompression team’ were dealing with. Despite the time (about 0500 local time), the Butlins’-esque, red polo-shirted party were welcoming and considerate with the eclectic group – varying in rank from an RAF Group Captain all the way to a Private soldier who didn’t look old enough to be deployed – all of whom looked like they would rather curl up in the corner of the terminal or bolt out the door to the nearest civilian aircraft bound for home.
One short bus journey later, we arrived at a spotless and brand new accommodation block where we managed to get our heads down for a couple of hours on rows of bunk beds, then hopped into showers before being taken to breakfast. Somewhat bemused and most of us wearing mismatched ill-fitting clothes that had spent months at the bottom of our rucksacks, there was a sense of convicts out on day release. But after our cat-nap and metaphorical de-lousing, we were all famished and gladly downed the large fry-up on offer.
Cue our day of enforced recreation. And to be honest, it was surprisingly fun and extremely well pitched and organised. Not quite beach weather when you come through Cyprus in February so our activities were less banana-boat and swimming in the sea, and more bowling and clay pigeon shooting. The latter gave us a chance to get back out into the fresh air after being squeezed into various forms of militarytransport for days, and acclimatise to wet and grey weather which was no doubt also waiting to welcome us back in the UK.
After attempting to destroy a number of fluorescent clay pellets with a shot-gun instructor who would have looked more at home in the Home Counties than on a hilltop behind Episkopi, we were bussed off past some glorious views out to sea, up a winding road to a camp up on a plateau. Dotted around were whitewashed one story buildings with blue doors either end, all identically kitted out with rows of bunk beds which we would fall into tonight before the last stage of our long journey back to Brize Norton in the morning. The complex was hugely well equipped with free Wi-Fi, TVs, games, lounging areas and a huge treat: today’s newspapers.
Despite being in civilian clothes, our little gang – you witness a very different decompression when entire units are trooping through hundreds at a time – was unable to break out of our military habits. We all found ourselves picking up our freshly laundered uniforms and gathering in the long ironing room –rows of matching blue ironing boards and industrial strength steam irons – to get our kit ready for re-use in the morning.
After that, we all settled down in companionable silence to email home, read the papers or snooze on the large L-shaped sofas dotted around the brightly lit lounging area. We whiled the rest of the afternoon away until dinner and our ration of beer or wine – four cans or a bottle – from the bar, for which we had all bought tokens earlier in the day.
With a briefing on post-traumatic stress and a video on safe driving on return to the UK, the decompression team’s duty was nearly done.
If they were concerned we might all run riot on our quota of wine or make a dash for Aya Napa in the dead of the night, they needn’t have worried. On very little sleep and with long tours behind us, our greatest extravagance was watching a rock duet smash out some entertaining covers and chuckling at an unapologetically un-PC stand-up comedian, before watching The Hobbit in the mobile cinema – a brightly coloured tour bus decked out with a big screen and plush red velvet seats.
We were tucked up in bed long before bed time, after a process which may not cure the most deeply affected by a tour in Afghanistan but one which will undoubtedly make most of us a lot more palatable a proposition for our loved ones back home when we barge back in on their lives after six, eight or even twelve months away.
Lieutenant Colonel Lorna Ward has been the media advisor to General Nick Carter, the Deputy Commander of ISAF and Commander of UK forces in Afghanistan – the National Contingent Commander.