Back to the Dust…

 

I spent my R&R enjoying runs around the fields of Hampshire in the mud, rain, and on one occasion surviving a rather biting hailstorm. So it was only natural that one of the first things I wanted to do on return to the picturesque countryside of Camp Bastion was go for a run to stretch my legs after the cramped journey back.

Clearly I have a memory comparable to that of a goldfish. There was a very good reason why my running habits had taken a dive here prior to their resurrection back home in Blighty over R&R.

I am now back from my 5 mile circuit feeling like some desert nomad. Only a desert nomad who went on a trek with all the wrong kit and sans camel. My eyelashes and hair have gone a pale shade of beige, my nose now houses enough sand with which to build a castle. As a result of breathing (heavily) through my mouth (partly the result of being unable to breathe through the sandcastle in my nose), I will now spend the next couple of hours chewing on grit and will not be in need of any dinner. There is more sand and dust on the inside of my socks than on the outside and my IPod is now ironically playing Faith Hill’s ‘Breathe’ over and over in a loop, probably due to the mound of sand now stuck under the ‘play’ button.

I am now off for a shower before I reveal any more embarrassing facts about the state of my nostrils or indeed my taste in music.

The marathon journey home…

 

1000 on a hot and dusty Wednesday morning.

We all set off looking quite fresh and chirpy considering it was the middle of the night, but then we were excited at the prospect of going home – whether on R&R or at the end of a long tour.

By the early hours of Thursday in Bastion departure ‘lounge’, the brew kits had been pillaged, the Kitkats were sold out in the little snack bar, and even re-runs of Top Gear on the BFBS TV screen were no longer holding people’s attention.

Just in time, the oft-mentioned ‘sirs, ma’ams, ladies and gents’ was bellowed across the hall and we were on our way out to the mine-taped pen on the airfield eagerly awaiting the loud hum of props and the welcome sight of the green belly of the Hercules ready to swallow us up.

A short half-hour later in the middle of the night, we landed in Kandahar. After disentangling our identical bergans and bags and humping them onto the coach, we were shipped through the darkness to a row of tents. Then another ‘sirs, ma’ams, ladies and gents’ brief before being directed by torchlight to a large collection of camp beds. Time to get our heads down for a couple of hours.

Thursday…. Daylight brought another ‘sirs, ma’ams etc’ brief.

A day of sitting in a tent watching DVDs and drinking tea was punctuated by our first reporting time around lunchtime followed by a second well after dark.

Eventually, locked and loaded onto the ageing Tristar, we trundled along the runway in the very early hours of Friday morning and back up into the skies of Afghanistan.

Friday….with dawn breaking over the Middle East far below, the never-ending supply of orange squash was interrupted. Trolleys were wheeled down the aisles laden with cans of beer. Safely out of Afghan airspace, we were treated to a celebratory can of ale each, courtesy of the generous people of Britain and some of our best-known breweries. Refreshing and symbolic, but somewhat unorthodox when served with our breakfast of omelette, sausage and bacon. But I didn’t see anyone complaining.

It wasn’t long before we were welcomed onto Cyprus soil for a quick refuelling stop, then herded back on board. So close now, not one of us was sleeping. As we got closer, we all craned out the windows for our first sight of Blighty.

Grey, rainy, lush, green, busy, traffic – it has never looked quite so appealing.

48 hours, 15 cups of tea, 3 aircraft, 7 coach and car journeys, a handful of wet wipes and one can of lager later, our dishevelled bunch arrived slightly less fresh, a tad less chirpy but no less excited to finally have made it home in one piece.

Now it’s off for a bath, crisp clean sheets and that bucket of wine I’ve been promising myself. A long journey perhaps, but thoroughly worth it to finally be home.

Two Magic Letters…

There are two letters, or more specifically one repeated that are music to the ears of anyone who has ever done a six-month tour….R & R.

I have now reached almost my four-month point and today I fly out for a spot of relaxation back home.

Over my various outings across theatre, I have often asked soldiers what things they are most looking forward to when they go home on R&R. The answers are varied, but a theme they all have in common is just how simple they all are.

For one soldier from 2 Lancs, it was a pint (or six I suspect) down the pub with his mates. A huge mixed grill was top of the list for one of the airmen from the RAF Regiment. For a Gurkha from 1 Royal Gurkha Rifles, it was to celebrate the festival of Desain with his wife and children. And one officer from the Royal Dragoon Guards was looking forward to a smart meal and ‘a good glass of red’.

I’ve seen the eyes of quite a few grown men moisten at the mention of seeing their kids again; and some serious dog-lovers rave about their reunions with man’s best friend. Many are in desperate need of a haircut and many (and not just the women) are looking forward to a spot of pampering.

My plan for the next couple of weeks is not much different. It involves a large bubble bath, an equally large bucket of wine, a tasty meal eaten off a real plate with cutlery that ‘chinks’ rather than snaps in two, a run in the rain, and seeing my fantastic family – including one new nephew I haven’t met yet, and another due any day.

After spending months never feeling quite clean or rested, approaching meals as nothing more than an opportunity to refuel and for many out on the ground never being able to truly relax, it’s the simplest things in life that become sheer luxury and the light at the end of the R&R tunnel.

An Afghan date…

 

I never thought that visiting a Patrol Base in the heart of Nad e Ali would turn into social event, but then Afghanistan never ceases to amaze me.

My partner-in-crime Will and I have been out for the last few days around the Nad e Ali North area of operations. At one Patrol Base, we were kindly hosted by James, an officer with the Scots Guards and the liaison officer with the Afghan National Army. As with most Patrol Bases, the Afghan security forces live and work with the ISAF troops so we popped along to their row of tents to say hello.

The Company commander, Major Asif was charming and invited us in to his command hut for tea. We had a good chat about the area and the challenges of his job, after which he kindly invited us to come back for lunch with him and his men.

It was market day at the local bazaar – which is well stocked and a sign of hope that security is improving in the area – so his men had been out doing some retail therapy.

They returned to the patrol base laden down with bags of fresh radishes, mushrooms, some kind of grass-like vegetable that looked and tasted like the ends of spring onions, tomatoes, a couple of chickens (still squawking) and a few bottles of coke.

Although we were a little concerned that the local river – which is used for all washing of vegetables, cooking utensils, hands, and indeed for all other ablution purposes – may not agree with our delicate western stomachs, we accepted the generous offer of Afghan hospitality.

We were not disappointed. We sat cross-legged on the floor of the commander’s hut and were treated to fried chicken, seasoned rice, fresh salad; all washed down with chilled coke.

His officers and the interpreters were very friendly and full of banter so it was a very convivial affair. One young Lieutenant who we were told was a force to be reckoned with in the area then invited me to a party down at his check-point. He said he would ‘show me his IEDs’. A tempting offer, and let’s face it a refreshing change from ‘do you come here often’. Sadly I had to decline as we were due back in Bastion the next day, so a social jaunt to a check-point ten kilometres away for the night was not an option.

I am happy to say though that not only did our delicate constitutions digest our delicious lunch without a hitch, but our party with the Afghan National Army is the closest I’ve come to a social life in the three and a half months I’ve been in theatre. Fantastic.

“A special event, for a special tribute, to a special man”

Lt Gen Sir Nick Parker leaves HQ ISAFThat is how General David Petraeus described Tuesday’s events at Headquarters ISAF in Kabul.

His second-in-command has come to the end of his 10-month posting here. Lt Gen Sir Nick Parker is going home and will be taking up the post of Commander-in-Chief Land along with a promotion to 4-star.

The grassy patch outside the distinctive pink and yellow Headquarters building in the heavily fortified compound that houses the men and women running the coalition’s campaign in Afghanistan was busier than normal today. Bedecked with rows of chairs, with ceremonial tunes wafting over from the band under the gazebo in the corner, the patch of land in the centre of Kabul had something of a well-to-do garden party. Everyone who was anyone was there, representatives from every coalition country, Afghan hosts, civilian as well as military.

The speeches were heartfelt; you got the impression that the two men really got on and have enjoyed working together. General Petraeus thanked his British number two for his “wise counsel”, praised his “stoicism and unflagging composure”, and credited his “pithy sense of humour” for keeping him sane in moments of high pressure.

He had to draw the line though at Gen Parker’s obsession with “some long-running soap” (his dogs are called Rita and Mavis and some of the most important decisions of the campaign have been made over a Coronation Street mug), drawing cackles from the audience with an “it takes all kinds”. Having never watched an episode of Corrie myself, I’m inclined to agree.

Despite this unhealthy addiction to the cobbles up north, Gen Parker along with his American boss left Will (my new partner-in-crime; Cath has abandoned me for the sunny shores of Cyprus) and me not a little starstruck.

For some people it’s Tom Cruise in Leicester Square. For these two Defence spotters, it was the two General Ps at HQ ISAF.

Under the weather in Helmand…

It’s an affliction not uncommon in these parts. Let’s face it there are just too many flies, too much dirt and altogether too much heat for our mountain of disinfectant wipes and hand-cleaning bottles to compete.

We all manage most of the time and it’s a wonder the thousands of troops stay on their feet. But stay here long enough and you eventually get caught out by those microscopic bacteria that then proceed to make a few days feel like very long and very painful and undignified years.

I succumbed at the beginning of the week. Went very grey one afternoon apparently and then my first 200m dash across the vehicle park and the road all the way to the ablutions became the first of many.

Five days, much feeling sorry for myself and half a stone later I am back on my feet – just. A good thing really as I think those around me are running out of hilarious banter revolving around the digestive system.

Sausage roll, chips and beans for lunch has gone down rather well and should put my newly-acquired skeletal look firmly back in its box.

I may have lost all dignity, self-respect and a number of dinners over the last few days, but I am proud to say (and you will be pleased to hear) I managed not to wipe out the entire BFBS team here, or indeed any (that I am aware of although there may be a trail in my wake) of our brave fighting boys who have enough on their plates without having to seek out the nearest portaloo in the middle of a patrol.

An ingenious piece of engineering…

We’ve seen a huge metal bridge being pushed from one bank of a river to another by a Warrior armoured vehicle, as the Royal Engineers did their bit to help build the route between Lashkar Gah and Geresk. We’ve seen an imposing concrete fort rise up out of the dirt to become a District Police Station. And we’ve seen the beginnings of a structure promising to become a local community centre. But one engineering feat which caught my eye for its originality during my stay at a Patrol Base in Nahr e Saraj was – if somewhat more modest – rather more unusual.

I should first point out that in these Patrol Bases, it really is basic living. This means a bottle of water over a tin sink to brush your teeth, a tent fitted with metal piping and a chain-pull to douse yourself with cold water as a shower, and the delightful ‘Portajohn’ bags with wooden structures to set them down on for the rest. It also means any laundry is painstakingly done by hand in a bowl and then hung up outside or on your tent in the sun and dust, so that it is hopefully a little less smelly and a little less grimy than it was before. That is, for at least ten minutes anyway.

In that context, any element of added luxury as you can imagine is a huge bonus.

At first I couldn’t quite understand when I spotted a small traditional concrete mixer sitting in between the shower tent and toilet structure, neatly tucked away next to a wooden table. But it wasn’t long before I was treated to a full and very proud demonstration of the new camp washing machine.

The tatty old grey (still with chunks of concrete glued to the outside) mixer is plugged into the nearby generator. You pop in your little load of clothes. Add a scoop of soap powder and just enough water. Turn on the generator and hey presto, it’s Dot Cotton’s launderette! I was told scientifically that the correct cycle was approximately 7 minutes. Then all it took was a fresh load of cold water and another 7 minutes to rinse.

At PB2 - Nad e Ali

At PB2 – Nad e Ali

Now this may not be a bridge or a community centre, and it may not get your whites whiter than white, but it’s a lot more fun than washing your dirty kit in a bowl. And it just goes to show, you can put a soldier in the middle of the Afghan countryside and take away his mobile phone, his IPod and his Xbox, but it won’t be long before he’s got hold of a couple of egg-boxes and some double-sided sticky tape and made himself a washing machine out of a concrete mixer.

Afghanistan Patrol Base Life

Insurgent attacks and IEDs are known threats to troops every day when they’re on tour in Helmand.

But when they get back into the relative safety of Patrol Bases, they face a whole different challenge – day to day living.

I joined soldiers from 21 Engineer Regiment and 2 Royal Welsh, in their home from home, and asked them how they cope.

 

VIDEO: British Forces train ANA in Kabul

We see so much of the Afghan National Army alongside coalition troops in Afghanistan – it’s hard to believe the force has only existed for a few years. British troops have stepped in to help with recruitment and training. They’re preparing the men who’ll help pave the way for NATO’s eventual exit from the country
I went to meet some of the Afghan soldiers based at the Kabul Military Training Centre.

 

The BFBS Tea Party…

 

A First. We have had a proper day off. Glorious. There was a lie-in, there was a spot of reading, there was a spot of cricket-watching. Ok, so if I’m honest, there was a spot of planning and some phone calls done too but only minimal work overall today.

And the day ended with a sociable evening. The BFBS clan gathered in the balmy evening air under the stars, around our station manager Paul’s tea set (no really, it ‘chinks’ and has a diminutive milk jug and everything). The tea (so proper it needed a strainer) was flown in all the way from Sri Lanka, courtesy of our friend the head chef in the cookhouse, Jabir, who’s just come back from visiting his family (and shopping for tea for us) on leave. The liqueur chocolates were carefully placed in an embossed dish. Radio Presenter Simon cracked out a cigar… suffice to say that if there had been cucumber and bread available, Cath and I would probably have been cutting off the crusts, and piling dainty little sandwiches on top of a doily.

…..A spot of civilised Tiffin in a very rough and uncivilised world of helicopters, grim news across loudspeakers and a permanent state of sweaty grittiness. Delightful.