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.

Powerful little pooches…

 

It is incredible what we do just to get a story. I thought I was going along to film an interview about parcels that had been sent from kind people in the UK to the military working dogs that do an incredible job out here in hot and horrible conditions.

How I landed up in a ‘fat suit’ running for my life is still a mystery.

Our lovely radio presenter out here Rachel and my compadre Cath decided to have a go and came out laughing and smiling. Peer pressure soon had me angling my squat and boney frame into the suit – which is not unlike those sumo suits you get at parties only without an outline of bottom and rolls of fat drawn on the outside. This suit means business.

While I was being fitted (distracted) with the helmet and face guard, I overheard a faint shall we get the second one out; that would be fun…

…..the second what??

I turned round in the middle of the dusty square to find not only Zeus (very aptly named) straining on his handler’s lead and growling provocatively at me, but also Devil (even more aptly named) straining on his lead.

Hang on. Rachel and Cath got ONE dog. A conspiracy against the smallest person in the gang.

 

But it was too late, I was being instructed to taunt the dogs (they didn’t look like they needed it to be fair), then run away (about 20 feet away there was a 6-foot-high fence so I was onto a loser there from the start but didn’t want to state the blindingly obvious).

So in a blur (and because my pride would not allow me to chicken-out), I waved like a lunatic, gave the monsters my best growl and ran for my life.

Zeus in hot pursuit

Well, I say ran. In that suit, it’s more of a giant-penguin-waddle. No chance.

One pair of fangs brought me down with a thump and got well stuck-into my wrist and forearm. I followed the instructions of the handler – “keep trying to get away!” – and then felt a second almighty gnash in my upper arm. The next yelp was mine.

good dog

I’m now nursing a large purple bruise and neat jaw outline around my bicep. I’d like to say that the other guy came off worse but I’d be lying. Suffice to say, I’m glad Zeus and Devil are on our side.

And in response to Cath’s quip about the reasons behind the two-dog-conspiracy: I’ve got your number dog-loving-Brazier, I know you had a quiet word to take out the cat-loving-Ward.

Am off to plot my revenge….

A romantic tryst….or…

Moonlight, the light touch of hands, a gentle breeze….All the ingredients for romance….or so you might think.

It was in the early hours of the morning. We were standing in line, waiting to board a helicopter bound for Camp Bastion. Leanne, our media operations escort was in front of me, Cath was bringing up the rear.

In came the Merlin and as the ground crewman wafted his fluorescent stick, we dutifully marched in our tidy little queue up to the rear ramp and made our way to the deafening sound of the rotor blades into the belly of the aircraft.

During the hours of darkness, no doubt in order to avoid passengers inadvertently looking for a seat in the cockpit or doing a face-plant into the pile of mail bags, the RAF do allow some light inside the helicopter. Blink and you’ll miss it though; it’s switched on for just long enough to put your bags down on one side, turn round and register which empty canvass seat you need to make your way to. At that point you are once again plunged into darkness.

Leanne, Cath and I had got to this point in the proceedings. Bags down, seat clocked then scramble over to them before the lights went out.

Following a rather undignified bump of bottoms, we settled into our seats then started ferreting about for the seatbelts. And it would be the aircraft with the most complicated Formula 1- type harnesses wouldn’t it? Not for us the straightforward lap belt. Oh no.

I located three of the four straps but couldn’t for the life of me find the fourth. At this point in the moonlight I spotted a very self-satisfied-looking Cath putting the last tightening touches to her straps and casually gazing out of the aircraft at the world below.

Leanne and I meanwhile fumbled away and finally found not our seat belts, but each other. We are both happily married to our respective husbands so the moment passed without so much as a sigh. After an awkward moment of holding hands, we untangled the mess of straps and at about 2000 feet, eventually got ourselves secured in place.

Thankfully, only the moon was witness to our embarrassing moment of not-very-warry-helicopter-passenger-ineptitude, so we both adopted the nonchalant frequent flyer’s distant gaze and settled in for the ride back to Bastion.

My first Husky ride…

 

I had always associated huskies with snow, adventurous treks across arctic landscapes and echos of ‘mush’ and enthusiastic yelps bouncing of walls of icy ravines.

From now on, they’ll have entirely different connotations.

My partner in crime Cath and I were having a bit of ‘planes, trains and automobiles’ moment on one of our recent trips outside the wire, being bundled from one form of transport to another en route to a remote patrol base…

A bumpy ride to the HLS (well, technically two, since our first was aborted due to a total lack of available helicopters anywhere in the vicinity) was followed by the now-familiar swerving around the skies in darkness in a Merlin helicopter.

Next I had a moment of dusty and very noisy nostalgia, with a road move in a Warrior courtesy of the boys from 2 Royal Welsh – nostalgic because I spent quite some time on Telic 10 with the same soldiers racing across another dusty desert in the same rumbling armoured vehicles.

But then came the piece de resistance. My first experience in a Husky. It’s one of the newer armoured vehicles in theatre and very comfortable it is too. Properly cushioned seats with racing-driver-type seatbelts (which are a bit of a challenge when one is attempting to do them up while bumping along an Afghan road plunged in darkness). The set-up inside reminds me a bit of a Humvee, but with a bit more head and leg room (not that I really need much of that if I’m honest) and less noisy. As we trundled along the roads from Lash to an encampment surrounded by ‘Hesco’ protective barriers somewhere, erm…else (it was dark, we debussed and re-bussed, it was a blur of Afghan countryside), I felt snug in our Husky, was offered in-‘flight’ beverages by the ‘top cover’ chap (bottle of chilled water), and was entertained by the 1 Scots Guards banter.

So I no longer think of Huskies as furry, blue-eyed canines, but as safe, friendly hunks of metal to travel around in.

Where can I get one?

A yodelling beaver…

Yes, you heard right. Earlier this morning, one of our radio presenters out here, Rachel, was having a stand-off with the studio’s technology and came out looking a little down and not very happy with her show. I decided to give her a quick blast of my newly-acquired yodelling beaver. It worked, cheered her up a treat and she’s back to her usual smiling self now.

I now should explain myself so as to avoid misunderstandings or indeed a P45 making its way through the BFPO system to my dwellings in Camp Bastion.

On my return from a very successful trip to Kabul (notwithstanding my encounter with Jamie Oliver on the 14th below) – the stories from which you can follow on British Forces News and across the airwaves – there was a parcel waiting for me from home. Very exciting.

It was from my twin brother and his partner. I was editing all day and put it to one side to open in the evening as a treat. Very excited all day at the prospect. Very excited indeed. (you have to understand these small joys in the context of our existence on tour).

So after a long day of going through our soon-to-be-award-winning footage gathered in the capital, I snuggled up in my bed last night and tore my way through the parcel tape and opened my box of goodies….

In amongst packets of beef jerky, Japanese rice crackers (perfect antidotes to Jamie Oliver’s televised cordon bleu cooking), jelly beans and some of my most favourite toiletries was….wait for it…..a yodelling beaver.

He’s about 20cm tall, he’s sporting lederhosen and a natty hat with an edelweiss motif. He’s from Austria you see.

And the piece de resistance….he’s a rather accomplished accordion player. Oh yes, he has an accordion. And with one deft press of his left foot, he breaks into a traditional Tyrolean tune on the instrument.

It seems my brother smuggled the castaway through customs from one of his recent business trips to Austria and decided a short spell in Afghanistan would do him good. See the world and all that.

My furry friend now has pride of place in the office and his left toe gets a press every time morale takes a dip.

So it’s chuckles all round and a big thank you to my guardian angels back home and their fantastically thoughtful parcels!

VIDEO: Kabul Force Protection with the Royal Logistic Corps

It’s been a challenging tour for the Royal Logistic Corps unit – and one during which the soldiers have had to draw on their most basic infantry skills.

Now soldiers in the Transport and Force Protection Company are coming to the end of their tour. And in the first of three reports, I joined them as they patrolled the streets of the Afghan capital.