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.

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.

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.

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.