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.

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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.

Iraqi Army completes first joint foot patrol in Baghdad

First published on the UK Ministry of Defence website on 11th Jan 2008

The Iraqi Army is leading its first joint foot patrols through areas of Baghdad under the mentoring eye of the US/UK Military Transition Team (MiTT).

In the divided Sunni/Shia district of West Rashid ‘Mahala’, Iraqi, American and British troops have been cooperating to improve the security and stability.

The 11-man US-led MiTT team also has four members of 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland posted to it from Basrah.

Major Kurt Roberts (US Army), Team Chief for the MiTT team in Baghdad, said:

“The MiTT teams were formed to work with the Iraqi Army, Police and some with the local police. My particular team is designed to work within an Iraqi Battalion. Our job is to help them grow and learn, help them with the training level they’re already at and help them get a little better.”

Captain Kev Gartside of the 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland explained why the British troops are serving in Baghdad:

“The Iraqi Battalion here is from the 10th Division, which is from the South East. They’ve been loaned to Baghdad because there’s a requirement for more troops up here. And because of that, the US have requested British troops come up here to help with the mentoring. So we’ve got four Brits up here with the 11-man US MiTT team that mentors them. It’s a great relationship that we’ve developed with them. It’s a three-way thing between the US, the UK and the Iraqis. It’s all interacting very well and we’ve formed quite a bond between us all.”

Major Abed, (Iraqi Army) – 2nd in command of 1st Brigade, 2nd Battalion, 10th Division said:

“We work very well with the coalition forces; we do our job together, we ask them advice for when we go to our missions. We have a daily meeting to exchange information and plan together.”

The MiTT team go out on regular patrols with the Iraqi troops around the West Rashid district.

Captain Gartside explains what happened on one:

“It was a joint dismounted patrol between the UK/US MiTT team and the Iraqi Army Battalion that is the ground-holding unit in this area. We were in an area that is a mixed Sunni and Shia area, and only as little as a couple of months ago, it was a real warzone and there was a lot of ethnic cleansing going on there. It’s developed now to the stage where we’re able to encourage dismounted patrols by the IA (Iraqi Army) which is something that would have been unheard of a couple of months ago. They’re now there to, as well as keep the peace, go beyond that and take over primacy from the US, and reassure the locals that we’re getting somewhere with the political situation, and the things that matter to them – water, food, electricity – will get through to these areas; which we saw today, with people cleaning the streets, rubbish being burnt and the water trucks cleaning out the sewage. That’s what’s important to the people.”

The district could house an IED or bomb-making cell or have an Al Qaeda presence. Patrols aim to gather intelligence on insurgent activity in the area, as well as gain the trust of the locals. The team and their Iraqi colleagues have had recent successes; including finding a large IED cache during a house search last week.

Major Kurt Roberts (US Army), Team Chief for the MiTT team in Baghdad is optimistic that they are on the road to stability and that they are starting to see improvement on the ground:

“We on the ground start to see a turning point. From the ground roots – I can’t talk for the higher levels of the government – but from the ground roots, it looks like the people are more appreciative of what’s going on and that helps the soldier feel better about his job that he does, when the people he’s doing it for appreciate what’s going on.”

Major Abed, (Iraqi Army) agrees:

“We have seen progress in the neighbourhoods; people aren’t afraid now, they come out into the streets. The local shops are open, they come to Iraqi military and police officers and they come for advice; they ask them for help if they have problems with people. This was not happening before.”

It’s hoped the progress in the West Rashid Mahala can be replicated around other districts of Baghdad.