Decompression

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.

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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.

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.

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.