RAFairman's Blog

An RAF Airman's Blog

World Book Day…

It’s World Book Day. 

And here to ‘celebrate’ that, is an extract from something I have been working on for about a year now. It’s a novel about a Multiple – a section of infantry – in Afghanistan. It’s fiction. Not real. I need to make that clear. 

Anyway, I have a first draft off the book finished and I am starting work on a second, revised draft. It’s taking me a while as I have never written fiction, or put a book together before so I am sort of all over the place. But anyway, here is a stand alone piece that you can have a read of. And yes, I know there are a lot of abbreviations and jargon in the piece, but it’s part of a greater work and the terms are all explained elsewhere. I don’t think the language takes away from the content or the readability.

So, let me know what you think. After all, I’d kind of like all you good people to be the people who’d be buying a published novel of my work…

It had been a long couple of days for the Multiple. The final exercise had been wet and cold, with snow still on the ground that melted overnight to form huge patches of thick cold, wet, mud.  They had moved locations twice in the course of the exercise so far and were tired beyond belief. They knew that end-ex would be called the following morning, and were already looking forward to the post-ex pint and pizza party that they would have. 

But they were still there, in the mud and cold of Salisbury Plain at the moment.  They’d been told that they were the advance party that would be moving into a new village that had, as yet, not had any contact with the British forces.  They were up early and heading off over the hillside in the dark to get there.  The route had been convoluted and difficult.  Against Booty’s better judgement, they had stuck to the high ground, mainly to keep out of the mud and mire of the valleys, but this itself had meant that they had not been as stealthy as they could be, often being silhouetted against the skyline of the coming day.   

They’d not made good time either as they’d been taking an extra man with them – an attached Navy  man who would be acting as a Stabilisation and Reconstruction Officer when in theatre.  He’d been a nightmare, he’d dropped a mag off his rifle, forgotten his NVGs and then had tripped over and fallen into some mud.  He’d really held them up, hopelessly searching for the magazine in the dark. Without night vision, when walking through the tussocked grass fields he’d constantly tripped and couldn’t keep up with the pace of the multiple.   All this meant that they’d arrived at the stepping off point to enter the village late. 

‘Right,’ said Mason. ‘We go onto the square and we make contact with the local elder.’  He looked at the Navy man ‘That’s when you do your reconstruction bit – asking them what they want and such, whilst my lads proved point defence in the square.  Booty, you run the cordon to the north of the square, Tee, you run it to the south.’  He continued to brief the team, as quickly as he could, trying to make up the time that had been lost. 

From their viewpoint on a small rise overlooking the ‘village’ they could see that it was nothing more than three barns around a courtyard.  This courtyard would be the market, and the barns would be playing Afghan compounds. There was an open entry from the south, with a track leading out to open fields to the north.  To the east they could see a small alleyway that led away from the courtyard between two large walls.  It was difficult for them to imagine that it was an Afghan village, with the red brick and the slate tiles of the barns and their walls standing against the green of the Salisbury Plain grasslands.  It looked nothing like the landscape and construction of the buildings of the lands they had been fighting gin for 10 years. It had been built to train the British Army in the fighting of wars in Northern Europe an snow was obliquely out of place being used to pretend to be Afghanistan.  Making it worse was they were of course training for a summer tour and the heat of Afghan in, in the freezing cold mire and mud of an English winter.

They slogged on.  Slowly and carefully trailing down from the hillock towards the village.  Badge led them along trying to avoid the worst of the mud and the filth.  Tentatively they entered the ‘market square’.   

This was populated by a motley collection of people. All in civilian clothes were volunteers from other units who were used as actors and locals to train the British.  Some were actual Afghans there to push the military ‘terps, some ex and serving Gurkhas there just to speak their own language so they could confuse and hinder the British.  There were even some soldiers there who were real amputees, set up to play injured people, with fake blood, but real absent limbs to focus the minds of the trainees. Mostly though there were just squad dies, of both sexes, there to act as villagers and local populace.  Hardly actors but still playing a role. 

There were about 10-15 of these ‘actors’, stooging about in the courtyard, trying to pretend to be doing their shopping, or just hanging out together in the way that Afghan men do at a market.  They looked at the Multiple as it patrolled into the square.  Booty went about setting up the defence, Badge, Smidge and Houseman went to the northern exit, and took up positions.  Stretch, Bartman, Lambo and Tee stayed at the southern exit, as Horewood and Booty Moved to cover the alleyway; Horewood facing down the alley, whilst Booty faced back inside to the see Mason and the Crab start talking to a man who had approached them.   

Booty looked to the south and saw a man in a green Snugpak puffa jacket come out of a doorway in the wall of the eastern building. The actor went across to where Bartman and Lambo were sitting crouched against the wall.  He said something and the two uniformed soldiers shoo-ed him away.  Suddenly there was a flash and a bang and a lot of smoke.  The actor had detonated a Battle Noise Simulator and a smoke grenade and then threw himself on the ground.  He screamed. There was chaos in the square.  The locals running in every which way they could with the aim of confusing the Multiple even more.  Another local who had been sitting near to Bartman threw a blanket off his legs and screamed and screamed.  

He was one of those limbless injured ex-soldiers who was now playing a role he knew from first hand experience.  The stumps of his legs had been made up to look injured and bloodied.  He screamed at Lambo.  ‘Contact IED – suicide bomber!’ shouted Booty. 

Out of the door that the bomber had come from stepped a uniformed Captain in a high-vis jacket.  He looked at Lambo and Bartman and said ‘Sorry lads, but he’ pointing at the pretend suicide bomber lying on the floor ‘has gone and killed you. Sorry. If you wouldn’t mind getting down on the floor.’ 

Bartman and Lambo smiled at each other, and relaxed onto their backs on the cold stones of the courtyard.  They would have no further active part in this scenario and would be dragged and carried around from now on. Lambo gave a thumbs-up to Bartman.

Tee however, shouted ‘Man down, man down!’  

Mason stood in the middle of the square and looked around.  In front of him the man playing the local elder smiled at him and then started to shout into his face ‘Help us!’ over and over. He pointed at the amputee lying on the floor.  He had been joined by a woman who was screaming at Tee to help her.  To add to the confusion the RAF stabilisation man was now lying on the floor with his eyes closed. Booty ran over and kicked him. ‘Get up you stupid, fish-head.  It’s not fucking real.’

Mason still just stood there. The smoke started to clear and he could see Tee and Stretch trying to pull Bart and Lambo into the middle of the square.  ‘We need to get out of here’ said Booty. 

Mason’s mouth opened but no noise came out. Booty took over. He turned to the northern exit and called Smidge and Houseman to go to the casualties aid.  Badge slowly moved into the square, standing on the corner of the northern most building.  From somewhere there came rifle fire, but given the confusion and the noise of the locals it was difficult to tell where it was coming from.  ‘Contact small arms’ shouted Tee. 

‘Yeah, thanks for that’ said Booty. ‘I can hear you know.  Colour! We need to go.’

Smidge and Stretch dragged Lambo by his body armour straps, one on each side of him. ‘You fat bastard. Lambo’ said Smidge.

‘OI! Watch my ass on these stones,’ replied Lambo. 

‘Aren’t you meant to be dead?’ asked Stretch. ‘You are the biggest moaning dead git I’ve ever come across.’

Mason was still standing there in the centre of the square. ‘We need to find out where the shooting is coming from’

‘Sod that we need to get out to the north, it’ll be coming from the south, from that hill over there,’ screamed Booty. 

‘No. No…’ Mason looked to the north, to the wide exit, ‘They are pushing us up there…’ 

‘Don’t be daft man, if they are going to push us anywhere it’ll be down that alley.’

‘That’s where we are going.’ Mason turned in the direction of the alley. ‘Horewood, lead on.’

‘What?’ Booty was irate. His face flushing red with anger. ‘That’s a VP. It’s mental to go down there!’

‘The shooting is from the north, we…we go that way.’ He nodded to himself.

Horewood led on down the alley, followed by the Navy man, and then Tee and Houseman dragging Bartman, Mason the followed and then Smidge and Stretch with Lambo. Finally Booty and Bartman entered the alleyway.  As Badge backed into the corner, one of the locals smiled a knowing broad smile and waved at him. The High-Viz wearing Captain appeared again at the head of the alley and stood in front of Horewood. ‘And stop there,’ he said to the Rifleman. ‘You are all dead.’ He looked at Mason and said ‘Wrong choice I’m afraid, Colour. The scenario has murder-holes along the walls of this alley with Insurgents chucking grenades in here. It’d be all a bit of a mess to be honest. Nasty.’

Mason closed his eyes and sighed. Booty looked at Lambo who was slowly getting up and trying to wipe the mud off the arse of his trousers.  Booty shook his head. Lambo rolled his eyes and shook his head in return.

 

Please post your comments below…

The Colour of the Poppy Doesn’t Matter, But What We Remember Does…

It’s that time of year again. When we remember. Remember the fallen, remember the dead.  Remember those who have given their lives in wars throughout the last 100 years or so, in service of us, those left behind to have a free, decent and peaceful life 

And as part of this remembrance we buy and wear poppies.  And as with everything today, this has become a political act.  We buy red poppies, we wear white poppies, purple poppies, even black poppies. Remembering according to our politics, remembering according to our beliefs.  

I am not going to get in to the outrage caused and felt by the colour of the poppy. Christ, there is room in the garden for poppies of all colours – as long as we are remembering that people died and were killed and fought and suffered for us to have the privilege – the honour – to chose the colour of our poppy. By exercising the choose to wear what the hell we want – or even NOT to wear – we are honouring those men and women.  They died so that we can exercise that choice.  

We don’t dishonour them by not wearing the right colour.  We might dishonour them by what we say though. Calling a poppy a symbol of hate or warmongering, or a symbol of cowardice or a symbol of disrespect does disrespect those who gave their all. It doesn’t matter what colour poppy is worn. As long as some form of remembering is carried out.  Remembering that they lived and died in terrible conditions, facing great hardships that I hope, and pray (even though I am not a religious man) that no one would ever have to suffer again.  Because, at the end of the day we are remembering that people died.  

They were here, then they were not. And in the instant between the two states they felt pain, fear, hurt, loss, disappointment, anger.  And none of those feelings and emotions are good feelings.  They might have only lasted for a second or two – or they may have been long drawn out periods of extreme suffering only relieved by a blessed death. But none of the deaths were good.  None of them individually made the world better.  we can hope, though, that by their fight, by their sacrifice we might learn. 

But there is another reason to wear a poppy. Not all those who have suffered in war or fighting have had that blessed release. They were hurt, either in body or mind, and they continue to suffer.  They face years of pain, struggle and hurt.  So we buy and wear poppies to raise money to support and help them.  We remember the dead and support the living.  We donate our money to repair the lives of those who have been hurt in their service to this country, but who didn’t die.  

Our charity pound goes into the box and we wear our poppy, thinking of the dead.  But we should also remember the living.  In this house between my wife and myself, we have about 45 years of cumulative service. Me 25 years, her 20 years.  And her service in the Army was cut short by injury.  Not in the fields of Afghanistan. Not in the streets of Iraq.  No, in a field in Germany, on an exercise, ‘tabbing’ – marching 60km, carrying a huge load – she compressed two vertebrae in her spine. This was sorted out, but slowly over time, she got referred pain in her arm, caused by nerve damage from her accident.  

Eventually this nerve pain has made it so that she could not continue in her job in the Military as a Medic and she was eventually Medically Discharged a year ago. Since that time she has gone downhill. Her nerve pain has extended to lower back pain, lower leg pain, and a shuffling, slow moving gait that means she has become virtually house bound. This has had a similar effect on her mental state. That has gone downhill too. Not just by being married to me, but the loss of status, sense of self, sense of worth that has gone with being tossed on the military scrapheap…it’s pushed her down too.

And we together have had to fight.  She has been given a War Pension for the injury, but her problems mean that I am unable to work full time, and whilst we are just about ok, and just about keeping our heads above water, we have very few luxuries.  45 years of service and we struggle to get by.

Her War Pension, and her disability benefits are no-where near the figures that equate to her disabilities, and we are fighting, fighting fighting to get them changed to reflect the way she – we – live our lives because of her service to this country.

As she is injured, we are members of various support groups that help us. Me, I am the member of a group that supports the carers of Wounded Injured and Sick service personnel.  And We share our stories, our moods and our troubles and even, when they happen, our successes.  And in this sharing I see that we are not the only ones fighting.  The stories are terrible.  With stories of unfairness, of bad treatment, of injustice, of discrimination, cover-ups and errors.  

People injured in service having to buy their own prosthetic legs.  Pay for their own treatment.  Fund their own adaptations to their houses.  People forced to leave the service they have loved and given their all for and forgotten about and ignored.  

Thankfully the Charities don’t forget them.  Help 4 Heroes, the Royal British Legion, Combat Stress, SSAFA, the individual Benevolent Funds and many many more organisations provide support, both physical and mental to people.  And they do it through the donation of YOUR charity pound.

But, and here’s my rather long winded point, they shouldn’t have to.  It should not be the responsibility of the charity sector to support and aid our injured.  Our own fight seems to be a fight with the government itself.  It seems that governments of all colours throughout the years have consistently said they have supported and cared for the injured of wars and conflicts. But the evidence, clear for all to see is that they haven’t. They don’t.  In fact, from our standpoint, and the view from a lot of other injured and their carers, is that the governments through time have done exactly the opposite.  They have obfuscated, obscured and obstructed help and support to the very people they owe the biggest debt to.

For soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines exist to do one thing.  To do the will of the people through the government of the day.  To do our dirty work.  To go to places that we wouldn’t want to go to, and do things that we wouldn’t want to do for our good. For our freedom. They do it for many reasons, far too many to go into now, but one of those is that they do it for a reward and do it knowing that if they give their all they will be cared for.  This Psychological Contract is the basis of the serviceman’s continued sacrifice.  The soldier will give up his personal freedom to say ‘No’ in return for pay.  He will give up his liberty to fight for the people who pay him.  He will, if required place himself in danger and death in return for knowing that he will be cared for by the country.

Sadly this is not happening.  The country isn’t fulfilling the contract – well, actually the people are…that charity pound again is doing it… but it shouldn’t have too. Our debt to troops doesn’t end when they finish their service, like our debt to the dead doesn’t end just because they are dead.  Our tax pounds should be spent on supporting the injured just as much as it is supporting the serving.  Governments have abdicated responsibility for our veterans to the charity sector.  They have done so for years, no one party better or worse than the other.  They have used our servicemen in war, but forgotten about them in peace.  And in forgetting about them they have broken the contract with them.  Thankfully the people of this nation haven’t and they, each year, provide money to the Charity sector to help and support veterans.

But they shouldn’t have to. YOU shouldn’t have to.  Veterans, the wounded, the sick, the injured, who have served this country are forgotten about by the powers that be.  And the governments should be ashamed of themselves.  We are all proud of of forces, and I can tell you that the wounded, sick and injured are proud of the fact that the people care about them but saddened, on a daily basis that they have to fight the government for the care and support, financial, physical, and mental that they are owed.  And that is our national shame.

 

From Litter to Daniel Pelka to Syria, are we in danger of becoming a ‘walk-on-by’ Society…?

I spent 25 years in the military. The abiding principle of military service is that service itself. Service before self. Your mate, your buddy, your team, your unit, your organisation, your nation, your people. It is all about thinking about how you can help the person next to you – because in doing so, you help the next level up that chain all the way up to helping the whole country; doing the bidding of the nation through the government.

And as a serviceman – you just do it. It becomes second nature. You look after your buddy. Because if you look after them, they will be able to look after you. When I arrived in Afghanistan, I was the only RAF man in a Check Point of 40 Paras. I expected that life was going to be tough, that I would be ignored and left alone. Not at all, they welcomed me, checked my kit, organised my pack and what I carried so that my kit carried matched the reality of the ground and the situation I was in. The could have walked on by and left me to myself – but they didn’t. They knew that if they helped me, their life would be easier, and I could then perform better on the ground and be a better part of the team…of the community that we were part of.

But I am no longer in the military, and I have noticed something. Something worrying, disturbing. A creeping selfishness. A walk-on-by attitude. A somebody else’s problem out look where if something doesn’t directly effect someone, they will do nothing about it.

Around the village I live in, people walk by litter. People don’t pick up their dog’s mess on the pavement. It’s a low level of walk-on-by…but it is here where it starts. And where does it end? It ends with Stafford Hospital. It ends with Baby P. With Daniel Pelka. To objecting to help Syrians gassed by their government.

It’s a big jump from some litter dropped by kids in the park, to a regime gassing their own people with chemical weapons, but the levels are there. If what happens doesn’t directly effect you and your life; if you can walk around a corner and forget about what you have seen…if you can lock yourself inside your house and close off the world to yourself, then why worry about it? Why do something about it? One of the biggest arguments I heard against intervention is that the situation ‘isn’t our problem’ – that we always intervene and ‘somebody else should do it’. People being gassed is not our problem? People dying is somebody else’s responsibility to sort out? We should have done more far earlier before 100,000 people were killed in a pointless civil war that will only have one outcome in the end anyway – the removal of the regime (hell, no regime lasts forever).

The Daniel Pelka case review makes terrible reading. Agencies not communicating with each other. Teachers raising a report and then carrying on without any further input. People not challenging the parents. Not talking to the child. Walking on by past his suffering. In the Khyra Ishaq case, rights of the mother were considered, but not her responsibilities. She wasn’t challenged, learning from the case was not passed on. Peter Connelly – Baby P – was failed by carers who lacked urgency and were incompetent. In all cases the approach was inadequate, communication failed, there was no follow through, the agencies were not joined up.

This is all very depressing. It leads to the terrible idea that the nature of the human being is to be uncaring, to walk-on-by. To only care about themselves. We are happy to pump out car exhaust carbon dioxide and raise the temperature of the earth, but not care about polar bears dying because the ice they live on is melting. If it doesn’t effect us, we can walk on by. It’s a sad indictment of ourselves as a species and as a society. We are turning into a culture where we are happy to say something is very sad, and someone should do something about it, but we are overwhelmed by the amount of things to do. If we start to have to do something, then we feel we have to do everything and that is just too much. We live busy lives (so we are told – doing what exactly?) and so we do very little about what matters. People walk-on-by. And if we walk on by the litter, we can simply say ‘something must be done’ about the state of child protection – but not actually do anything about it ourselves. We can let people die in hospitals, left in filthy sheets by organisations that pressure people to chase targets and not quality of care. We can eventually say that a genocide carried out in another country is ‘somebody else’s job’ to sort out. We should, as a society, as a nation, be ashamed that we let these sorts of things carry on.

And I don’t know why. I can’t figure it out? People are, on the whole, caring, loving, generous people. We give to charity in great quantities even though our own incomes are pushed and squeezed – Help4Heroes and Children In Need make record amounts of charity income each year, but we live in areas that are dirty, full of litter. In a nation where people die in situations are easily avoidable. Are we assuaging the guilt of rushing past a beggar on the street by rushing home and texting Sport Relief and donating to them? I don’t know the answers.

But it is not all bad. There are those that do oppose this sinking of our society into selfishness. I followed the village vicar up the lane yesterday, and watched as he picked up the litter dropped by children at the bus-stop that morning. We read about Amanda Donnelly and her daughter – the so called Angel of Woolwich – who stopped their care to sit by the dying body of Trumpeter Lee Rigby. About Tina Nimmo who tried to restore some sort of order at the scene of that murder. We hear about the soldier in Afghanistan who threw himself on a hand-grenade to save the lives of his patrol mates.

We has the capacity do so so much evil, and to let other people get away with that evil, but we should fight it at every stage. We should fight the failures in child protection, not just say ‘why wasn’t something done’ but pressure for changes in the system, so that targets and paperwork are not the important issues – but the people involved in the cases are the important issues. There is no difference to walking on by some litter to not reporting a worry of child abuse heard through the wall of next doors house. If we let it go on, we will sink slowly as a society and as a nation. We should take the example of those who challenge, of those who do ‘do something’. We should all ‘do something today’. We might not save a life, but we might make our lives and the lives of those around us a little bit better. And that link will be passed on up the chain and the world will be a better place, because, the world is what we make it.

What kind of future do we want for ourselves…?

We are at the fork in the road that leads to our future. If we go down one fork, then the future is dark, cloudy and dangerous. It’s a future where dodgy regimes all over the world can get their chemistry sets out, and knock up some poison gas and use it however they want, on whomsoever they want. The other fork is one where despite the fact that bad people will do bad things – there are certain lines that are never allowed to be crossed.

‘If you tolerate this, then your children will be next…’

We are facing a future where it is either OK to use chemical weapons – or it’s not. And every rational, decent and normal person in the world really knows the answer to that dilemma. It’s not ok to use chemical weapons. Ever. It’s not ok to kill people – your own people or other countries people – but on a scale of ‘not right’ then gas is about as evil as you can get. At all stages we should have been working for a way for the civil war in Syria to have been stopped. It is not ok for people to die, by any means. But our inaction to stop something in the past is no reason for not doing it now or in the future.

We all put up with things, until they reach a point where we can’t do it anymore. From our neighbour’s noisy party music, through to our husband’s visits to the pub…eventually we get to a point where we cannot accept that anymore and we do something about it.

We are at that point in Syria. Yes, we should not have allowed thee government to shell residential districts, but it happened and we – the right thinking people of the world – did. But the gassing of people is a point where we have to stand up and say ‘enough’. You will do this no more. You will not do this. And we will make sure that the precedent is set that nobody else ever thinks they will get away with it either.

We might have to put up with a world were people kill each other and blow each other up, but we will not put up with a world where it is ok to gas people to death. To paraphrase Orwell, all killing is wrong, but some killing is more wrong than other killing. 

We simply do not want a world were the use of Gas weapons is ok.

 

‘The boy who cried wolf…’

The problem is, that we are faced with a public who’s perception is cynically built on previous events. But we have to remember something else. A story. A fairy story. Remember the boy who cried wolf? He said there were wolves coming to attack the sheep when there weren’t. They said there were chemical weapons in Iraq, when there weren’t. They walked into dodgy and dangerous wars overseas by crying ‘Danger! Warning! Bad things!’ even when there weren’t any. They made the worse things worse than they were to justify what they wanted to happen. They made the facts fit the cause and the justification to fit the end result.

But now we find ourselves in a situation were the boy is right. The bloody wolves are circling. They are there. Mouths snarling, teeth wet from drool and slavering at the thought of doing what the hell they want out any response to it. And now when the governments who shouted so loudly in the past are shouting again, some people respond in the same way they did in the past. ‘They are wrong to do this…they are warmongers…they don’t want peace…they make money out of war…’ Ad nauseum. But farmers, your sheep are about the be eaten. The regimes who don’t care about what is right and what is good are going to get their way. If we do nothing, they will be allowed to do what they want, and they will do it all the more because we do nothing this time. Future regimes will look at our inactivity and say – ‘They won’t do anything because they will be faced with criticism at home’. We have seen the lack of appetite in the US administration for getting involved in ‘another foreign war’.

 

‘For evil to flourish…’

And here is the rub. As the proverb says, ‘For evil to flourish, all it needs is for good men to do nothing.’

If we do nothing, then evil will flourish. More people will suffer. More people will be killed. More children will be gassed. 

So now is the time to stand up. And we should stand up and do it because it is the right thing to do. The perpetrators of gassing of innocents should be identified, targeted and wiped out. Yes, more killing, more destruction. But sadly, the only thing the people who do such acts actually understand is just that. They won’t stop by us ignoring them. They will get more brazen. More courageous to do more bad things. And if we allow things like the gassing of civilians to go unpunished then we embolden the bad people.

And so the argument goes round, because if we tolerate this, then our children will be next.

Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers…

Apparently, you need a new car. A bigger house. A new TV. A sofa. A big kitchen, with shiny metal appliances. A wifi enabled music streaming device that brings you all the music the world has ever produced direct to your ears. You need to eat out, you need to eat in. You need to visit friends. You need to stay at home. You need to have an ethically sourced table made from trees that wanted to be in your house that you never, ever, put your feet on. You need to stop smoking, you need to exercise, you need to go away on holiday to sun drenched beaches that enrich your life with wonder and awe. You need to visit the country and relax in the gentle surroundings of a calm way of life that reminds us of what life once was. You need to have a job earning £50k a year, you need to be busy, you need to be successful.

What a load of bollocks.

I don’t want to preach.  I don’t want to tell you what to do.  I just want to tell you something that I have figured out.  

I have figured out that one person’s definition of success is not the same as someone else’s. What works for you doesn’t work for me.  What works for me may not work for you. 

You see, I have figured out that my definition of success isn’t all those things in listed up there.  They don’t matter to me.  And it is me searching for those things and feeling pressured into wanting those things and feeling that I should want those things that has made me sad.  

So I don’t want them. They are not the things that make me happy.  They are the lines being fed to me by the people who tell me that I should want them, but they aren’t really interested in me.  They tell me I want them because it is in their own interest to want them. 

I want to be happy – hell, it’s the depressives mantra – but even that was wrong.  I don’t want to be happy.  In searching for happiness I am doing the same thing as I am searching for the big car and the stainless steel german washing machine…fighting, struggling, being told.  YOU WILL BE HAPPY. But that’s wrong. By looking for happiness you don’t see what you have and that happiness is not searching, but realising. 

And the sooner I stop wanting happiness, the faster it will happen. Because by not being happy, I am saying this is what i want and I haven’t got it, so I am sad because I haven’t got it. 

So by logic, it comes down to one thing. Don’t want happiness, Alex. Don’t search for it.  Look out of the window at that fantastic view.  Look at what you have and what you do and how you do it and realise that, actually, if you just accept…then it will all be easier.

This may sound like bollocks and may sound like a load of tree hugging-hippy crap, but sod it. I need to write this down. I need to get this sorted in my mind. I need to define it for myself and propose it to myself and agree on it.

And that is what I have done. i am successful by NOT having a fancy car, or a posh house with integrated washing machines and an internet connected fridge that orders my cheese.  I am not going to be happy by searching for happiness.  I am going to be happy by realising that I have all I want. And make my way accordingly.

Larkin was right…

In the house of the depressives, the happy child is king. Or queen. Or something. It’s a crap misquote, but it’s sadly true. When the grown-ups are both under the cosh of depression and pain and hurt, the ruler of the house is the child who is the happy one. Oblivious to the pain going on inside the adult’s minds, unaware of the fact that what is going on around it ISN’T normal – hell if that’s all you’ve ever known…the madness and the crying and the arguing and the shouts and the over-reaction IS normal.

I feel sorry for my youngest daughter. Imagine growing up in a house where both your parents have depression. What message are we sending to her? What lessons are we teaching her, just ass her brain is soaking up all the messages we are giving out, consciously and subconsciously? When she is learning what and how to be herself and how to develop how she reacts and interacts with people the people who she is learning off are just the ones who shouldn’t be listening too.

And I see her reaction to things we say. I see that she is learning our bad ways. And then I blame her for sending me mental. Oh it’s the wrong way round. I am the one setting her up badly. I am the one to blame for her over-reactions and incorrect responses to things; because of the illness and the general fucked-up-ness of my brain (and god help her, my wife’s too), then my beautiful, clever, smart, fabulous, impressionable, blank slate of a daughter is being fucked-up too.

Philip Larkin was right. They fuck you up, your parents…they fill you with all their faults and add some extra just for you. God knows what the madnesses going round our brains are doing to her. But I feel for her. I feel for the way that she is learning all our mad, crazy, inappropriate responses to things and thinking that they are the right ways to deal with things, to deal with people and to deal with life.

It’s not fair what depression does to you. It’s not fair. It takes away your sense of self, your innate you-ness, and turns you into a uber-you, an alt-you, a you that you don’t even recognise, but you think is the real you when it’s not. And there is nothing you can do about it, until it’s too late…and then…and then you see all your mentalness appearing in the behaviour of one who know’s no difference…And it hurts all the more.

Not only is this fucking illness affecting you…it’s effecting the one person you want to keep it all from. Depression is not fair on the sufferer, but it’s even more unfair on the people who have to live with the sufferer. And it’s worse when that person is someone who doesn’t know, doesn’t understand, that it’s just an illness that is making you tackle the world in the wrong way. And it’s even worse when that person – a child – is thinking that your way is the right way, and is learning your madness as part of it’s sanity.

I’m sorry Lily. I am so sorry, but remember, it’s not your fault. It’s not even my fault. It’s years of misdirection, bad reaction, screwed-up bloody chemical imbalance that has left me this way, and I am sorry that you are growing up thinking that it’s right and normal. It isn’t. It isn’t. When I say I can’t cope with you; when your reaction to my directions and demands are not the ones I want – it’s not your fault. It’s my own. Who have you learnt them off? Me. And I know this. And the thing that makes it worse for me is that it’s not really you I can’t cope with.

It’s me.

A million miles away…

Two years ago, not far from today’s date, this photograph was taken.

Image

I posted it this morning over on Twitter, with the caption ‘This feels like it was a million years ago and a million miles away…’ And it does. At times I look at pictures like this one and don’t even think that it is me. It is a million miles away from where I am right now; both in terms of physical location, and state of mind…

For me it sums up my tour in Afghanistan. In the picture I am hot, sweaty; covered from head to foot in protective gear; helmet, glasses, body armour, blast pants, gloves, boots… carrying my rifle, ammunition, equipment, food, water. I had just completed a patrol from one Check Point to another and we had just come out of a field of corn. Hence my less than happy expression – tired, tired beyond belief. Wondering what the hell I am doing there, why is someone snapping my picture, why had I chosen to come out ‘here’ and do this?

The cornfields out there are a little bit of hell on earth. Sown randomly by hand, they are not the lines and lines of straight seeded stalks we see in the UK. They grow in clumps, they grow in deep mud, they grow densely and tall. They are humid, trapping the hot air, and killing any chance of a breeze. The mud sucks in your feet and saps your energy with each attempt to pull it out of the deep mire that rises above the top of your boots. It seeps into your socks and wets your feet with foul smelling filth and stains your trousers and slowly, through capillary action rises up your legs, like kitchen towel sucking up a spill of water.

Your breath is ragged, you fight your way through tree like stalks of corn that swing in your face from the man in front. You put your head down, spot where your feet are placed, avoiding the roots that tangle you and trip you on each step. You push your rifle out and use it as a virtual snow-plough to furrow a way through the eight foot high plants. You smash it down and out of your way and out of the way of the man behind – if you can – venting your hatred of the bloody stuff, of the bloody country and of the bloody people that put it there and those that made you walk through it.

You have to go through it because, despite the pain and the heat and the discomfort, it’s the safest way to on foot. The random path you take through it can’t be guessed by the enemy and they can’t place IED’s there. There would be no point. You are as safe as you can be in there – from the IEDs – as it is possible to be in that country, but you wonder again and again, with every slog of each step of each leg…is it worth it? Is it worth this pain.

And you then start to wonder is any of it worth it? Is my presence here, in this place that has seen so much war and death and pain, going to make any difference? Am I – or the rest of the people with me – going to make this place better? What have we got that makes us different from the rest? How can I, one man, make a difference to all this? The enemy are fighting for their homeland, for their god, for their families. They don’t want us there. They would happily kill us in any way they could. They follow no rules, they have no code of honour. They don’t differentiate between combatant and non-combatant. They fight their dirty little war in their own way; one moment with a gun, the next with a bomb, the next they drop their weapons and hide amongst the local population and pretend to be farmers… How do you fight that? How do you make a difference to that?

What is the point? They will be there when we are gone. We have the watches, but they have the time. We have dates set for pull outs, for ending the war without actually winning – just transferring the fight to someone else. We might talk of progress and transition and change, but will we have made any difference to this place? Other than prolonging the fight and fuelling the fighters and the hatred.

But then…you finish your patrol and you stand or sit with your comrades and friends. You laugh about what you have just done and what you have just been through. You realise that of all the places there are in the world, none of them are like this. You are doing something that so few people have ever done, or ever will do that you are perversely privileged. And you are doing it with the best bunch of people in the whole world.

You are sharing something that will stay with you forever. They are seeing you at your rawest, where you can’t hide the real you that is deep inside, suppressed by the day to day walls that we build around ourselves. When you are in this place, you don’t have the energy to maintain yourself and the wall, so the wall falls away. They see you, and you see yourself for what you really are…and yet…they say nothing. You say nothing about others. You laugh, you joke, you banter, but you never say the real things…what you have seen people do, how you see people react.

And eventually you leave it. You go home and you try to file it away, order it. Process it. And you think about how you were and what you considered when you were in that place. And you think about the people who died and were injured and you still wonder…what was it all for? Did I make a difference? Did I make the world better?

I helped to build a school.. I helped to build wells and sluice gates and bridges and repair mosques and houses. We provided security – of sorts – but if we were not there would we our security have been required? Were we a self-fulfilling prophecy? Did our presence bring the enemy there to fight us? Did the people want or need us there? Would they not have built schools and wells and bridges eventually anyway?

We will never know. We were there. I was there. I was tired and doubtful and stressed and scared and in the worst place in the world, but I was also alive and sure and happy and safe and in the best place in the world. For all the questions I have in my mind, for all the heartache and doubt that I have for the the future I know, I know, that I loved being there. I would be back there now, just to feel that excitement and adventure and the life coursing through my veins every time I stepped foot outside the Check Point gates. Each time my doubted my very existence each time I struggled with the heat and the conditions and the locals and the terrain, I was at least alive. I was more than existing. I was trying to make a difference, and I am sure that in some way, some how, I did.

It might not have been to the lives of the Afghan people, but it certainly made a difference to me.  I am a very different person to the man who went out there in March 2011.  I am not sure if I am a better man, but I am certainly a different one. 

Some good days, some bad days…

Days matter. Monday everyone is down and miserable the weekend has finished and the long week ahead – the drudgery of work stretches out before us, Friday the world is happy and the promise of the weekend is there tempting us on into it.

Some days we are glad to be alive; some days we dread.  But when you have depression, you face day after day of gloom and misery. And then you move on.  You get your meds sorted and maybe you get therapy or treatment of some sort and you start the long road to recovery.  

This is where I am at the moment.  It’s been a while since I have written about my depression, but today I feel the need to.  I have suffered from it for over a year now.  Been on the tablets for certainly a year and have had CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) and Talking Therapy and all sorts…and I certainly feel that I am on the road to recovery.

I am getting back to being more one with myself. More relaxed with myself – on myself.  I am learning to let go a bit more, be a bit less uptight and be a bit more easy going.  It doesn’t matter if the washing up isn’t done, or the ironing isn’t done.  That sort of stuff doesn’t matter.

And I am having more good days; more easy days. More happy days.  Which must be a real bugger to read – here I am, semi-retired BY CHOICE at the ripe age of 43, working part-time, living in a rural idyl, with beautiful scenery around me, my loving family, a fabulous new home which we are starting to refurbish…I have it all. I can walk the dog down to the pub and have a pint and chat to the old men of the village and take life relatively easy.

But I still have down days.  And the real bastard is that when I do have them they are deeper and mistier than ever before.  On a graph of mood over time, it is generally rising as time goes on – but when I fall, I fall a long way.  

Things have moved on a long way though.  They had too.  You see, and this is something that is hard to admit, but hell, others have admitted to far worse (yes, I doff my metaphorical cap to YOU Mr Fry), about three months ago, I was having…thoughts…yes…those thoughts.  

Life was getting to me, it was all too much.  The pressure was produced inside me – that everything must be perfect and that I must control everything – but this was just bollocks.  I could have everything perfect; the house needs a lot of work, and my daughter and my dog make a lot of washing and mess and I had to do a lot because my wife was going through a particularly tough time with her pain, and I was… I was suffering a headache.  I was tired.  Run ragged.  Felt like I could sleep for a week and then sleep for more.  And I opened the packet of Paracetemol to get out a couple of tablets…and I just looked at the packet and wondered…what would happen if I took all of these? Would it be enough to kill me?  Would it be enough to make me ill? Would it be enough just to let me sleep…?

And straight away I knew that it was not the thing to do.  I have kids.  I have a wife. I have a family that loves me and wouldn’t want me gone.  Whilst the insurance money would get MrsF the extension that she wants out the back of the house, she’d have no-one to share it with.  It’d be a stupid thing to do…and I know stupid.

So I put the packet of tablets away and phoned the doctor and asked for an appointment as clearly I needed more help than I was getting.  And the last three or so months I have been getting it.  I even gave CBT a go – and I hate CBT with a real passion.  I know some people like it and it really works for some people and it gives them a real success and progress, but for me, well I just find it patronising and painful and simplistic.

You see, and this might sound like I am blowing my own trumpet here, but when you think back to the old fella Maslow and his hierarchy of needs – I like to think of myself fairly well up that triangle.  Pushing into the ‘self-actualisation’ area at the top.  And if you are up here it’s a fucker of a place to be if you get depression, because you know…you know…exactly what you are doing and the stupidity of it all, the futility of the depression.  That it is just a passing phase and you will be over it and one day you will be well and that it’s just a chemical imbalance and you are not the bad, stupid, thick, useless idiot that your brain makes you think you are.  You know that your brain is mussed up and that it’s not working right, and you know that all the things you say you don’t mean, but you still think them and still say them any way.

And it’s a real fucker because it means that you can see straight through the CBT stuff. I know that I need to manage my time better, to make time for me because I can’t look after other people if I don’t look after me, but still…that was the way I was.

So I sat there one day.  Outside the office of the CBT guy, who was lovely and well meaning, but I decided that when I have been talking about how I felt, and thinking about how bad I was – it made me feel that way even more.  Sort of a ‘if I think I am depressed, then I am depressed’ sort of thing.  And then the eureka moment hit me.  If this was true about when I spoke about feeling bad that I felt bad, maybe if when I thought myself bad then I felt bad…break the chain.

Yeah, just stop thinking it.  Move on. Don’t think bad things.  If bad things start then move on, jump-shift.  Reframe. Refocus. Don’t think bad thoughts.  

And it is working for me.  Most days. As I said.  Some days the cloud hits me and I find it difficult to deal with some things and find myself getting lost in that fog again.  I find myself lost in the mist, knowing there is a way out; knowing that there is sun out there but unable to find my way to it. But I now just accept it.  Write the day off, cope with it as best I can, get an early night (it seems to have some link to me being really tired) and look forward to the next day being a new day.

And it will be.  The sun will come up, life will go on and I will face the new day with a new mood.  And the down days come, but they are coming much much much less often.  The up days outnumber the down days 5-6/1.  Which are good odds that you’d lump on in the National. But in this case when the odds get longer they are more favourable to me…OK, so today I had a down day, but let’s start again tomorrow and work at getting the good days numbers up.  Because I have set a goal to get off these tablets now.  A year is long enough, I need to move on, I need to kick this depression for good.  I need to move on and actually enjoy the idyl that I know I have here.  I deserve to enjoy it.  I’m not going anywhere and it isn’t either, so I might as well get stuck into enjoying it!

Tomorrow will be a good day. Hell, it’s Friday!

 

Talking to the enemy doesn’t betray the dead. It honours them….

On the day that the Afghan government said it had taken over responsibility for combat operations across the whole of the country and after 12 years of invasion, war, occupation and counter-insurgency the Americans announced that they are to start diplomatic talks with the Taliban.  

This is good news.  Soldiers may fight wars, but it is politicians who not only start them, the politicians getting around a table and talking also finish them.  In a dirty and nasty war which has cost over 35,000 people’s lives, the only real way to come out with a solution to the annual cycle of fighting is to discuss it.  Talk about it.  Consider the other side and compromise.

This is not a sign of weakness.  It is a sign of strength.  It is only through talking that the problems that run so deep in that country can be solved.  It is a sign that it is time to move on from drastic and inflammatory rhetoric where you are either ‘for us or against us’.  It’s time to move away from ‘victory’.  It’s time to start the process of dialogue and conversation – which will ultimately lead to that compromise that will bring  peace.

A quick look around the internet, across social media and in the worst place of all – the comments sections of news articles on this subject show that there is a lot of opposition to the talks.  Some talk about betrayal. About  wasted time, wasted lives.  That by entering into talks with the Taliban we are turning our backs on those that have given their lives in this war.

So far, 444 British Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines have been killed in the Afghanistan War.  On basic estimates at least 6,500 western soldiers have been injured there.  Some 2,220 Americans have been killed, with another 600 other nations troops dead, bringing it to a total of some 3200 NATO and Coalition troops.  The Afghan security forces have lost over 14,500 with at least 19,000 Afghan civilians killed.  A terrible, terrible loss of life.  On all sides. 

But by talking it does not betray any one of them.  Talking  and compromise to bring about peace does quite the opposite.  We are not turning out backs on the 444 – they did not die for nothing – they died for two things.

Firstly, without their sacrifice, we would not be in the place we are now.  The fact that the Taliban are willing to talk shows that they have fought bravely and showed the enemy that they fought for a reason and that reason is the second thing that they dies for.

They fought and died because they were doing something that they loved.  Most of them didn’t think  they were bringing peace and security to a far off land.  They didn’t consider what they were doing out there as defending Britain from terrorists or making this country safer.  

They did it because they were doing a job that almost pretty much to a man (and woman) they loved.  They were doing it because they were part of the Army, the Navy, the RAF or the Marines and they were there because they enjoyed being part of that wider service family.  They were there for their mates, for adventure, for a multitude of reasons – but they gave their lives doing something that they wanted to do and that they enjoyed doing.

It was fun.  I enjoyed being in Afghanistan.  Yes, like many, I griped about the conditions, the food, the heat, the patrolling, the filth, the people, the organisation, the lack of mail, the lack of communication, missing my family – just about anything it is possible to gripe about, but when I look back on my time out there I am glad I went  and I miss it.

I miss the camaraderie.  I miss the gripes.  I miss the people going through the same things as me.  I miss the jokes, the laughs, the evening chats outside the tent.  I miss the excitement of going out on a patrol.  I miss the possibility of getting into a ‘scrap’, the adventure, of putting my self and my training to the test.

And I know that the only reason that people have gone back there again and again is that they like that stuff too.  Living out there was simpler, easier.  And although the possibility of being  injured or dying did scare me (and others), you just accepted it.  It was part of the job.  It came with the territory of what you had signed up to do.  And it was a risk that you weigh up against all the benefits that the military life has.

I have left the military now; been a civilian since December.  And whilst I miss a lot about the life I left behind, the thing I miss the most is the people.  You join up to be with like-minded people.  To have experiences with people who think the same way as you, who want to do similar things as you, who want to test themselves as you do.  I found that there were a lot of bloody good soldiers in the British Army.  There were people who did brave and heroic things, and the reason that they did them wasn’t because of Queen and Country. 

They didn’t put themselves in harms way for the Queen or those those back home.  They did it for each other.  And they will keep on  doing it for each other.  For as long as there are wars and conflicts and reasons to have a military, there will be young men and women who are happy to take part in those wars – not for lofty aims and ambitions.  Not for freedom.  Not to protect the country, but for other people.  For the people they are fighting alongside.  And in Afghanistan, they did the same.  They fought and are still fighting for their mates and mukkas.  Often, sadly, they pay the ultimate price and die for them too.  

The by-product of their death, though, is bringing  the politicians to the table to talk.  Soldiers may fight wars, but politicians talking end them.  The greatest memorial to those who have died in that country, 5000 odd miles away from their homes and families, isn’t more fighting – it’s talking.  

If the enemy wants to talk to us, and in this case they do, we don’t betray the dead by talking, we honour them.

Detached…

I have been out of the military for just under three months, although I have lived away from the military life for about 6 months.  And as I have said several time I have not really missed military life.  The people, now there’s another thing… but the life itself…not really.

I am enjoying my part time work, and enjoying my life in the countryside and even more enjoying village life, with all that I need – the small shop and post office and the pub, and my daughter, Lily, has her school just a few hundred yards down the road.

But I don’t miss the military life.  Don’t miss living behind the wire, don’t miss the community of other people who work in the same place as you, living in the same place as you, doing the same things as you.

Well, I thought I didn’t miss it.

But the other day as part of one of my jobs, I drove past RAF Cosford, where I once lived and worked as part of my posting as an instructor.

And that afternoon I felt a sudden pang of pain.  The fence at the edge of the camp was no different from when I was on the other side of it, but it suddenly seemed a million miles high. And thick.  As I sat at the traffic lights waiting for the green light, the perimeter changed, in my imagination, from a chain link fence to a thick high wall. Impassible and impenetrable. 

Automatically, I checked my wallet was in my pocket, as I would have if I was going to to get my ID out as I passed through the gate. But it was pointless. My ID was not there. As I am no longer in the RAF, I have no ID.  None, other than a drivers licence and a couple of bank cards. And my library card. 

And I felt empty. I felt alone.  As the lights changed I pulled around the corner and sat looking through the fence at the Med Centre, the Dentists.  The all ranks club.  The building I used to work in.  Just 50 yards away.  50 yards might as well have been 50 million miles. It was unobtainable, separate, distinct. I saw trainees marching about.  An instructor parked his car outside the Med Centre and stared through the fence at me. Looked at me and must have wondered why was I staring through at him.  Maybe he took a mental note of my description and my car details, thinking of security. A different culture; a different life. I was no longer part of that.  I had no right to go on that camp anymore. 

And my detachment from the RAF became complete.  I am an ex-airman.  I am a civilian.  I am no longer special like those people in there.  

And I missed it.  Missed the ability to just go in there, to go to the gym, to just walk around as part of something bigger than just me. I felt alone. Because you see the RAF, the military, the armed forces are about being part of something bigger than just yourself. About being part of something with a history, tradition and meaning that is more than just one person and more indeed is more than the sum of all of it’s parts. It’s about belonging.  Your very identity is given from what you are and what you do.

And I was part of that, but now I am alone. What I stand for once was pride and uniform and honour and comradeship and serving others and putting my own needs behind those of the wider community and the country.  But now I am just me.  I might still personally embody those values but the visible symbol of that is now gone.  When people looked at me once, they saw a serviceman, but now they just see a person. They might be kind and say veteran, but I am no longer a serviceman. I have handed that on to the next generation. I am just an individual.  I can do what I want, go where I want, when I want, think what I want, say what I want, but that is no compensation for the fact I am no longer part of all that

But then.

I got home. And I realised something. It hit me like a bolt from the blue.  It hit me like a four year old running through the dining room to bash into me and hug my leg when I arrived in the house. 

I still am part of something bigger than just me.  I might miss being part of the RAF, but I still am part of this family.  And I am always going to be part of it.  It will always be there. 

As wil the RAF. I might have physically left the RAF.  I might no longer have the card that allows me access to a free gym and to free medical prescriptions and to not to have to worry about what clothes I was going to wear to work – but I will always be part of the RAF, like I will always be part of my family.  I will always have my brothers and sisters – my colleagues. I will always have those who served before me – my parents.  And I will always have my children – those who will follow me into the service and make their sacrifices and maybe give their lives.  

Life goes on. And even though I am not in the RAF, it will always be part of me, and the material things that showed I was part of it are just that, material things that tarnish, fade, rust and decay.  But my memories will be with me, all around me, inside me, like my family is.

And will always be.

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