RAFairman's Blog

An RAF Airman's Blog

Every Day is a Learning Day…

In my last job I was an instructor at a training camp. It was the very best job, as the post gave me freedom to do pretty much what I wanted. Well I say that, but what we had to teach was strictly set down – but HOW to teach it was not, and my post was all about teaching trainees to be “better” airmen. The technical schools did their job at making them good technicians, but it was my job to get them to be good airmen; to expand their soft skills – teamwork, communication, common sense…

I did this through running a 3 day exercise at the end of their training course where as well as doing their primary role of working on aircraft or tele-communications equipment (or even as combat photographers!) they had to pretend to be deployed to a Forward Operating Base in a made up country in Africa.

This deployment was in reality to the far side of the airfield, but it was to a purpose built campsite that was “austere”. This meant that there were no home comforts. Just tents to sleep in, a mess tent for cooking rations for food and a command bunker made from the same materials that they will find when they go into theatre – Hesco-Bastion. At the two entrances to the camp there were also Hesco guard posts that provided protection against “mortars” and such like. Here mobile phones were banned and they stayed on site for the three days working long days (from 6am-midnight) rotating between providing security for the site (guard duties and patrols) and working on the aircraft.

Anyway, to make the deployment more realistic, we as instructors would throw in scenarios for the trainees to respond to. These would be, at times, quite realistic…from vehicle patrols that would drive over a “Improvised Explosive Device” (the now infamous “IED”) to foot patrols to recover “pilots” who had ejected from crashed aircraft.

One that I came up with was an extended one that ran for a couple of hours and relied on one of the trainees to help me out. This was a “Proxy-bomber” scenario.

In this I would wait until the night and take a section out on a foot patrol, having primed the last man in the team to go missing as we patrolled through a particularly dark area. The section would invariably not notice that he was missing until we returned to the safety of the base…

(He himself was primed to make his own way to a nice safe portacabin – with the luxury of a real toilet and a proper heater. There he would find a set of combat body armour (CBA) with the kevlar removed and stuffed with rolls of paper. These inside the CBA would look like sticks of explosive. Wires and an “aerial” would complete the gear – to make it look like he was wearing a “suicide bomber” jacket.

Now this is serious stuff. One of the things that has happened in the past Northern Ireland and Vietnam and a few other places) is the idea of a proxy bomber. The “enemy” would capture someone and strap a bomb to them and then send them back to the place that they want blowing up. This way maximum damage for minimal losses.

So. Our stooge, Paul, straps himself into the CBA and, at the pre-determined time, leaves the safety and warmth of the portacabin and walks across to the main gate of the FOB, where, by matter of chance is one of his course-mates.

As he gets close to the gate, he then starts to shout and scream for help, as he had been told to in his briefing earlier. I told him that he must scream for help and tell the guards that he had been captured by the enemy, who had strapped this jacket to him and then told him it was a bomb. He then was released and told to “go home”. The enemy were watching him and the bomb jacket was remote controlled and would explode it when they were ready. His task was to gain entry to the camp anyway he could – to push past the guards, anything, short of actual physical violence. However, should the guards be calm – he was to calm down, basically he was to the guards in the way they reacted to him. Finally, if he was told to go into the Hesco’s by the gate then he was to do so.

This is actually the best outcome for this situation. If the poor lad was wearing a bomb then the best thing for him is to be calmed down and brought onto the camp but placed in a location that will cause as little damage as possible if the bomb detonates. Whilst in this location he can then wait for Bomb-Disposal (or EOD) who will come to save him!

Back at the FOB…Our lad came wandering up to the gate shouting. The guard does exactly as he should do and issue a warning along the lines of stop or I fire. The lad stops and puts his hands up, but carries on shouting “Help” only this time he adds the name of the guard (who we’ll call “Jonesy”).

Jonesy asks his course mate what is going on and the lad replies exactly as he has been told. “I’ve got a bomb strapped to me! The bastards are watching and say they are gonna blow it!” (He must be commended for his acting.)

At this news Jonesy takes a step back. And pulls out his radio. But the other guard shouts at him not to transmit…IED’s can explode if a radio is used near to them. (Tick, very good, to that lad – he’s learnt something on his training!) Jonesy tells him to run to “get someone – anyone!” which he duly does…this leaves poor Jonesy on his own.

Paul starts to move forward again…”Come on mate, let me in…I don’t want to die!” But Jonesy stands firm. “Paul, mate stand still. Sit down there and be cool…” (Well done Jonesy; trying to calm the poor fella.)

Jonesy tries to talk to Paul and calm him, but as he does so, starts to panic a little and so Paul does as instructed and starts to do the same. Paul stands up and walks towards the gate…Jonesy steps back…and Paul gets up to the gate line. He goes to step into the camp and this sets Jonesy into a real panic.

Now Jonesy is “armed” with the standard issue L85A2 “SA80” assault rifle, with two magazines of 30 rounds of blank ammunition. As Paul steps forward one more time, Jonesy cocks the rifle and then as Paul takes one more step he takes aim and fires the rifle…AT HIS MATE PAUL.

Now I had been watching all this, without stepping in at any stage, but at this dramatic turn of events I had to.

Paul stood and looked at Jonesy. Then, rather comically, down at his chest, where he’d just been “shot”. Obviously there was nothing there and he was perfectly alright, but…but…it was what it meant.

I stepped forward. “Jonesy, put the rifle down and step back. What the hell…What did you just do…What the hell, man…SHIT YOU SHOT HIM!”

“I, I, I, didn’t know what to do…”

“So you thought you’d shoot me!” said Paul.

“I, I, I, er….shit. I…errrrr…”

“Right. Seriously Jones. Put the rifle down and go and sit down. You SHOT HIM!” I said. I honestly couldn’t believe what had happened. And to be honest I was a bit lost for what to do next.

I mean Jonesy had just “shot” hit mate. Someone who he had been with all the way through training, some 7 months. This was mad, crazy. How the hell do we…I…deal with this, and what it meant.

It meant that Jonesy and Paul’s trust had just been seriously attacked and diminished. It meant that Jonesy needed to think a bit more about what he might be faced with in the future. It meant that in 6 months time when Jonesy is deployed and on guard at a gate somewhere hot and dusty and scary…well how would he cope if this happened for real.

“Jonesy. You shot your mate. Can you imagine what the hell this would have meant if this was for real? Can you imagine the front page of the newspapers? ’Cos I tell you what, mate, something like this would make page one. Big time!”

“I want you to go and have a cuppa in the Mess Tent, and have a chill out and think about this event. Don’t worry about it, nothings going to happen over it – it’s why we have training, so we can make mistakes where the outcome doesn’t really matter. But you still need to  have a good think about it.”

And I did too. It made me think about what our young lads have to go through. How would I have dealt with that scenario? What would I have done? How would I have coped with Paul shouting and screaming? Would I have been a calming influence? Or would I have panicked like Jones and done something mad, crazy?

When I was a young trainee of 18-19 the biggest thing that we were faced with were the big bad Russians who were going to come across and bomb us. But we knew that in reality they were never going to actually do that. We would never really have to go to war, and certainly would never be face to face with the enemy.

But these lads…they have to go out to Afghanistan or where-ever the hell we are sent to next, and are faced with seeing and doing things that I would never have imagined. And it made me a bit scared, but also a bit proud. What I was doing was helping them to be prepared for such things…in a way I had never been prepared for. Maybe because of this incident – Jonesy for certain – would be better aware of himself and of what he may have to do in the future so that he doesn’t make a mistake like for real, where it may actually cost someone their life.

After a good sit down and a bit of banter and a good cup of tea, Jonesy was ok. He had learnt a bit about himself and maybe matured ever so slightly. He certainly had learnt a few things that might help him in his future career. Paul forgave him for shooting him…saying that if the shoe was on the other foot then he had no idea how he would have coped.

And again it made me think. How would I have dealt with it in real life? But for the moment I am lucky and I don’t have to think about how I would do it for real.

And to be honest, I hope I don’t HAVE to think about it for real and never have to face it.

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