“This is grim” I said as we walked across the road to get to the bar. “In fact, this holiday camp sucks.”
But it wasn’t really a holiday park. It was an army camp on the south coast about 8 miles away from Folkestone. In the distance, and the failing light we could just about make out the imposing square blocks of the nuclear power station, and the power lines snaking off inland. And to be honest, given the weather, anywhere could have been as grim. To add to it, the bar was just a NAAFI. They are never the best bars in the world. Functional yes. Cheap, somewhat. But never the most atmospheric places. This one was called the Phoenix Club. There were a lot of similarities with the more famous one…
But still it was inside, it was warm, and it had a much needed beer. And we hadn’t done anything yet, other than arrive there and be given our accommodation. Which, let’s be honest, was grim. Functional, but a bit grim. Concrete block walls that had been given a coat of paint. A bed and a single wardrobe. But it was warm. It was inside. It was very well heated and I have to say the bed was more comfortable than it looked. The other 9 people in the room had differing views on the beds, but I’d been lucky and had been the first into the room and so had got the pick of the beds. And naturally had taken the one that offered the most privacy, out of the way right in the corner of the room. So I was lucky. It didn’t have a plug socket for charging my phone, but that was soon sorted by a room-mate (who’d been to the camp before and who knew the lay of the land) who had brought along an extension lead. His bed space had two sockets so his luck was my gain.
We’d gone along there to attend OPTAG – Operational Training Advisory Group. This is an Army wide course for anyone who is deploying to Afghanistan. It’s the basic familiarisation and awareness training for all deployees covering all sorts of stuff about going into theatre. Covering first aid awareness (not really necessary for us as we’d just completed our Team Medic training), mines awareness, vehicle drills, patrol drills, language and culture training, and general deployment information such as what facilities to expect in the various locations out in Afghan.
It’s good stuff. Fantastic information. Presented by people who have literally just returned from their own tours out there. Not only were they able to give us the hottest and most up to date information, they were able to give us their own anecdotes of when THEY had put that skill into use. They recounted details of not only how to carry out an C-IED (Counter Improvised Explosive Device) sweep around a vulnerable point along the road, but also what to look for on the ground, whether to use the headset, or the built in speakers in the mine-detector, and what the difference between the two means (Use the speakers, by the way; if you find a device then you don’t want to be the only one who hears the ‘beep’, you want as many people as possible to hear it!)
But why then was it grim. It wasn’t the course itself, it was the place. It was the weather. It was the fact that I couldn’t tell if the hot, wet, brown liquid supplied during the day to keep us warm was actually tea, or if it was coffee. Honestly, I couldn’t tell. One cup I had SMELLED of coffee, but tasted of tea. Another tasted of chicken soup…
So why was it a grim course? It wasn’t. It was useful and informative, and yet another one that has shown where I need to do some extra reading and extra work over the next few weeks – learning the basics of the language Pashto is one that we’ll be doing here during the Christmas Break. But it was just grim because of the place and the weather. I mean we are going to Afghan in the spring. For a summer tour of Afghan. To where it will be up to 50degrees Celsius. And of course the British winter steps in to help out with the training for that by starting early and harsh. -10 degrees (with windchill). Great, only 60 degrees difference the two. Sigh.
So grim. Yes. But also not grim. Yeah the environment wasn’t the most salubrious that someone in the Royal Air Force was used too, but looking at where I am going, it was bloody luxury. It was good to learn more about living in a place with limited power supply.
It was a chance to think about how I’ll charge up all the gadgets I am taking out…how well does the Pebble charger I have work on my iPod? How will I charge that up? What about shower kit? Is my wash bag the right sort for out there? Are the flip-flops I have the right sort of thing to take…How many films should I put on my iPod at a time, what sort of music, what are the right sort of books to take and read out there? Is my head torch the right sort? Does it have the right filters on it?
These are the lessons that are unwritten on the OPTAG syllabus but they are just as important to learn when you go there. Learning about mines and C-IED and patrolling is live saving information, but learning about how to keep yourself comfortable is just as important. This sort of stuff is invaluable learning, and you can only really learn it when conditions are a bit grim.
I guess it might have been bloody grim, but it was also a bloody necessity. And I am glad I have done it, because the lessons I have learnt this week are not only ones to keep my alive and safe out there, but will also keep me sane.