When you think about the military, you may think about precision. You might think about attention to detail. You might even think about organisation and planning. But unless you’ve actually BEEN in the military you wouldn’t think about waiting. Military waiting. Whilst not famous for it, the military is very, very good at it. Take for example our deployment out here. It took over two days. We reported for duty at 17:00 (that’s 5pm to normal people) on Sunday, and actually arrived in Theatre on Tuesday morning at 03:00 (more or less 3am). And in between this we actually only spent 9 hours in the air, on the move. The rest of the time was…well…waiting.
Waiting. When still in the UK people had an extra chance to catch up with their loved ones before they went ‘off grid’ by texting and emailing and talking on their phones. It was a last chance to charge up mobile phones, iPods and even laptops or Netbooks. It was an opportunity to have a look at the films that other people had on their hard-drives, or look through the books that they had packed. Once out and travelling, though, people settled down and slept where they could. The lucky ones able to stretch out on the plane, others reclined their seats and borrowed a pillow. The last bit of ‘comfort food’ was scoffed, chocolate bars that wouldn’t stand the heat of Afghan were munched, and cans of coke were popped and drunk whilst they were still cold.
And then the first leg of the journey was over. A staging post in the United Arab Emirates where we transferred from the comfort of the civilian charter aircraft to the tactical transport of a C17 for the short hop into Camp Bastion.
But it wasn’t quite so simple. There was the wait… The wait there was another 9 hours. And again people who could get signal on their phones (and didn’t mind the expense of an overseas call or text) got in touch with loved ones.
Others sat and queued for one of a handful of internet machines to do the same…and logging straight into Facebook when their turn arrived. A few more ‘retro’ people, veterans of earlier wars and deployments found a pile of Blueys (the age old blue sheets of A4 airmail paper that fold up into a self-sealing letter) and put actual pen, to actual paper, taking a moment every so often to shake the hand with their pen in it; unused to actually writing for longer than a sentence or a paragraph.
As time went on, the smokers colonised an area outside where they fuelled their habit – denied for seven hours on the plane – and charging themselves up for the next two or so. Here and there a group played cards, or just chatted, enjoying the sunshine that
the UK had missed over the winter. Ignoring the fact that they faced a summer of horrendous Helmand heat. A few took the opportunity for a shave and even a freshen up in a shower, whilst some sat in front of a TV watching film after film, almost immobile. One or two fired up the Playstations that were provided around the room. And some just sat. Some just read. One had his head in an Open University Textbook. Several just slept more.
But all waited. Until finally the call came. The C17 was ready for us to board. Leaving late at night so it lands in Afghan in the very early hours – to reduce the risk of the Insurgents being able to take a pot-shot at the aircraft as it came into land monitor our movement in and out of Bastion in detail. And as we came into land, we donned our body armour and our combat helmets, again, just in case, and then the lights went out.
I am not a great flyer. I don’t enjoy flying as some do. To me it is a means to an end. A way of getting from one place to another as quickly as possible – and the take off and the landing are the moments I dislike the most. My stomach churning during the rise and fall of the aircraft…but my dislike and nervousness was made much, much worse given the almost pitch black darkness inside the aircraft. Only 10 or so dim green lights along the inside of the fuselage provided any comfort.
It had been my first time on a C17. I hadn’t been prepared for the noise. Much noisier than a normal passenger aircraft and even nosier than I remembered a Hercules to be – the jet noise whine being almost as loud inside as it would have been outside.
Everyone was lost in their own world. Each wearing ear protection of some kind, which only added to the sense of being cocooned, emphasised by the restriction in an already tight area caused by the body armour. All of this adding up so that every passenger was now fully aware, either for the first time, or else returning for a second or even third tour and reminding themselves once again, that they were flying into a war zone.
Even as the aircraft came to a halt and people disembarked still people were quiet…thoughtful, and certainly more tired. We had finally arrived in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, ready to get to a real bed, or as real as we would get for the next few months…But when you haven’t seen a bed for two nights, the thought of a camp-cot-bed is as good as you can hope for, all that you need and all that you would get for six months as the wait begins for the journey home…