Into The Night…
I was standing in the middle of the road. I suddenly realised that this was a ‘Bad Thing’ to do, as the weak lights from the Check Point behind silhouetted me against the compound wall. Immediately I crouched down and then knelt on my right knee. I scanned the tree-line in the near distance and looked across the field. My night vision was slowly coming in, as my eyes got used to the darkness, but this was not really necessary anyway. I turned on my Helmet Mounted Night Vision System and focussed it. Scanning the tree-line and field again I was calmed by the absence of anything moving.
It was only about 8:40pm and it was already pitch black, with only a sliver of light from the moon breaking through the clouds. In Afghan, when it’s dark, it’s dark as there is very little ambient light. The light pollution that we are used to in the UK just doesn’t happen out here in the Green Zone near to the River Helmand, and so the darkness was almost absolute. Without the NVGs I wouldn’t be able to see a thing.
And then I was suddenly blinded by a flash of light. Lightning. A fork of sharp lightning straight out of a 1930’s black and white horror film light up the sky – and causing the NVG to bloom with the sudden light. The thunder soon followed. More lightning, and yet more. Only the odd spot of rain. The light wind was warm, and it felt odd, almost wrong to be standing out in the countryside at night in the warm and yet it be raining.
I was out there waiting for a helicopter to arrive. Right next to our Check Point a Helicopter Landing Site had been established and we were expecting a chopper – probably a Merlin – to arrive, dropping off some people new to the base – just like I had a few weeks ago, except this time I was already on the ground and there to provide some ground security for the team that would help the chopper unload.
But it wasn’t on time. The storm must have delayed its arrival. I moved position slightly to my right as the view of my ‘arc’ was obscured by a bush. On my knees I cradled my rifle and checked that the Laser Light Module was firstly securely fitted and then cupping my hand over the front of it I turned it on to check it was working. Satisfied it would work if I needed it, I turned it off. I realised that my mouth was very dry. I was alone – the nearest of my team was inside the compound some 20m away. Even so, I felt, very, very alone.
The noise of the frogs and the cicadas in the fields nearby suddenly caught my attention. Inside the CP the hum of the generators providing us with electricity and light drowned out this noise, but suddenly away from the gennys, the ambient noise of rural Afghanistan became clear. Just a quiet but audible constant drone of insects and amphibians.
Again I scanned the tree-line. What was that? A figure? No. It was just a fence pole. And that there was a small bush. Nothing out there. Then a blinding light…and another…and another. Three flares arced into the sky to the north, a couple of miles away. Like gentle fireworks they rocketed into the night sky and then slowly floated down. I turned to the opening of the HLS compound. ‘Flares to the north,’ I said.
‘Where did they come from?’
‘If you look to the position of the moon, come down to the horizon. You will see three trees that each get bigger as you scan to the right. Look to the left of the smallest tree and there is a gap in the fence line. The flares came from in that gap.’
‘Seen,’ said the Para that had appeared on my shoulder, ‘Don’t worry, that’s from Patrol Base X over there.’
‘Roger that.’ I said.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Friendlies. And then it went dark again. The breeze picked up slightly and I had to shift position again, moving to the other knee. My helmet felt odd as the weight of the NVG attached to the front of it pulled my head down. I strained my neck and twisted it to the left and right to ease off the pain.
Glancing behind me I could see the regular FLASH, FLASH, FLASH of the infra-red strobe that marked the centre of the landing site. The NVG picked up even the slightest light and over to my right, in the east, the lightning storm rumbled on, visible only to the one eye that had the electronically assisted night vision. I closed my left eye to use just my human sight…nothing. Almost total darkness, maybe a slight glow from the few lights in the CP, and then over on the road a few hundred yards away, a vehicles’ lights. I braced the rifle again, but the vehicle, and the driver – either British or Afghan – whoever it was, continued on his way into the night.
All fell to the darkness again, and the rustling of the trees in the wind was the only sound. I yawned. I looked at my watch – the luminescent glow of the dial brighter than I had ever seen it before. Almost 20 minutes had passed.
And then suddenly all was noise and light. The helicopter came in low from the west. Quickly pulling it’s nose up it dropped into the HLS compound and touched down. Spinning round I could see the crewman manning the front door gun. I looked to my arcs again and saw…nothing. All was quiet out there, as the helicopter discharged it’s cargo of new arrivals. Bags were thrown off and a quad-bike and trailer scooted around. I took the rifle into my shoulder and held it ready – the helicopter was a huge target, and on the ground like this, it was at it’s most vulnerable to enemy fire. The insurgents would do anything to take out a helicopter, but that wasn’t going to happen tonight.
The people ran towards the shelter of the wall of the compound and the quad bike followed. The noise of the engine and the rotors wound up as the pilot applied the power. It lifted up, quickly, then turned and put it’s nose down powering away at low level until it was out of sight and hearing. It was heading back to Bastion, I felt a pang of jealousy towards the crew, who I knew would be from my base back in the UK – RAF Benson. For some bizarre reason I waved goodbye…knowing that no-one on board could see me. As quick as it came, the light and noise disappeared and the countryside returned to normality. Cicadas. Frogs. Breeze. Lightning in the far distance.
And the small party of troops, including one airman, moved quickly back into the safety of the Check Point, and headed to the mess tent for a cup of tea.