I wish I’d brought my camera out here. Well, of course I have brought A camera out here, one that takes snaps – its a little Fuji that has an interior zoom and so has no moving parts to get all clogged up with the dust – but it’s not great for taking ‘good shots’.
My usual camera isn’t an SLR, but it is a ‘bridge camera’ and it’s pretty good at getting some good shots. And this place is great for pictures. Not the usual standing smiling, posed shots, or indeed photos of guys in body armour and helmets in poses out on the ground. Rather, I’m talking about the candid shots that tell stories. The other night, for instance, as the RiP – the change-over of the troops on the ground that is underway right now, with Herrick 13 units going home to be replaced by Herrick 14 ones – there was a Para Corporal (who has sort of looked after me and taken me under his wing and I am eternally grateful to him for doing so) sitting by the side of his tent.
It was pitch black and my attention to him was caught by the flicker of the fire he had set in an ammo box. What happens out here is that you don’t throw away letters from home – unless you intend to take them home – you burn them. Security means that you can’t just throw away letters with addresses on, you never know where they might end up – or in who’s hands. This would be a ‘bad thing’, so just for that piece of mind and extra security, we all burn all our letters. This is what he was doing.
He was sitting on his haunches, arms wrapped round his legs, head slightly bowed, looking forward into the flames. He was dressed in the maroon-red tee-shirt that all Paras wear, faded by the sun and lightened by ingrained dust, and a pair of MTP combat trousers equally dusty and dirty.
The light of the fire lit his face and made his tour-tan look darker than it already was. Whilst his eyes were focussed on the fire, at the same time they were focussed on something a thousand miles away. And he was lost in thought as he did it. The fire wasn’t big, contained in an old ammo box, just enough to burn his letters and anything with his address on, the slight glow and flicker of the flame lighting up his face. The smoke gentle drifting up into the sky between the tents. He was here, but where his thoughts were – that was a mystery.
It would have been a sin to have disturbed him. I didn’t. I left him there, thinking of whatever it was; of his tour out here, the things he’s seen, and of the things he’s been involved in – and he has been one of the main men here in the last six months. Maybe he wasn’t thinking of this place. Maybe he was thinking of home and that it’ll take him a week or so to get from here through Bastion, through Cyprus and to his loved ones…But in the end, only he knows what was going through his mind.
I decided that I shouldn’t be there any more, that he should be left to his own thoughts and his small fire. I turned and walked down the path beside the rest of the tents leaving him alone. Alone to enjoy the burning because it was more than just a security measure. Something more than just paper was going up in flames…he leaves the front line tomorrow and he doesn’t have to patrol any more. He doesn’t have to go out there…maybe it isn’t just paper that is going up in smoke – it’s the stress that he has been under for the last six months. Maybe it’s all the dark thoughts and doubts everyone has from time to time, when they go outside the wire. We are lucky in this area that it is relatively quiet and not very kinetic right now, but you still need to be sharp and always thinking. Maybe he had realised that he only needed to be sharp for one last time. When he walks from the compound to the HLS to catch his Chinook home…that he can start to finally relax…
But I just wish I’d have brought my camera to be able to record that moment…not for me, but for him, because it would have been a great picture for him to keep…
This post is dedicated to all the Officers, SNCO’s and Men of E Coy, III Para. Thank you for all you did, and have a safe trip home.