Ice Cream? No Thanks…
I rested my rifle on the wall of the Hesco. ‘What time are they due in again?’ I shouted over my shoulder.
‘9:30. About 10 minutes’ came the reply from the young lad who’d been talking to Heli-Ops on the radio – he was literally young enough to be my son; at 19 only a few months older.
I scanned the horizon through my rifle sight. On the ridge on the far horizon – at the most 3km away I would see the sands of the desert ridge, and on that ridge I would make out 3 squat black shapes. Vehicles. By their shape they looked like Jackals. Fast and manoeuvrable over the open ground, and capable of carrying some heavy fire-power to support the rest of the infantry Company that had been dropped into a complex of compounds just behind the ridge earlier that morning in an Operation to search a site that suspected of being an Insurgent half-way house and supply stores.
That operation had finished and it was time to extract the lads back to our base. Again, I was part of the Helicopter Landing Site security team, providing cover to protect the helicopters when they returned to land and drop off their cargo of troops. I looked around again and my attention was drawn over to the right of my ‘arc’. Three choppers. Two Chinooks and a Merlin flew in to view at low level.
Next I saw orange smoke rise from behind the ridge and the helos dropped and landed, fanning out slightly as they did so. As they touched down I could just see the tops of the rotors over the top of the horizon ridge. Quickly the helos rose again, one after the other, the two Chinooks turning away into the desert, and the Merlin swinging round and heading low in a sweep over towards us.
”Merlin inbound’ I shouted, and the young lad behind me near to the center of the HLS threw his own smoke grenade. After the pop and crack of the grenade firing, green smoke poured forth to mark our own spot and the chopper flew in low and fast, swinging round to the right of my position. It approached over the village, and near to the partly built school, it’s nose flared up and it braked, slowly coming into a hover over the markers in the middle of the gravel site. It rotated gracefully round and dropped gently, landing and lowering it’s loading ramp as it did so.
The first wave of troops ran off and went to stand in a line by the side of the Hesco wall. Then, more power and noise and the Merlin lifted off again, heading off to the north. I scanned the horizon again. The Chinooks were nowhere in sight. The lads deposited by the first chopper trooped back to the Check Point, and as I faced outwards again a child, about 9-10, stood in front of me, his thumb in the air, smiling.
‘Helicopter good.’ he said. I copied his gesture and smiled back. He turned to his left and pointed ‘Ahhhhh’ he shouted. He’d seen the first Chinook swing in over the horizon and it was heading towards us.
‘Tubbs, first Chinook about a minute out. Smoke!’ Another pop and crack and more smoke filled the site, orange this time. The Chinook came round over the village, it’s downwash throwing up litter and dust as it did. The child smiled. In a field to the west a horse bolted as the massive machine flew over it at just above treetop height. Like the Merlin it flared up, directing the down wash of air from it’s rotors forwards to slow it down. This big wind battered me and despite my goggles I closed my eyes instinctively. The huge beast of noise and power landed and calmed to an idle.
More troops ran out and once the last one was safely away from the ramp, the noise and power returned and taking into the sky again. The troops began to gather together, but the young lad with the smoke – remember, just 19 and yet in charge of the operation of bringing these soldiers back in – shouted to them to clear the area. The final chopper was coming.
‘Where is it Alex?’ he shouted across to me. I’d already spotted it through my rifle sight.
‘Two minutes. Ready on the smoke.’
‘Eh?’ he asked, not quite hearing me.
‘Two…no… one minute. Smoke ready! Pop it!’ This time a deep blue smoke came out of the grenade. A deep, rich Oxford blue. The helo was closer and came straight in, the downwash of the rotor blades this time swirling up the smoke and sending it in wild circles around the HLS.
Again I closed my eyes and was buffeted by the blast of hot air. This time mixed with the exhaust of the engines was the remains of the smoke, an acrid peppery taste. Running out of the helicopter this time were Afghan National Army warriors. Partner troops for the Op, with their Operational Mentoring Liaison Team (called an Omelette after it’s abbreviation, OMLT). The Afghans turned and immediately their mobile phones and cameras were out photographing the scene. Their commander barked at them and they ran to the wall.
Again the heli powered away. Back to Bastion.
Walking in with the OMLT I chatted to them. They’d been lucky enough to have spent the night before the Operation in Bastion too.
‘Yeah,’ said one. ‘I had Ice cream. And profiteroles. AND chocolate sauce. And last night the boss took us for a coffee.’
‘A real coffee?’ I asked. ‘I bet you had a cappuccino.’
‘No. Actually I had a latte. But last night, I don’t know what was better. The coffee or the real shower I had…’
I shook my head. ‘You bastard. You lucky bastard. Sod off with your Bastion stories…’
In my previous deployments I’d been fortunate to be back in the relative safety of places like Bastion, with all their ‘mod cons’. But then, that’s kind of not fair; me being jealous of them for what to me are luxuries, but to them is the normal daily grind. It’s not their fault that they are at Bastion, most, if not all would probably jump at the chance to get out of Bastion and see life out of the wire. And anyway, everyone out here is here to do a job – whether in Bastions wire or outside – and everyone faces danger of some sort. And, of course, without those at Bastion providing us with the back up and stores we need, we out here wouldn’t be able to do our job. Everyone is part of the team that fights the war.
…But look at me now and how time has changed me. Here I am standing on a road in 40 degree heat, outside the Check Point, with body armour and helmet. Rifle loaded, hanging from a clip on my body armour. My mouth salivating at the thought of some ice cream or a cappuccino. How had I gotten myself into this situation? Oh yeah. I’d volunteered. But if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have just witnessed the display of power and skill that I had just seen.
I wouldn’t be having these experiences, and I wouldn’t be having the time of my life that I am. It’s hard work. Sometimes it’s a bit dull. Sometimes it can be downright boring. Other times it is really rewarding. But it’s always amazing to be a (tiny) part of something this…this big. And I think that everyone, where-ever they are based out here feels that too.
But then, for all the ice cream and the showers and coffee in the world, out here is still an amazing place to be, and I am glad to be out here and to be able to experience all of it.