To The Moon And Back…
‘Grrrrrrr…Damn these phones.’
Nothing was more frustrating than struggling with the phones out in Afghan. Dealing with the Afghan people and their attitude to timings? Easy. Coping with the way that sweat ran down your back and you couldn’t get to it to wipe it away because of your body-armour? A doodle. Trying to use the Sat-phones to call home? A mission that not even special forces would, at times take on.
It’s not the fault of the kit. Or the people who supply it. It was just, well, pretty poor. The problem was, I believe the position of the satellites over the earth and the size of the check point and the height of the Hesco walls. Eventually the best way to get a phone signal was to sit on top of one of the Huskey vehicles – right high up. But frequently not even this helped.
At busy periods of calling home – i.e., when people at home were actually awake, then the sheer weight of calls through the system would make it struggle and creak. Occasionally it would fall over. And it would fall over in such a way that you wouldn’t get a tone to say that you were cut off. The line would just go dead and you’d be talking away for ages and realise that the person at home you were talking to had gone 3-4 minutes ago.
And you’d have to go through the rigmarole of dialling up home again. Phone the Paradigm access number. Put in your ID number. Then your password. Then the phone number of the person at home. And of course it being a Sat-phone if the connection drops for a second then when you are dialling the home number then it will miss a digit and, around you go again…start over.
But when you do get through…oh the joy. Just hearing someone from home talking to you. The lift that speaking to someone from the real world is unbelievable. Not that you can say a lot about what you are doing. ‘Yes, I’m alright. No, I’m not doing anything dangerous. No, I can’t say when I am coming home. Yes, this phone line is being monitored to make sure we don’t speak about things that we shouldn’t be.’
I never really had a lot to say. The line wasn’t secure and could be tapped into by anyone with the appropriate technology – and that tech isn’t difficult to get – or expensive. This means that you simply can’t talk about what you’ve been doing in detail. You can’t say what you are going to be doing. But eventually we developed a code.
‘Taking a stroll’ means patrolling. ‘A camping trip’ means going away to a different Check Point for a few days. ‘Off these means’ means not going to be able to call for a while. ‘Going for a coffee’ means a trip to Bastion or HQ. ‘A school trip’ meant a visit to see locals – probably in the local school. It’s a way of sort of saying what you are doing – or have been doing. But it’s not the same as saying exactly what’s been going on. And talking in code becomes difficult and frustrating.
But the worst thing, and the thing that often broke me the most was speaking home and then being put on to talk to my baby daughter. Just 2 and bit years old. The connection was difficult and it meant that people at home had to speak slowly – which is difficult to explain to a toddler – and the usual toddler babble becomes even more difficult to understand, but it was one time when I had a really good connection that springs to mind, and that when Lily, God bless her, was talking to me.
‘I want you to come home now, Daddy.’
‘I can’t sweetie, but it won’t be long.
‘When. I want you to come home Daddy. Please come home…’
‘Soon baby. It won’t be long. A few more sleeps yet. But I’m going to come home and give you a big cuddle. Put Mummy back on. Love you, sweetie.’
‘Love you Daddy. Love you to the moon and back…’