I was driving along the back road by the open fields last Saturday, and noticed a single car parked up. Further along, in the middle of the field next to the road a solitary figure was slowly wandering about…with a set of bag-pipes.
I thought this was a bit commical, but it reminded me of a situation about 20 odd years ago when I was living in a coumpound in downtown Dhahran during the First Gulf War. It was literally a civilain compound used by other aircraft types based at Dhahran which had been taken over by ourselves and used by us for the duration. For a bit of security we had a guard on the gate, and this particular day it was my turn to pull the duty. With another lad, we took shifts in standing at the gate of the compound – a simple barrier that had been hastily installed across the driveway into the camp. Along this driveway was a small line of trees and on the other side of the trees, between the road and the main building of the site was a basketball court.
This was frequently used by guys off shift to relax and un-wind and to get a bit of exercise and fresh air, but given that Saddam Hussein had just set fire to the oil wells up in Kuwait and the smoke from those fires was drifting south over us, mixing with the clouds to create a really dull day.
But on this day it was still being used. However, there was no baskets being ‘dunked’. Instead one of the lads from 43 Sqn (based in Scotland at the time) was out there…with his bagpipes.
Even though I was on 29(F)Sqn the deployment out there was a mixed squadron, from the two, and we’d even flown out together, with this guy ‘piping us’ onto the Tristar that took us to Saudi Arabia. (That was a bit of a surreal thing – and a notable forst for me to be honest, walking up the steps at the back of the Tristar in the early hours of the morning to the strains of Holyrood…) But here he was now, taking an hour or two to practise his skills.
The thing was it was causing a real stir in the neighbourhood. It was a sound that was totally foreign to the locals, in everyway. Imagine hearing the skirl of the pipes for the very first time. And then imagine you are in a fairly scruffy back-street of an Arabic country, on a dull day. Surreal doesn’t cut it. To make matters worse for the locals who were gathering at the gate to find out exactly what the noise was, the basketball court was behind a 7 foot high wall, and the trees by the drive were screening the court from view from the open gateway.
People in full Arabic dress stood there with a puzzled look on their face. The local workers (mostly Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Indonisian) came up looking bemused. Eventually I had to bring the fellow out to the open gate so that people could see just what he was doing, and what he was playing. When they saw they stared in awe. A totally surreal moment.
I get those surreal moments again now. For instance I am sitting in a coffee shop as I type this. I sat and turned my MacBook on and stared at an empty desktop screen. It’s a picture of me in a Check Point just about to go out on patrol with a bunch of the lads. And then I looked up. People were going about their normal lives. A woman over in the corner feeding her baby. Two old ladies having a natter. A man reading his newspaper. Me in a coffee-shop. But only a month or so ago I was in Helmand. I was dressed like ‘that’. Thinking about the patrol to come; the heat, the kit, the weight, the mud, the corn.
It’s a million miles away. It’s surreal how reality changes. And how it changes so bloody quickly. Your world is full of one thing and then suddenly it is full of others.
Over there, believe it or not, life is fairly simple. Despite all the things to think about, they are pretty much all in the same vein. It’s all about looking after yourself and the others you are with. The world gets very small. Your cares and cancerns get less and you become focussed on only a few detailed things. Your contact with home can be broken at any time and you just get on with things.
Objects become important. Your rifle, your body armour, your kit. You spend time adjusting your kit and spend even longer discussing it. You talk about what you are carrying, how a bag weighs and feels on your back. It’s madness but you can spend an hour just discussing the design of a rucksack…
And then you come home. Those objects that you touched everyday; that were your life are left. When I returned I left my kit for a week or two, and then decided that it needed to be sorted; which items needed to be kept, what items could be returned to stores.
I ended up tipping a bag of kit about on my bed and then just sitting there for 5 minutes looking at it. Just two weeks before this had been my life. I would have gone mad – literally mad – if my notebook had gone missing out there, but it had just sat in a bag for two weeks. It was essential for me to do my job out there. It had everything, notes, prices for jobs, phone numbers, names, contact details – EVERYTHING. But now, this was an item that now felt different, odd. It’s weight wrong. The material of the cover cold and dead. Out of context. It didn’t fit into my life anymore. Did I need it? Yes. Do I need it anymore? No. It has suddenly become part of my history. It’s value changed and shifted. It’s purpose skewed.
Does this apply to me too? I am certainly different having returned from Afghan. I have learnt a hell of a lot about myself. You tend to do that in stressful situations – the old ‘Comfort-Stretch-Panic’. You learn and grow when you are being stretched. And some of the things I learnt about myself I didn’t like. Some of the things I do. But getting used to that, and accepting it, is hard.
I have found I have lost a bit of patience, patience with people, with my family, with my baby daughter. But when you have concentrated so much on one thing – yourself – for a long time, it takes a while to adjust back. Just getting used to things around home has been hard too. It’s difficult to settle back into a routine. You feel like something is missing. Something is wrong. But you can’t quite put your finger on what it is. Just something… Even doing the little things like taking a shower feel…different. There’s a reason for this.
Everything is different. It’s a different world. It’s 4,000 odd miles away, and in places, a couple of hundred years back in time. Showering and shaving outside, no mod cons, little things like washing your clothes taking twice as long to do.
And that’s ok, as the thing about it is that it’s miles away. But it’s not where I am anymore. I am home. It’s time to put the thoughts and feelings of all of it in a box marked ‘Afghan’ and put it on a shelf somewhere in my mind and leave it there, but able to be brought back out at the times when I need it, and at other times just let it lie.
My patience will come back…patience with Lily – a nearly-3 year-old is never easy to cope with at the best of times, but the person I have to have the most patience with is myself. My girlfriend, despite being quite poorly and in pain, has been fantastic. She’s given me patience and time and made far more allowances for me than I deserve. Truly, she’s been amazing, and now I need to just remember that it was a huge adventure, but now it’s over and I should just accept the changes in me. She already has. And of course because she loves me she’s done it unquestionably. If she can love me, then I can love me too.
I went, I did, I came back. It’s time now to accept the new me, and get busy living my life…as surreal and as complicated as everyone elses is…