Everyone has a Tell.
If you play Poker you need to find out what your ‘Tell’ is.
Your ‘Tell’ is the thing you do…the involuntary body action you make when something happens. When you see you have a good hand – or when you KNOW someone else has a good hand. You might do this elsewhere; not just at the poker table. You might do it when your boyfriend strolls in a little bit drunk after being out with his mates. You might do it when your team scores at the footy. You might do it when you get stressed by something. The thing is it is an thing that you do as a reaction to an important event and people who know you can read you to look for your tell to give them a heads-up that you have had a reaction to something.
My tell is rubbing the back of my neck. Well, the top of my back actually. That bit of the C-Spine, just below the nape of your neck. If you see me rub that…then something is going on in my head. My girlfriend knows it and will straight away ask what is going on…ask me if I am alright.
Tonight I was watching a TV show about medicine and medical treatment of wounded people out in Afghan, and they did a segment talking about OP Minimise.
Op Minimise is the codename for a total shut down of communications from Afghan to the UK. The welfare facilities are brilliant – getting on the phone to call home is fairly easy (if a bit hit and miss with connection if you are using a satphone) and the internet is always there if you are in a location big enough to support a couple of laptops. But these are all shut down if a member of the British Armed Forces is seriously injured or has sadly been killed.
It’s to stop inadvertant release of the name of someone before the family is told. It’s a good thing, because it means that the family of a casualty gets the correct information first hand, delivered from someone who has been properly trained to deliver it. Rather than by reading someone elses Facebook status. The bad thing of course is that until the family has been properly told then you have no contact with home.
And if you are a regular contactor of people at home and you don’t send an email for a day or so (Op Minimise can last for days, and when lifted can be almost immediately reinstated for another event), then people at home get worried. Of course the important thing for the people at home to know, and I made sure that I told all my familiy before I left was this – if you hear about someone being killed on the news…then it’s not going to be me.
The terrible irony is that no contact means that people worry – but the reason for worrying couldn’t be more wrong. If their loved one has been hurt then they will know about it. They are worrying for no reason. Sadly, someone elses son or daughter or father or sister has been killed.
Pretty much as soon as a casualties status is known for certain, Op Minimise is called. It takes a few minutes to get around, but in a small camp like the Patrol Base I was in, within about 3-4 minutes of the call coming through the two laptops plugged into the net were shut down and the two SatPhones disappeared from view.
You might be sleeping and wake up to a minimise and walk into the Welfare tent to find the laptops off. Or you might come in from a patrol with a desire to phone home and find the phones have been locked away. And instantly you feel bad. You feel selfish for wanting to call or email home when you can’t and you know the reason is that someone is being told news that will shatter their lives.
You walk into the Ops Room and ask the fateful question ‘What’s Minimise on for?’ Hoping that the news will be that it’s another AO and it’s not something that has happened in your own Area of Operations; that it’s not someone you know and then…well…due to the nature of the job I was out there to do, I knew people in every AO.
In every Company location there was one of the lads or lasses that I had done my pre-deployment training with. Even if the incident that had hurt someone was far away, there was still a chance – a remote chance – that it could be some one that I knew. So it didn’t really matter. But you’d just want to know whether it’d been a shooting or an IED…or even a vehicle crash incident…
You’d track the events, the techniques, that the enemy were using. Making mental note to watch for one thing or another – amongst the plethora of things you already watch for when out on the ground. On hearing the reason or the injury – if it was an IED – you’d mutter ‘The dirty bastards’ or if it was a shooting ‘The necky bastards’ under your breath and walk back to your tent.
But that wasn’t really the worst part. The very worst part of Op Minimise is when it’s lifted. This is initially a relief. You can phone home. You can jump onto Facebook. You can send an e-bluey. But then you realise that it has been lifted because someone at home has been told their son or daughter has been killed. Or their father has had a double leg amputation and their lives will never be the same again. You realise that your ‘joy’ is someone else’s heartbreak. Guilt. It feels horrible. It feels like the worst thing in the world.
And here’s where my ‘Tell’ comes in. Tonight, during the show they showed a scene where the presenter was talking to camera and they played the tannoy announcement of the Op Minimise enforcment starting at Camp Bastion.
Now I didn’t spend a long time at Bastion. I spent the vast majority of my time in Afghan in a small Patrol Base in the Green Zone, but I passed through Bastion a couple of times, and when I did, sadly Op Minimise was started and, at Bastion, people get to hear about it mainly through the network of huge tannoy speakers that dot the site. Spoken at a speed designed to carry across distances it is a simple and slow message, spoken by a pre-recorded slow and steady, but above all calm and clear female voice: ‘Stand by for broadcast. Op Minimise’…a gap of 3-4 seconds…’Op Minimise’…gap again…’Op Minimise.’ Gap again. ‘Op Minimise is now in force.’ Gap. ‘I say again….’ In the gaps the voice echoes away across the camp, just gone by the time the voise starts up again.
And tonight, when I heard it, I got the shivers. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. And I did my ‘Tell’. I rubbed the back of my neck. For far longer than if I had an itch. My fingers scraping over the skin. Trying to scratch an itch that wasn’t really there. For 8 or 9 seconds I scratched away.
For an instant, despite the wine I was drinking. Despite the comfy sofa I was sitting on. Despite the different surroundings, I was back out there again listening to that broadcast. I felt the same guilty chill. I felt cold. Sadness. Guilt. Some poor sod. Someone’s mum breaking down. Someone is going to have to explain to their child that Daddy isn’t coming home. My skin prickled. A shiver down my spine. The gut-wrenching feeling that someone, somewhere had been lost.
And then a voice. ‘You ok?’ My girlfriend…back to the real world. Back to the hear and now. With a jolt and a gentle sigh of relief I realise where I am, and what is going on. No need for those feelings. I am back home. I am sitting watching the TV on the sofa with my girlfriend. Upstairs my daughter is sleeping. Home. No need for guilt. And then…
Then, sadly, the very next thing that popped up on my laptop screen was an RSS news notification ‘that a soldier from the…serving in the….region of Afghanistan has been killed. The family has been informed.’ This means that yet another Op Minimise has already been and gone. That out there people will have had feelings similar to mine. That despite the distance and the time…the same thing was going on again and again.
And even sadder, it won’t be the last time that it does…I just hope it’s the last time it causes me to do my tell.
PS – After the post went live, I was contacted by a member of the family of someone who had, sadly, been through informing process and the ‘other’ side of Op Minimise – being told that their soldier had been killed in Afghan.
It is interesting, and sad, to note that they themselves felt they should do a similar thing, and not post anything on any social media, notably Facebook, until all the family have been informed.