RAFairman's Blog

An RAF Airman's Blog


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.


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23 thoughts on “Tell…

  1. kerry maria lawson on said:

    Thanks. Ops minimise must be the toughest. I need to learn a bit about ‘Tell’ I think it’s from injuries of previous lives. x

  2. I read alot of blogs but this was is really moving. Isn’t funny how cross we can be with our own gut reactions, relief when you could talk to your families for example.
    Your explanation of what I can only imagine are very complicated feelings is really interesting – I admire your honesty.
    Thank you to you and your colleagues for your bravery x

  3. Roly Rowsell on said:

    You boys and girls have the same sort of reaction to the instinct of some bad news. A twitch, a nervous shiver, a cold feeling before you get the message. My experiences was over 40 years ago.
    God bless and look after you all.

  4. Woozlehound on said:

    Thought provoking post & insightful to learn a minuscule detail of what is the daily reality for our forces overseas. That double edged sword of guilt & sadness/joy & relief must indeed be hard to swallow.

  5. An EDL buck on said:

    I have a tell, I become bolt upright and very alert very quickly. Over the years I have managed to tone it down a bit, but loved ones always know.

  6. A really interesting blog which will change the way I see things when my relatives deploy next year. previously I held my breath every time I heard a news bulletin, now I know I don’t need to.

    I also watched the TV programme and was moved by it and will be watching next week and thinking of you and @RAFengineer.

  7. Reading this the next morning, and it has me in tears. Just reading takes you *to a place* where you dread to go, that one day, maybe, it might be my big boy..please God no. Thanks for sharing fella x

  8. Thought provoking, wonderfully written blog – brings tears to my eyes (always happens at work!) but makes me all the more determined to do as much as I can to support all you brave people and those who stay at home waiting for you, even if it is just read your blogs and try to understand what you put yourselves through and realities of coping with life in theatre and afterwards. thank you x

  9. As a wife of a serving member, I too have feelings of sadness when my husband doesn’t ring on the day he says he will or isn’t on chat on the computer, not because I cant talk to him but because I know somewhere there is a family whose life has been forever changed either by a death or life changing injuries, and i know from talking to my husband, it effects you all when you hear those words from the tannoys .
    thank you x

  10. To say I enjoyed this blog wouldn’t really be true.

    I found it insightful to the extent of being rather uncomfortable reading, think this is what makes your blog such an excellent read.

    I know there would have been many others just like you watching last night and feeling exactly the same way, I empathize with all of you and applaud you for your service.

  11. The thing about Op Minimise protocol is that it truly freaks out those left behind.
    Who is going to get “THAT” knock on their door?
    It doesn’t help when the press announce that an incident has occurred, but the name is not released.

    I understand the need for the protocol. I just wish I had known about it before I set off in a tirade of panic Tweets.

  12. Another sharp reminder of the things most of us never know or wonder about, the bits that we don’t think about when we’re smugly debating the rights and wrongs of poppy wearing.
    As aways, eloquently put.

  13. sheila robinson on said:

    brilliant blog – also a very informative media on bbc 2 last night

  14. Wigs Catto on said:

    A great piece, I feel sick reading probably because I’ve had life changing news before, it’s that feeling that life will never be the same again! I have two Tells as well either my foot waggles unconsciously or I bite my nails.
    It would be nice to think it wouldn’t happen again, sadly it will and does!!!

  15. shelley on said:

    My husband is currently out there an your blog really brought a tear to my eyes no phone call in days… Surely not…. 😥

  16. Charlotte Hartland on said:

    My partner is currently out on ops and I was suggested to read this on a support page of the Regiment he is deployed with. My partner Gwilym has mentioned op minamise quite a few times in his blueys and I finally have an insight into how he must begin to feel sending that bluey to me knowing the only reason he can is when that life changing news has been told! Definately makes you think!
    Thankyou for giving me the opportunity to have a better understanding and also have more patience with the lack of comms that can occur from our loved ones when they’re deployed.

  17. due to personnal circumstances, i will probably never get to afghan. but i have friends out there. just reading the “stand by for broadcast” gave me shivers. you always think about the people you are trying to contact, even though there are 1,000s of of our boys and girls out there. as i have been in fairly regular contact, it was a shock to not hear for a couple of weeks. thanks for the heads up on the reason why.

  18. The other chilling aspect of Op Minimise is the sudden anger you can feel when you here someone moan about it when it happens and you hear said in such a matter of fact tone like ‘Oh bloody hell not again, I wanted to phone me girlfriend up for some gossip’. There were a few times I remonstrated with a few young soldiers who would never deploy outside of Bastion. Never heard them moan again after I finished with them.

  19. These are thoughts and emotions you will all carry for the rest of your lives, it will never leave you. You can be, as you were, sitting at home watching television when suddenly a trigger (so to speak) will take you right back to that time and place, and for a moment you will re-live it all over again.The important this is not to linger in that moment for too long, and focus on the bonding times and friendships you forged during those times. Some people have had more severe experiences which is why a nationwide awareness is crucial and the support of you guys is readily available. And until next time, cherish every moment at home, there are some who never will again, and we acknowledge them and respect you all for your commitment and sacrifices.

  20. KatieAirCadetAdshead on said:

    I have the same ‘tell’ , n i was watching the programe aswell- Frontline medicine! And when op minimise was called i actually cried ,paused the tv and did a minuites silence, god bless ya 🙂 xxxx

  21. As a mother who had the police standing on my front porch, giving me the worst news of my life, I realize I have the “Tell.” It’s how my husband knows to touch me… whenever something reminds me of the worst. My son will never walk through the front door again. Thanks for the insight to how he knows. I’ll watch so I can figure out his “Tell.” Love and Light.

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