It’s a Lifesaver…
It’d been a long morning. Up at about 03:00, dressed and a smidge of breakfast, and then leaving the CP at about 04:00. Still dark and quite cool, we moved off.
This was the start of Operation Omid Haft. Our Company was to move north and establish a new check point right up at the top of the Area of Operations bordered by the NEB Canal. The Helmand Green Zone of Afghanistan is essentially bordered by two bodies of water – to the north the NEB, to the south, the River Helmand. To move there, in force, we needed to be out before the enemy were aware that we were coming and catch them unprepared.
So off we went. Moving across the countryside we were heading into unknown but not totally uncharted territory. Our patrols had probed the area in the past and had an idea of where to cross the irrigation ditches and go through the fields.
But progress there was particularly slow. The Quad-bike that was following us was overloaded with kit, spares, ammo, food and water. And the multiple following us was finding it difficult to get across the ditches, even though it had bridging equipment and 16 guys to assist it. This was slowing us down.
Then to slow us down even more we had a casualty to deal with – an partial IED detonation, but still requiring about an hour to sort out, with from blast to moving back off again. Treating the casualty, moving him to a Landing Site, setting up the HLS, putting him on the MERT and then collapsing the HLS and re-organising the multiples back into the right places, with the right people in them all took time.
And then being really careful about IEDs slowed us down even more and we were rightly checking every hedge we were about to go through and every ditch we were about to cross slowed us down even more.
All of a sudden it was about 11am. Out for 7 hours, making slow progress, the heat of the day was rising. We should have been in the village where the check point was to be by 10am, and it was still over a a kilometre away. And then we were hoping to meet the local elders before we started on the check point…it was still going to be a long day…
We found ourselves on the edge of a village. The sun baking. The ground totally open and dry. The poppy and wheat harvest had started and the wheat in the field had been cut down and so there was no cover at all. We moved to a BUND line (Built up Natural Defence – basically a bank built by the locals when they had constructed the irrigation ditches) and sheltered behind it. But this still wasn’t great.
We were facing directly onto the village and this BUND only provided protection from the south, where there was a cemetery. We sat there feeling exposed and nervous. The gentle wind was from the south and so we were getting none of the benefit of the cooling breeze. All that could be heard was the flap of the flags and streamers from the cemetery and the occasional snap of the Multiple commanders radio conversations.
The sun baked. I took slurps from my camelbak – a bladder of about 3l of water inside my day sack with a drinking tube coming from it. I had been expecting it to be a long trip and had filled the bladder AND had brought an extra litre of water in bottles. Thinking wisely (for once) I had used the bottles first, one 500cl bottle in each of my trousers pockets which I drank from as we moved along. Once these were emptied I stuck them in my day sack and started on the bladder. Sucking on the drinking tube as we went along to try and slake my thirst.
The multiple commander really didn’t like where we were.
Slowly the multiple moved through another hedge line and over a ditch into another field. This felt much better. It was sheltered from the sun by trees and once we’d done our checks we could move down into the cover provided by the ditch along the shrub line and relax for a bit whilst the other multiples moved into position.
I slid down into the cover and checked around for any indication of IED components. With nothing seen I relaxed for the first time properly for hours. I shrugged off my day sack and sat chatting to the medic sitting a few feet away from me on my right. I slurped at my drinking tube…and then the worst thing…the slurping sound of a straw at the bottom of a glass. The water came through in fits and starts. Not enough. I opened the sack and looked. Of course, the bladder was empty.
Bugger. ‘You got any spare water, Tommo mate?’ I asked the medic.
‘Nope. I ran out about 20 minutes ago.’
I asked over the multiple radio system – the PRR – and no one had any spare. This was a bad thing. We still had a long way to go until we were certain of getting fresh clean water.
I looked down at the irrigation ditch. It was filled with stinky, filthy, muddy water. NOT a good idea to drink. Then I saw the quad-bike. Spare water.
‘Boss, I am going to get some water off the quad-bike.’ I shouted, and he nodded. I walked over to the bike and asked for a Jerry-can of water for our multiple. The driver shook his head.
‘What? Have you run out too?’ I asked.
‘Nope. The water isn’t drinking water. A lad was tasked with filling the can with water – and of course did. But he used the water from the well and not drinking water from bottles – the dip-shit. I’ve had to empty it out as it’s not drinkable.’
Bloody bloody bloody. Pointless. Hopeless.
I went back to the multiple, my explanation met by groans from the thirsty lads. I sat back down.
‘Here you go Alex. The multiple 2ic (second in command) tossed me a flask-like bottle. Blue with a drinking spout at one end and a screwcap at the other. ‘I’ve got a Lifesaver bottle.’
And it was a lifesaver. This was a special bit of kit that was just coming into wide usage. It was a water filter that allowed you to turn ANY water (or so the Environmental Health guys who had introduced it) into drinking water. They claimed that any muddy puddle could be put through the device and become pure drinking water – with no nasty bugs that would make us ill and send us down with the dreaded D&V.
I undid the screw top and moved down to the muddy water, putting the bottle into the dirty puddle. The flask filled and I returned to my day sack. I followed the instructions and pumped away at the bottle – almost like a plunger in a coffee pot, but pumping over and over and over. This built up pressure in the flask and when it was not possible to pump anymore I opened up my water bladder in the day sack and then opened the other end of the Lifesaver.
Fresh, clean water poured into the reservoir. I repeated the process again and again and again. My reservoir bladder filled with water. I tossed the flask to the next guy who did the same, and eventually the multiple replenished their water supplies. The filthy nature of the ditch was gone and the water in the bladder on my back was now fresh, clean and drinkable, and most miraculous of all, it was relatively cool…
I made a vow there and then – to get hold of a Lifesaver bottle of my own to sit in my own day sack. This would weigh a lot less than carrying spare water and would be invaluable.
Back on the patrol though, we had a job to do. The Mutliple commanders radio snapped into life again, and he gave us the 2 minute warning to move off. We had a Check Point to establish, and a lot of work to do before the helicopter was going to be able to come in with it’s underslung load – with it’s vital supply of clean bottled water.
That Lifesaver bottle was going to be used again I felt…and it really would live up to it’s name. It really would save lives.