It’s Not What’s Under The Tree…
‘It’s not whats under the tree than matters, it’s who’s around it…’
I heard that on an advert tonight as I was trying to think of a way of starting this blog. And I realised…
The tag line is right. It doesn’t matter what’s under the tree, what goodies, what loot, what gizzits you get. It’s who is there to share them with you.
I have had a hell of a year. It’s said that age brings the years on faster and they seem to go by at greater speed as you get older. Well, if that is true, I must be a hundred years old. This year has spun past me a a rate that I can hardly handle. It’s spun past ME. For other people in my family it crawled. For my girlfriend it dragged and dragged. For my eldest sister, it consisted of pretty much 6 months of constant and continuous worry and anxiety. And all this was my fault.
I was the one who was out in Afghan, or preparing for Afghan, or travelling to Afghan, to thinking about Afghan. And I was the lucky one who was there to have it first hand – in full glorious technicolour, widescreen…IMAX, with Dolby stereo and digitally enhanced surround sound. With smelly vision. IN 3D.
For me it was a blur. It went past so fast it felt like I was spinning and although I write this on the 17th December, to me, it feels like sometime in, ohhhh, about September – a very cold September I’ll give you, but it just doesn’t feel like the end of the year. It can’t be. The time has just whoosed by me so bloody fast.
One moment I am in a field on Salisbury Plain. The next walking along a dirt track in Afghan. The next I am in a shopping centre in Woking. Bizarre.
March to July to November. The blink of an eye. And it’s odd, because even though it went so fast for me, each event seems seared onto my memory. Of meeting my first Afghan local. A man named Buykhan. He held a bird in his hand – a small Starling sized bird, with it’s wings clipped that he ckept in a cloth cowl over the end of his arm. We chatted through my interpreter and I told him my little daughter would love to see the animal and then every time in the future, up to almost the last day I was there, he kept offering me a bird to bring home.
And then there was a guy named Darro Khan; a quiet reserved elder who I had the greatest respect for. He was a retired Afghan National Police commander, who was now making his living from farming the rich Helmandi soil. He spoke to me about the school we were trying to get built – in the face of what seemed like a roadblock of opposition from the Insurgents (who see schools for what they are – a way of eductaing the people about the world and giving the children options for the future) and from many unscrupulous local contractors (who see it as an opportunity to suck money out of the rich westerners).
Darro stood there and thanked me for what I had tried to do. For continuing the work of my predicessor in keeping th ebuild going, and for passing it onto my replacement who would complete the build. He said that the school was a sign of the fact that Afghan was growing, and was developing and was changing. That people wanted the school and they wanted their children educated. He said that he had grown up in a country at war, and he didn’t want that for the next generation. He wanted peace and the only way to make sure that peace lasted was by building schools and educating the children.
He’s right, and whilst I was disappointed not to have completed the build of the school and not to have seen children being taught in there regularly, it is on it’s way to being complete and one day, you never know, a future President of Afghanistan may be eduacted in there. Or a doctor. Or an engineer. Or a nurse, or even maybe a mid-wife. People who will build and keep Afghanistan growing. That’d be something.
And here I am now at home. Sitting looking at the twinking lights of the Christmas tree. Taking a sip of a beer and listening to a bit of Jonah Lewie on my iPod. I am a lucky lad. Upstairs, my wife to be is putting my daughter to bed. I am so very lucky to have all this. Tomorrow I see my (almost) grown up kids, and the rest of my family. My brother and sisters; my nephews, nieces and my grand-nephews. We gather to fullfil a promise to my mother that we would meet, coming together from all over the country at least once a year. To be thankful that we still do have each other.
And we still do. But in this I am so very lucky. I went out there and I did some stuff with a lot of other people who were better than I, and I came home. I will gather around a tree with my family and thank all that is holy for all the blessings of a family; my worrysome eldest sister, my grumpy brother, my other sister who struggles to make ends meet. I’ll raise a glass to each one of them.
Each year, I have taken to writing a Christmas blog and it being a list of those who have died that year. This year I don’t intend to. This year I will tell you about just two.
One was a Corporal who was the 2ic of a multiple – a patrol of men – who shared a Check Point with me. He loved Spurs. He was one of the most professional soldiers I met out there, but he was also one of the funniest men I have ever met. I would often see him walk past the front of my tent to go and pour a bucket of cooling water from the well over him on the really hot days and I remember sitting next to him on the internet machines as he spent time looking for a new, bigger car for his growing family. He hit an IED, and died, whilst guiding an EOD team in to exploit a cache of weapons found by an earlier team.
The second was a Lance Corporal and was a battlefield replacement, sent out to fill the gaps caused by other injured men sent home. He was one of the Joint Fires Team and was based at a Check Point I had helped establish in May, but one I then very rarely visited. As a mortar controller, it meant he was often on patrol and he was a regular visitor down at the CP where I lived. A livewire and a chatterbox, he spoke enthusiastically to anyone who would listen. I remember chatting to him about him being one of the few who would wear gear strapped to his leg. He was shot, and died, whilst out on patrol in the North of our Area of Responsibility.
I will drink to the memory of these two lads who I had the honour to serve with. And to their families who must miss them each day, but even more at this time of year. These two were better men than I could ever hope to be. Braver, stronger, fitter. They were, as the motto of their regiment, The Rifles, says, Swift and Bold. May they rest in peace and their families gain some peace and solace.
No. It’s not what’s under the tree that matters. It’s who’s around it. And sometimes those who aren’t. Please, enjoy your Christmas with your loved ones. But remember those who have fallen, and those who continue to fight, who aren’t around their trees with their loved ones. And on Christmas Day, raise a glass to them all.