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Talking to the enemy doesn’t betray the dead. It honours them….

On the day that the Afghan government said it had taken over responsibility for combat operations across the whole of the country and after 12 years of invasion, war, occupation and counter-insurgency the Americans announced that they are to start diplomatic talks with the Taliban.  

This is good news.  Soldiers may fight wars, but it is politicians who not only start them, the politicians getting around a table and talking also finish them.  In a dirty and nasty war which has cost over 35,000 people’s lives, the only real way to come out with a solution to the annual cycle of fighting is to discuss it.  Talk about it.  Consider the other side and compromise.

This is not a sign of weakness.  It is a sign of strength.  It is only through talking that the problems that run so deep in that country can be solved.  It is a sign that it is time to move on from drastic and inflammatory rhetoric where you are either ‘for us or against us’.  It’s time to move away from ‘victory’.  It’s time to start the process of dialogue and conversation – which will ultimately lead to that compromise that will bring  peace.

A quick look around the internet, across social media and in the worst place of all – the comments sections of news articles on this subject show that there is a lot of opposition to the talks.  Some talk about betrayal. About  wasted time, wasted lives.  That by entering into talks with the Taliban we are turning our backs on those that have given their lives in this war.

So far, 444 British Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines have been killed in the Afghanistan War.  On basic estimates at least 6,500 western soldiers have been injured there.  Some 2,220 Americans have been killed, with another 600 other nations troops dead, bringing it to a total of some 3200 NATO and Coalition troops.  The Afghan security forces have lost over 14,500 with at least 19,000 Afghan civilians killed.  A terrible, terrible loss of life.  On all sides. 

But by talking it does not betray any one of them.  Talking  and compromise to bring about peace does quite the opposite.  We are not turning out backs on the 444 – they did not die for nothing – they died for two things.

Firstly, without their sacrifice, we would not be in the place we are now.  The fact that the Taliban are willing to talk shows that they have fought bravely and showed the enemy that they fought for a reason and that reason is the second thing that they dies for.

They fought and died because they were doing something that they loved.  Most of them didn’t think  they were bringing peace and security to a far off land.  They didn’t consider what they were doing out there as defending Britain from terrorists or making this country safer.  

They did it because they were doing a job that almost pretty much to a man (and woman) they loved.  They were doing it because they were part of the Army, the Navy, the RAF or the Marines and they were there because they enjoyed being part of that wider service family.  They were there for their mates, for adventure, for a multitude of reasons – but they gave their lives doing something that they wanted to do and that they enjoyed doing.

It was fun.  I enjoyed being in Afghanistan.  Yes, like many, I griped about the conditions, the food, the heat, the patrolling, the filth, the people, the organisation, the lack of mail, the lack of communication, missing my family – just about anything it is possible to gripe about, but when I look back on my time out there I am glad I went  and I miss it.

I miss the camaraderie.  I miss the gripes.  I miss the people going through the same things as me.  I miss the jokes, the laughs, the evening chats outside the tent.  I miss the excitement of going out on a patrol.  I miss the possibility of getting into a ‘scrap’, the adventure, of putting my self and my training to the test.

And I know that the only reason that people have gone back there again and again is that they like that stuff too.  Living out there was simpler, easier.  And although the possibility of being  injured or dying did scare me (and others), you just accepted it.  It was part of the job.  It came with the territory of what you had signed up to do.  And it was a risk that you weigh up against all the benefits that the military life has.

I have left the military now; been a civilian since December.  And whilst I miss a lot about the life I left behind, the thing I miss the most is the people.  You join up to be with like-minded people.  To have experiences with people who think the same way as you, who want to do similar things as you, who want to test themselves as you do.  I found that there were a lot of bloody good soldiers in the British Army.  There were people who did brave and heroic things, and the reason that they did them wasn’t because of Queen and Country. 

They didn’t put themselves in harms way for the Queen or those those back home.  They did it for each other.  And they will keep on  doing it for each other.  For as long as there are wars and conflicts and reasons to have a military, there will be young men and women who are happy to take part in those wars – not for lofty aims and ambitions.  Not for freedom.  Not to protect the country, but for other people.  For the people they are fighting alongside.  And in Afghanistan, they did the same.  They fought and are still fighting for their mates and mukkas.  Often, sadly, they pay the ultimate price and die for them too.  

The by-product of their death, though, is bringing  the politicians to the table to talk.  Soldiers may fight wars, but politicians talking end them.  The greatest memorial to those who have died in that country, 5000 odd miles away from their homes and families, isn’t more fighting – it’s talking.  

If the enemy wants to talk to us, and in this case they do, we don’t betray the dead by talking, we honour them.

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Tiredness…

Knackered. Shagged. Ball-bagged. Chin-strapped. Hanging. Fucked. They all mean the same thing…tired.

There have been many times I’ve been all those things. The first 24 hour guard shift I did. The time in Saudi I worked the night shift starting the First Gulf War. The day in Afghan Op Omid Haft kicked off, patrolling for 9 hours and then sandbagging for another 7 hours to prepare the defences of our new Check Point.

But these service and work reasons for being so tired have nothing on how deep down shagged-out, chin-strap, hanging out tired I am. A soul-deep fatigue where the very mention of the word ‘Daddy’ makes my shoulders drop. A sort of tired that has been off to University, worked at its tiredness and come back home full of the knowledge that it has a First in Tiredness and it knows just how to put all that theoretical knowledge into practise.

Tired.

Dog tired.

A sort of tired where not even sleep will replenish the system and recharge the batteries. The sort of tiredness that hasn’t just drained you, but drained the whole grid and Powergen are now phoning up the French to see if we can have some of their lecky.

But why? Why so tired?

Everything. Leaving the RAF, redundancy, moving house, looking for work, unpacking boxes, being Daddy-day-care, shopping, running the house, painting, failing to complete paperwork for jobs, stressing about money and mortgages, father-in-law dying, wife being very sick in hospital, more daddy day care, not being at home, walking into the glass door of a chemist (because of being so tired and thinking it was an automatic door) and cutting my nose open…and the bloody dog…

Everything. Life.

And yes I know that it’s just what everyone else has to cope with, that others have it equally bad and that there is always someone who is worse off than you and who has to contain with and put up with just as much…but it is seriously getting too much for me.

A break. That’s be nice. But I don’t really want one. I just want us all to be home. In one house, under one roof. In our place doing normal things, whatever normal is anyway.

But why can’t I cope? Why am I finding this all so tiring. Why am I so ball-bagged and why can’t I just chin it all off.

And here’s why. My support network is gone. Along with moving house and leaving my old job behind…I’ve left my old life behind. I’m tired because the support network of the banter with the chaps in the office isn’t there. The laughs with the guys in the mess have gone. The instant common ground that you had with people around you has disappeared and you are alone.

And despite having family around (thanks all!), despite offers from people over on Twitter to ‘talk if you want’ (thank you, very kind but, no), despite being around people, it’s not the same.

I don’t miss the RAF. I felt nothing handing my kit back and a similar feeling of ‘meh-ness’ handing my ID card over. The job I could take or leave. But just the people. People who share an outlook like you. Who share a way of thinking, and who share the same strange, stupid, macabre, self-depreciating, downright sick sense of humour as you do. People who don’t get offended when you are sarcastic towards them, and who give back the same amount of abuse as you are giving.

I miss that. I miss the ability that they have to recharge those batteries – faster than a French Nuke power station flicking a switch to double charge ‘Le rost-biefs’ for the electricity to boil a kettle for a ‘cupper teia’. (Yeah, I think that metaphor has run it’s course now.)

I miss the fact that just half an hours banter is better at powering you through life than a set of dilithium crystals.

I don’t miss the life, I love my life, well I will once it properly kicks in and I have a job and a home and my family around me, but I miss the people. I miss the sense of humour. I knew I would, everyone leaving the service before me said they did the same and that I would too. They were right. I don’t miss the bullshit, the Squadron Leaders, the crap postings, the deployments away for months at a time to god knows where, the lack of control or anything else…I don’t even miss the free healthcare, cheap accommodation, safety of living behind the wire, the variety of the work or the places I have been and things I have done.

I don’t miss any of that. I just miss the laughs and the people who made the laughs happen.

Lost…

Lily, my daughter has Scruffy.  He’s a battered, smelly, balding, bare…scruffy…bear.  He’s been with her every day, every night since she was born.  He’s been everywhere with her.  Shared her triumphs – first teeth, first steps, first day at Nursery School…and shared her pains and troubles – the time she was severely dehydrated and in hospital after catching a Noro-virus type bug… but he has always been there, with his very soft tail that Lily strokes and trails between her fingers when she is really tired and is drifting off to sleep.

But not tonight.

Tonight whilst Lily tries to drop off to sleep upstairs, Scruffy is in Liverpool with Lily’s mum. By accident, Scruffy was in Mum’s handbag when we dropped her off there this evening.  I realised that Scruffy was not in the car just after we’d been driving for an hour and were nearly home. It was too far and too late to turn round and fetch him…we would just have to wait a day or so until Scruffy came home with Lily’s mum.

So what? you say. What is your point? It’s sad, but she has to get used to the idea of loss. Of losing things.  Of coming to terms with loss.

But loss of the most simplest things, the smallest things can mean the very most to us.  Right now, the media is bringing our attention to the loss of innocence of many children due to assault by a certain celebrity.  Lily’s mum is coming to term with the loss of her father, who died on Sunday.  These aren’t easy things to come to terms with. At the other end of the spectrum is the fact that we all get stressed and grumpy at losing the remote for the Sky box or our car keys…

How we deal with the loss of whatever it is we have lost is down to one simple thing. How important the thing that is lost is to us.  How much value we attribute to our possession.  It depends where it comes from, who provided it to us, how much they meant to us.  And Scruffy is pretty important to Lily.  And she is rightly pretty cut-up about him not being in bed with her tonight.

And I can sympathise with her. I know how she’s feeling.  I have got lots of experience of loss; both my parents are dead now, and have been for many years…and I am always losing my bloody keys.  But the one thing I have lost that really hurt me was out in Afghan.

Before I was deployed my wife, Lily’s mum, had a ‘dog tag’ made for me.  Made of silver, it was an impression of Lily’s finger print, which hung around my neck, along with my proper military issue dog-tags.  It hung on an extra bit of chain below the two steel tags with my name and rank and so on… On one side of it was Lily’s fingerprint, on the other were the words…’Love you to the moon and back’.  It was with me every time I went out on patrol. It had been with me a few days before when our multiple had turned left and avoided the IED that the shadowing multiple had hit by turning right.  It had been my totem, my lucky piece. It was my link with home…despite being 5000 miles away, here was something from home, something from my family, something touching my skin. A direct link with home.

We’d moved into an Afghan compound and were setting it up as a new Check Point.  It was a standard Afghan compound. Fairly basic mud constructed buildings with a large brick and mud wall around it, and a large area for the animals in the middle.  Rather annoyingly right by the main door to the compound there was a big ridge of hard, compacted earth.  We couldn’t figure out what it was for, but it was something that every time we went in or out of the compound to go on patrol in our full kit, we would trip over.  It got frustrating.

And so, one afternoon, whilst the lads were out on a patrol and I was staying behind I decided to take a pick-axe and shovel to the ridge of earth and use it to fill a few more sandbags (and don’t get me started on filling sand-bags in that bloody CP).

The weather was of course bloody hot. Absolutely baking, but the job needed to be done and I stripped to my shorts, in the safety of the compound and set about the ridge with the pick.  Hard, heavy work, swing, pull, rip, swing, pull, rip…repeat and repeat, then dig, dig, dig, fill a sand-bag, drink a bottle of water…and then start again.  50 minutes later with 6 sandbags full the ridge was gone. Nice and flat and nothing for the guys to stumble over when they got back from another tough patrol in full body armour, helmets, kit, weapons and ammo, desperate to get the kit off and get a drink and some food.

I went into the HQ room to have a seat.  I was still bare-chested and reached for my tee-shirt to put it on. I looked down and noticed…nothing. It wasn’t there.  My dog-tags still hung there, but the extra bit of chain that held the silver tag with Lily’s finger-print was not there.

A moment of abject, mind-numbing, utter panic.  Fear and desperation.  I searched everywhere in the HQ room. Turning chairs upside-down, rifling tables, sweeping the floor, tearing the place apart…and then the deeper fear hit me. I was wearing it when I went out with the pick and shovel.

SHIT. I rushed over to the area I’d been digging.  I scoured the area. I dug, and dug. Turning over soil.  One of the Rifles lads came over and asked what I was doing. I told him.  He nodded and turned and walked to the HQ room.  He returned with a Vallon metal detector.  And we spent another hour scanning the area with the detector.  We even ended up scanning over the filled sand-bags.  We found…nothing.  We emptied the bags out and got down on our hands and knees and sieved through the right Afghan soil with our fingers.

And…

We found nothing. It was gone. Lost. We looked over the compound, but it was nowhere to be seen. It could have been anywhere. It was simply lost.

And I felt the biggest hole in my life.  Utter, absolute despair. I felt every one of those miles away from home.  Desolate.  And I felt empty…and an absolute sense of feeling that I had let both my wife and my daughter down.  I’d lost this thing that was so valuable. More valuable than simply pound notes. It was what was behind it.  What it meant.  The thought behind them giving it to me.  And I’d let them down by losing the bloody thing.

And I went to the empty field that served as our Helicopter Landing Site, around the back of the buildings. I sat there and wept. I wept for home and for my daughter and my other kids and my wife.  I wept what felt like a tear for each of the miles between us. I wanted to be back home right then, I wanted to be away from Afghanistan, out of that god-forsaken crap country, with their problems that were so complex and deep that would take so much to solve.  What could I do to help these people? How could my presence there do anything to improve things. Things that had taken so much, that still take so much, to solve.

But I couldn’t. I had to stay there. I had to carry on.  You can’t run away from your loss. You can’t hide from it. It was getting late and time for the evening Company Conference Call over the radio net.  I did my piece on the net, and listened to the usual evening chat about the days events and what the priorities for the next day would be.  Well, I half listened. It was getting dark and I continued to shine my head-torch around the room trying to see if there was a silvery chink of light. Of course there wasn’t.  The tag was lost. Gone forever.

I went to bed, crawling into my sleeping bag outside, under the Afghan sky.  Through my mossie net, I looked up at the stars and the moon.  To the moon and back…that’s what the tag had said.  And my spirit changed.  Each night I would get a reminder of home.  It wouldn’t be round my neck, instead it’d be in the sky.  To the moon and back…but it’d never be the same as that small bit of silver.

And now, I am going to go and check on my little girl Lily in her bed. To try to make up for the lack of Scruffy the teddy bear, Lily has every teddy she owns in her bed tonight. All round her.  But they won’t be the same as Scruffy.

Moving, for the last time…

I sat in the car today and worked it out.  Eight times in six years.  I have moved Block, room, Mess and house eight times in the last six years.  At one stage I had three different ‘homes’ – a shared house in Abingdon, my wife’s house in Pirbright and a room in the block at Ludgershall. I had stuff everywhere.  Kit, phone chargers, stereos, clothes, trainers, shoes all over the shop…all over the bloody south of England few Chrissakes!

And now here I am. Almost a civilian, with exactly two months until I am out of the RAF an defending for myself in the real world.  But finally I am in the bedroom of my last house. We ain’t bloody moving again! Here in the wilds of darkest Shropshire we are making in our home.  The place where we intend to stay forever. A small village, just to the west of Shrewsbury with a fairly decent sized semi detached Edwardian house overlooking the local Churchyard.  The bell tower chimes the quarter hours.  It’s lovely.  It’s quiet, it’s calm, it where we will make our home.

Home.

There’s a funny word.  It was once wherever I laid my hat.  But I grew tired of that. Yes this place is 5 times as expensive as living in a married quarter.  But it’s more than five times better.  The kitchen needs gutting.  The two spare bedrooms need about 15 coats of paint to get rid of the old colours in them.  The carpets need ripping out (and the floorboards underneath need sanding back).

But I don’t care.  It doesn’t matter, because we have the rest of our lives to get this right.  We spent an hour this afternoon moving a sofa from one side of the room to another and back again ‘discussing’ where it would be better going, and then I realised that it didn’t matter, because we are going to gut that room eventually and in doing so will gain more space and anyway, we won’t be keeping that sofa forever!  Unlike everywhere that we have lived in the military, now that I am almost a civilian we won’t be constantly moving. We will be staying put.  We will build a house…a home around us and change the bloody furniture to fit the house.

One of the things of a military life is the constant moving and the constant ‘making do’ of furniture into locations where it doesn’t really fit. What you buy for one house doesn’t fit the next and certainly won’t fit the third!  But now…we are settled.  Or at least will be.

I spent this afternoon down at the play-park with my daughter. We walked through the churchyard to get there, down the hill and then after the park, over the bridge and through the wood.  We were then in the real countryside.  Through fields with sheep, cows and a horse. I Lily ran ahead.  My dog ran about the field in mad abandon.  The sun gave a us enough warmth to get us to take our coats off.  And I felt relaxed.  Not just relaxed…really relaxed. I felt the cares of the world around me fall away.  I felt stress and stains of service life drip away.

I am sure it’s not going to be a perfect idyl.  I am sure we are going to face trials and tribulations along the way.  I am certain that life, events and general STUFF will throw a lot at us now we are civilians, (or soon will be).  Yeah, there are going to be worries; there already are…money, work (or lack of it), setting myself up in business, doubts about the future, everything that life can throw the way of anyone…but what the hey! We have a house to live in.  It might be box hell right now, with not enough wardrobes and stacks of brown cardboard in every room, but bugger it.  They are OUR rooms.  The stuff won’t be out of place for long and it’ll be fun finding a place for it.

We’ve…I’ve lived in many places, but not many of them have felt like homes.  This one does.

Moving on…

It’s been two weeks since I was last in work. Normally after about two weeks on leave I would be building myself up to going back into work on Monday, thinking of where my work shoes are? Have I washed and ironed my trousers? Where is my beret?

But not this time. I am on leave until I leave the RAF now. No more work, no more office, no more RAF. In one week I move out of this service house and into my own place far, far away from the RAF. I don’t have any work shoes. My trousers have all been handed back in, and my beret is hanging forlornly on a hook in the hall as a keep-sake of a job, of a career, of a life that is over and slinking away.

But here’s the rub. I don’t actually miss going back into work. I actually thought that with still living on base, and having my daughter in the nursery school just over the road from my office that I would be in there a lot. Popping up for a chat and a cup of tea. But no. In the time I’ve been off so far, I’ve been into work three times. And one of those times was to pick up some of the stuff I had under my desk as a result of clearing my locker and drawers out. I have been back to check my JPA (the admin computer system from hell) and put in assorted claims to do with my resettlement and relocation.

But I haven’t missed work.

I thought it would be a massive wrench. I thought that finishing would rip a part of me out. But no. And the fact that it hasn’t has proved to me that I think that applying for, and being selected for, redundancy was the right move. It’s been a stressful time, this last 4 months, but the fact that I don’t actually miss work has been a revelation to me.

I miss the conversation and the craic already. Just the chatting to other people with the same outlook as you and having the same sense of humour as you is the one thing that I will miss. The perks, the life…yes…but the work? No. I don’t and I won’t.

It is quite simply time to move on. I have settled on an idea of what I want to do next, and I am slowly getting my head around how to go about it, and of course it has NOTHING to do with the resettlement courses I have done, but hey ho. The resettlement courses are all about my fall back plan anyway. If I can’t make it doing what I want to do (basically, THIS, as a freelance/ghost blog and web copywriter) then I have the fall back of doing a real job that I am, I have to say, quite decent at…It’s sort of like your dad saying, “ok, you can give it a go as a professional footballer, but make sure you have a trade in case it doesn’t work out.” It’s me being wise.

But the thing is I don’t really want to work full-time. I am completely drained from 25 years in the RAF. And I feel like a weight is being lifted from me. I have enjoyed every day of the life…but I just couldn’t do it anymore. I have spoken about it in the past – the cost-benefit analysis of it all means I do not get out of the life enough to allow me to put up with the job. The job isn’t bad. It’s just different, and it was just hard for me to go on with it all. So it was time to move on. And as I have done my 22 years, I am entitled to a full service pension, which whilst not huge, is (along with my wife’s full service pension) enough to mean that we won’t starve. We will get by out there, and jobs that we do will be for us, and to top our pensions up. I am not a greedy man, and I want to enjoy my life post-RAF. I don’t want to keep working at the same pace. I don’t need to. I don’t have to. I’m not going to.

And anyway this moving on is not just the mental moving on to do with leaving the job. It’s the physical one of moving house. Of leaving this house and moving north to set up a home. It’s odd ‘cos of all the many. many places I have lived in (certainly over the past 5 years since my divorce) none of them have really been a home. They’ve been houses. They’ve been places to stay and live with in, either on my own, or with my family, but they’ve not felt like homes.

But the next one will be. We are renting a place that was also for sale. And we want to buy the place after we have had a chance to settle. We have decided to make sure that we are happy with the area we have chosen to live in and the house we are moving to before we put down a massive amount of money and actually buy it. I think we are 75% there already, it just seems so bloody, idyllic… but we need to make sure before we take the massive plunge into the house with our cash, gratuities and savings.

But the move to that house starts next week. Exactly a week today we will be out of this house. As I type now, at 11:09 pm, a week today we will be in my brother’s house just a few miles from our new place, awaiting the arrival of the removal van the next day. We will literally be moving on.

And I can’t wait for it. I will miss the life. I will miss being here, being on base, in the warm little womb of the military. But it’s a real fact that everyone has to leave the Armed Forces at some stage. And I am happy that I have chosen when I am going to do it and that I have had some control over it. And I can’t wait for the next stage of my life to start next Friday morning when we move into our new house.

Moving on? Bring it on…

Difficult…

It is a truism that military life is a cosseted environment. If you want it to be your whole life can be supplied by the military.

You can, in fact, spend the whole of your life on base. Your house. The base shop. The school on base. The messes. The education centre, the dental centre, the doctors. The gym. Everything you could possibly ever need is inside the fence. On tap. For free (or at least at a very much reduced cost).

Unless you want to, your whole life can be spent behind the wire. Leaving you in a nice safe, warm, fuzzy environment with like-minded people who share a job, an employer, a lifestyle similar to yours.

But one day that has to end. Like death and taxes, it’s a certainty that one day you will cease to be in the military and you will have to leave that environment. And when you leave it, you literally leave it behind. You have to leave the safety of the wire and head out into the real world…on your own.

You have to find your own house, a job, a doctor…everything at ‘normal people’ have to do, but you have to do it all at the same time and all involve each other. For a group of people who have had their whole life easily mapped and provided for them, this is a really difficult thing to do.

Take, for instance, getting a house. We have a small deposit that would just about make 10% of the purchase price of a house where we want to live. But because we are both leaving the forces, we will have a much much larger amount of cash available in the future. But these funds don’t come through until about a month after you have left the military, so it means that the full amount available to us won’t be ready until the middle of January at least. Meaning that it makes sense NOT to try and fight for a mortgage (that a lender probably wouldn’t give to us based on our initially meagre (but survivable on) pensions from the service that similarly start a month after our discharge), but instead to wait until we have a huge deposit and then apply for a smaller mortgage.

But this leaves the problem of where to live. Our entitlement to a house runs out three months after our discharge…meaning that yeah, we could wait in the married quarter for the cash, but then be really up against it to find a house and have the purchase go through in time before we are quite literally made homeless.

So we have made up our minds to rent for 6 mons or so, just to tide us over whilst we relocate to our preferred area and then have a base to buy the house we want with a bit more leisure and leeway.

But this is a bit of a nightmare itself. To rent anywhere decent you really need to be employed, rather than ‘between jobs’ but to get a job you really need to have a base for those jobs, and yet to get a base for the jobs you need to be employed.

A viscous circle that has lead to a lot of phone calls to and from agents, and some…well not actual lies…or even real untruths…just extensions of the truth. Like saying that although we are relocating, I will be continued to be paid by the MoD until next year (true…I will be on my terminal leave until my discharge date of 11th Dec, and my last payday should be 31st December)…

This all just adds to the stress. The future is uncertain enough, but when you have nothing certain…no home, no work, an income of 1/3 of what you previously had…it is just too much. All coming at the same time means that each one of the most stressful things that can happen in your life…all come together at the same time. It means that tempers fray. Patience runs short. You wake up at night not knowing if you ARE going to have somewhere to live…or what you are actually going to do for work.

And this makes you tired. It makes you more testy and tetchy and you argue of little things and you can’t enjoy anything…and you stress and stress and stress. And everything is just so difficult you feel like running away and hiding, even though you know you can’t.

Getting Close…

‘As you are aware, your entitlement to occupy Service Families Accommodation is conditional on your continued employment by HM Forces and it ceases on your final day of service.’

Time…you can’t get in the way of it.  It surges on. Like Canute you might try to think you can deal with it, but it will, like the tide just wash over you.  It’ll overwhelm you and nothing can stop it.

And my time is running out.  Time in the RAF that is.  I now only have 6 working days left.  Well, a couple of extra days doing stuff like ‘clearing’ and handing my kit back, but pretty much I have 6 days at work.

And it’s when you realise that you have enough shirts left hanging up and you will never need to iron another ‘Shirt, Short Sleeves, RAF, Wedgwood Blue’ that you suddenly realise that time is overwhelming you.

And I have so much to do. Move house, find a job, find a purpose.  Because, frankly, the RAF has provided me with all those things for the last 25 years. OK, there were times when I lived in my own house but, the RAF has always been there for me to provide me with all those things.  I live in a service house – gotta move. I have a service job – gotta change. I have a purpose – gotta find one.

And all three are hard.  It’s like the ultimate growing up.  I like to think my life is fairly grounded and I am aware of the civvy world, but I have a feeling it is going to take some getting used to.  The house thing is easy. We have found a place that we want to live in, in an area that we like and works for us both; close to my family, close to my wife’s family; in the countryside, at a price we can afford.

We are going to be waiting for all the various elements of money to arrive from the various sources, MrsF’s end of service gratuity payment in October, my gratuity and redundancy money in January and are going to be able to put down a very sizeable deposit on a house – hopefully the one that we are going to move into that we have just applied to rent. So, yeah, the house thing isn’t that big a deal, and the service, because I am being made redundant are going to pay for the removals, so there is a big bit of stress relieved.

But then there are the other two things.  The job.  The purpose. For years…for 25 years and 5 months and 4 days my job and my purpose will have been inextricably linked. The one thing and the other both mutually compatible.  Almost indistinguishable.  One able to be replaced by the other.  BEING in the RAF was a job and a purpose.  In fact it’s interesting that I considered myself as BEING in the RAF…whereas that letter…the one that began with that paragraph at the top of this post considered me to be ’employed by’ the RAF… I guess it’s funny.  To me being in the RAF wasn’t a job, it was a purpose. It was a reason for me to be me.

And when I leave, when I have finished my 6 working days, and am on my terminal leave before the Big Day on the 11th December when I am no longer part of the RAF…what will I be?

A civilian? Ex-service? Unemployed? I honestly don’t know.  I certainly don’t know what I want to do for work when I leave. Ok I have ideas.  Lots of ideas.  I could do the same sort of thing as I do now – a sort of Management Consultancy job.  Or I could go to work in a factory. Or I could go and work in a coffee shop. Or I could start my own business as a Dog Walker.  Or set up my own training company. Or become a Teaching Assistant. Or try to find work writing. But I haven’t decided…can’t decide…can’t really think about what I want to do, or who I want to do it for.

I guess I will eventually decide.  We are lucky because with our two service pensions coming in, between MrsF and myself we will have a modest, but survivable income. Enough to pay for a small mortgage on the house we will be able to buy, enough to live on – just – but the pressure of finding a job quickly isn’t on me.

I want a job. I want to be able to bring in enough so my wife is well looked after.  So my living at home daughter has all she needs.  So my older children at University have some cash to help pay for their accommodation and won’t be saddled with huge debts. And I want a job that will give me a reason. A purpose.

I remember my father. He was in the RAF. He left the RAF and went to work…for the RAF as a civilian.  He worked all his life in or for the service. And when he retired and he stopped…he just stopped. He associated his work with his life and with his purpose and when he stopped working he stopped living. By his 67th year he was dead.  He simply died. And I don’t want that to be me. I want to carry on.  I want to have a purpose, a reason to go on.

I know I am not quite my dad’s age yet, but my point is that I, like my dad, need a reason.  A reason to go on.  Maybe my reason will be to relax and just enjoy myself. God knows I want to relax and chill and catch up with myself.  But to be able to separate what you do from what you are…it’ll be an interesting thing to attempt.

Because in the RAF, in all the Armed Forces, what you do IS what you are. You are a member of the RAF. In the Army. You are a Sailor or a Marine. The role you do is what makes you; what defines you. That’s not quite the same in the Civvy world.  The Service wraps your identity up inside itself, making you part of something bigger. Part of an organisation with a history, a tradition. With values and beliefs and ways of thinking that are different; ways of working that are different; ways of speaking that are different.  You are not just part of the RAF or whatever, you are part of something bigger that you. Better than you. That stands for something, that embodies something.  That means something.

And like I said. That question I asked…when I leave the RAF.  What will I be? A civilian? Ex-RAF? What…?

That is the big question.  And it’s quite a scary one, and this is the first time I have talked about it. Because even though I applied for redundancy.  Even though I knew it was my time to leave, because the RAF isn’t the same as it was when I joined and my time in it is just up.  Actually leaving and moving on is going to be so bloody hard.  Because when what you do makes you what you are, and you are no longer that thing…what are you? Who are you?

It’s almost time to find out.

What a Walt.

Being part of the military has its downsides.

Multiple postings, long working hours, tough physical work, little control over your life, difficult living conditions…and of course the potential to get yourself blown up and killed.

But we in the forces live with these. Not because we are special heroes, but because military service life has its benefits too. Fairly decent pay. Fabulous opportunities for adventure. Brilliant like minded people around you. So things sort of balance out.

One of the benefits is how people in the UK have started to think about the military more, and the regard for what we actually do has gone up so much recently. Help4Heroes, SupportOurTroops, Adoptasquaddie all allow people to show their support for what we do. and that is just the loveliest thing. To be appreciated for what you ARE, not just what you do, is just bloody wonderful.

But with all this support and appreciation there are some who want to cash in on it. Not actual servicemen who might want to write or talk about their lives after they have left the forces, but some people (who aren’t even in the forces) who want to literally cash in on the military, and the support that it gets.

These people are nicknamed Walts. Named after the character Walter Mitty – who lived a fictional life inside his head, daydreaming and then playing out these dreams; being something and someone that he wasn’t.

Yes. There are people who want to pretend to either be in the forces, or have been in the forces, for what ever reason they have…and get the kudos of being a serviceman, or ex-serviceman, without actually having to have put up with those downsides (and the many more!) listed above.

These people are the sad, the lonely, the needy. They are the ones who want to live bigger, better, braver lives, but aren’t up to it. They often prowl the forums of the Internet, lurking in the very places that those amazing people who support military personnel go to offering help, support, assistance and friendship, and then they leech of it.

The Walt will make up some spurious lies about a military career. They will be a Para, or a Marine, or even Special Forces. They will say they have been on a tour or two; Iraq and Afghan. They will trawl eBay and find an old beret or military surplus jacket and have a picture – but only one or two pictures will be available if the befriended asks for them.

The Walt will seek firstly contact, then friendship and then they will go in for the ‘kill’. They will ask for something. Mostly, and the most common form of Walting is just for the attention and adulation. But the next worse is when the Walts look for sex. Worse is looking for ‘love’ which then turns out to just be sex but the very worst is the Walt who looks for a gain. A financial gain somehow. The classic is ‘they’ve fucked up my pay and I need a bit of help seeing me through to the end of the month’…or ‘I can’t access my bank account here…’

And of course they get what they want, and then run.

Run on to the next victim.

This really, really, pisses me off. Really. Military people put up with a lot, but the last thing they should have to put up with is people stealing their good name and using it to prey on the unsuspecting who only want to help or meet real military personnel.

Speaking of that…and returning to the subject of sex. It’s a fact that there are people who like men (and women) in uniform. Hey! Life’s rich pageant! I could tell stories that…but I won’t…but the reason for this blog post today is that I have been affected by Walting this week.

Someone, a Walt, used my picture on a dating site. I received a Direct Message on twitter from someone who followed me asking if I was using a dating site. I wasn’t. I am not. The messenger went on to say that someone had contacted her on a dating site ‘flirting’ with her, using a picture that she recognised. My old Twitter picture. The dead-ally hardcore one of me, taken by a military photographer in Afghanistan, just before I was going out on a patrol. Tooled up. Helmet, body armour, combats, rifle.

Now, I posted on Twitter about this and got the expected response – outrage and anger – at the Walt, but I also got something I didn’t expect. Several saying that they thought it must be a compliment.

But I don’t see it as that. I see it as some sad wannabe who is pretending to be something he isn’t in the hope of meeting people for sex. And then when he DOES meet the poor victims, what does he expect to happen? When someone who DOESN’T look like me (and he should think he is lucky that he doesn’t really) stands in front of a woman and says ‘here I am, oh, THAT picture? Well, yeah I know it’s not me, but we are here now and so…’

What could happen next? At best the woman would leave, at worst…the very worst could happen…and I will leave that to your imagination.

So a sad Walt pretending to be a member of the military isn’t an honour. It’s not a compliment. It’s just bloody infuriating. It’s stealing. It’s stealing everything that being in the military stands for. Its the theft of an idea and an ideal. And whilst most of the time Walts are harmless attention seekers trying to fill an empty hole in their lives, some are after much much more, and can cause much much more pain.

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If you have been approached by someone saying they are military and asking for something, or have concerns about the military ‘bona fides’ of someone online, have a look at Walter Mitty Hunt or do a search on Facebook for Walter Mitty Hunt.

Closure…

I’ve been a lucky sod.

No I have. I’ve had a fairly charmed life and certainly a charmed career.

Lucky in the places I’ve been to, people I’ve worked with, things I’ve done, things I’ve seen.

But to be in Green Park today, to be part of the Bomber Command Memorial Opening Ceremony, to just be able to wander around and take pictures and talk to people and chat and listen. That is the luckiest thing ever. No pressure, no stress, just doing my own thing, going places and chatting to these amazing people, being around them…it’s the highest honour. The very best thing I have done as being part of the RAF.

I spoke to an Ex-Aircraftman II, who fixed Fairy Battles in the Battle of France and was evacuated from Brest instead of Dunkirk, and who was quickly commissioned after and spent the rest of the war as a staff officer.

I listened to an old pilot who talked me through a picture of a Lancaster, telling me that it was a picture that had been taken just after take-off, that the pilot had 10 degrees of flap selected, and why the Flight Engineer was facing the way he was and why the gun turrets were facing that way… I spoke to the son and grandson of a Flying Officer who was too infirm to make it to the ceremony, and that the grandson will be taking Granddads medals to show and tell at school tomorrow.

I chatted to an Air Gunner who suddenly said, do you want to meet my Navigator…and we trotted across to the chairs where we talked about flying and fighting and the weather and the crowd.

I listened to the daughter of an Air Gunner as she talked about her father and how much she missed him even though she could never remember meeting him (she was too young to remember him).

And I talked and talked to a Canadian couple who had spent the last month in Europe researching the gentleman’s uncle who had flown just three missions before he was shot down and killed. I learnt that they’d visited the town where the aircraft had crashed and had been shown to the exact spot where their uncle had hit the ground – by a local German who had seen the Halifax crash.

And I realised one thing. In each of the conversations the theme was closure. In their own way there was some closure here. That finally the monument and the memorial to each and everyone of their fathers, relatives, friends, was finally built and was finally open. It may be 67 years late, but it is here now.

And what a structure! What a memorial! The words ‘fitting tribute’ have been used so many times that they are cliched, but I have nothing left…the statue shows a crew of seven. One shading his eyes from the sun, others in contemplation, one deep in thought, another eyes closed, his mind clearly elsewhere. This whole monument is beautiful, thought provoking, magnificent.

And now it is here, it will stay there. It will be maintained by the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund as a permanent reminder to everyone who visits or passes of the sacrifice the honour and the glory of what those 55,573 men gave their lives for.

For us.

So whilst this memorial is about the Bomber Command, it’s not just FOR them. It’s for all of us. It gives the surviving Aircrew closure, the knowledge that at last their efforts are recognised and appreciated. For those who lost their fathers, uncles, brothers, it gives a place of pilgrimage. And for the rest of us…it gives us a reminder of the duty and sacrifice that that generation gave for us today. Truly, they gave their tomorrow’s for our today and finally that has been recognised. Magnificently.

Family…

A father and his son. Standing to the rear of the crowd. Slightly apart from everyone else. A fatherly hand on the son’s shoulder. Pride, emotion, learning.

Young Jamie and his dad, Glen stand and think of F/O Michael Carroll, DFC. A Flight Engineer on Lancasters and Halifaxes, who flew 36 missions into Germany. Indeed the very Halifax he flew in is immortalised in the Airfix model of the Halifax.

But This family is not just here to remember though. Michael is one of many of the veterans of Bomber Command who are still alive, but who are unable, for many reasons, to make it here today. They are not here to remember. They are here to represent.

Jamie proudly wears the medals of his Grandfather. And stands to the attention as the last post is played. He looks to the sky as the Lancaster flies over and he peers to see the 1,000,000 poppies that fall from the bomb bay. He stares to the sky and thinks of home and his grandfather watching it all on the TV. He listens to his father as the proceedings are explained.

It is a shame that Michael can’t be here to be a part of all this today, but Michael’s medals are and are being worn with just as much pride by his grandson Jamie, as they would be by Michael himself.

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