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Archive for the category “Deploying to Afghan”

A million miles away…

Two years ago, not far from today’s date, this photograph was taken.

Image

I posted it this morning over on Twitter, with the caption ‘This feels like it was a million years ago and a million miles away…’ And it does. At times I look at pictures like this one and don’t even think that it is me. It is a million miles away from where I am right now; both in terms of physical location, and state of mind…

For me it sums up my tour in Afghanistan. In the picture I am hot, sweaty; covered from head to foot in protective gear; helmet, glasses, body armour, blast pants, gloves, boots… carrying my rifle, ammunition, equipment, food, water. I had just completed a patrol from one Check Point to another and we had just come out of a field of corn. Hence my less than happy expression – tired, tired beyond belief. Wondering what the hell I am doing there, why is someone snapping my picture, why had I chosen to come out ‘here’ and do this?

The cornfields out there are a little bit of hell on earth. Sown randomly by hand, they are not the lines and lines of straight seeded stalks we see in the UK. They grow in clumps, they grow in deep mud, they grow densely and tall. They are humid, trapping the hot air, and killing any chance of a breeze. The mud sucks in your feet and saps your energy with each attempt to pull it out of the deep mire that rises above the top of your boots. It seeps into your socks and wets your feet with foul smelling filth and stains your trousers and slowly, through capillary action rises up your legs, like kitchen towel sucking up a spill of water.

Your breath is ragged, you fight your way through tree like stalks of corn that swing in your face from the man in front. You put your head down, spot where your feet are placed, avoiding the roots that tangle you and trip you on each step. You push your rifle out and use it as a virtual snow-plough to furrow a way through the eight foot high plants. You smash it down and out of your way and out of the way of the man behind – if you can – venting your hatred of the bloody stuff, of the bloody country and of the bloody people that put it there and those that made you walk through it.

You have to go through it because, despite the pain and the heat and the discomfort, it’s the safest way to on foot. The random path you take through it can’t be guessed by the enemy and they can’t place IED’s there. There would be no point. You are as safe as you can be in there – from the IEDs – as it is possible to be in that country, but you wonder again and again, with every slog of each step of each leg…is it worth it? Is it worth this pain.

And you then start to wonder is any of it worth it? Is my presence here, in this place that has seen so much war and death and pain, going to make any difference? Am I – or the rest of the people with me – going to make this place better? What have we got that makes us different from the rest? How can I, one man, make a difference to all this? The enemy are fighting for their homeland, for their god, for their families. They don’t want us there. They would happily kill us in any way they could. They follow no rules, they have no code of honour. They don’t differentiate between combatant and non-combatant. They fight their dirty little war in their own way; one moment with a gun, the next with a bomb, the next they drop their weapons and hide amongst the local population and pretend to be farmers… How do you fight that? How do you make a difference to that?

What is the point? They will be there when we are gone. We have the watches, but they have the time. We have dates set for pull outs, for ending the war without actually winning – just transferring the fight to someone else. We might talk of progress and transition and change, but will we have made any difference to this place? Other than prolonging the fight and fuelling the fighters and the hatred.

But then…you finish your patrol and you stand or sit with your comrades and friends. You laugh about what you have just done and what you have just been through. You realise that of all the places there are in the world, none of them are like this. You are doing something that so few people have ever done, or ever will do that you are perversely privileged. And you are doing it with the best bunch of people in the whole world.

You are sharing something that will stay with you forever. They are seeing you at your rawest, where you can’t hide the real you that is deep inside, suppressed by the day to day walls that we build around ourselves. When you are in this place, you don’t have the energy to maintain yourself and the wall, so the wall falls away. They see you, and you see yourself for what you really are…and yet…they say nothing. You say nothing about others. You laugh, you joke, you banter, but you never say the real things…what you have seen people do, how you see people react.

And eventually you leave it. You go home and you try to file it away, order it. Process it. And you think about how you were and what you considered when you were in that place. And you think about the people who died and were injured and you still wonder…what was it all for? Did I make a difference? Did I make the world better?

I helped to build a school.. I helped to build wells and sluice gates and bridges and repair mosques and houses. We provided security – of sorts – but if we were not there would we our security have been required? Were we a self-fulfilling prophecy? Did our presence bring the enemy there to fight us? Did the people want or need us there? Would they not have built schools and wells and bridges eventually anyway?

We will never know. We were there. I was there. I was tired and doubtful and stressed and scared and in the worst place in the world, but I was also alive and sure and happy and safe and in the best place in the world. For all the questions I have in my mind, for all the heartache and doubt that I have for the the future I know, I know, that I loved being there. I would be back there now, just to feel that excitement and adventure and the life coursing through my veins every time I stepped foot outside the Check Point gates. Each time my doubted my very existence each time I struggled with the heat and the conditions and the locals and the terrain, I was at least alive. I was more than existing. I was trying to make a difference, and I am sure that in some way, some how, I did.

It might not have been to the lives of the Afghan people, but it certainly made a difference to me.  I am a very different person to the man who went out there in March 2011.  I am not sure if I am a better man, but I am certainly a different one. 

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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.

The Fog of…Life…

I’ve hinted at this in a couple of blogs in the past, but I need to just say this…because, well I don’t know, I just need to Say it I guess.

For the past year, in fact longer really, I have suffered with depression. Not sad. Not a bit down. Not upset. But proper, clinical depression, diagnosed and treated by doctors, mental health workers and medicines.

It kind of all started when I came back from Afghanistan. Where I didn’t particularly see anything that upsetting, or got traumatised or anything, but rather got to see myself for who and what I was. (More on that later…) But I came back and I was angry. Angry and everything, everybody, the whole world. The crapness of it, the materialism of it, the emptiness of it. The fact that people moan about the quality of the coffee they buy in a cafe (and yes I do that too), when there is so much MORE going on in the world. I was angry at myself for not being in control of my anger, angry at my wife for, well, being my wife (‘how could she possibly want to be married to me, a grumpy, miserable, moaning fool?’). Angry at my three year old daughter for being three, angry at my eldest son and daughter for having a life built up without me in it.

Anger turned to general grumpiness and a feeling of being low ALL THE TIME and there being no respite from it. I felt out of control at work, where, to be honest not a lot was going on and I had a lot of time to spare. I was very negative and very closed off. I would be judgemental, closed off and…miserable. Just miserable.

And as I said, I would take it all out on my family. Waves of anger would explode out of me. Followed quickly by anger at myself for exploding and being unable to control myself. And after that followed a wave of self loathing and miserableness and yes, sitting at the top of the stairs sobbing into my hands covering my face. This became a regular habit of mine…hands in front of my face, almost trying to hide from the shame I felt at myself. That and rubbing my hand across my forehead…and this became my poker ‘tell’.

I, my wife and my even my three year old daughter would know when I was getting stressed because I would do just that. My right hand would rub over my forehead; fingers and thumb moving together almost like the mouth of a vice closing. And it felt like a vice was closing on me…Stress, pressure which could be brought on by anything.

It was, to be honest a fucking nightmare. A waking nightmare which never seemed to end. Sleep was a slight relief, when I could get it. I was tired, dog tired, permanently tired, tired beyond all understanding of tiredness, and I would get to sleep fairly quickly, but oh! the early mornings. Awake at 5-5:30 everyday. Every day.

Life for me, and everyone who knew me, who interacted with me, who crossed my path, was horrible. I was horrible. And after a particularly bad weekend where I picked on everyone, I decided that enough was enough. I had to go to get help.

And I went to see a lovely RAF doctor who was just the nicest person. I talked, she listened, she spoke a little and listened more. I must have been in there for 40 minutes (sorry to whoever was behind me in the appointments) but I came out feeling better. Better because I had told someone.

I left there and went back to work where I said to my boss, I went to the docs this morning and it turns out I am mental. And he was wonderful. ‘Well, there’s nothing going on today, go home, spend some time just trying to think and sort your head out a little,’ he said. And I did.

And I then wasted a lot of time trying to think. Think about why I was depressed. Why it was happening to me. Why I felt the way I did. And it was a waste of time. There was no one reason. With the help of that doctor, a CPN and eventually some Citalopram, I’ve come to realise that it was just a combination of everything that had made me feel so irrational for so long. I’d come to feel that I wasn’t good enough, and my actions were those of someone who wasn’t a good husband and good father, and so my thoughts reinforced my feelings of not being good enough. My experience of being in Afghanistan made me see that I was nothing special. I was just another guy out there, who was, to be frank out of his depth for a lot of the time.

I felt almost embarrassed by my blogging out there, that they made me seem to be some sort of hero, that I was better than others, when I just wasn’t. They were stronger than me, fitter, braver, more heroic…normal people, but just better than me. And my embarrassment was demonstrated by that habit of putting my hands in front of my face…of trying to hide. If I can’t see the world, then the world can’t see me…or so my failed logic would go.

All through my depression, it’s never felt the same way as others when I read about their experiences. I do feel down and sad, but when they describe it as a veil of darkness over them, of it being a cave they are forced in, that is much different to me. I feel like it is a fog. A fog enveloping me, closing around me. I know the normal world is out there, somewhere, just out of reach and out of sight, but I can’t see it. I can’t find it. A thick pea soup of depression is hiding me from it and it from me. I know that the way I feel is temporary and that I can fight it and I can, and will eventually blow the fog away, but it’s so bloody hard to do so. Even after nearly 9 months of taking the medication, it’s still, sometimes just as hard as it was.

Too much has been going on recently for me to stop taking the Citalopram yet, and that’s a bugger, because the major side-effects of the tablets (google them!) are a fucker. I’ve taken voluntary redundancy, moved house, got a disabled wife to care for, a three year old who is lovely, but who is hard work, no real job, a mortgage to get and pay for…money issues going on…lots and lots to try to deal with, lots that could plunge me downward again so I can’t deal with life without them just yet.

I am one in three. Because one in three of us will have a mental health issue at sometime in our lifetime. But I still feel alone and often unable to cope, and that I want to hide from the world by just walking my dog in the Shropshire countryside. I want to get better, and be ‘normal’ again, if I could ever figure out what normal is, but it still feels so very far off.

The fog is still about me, some days it’s thicker than others, some days it’s almost a sunny day, but it’s always a bit misty. But in all my thinking about my depression, I’ve come to a conclusion. It’s pointless trying to ask ‘Why?’ There are lots of reasons, but the main one is that there is a chemical imbalance in my brain. Brain chemicals that I don’t understand are not going to the right places and it has the result of making me feel angry, out of control, worthless, useless, inferior…depressed.

But it’s pointless and a simple waste of my time to ask why. I just have to get on with making myself…allowing myself…to feel better, that eventually I will come out of this…that it is actually even more pointless to feel angry, inferior and depressed. But simply stopping feeling that way is not so easy, but I know that with the help, love and support of my family, I will do it. I might have been angry at them outwardly…but in reality I was really angry at myself. And that’s not fair on them, and worse, its not fair on me.

Scared of the Dark…

Can you try something for me? Just do this and then read on…Count to twenty. Easy. Quick isn’t it?

Now do the same thing again, but with your eyes closed.

Felt longer didn’t it. Time seems to slow down when your are in the dark. I’m sure you counted as quickly, and I am sure it took about the same time for you to count up to 20, but in the dark…it just felt longer.

Longer. But it was only about 15-20 seconds. But just imagine a lifetime of it. Imagine everyday being dark and black. Seeing nothing; being blind.  Not only would you miss the beauty that is all around us in this fabulous world, but the time you are spending in it feels longer. More time to see…nothing.

I remember being in Afghan, and we would discuss possible and potential injuries. Particularly after someone had been in an IED explosion or in a shooting incident. It’s natural to talk about it. And one day the topic of conversation after an Afghan Soldier had been airlifted out to go to the hospital at Bastion, fell to the macabre. If you were injured…what sort of injury could you cope with and what couldn’t you cope with. Lots of people, buoyed by the news of the new prosthetic limbs said they could probably cope with losing a leg, less people thought that they could manage without an arm…but the one that surprised me…and it was the one that I said I really couldn’t cope with would be losing sight.

It was a real fear of a lot of the lads. And a real fear of mine. Still is. You see, if I were to be brutally honest I would say that the biggest fear I have in the world is dark enclosed places. Some people it’s spiders, some heights, some people it’s even clowns. But me the dark. And team that with an enclosed place and I am absolutely quaking.

I once had to face this fear. When I was a trainee in the RAF, we went away to an outward bound, adventure training place in Mid-Wales, where you get to do all sorts of great activities. Climbing, hill-walking, canoeing…and caving. In an old slate mine which is entered by a long narrow tunnel often filled quite deeply with water.

The aim of the exercise is to practice your group’s communication and team-working skills. And the instructors take you down the tunnel and then before you enter the cave system, they take your head-torches off you. They then split you into two groups and give one group the torches and the other group the batteries. You are then led about the cave system and left on your own. You then need to join together into the two small groups and then find the other group and get the batteries/torch so you can see in the dark.

Dark.

It’s not just dark; it’s absolutely pitched black. Blacker than night. Blacker than…well, bloody dark anyway. It could be the brightest summer’s day outside, but absolutely no light will penetrate into the mine. To say you can’t see your hand in front of your face would be an understatement. Blacker even than a Catholic Priest’s socks.

And you stumble around inside shouting out for the rest of your team. You wave your hands in front of you in an attempt to avoid hitting the walls. You duck your head to protect it from the roof of the caves. You take tiny, tiny steps, feeling your way along, almost shuffling, hardly moving. Your breath is faster, you are on the edge of panic. You desperately reach out for something…anything that is vaguely human. Looking for the reassurance of the touch of another living being, and when you find one, by shouting and directing yourself to the sounds of his or her voice, you grasp them tightly, and you never, ever want to let go. You don’t want to be left. Alone. In the dark.

And eventually you find the other people and your get the task done and you turn the head-torches on. And then you can see in the dark. Relief. Relaxation. Calm. Your blood pressure and your stress levels drop instantly. And then you look about and see that even though you thought that the roof was very low and you would bang your head, the cave is actually massive. Like a cathedral. Huge high walls, easily 60-70 feet up. And where you expected the walls and floor to be jagged and cluttered, and you constantly thought you were going to trip and fall, they are smooth and flat and safe.

You were in no real danger. You wouldn’t have hurt yourself. You were only really afraid of the unknown. Of what you couldn’t see.

We rely on our sight. We take it for granted. We use it to give us frames of reference and safety in the real world without thinking about it. We even use the language of sight without realising it…’Watch out’…’I see what you mean’…’I don’t like the look of that’…and we go about our lives not really thinking, or maybe not wanting to think about not being able to see.

And when you are faced with the possibility of losing your sight, like we were in the arbitrary world of the IED in Afghan, or when other soldiers, sailors and airmen have been faced with that in the past, the fear becomes greater. I remember one lad who was often the lead man in a patrol. Often he would volunteer to go first and prove the route, look for the ground-sign and analyse the floor in front of him searching for clues that the enemy could have planted an IED on the path. This didn’t scare him, but what did scare him was the thought that if he saw what might be an IED he would have to determine if it was or not by getting down on the floor, and getting up close to the potential device and see if it was a bomb or if it was just some rubbish or just a stone. Because he was scared about his eyes. Losing his sight.

Like me, it was the one thing he would not have been able to cope with losing. And thankfully neither of us did. We both came home fine, without our worst fears coming to life.

But sadly that is not always the case. Throughout history, wars have damaged people’s eyes, and men and women returning from conflict have faced a future of stumbling about in the darkness. But thankfully like in the cave, there are people there for them. People who they are able to reach out to and hold and gain help and comfort. Someone who they can hold onto and who will not leave them alone.

Since the end of the First World War, St Dunstan’s which has recently changed it’s name to Blind Veterans UK, has offered help and advice and support to any ex-servicemen and women who have lost their sight. In fact it doesn’t matter when someone served or how they lost their sight; a REME engineer blinded by a sniper in Iraq, a National Serviceman in the Canal Zone of the 1950’s with a glaucoma or an ex-sailor who served in the Falklands, blinded by a car accident, as long as they have served they won’t be alone, Blind Veterans UK will be there to support them.

And like in the cave I found myself in, it is really reassuring to know that there is always going to be someone there to help. That there will be no one alone in the dark.

If you would like to read more about Blind Veterans UK or help them in their work by donating to their campaign, then please have a look at their website at http://www.blindveterans.org.uk and read about the amazing work they do to support Blind Veterans.

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.

History…

I found my Afghan notebook last night. Just sorting through a box and there it was. A nondescript black soft backed Moleskin notebook.

I have always loved notebooks and being into my stationary porn (you know, walking round Staples errr touching books) I loved having it out there with me. I resolved NOT to keep a dairy of my time out there, this blog was enough of that, but instead, being a ‘bear of very small brain’, I resolved to write EVERYTHING I did down. That way I would always be able to refer back to events as time moved on out there.

My job in Afghan was basically a Project Manager, providing advice, support, accessing funding and expertise for the locals, reconstructing, rebuilding, stabilising the country, so it was important that I kept a track of things going on. The Moleskin was perfect. It fitted into my trouser pocket easily and weighed nothing in my daysack. It went everywhere with me. I lived in fear and dread of losing it…

But I never did, and I religiously wrote down all sorts of things in there. Names, places, figures, lists. All in note form, but strangely enough, last night just opening it again and looking at stuff from a year ago I was able to pick out events quite easily.

Obviously I looked back to see what I did exactly one year ago. It was one of the more interesting days…

– Met with elder Haji Abdul Ali Khan to look at scales of payment for damages to his compound when used as a Check Point. Agreed to identify number of rooms damaged, windows and doors damaged and walls broken down. (HAAK’s compound is not listed on the database for occupation and no records exist for the occupation. Need to establish when and who occupied and if there is any evidence of BritFor occupation. Will require deliberate Op by 24B Multiple to set up security cordon and carry out survey.)

– Notes for today’s Shura. Inform elders that only one project per village will be allowed at one time. Elders as a council need to decide on priority for projects. Strano 1/3 wells proposed, Norzo propose new Sluice Gate for irrigation ditches, Barakazai investigate road reinforcement idea. Locals need to learn to prioritise what they need over what they want.

Projects need to become more community focused. In particular Sluice Gates and Irrigation projects are not looked upon so favourably. Propose that the Shura starts to think about community meeting places to refurbish and improve. Funding for low level projects will be more difficult to find.

Locals need to be reminded that bringing electricity to each compound is a long way off at this stage and that the idea of a large bridge over the Helmand will not be built in out lifetime. Similarly funding for huge projects is just not there.

– Compound 44 damaged by Huskey. Mohammed Rsoule claims 22,000Afghani damages. Will require close inspection, however worst case figures available for damage described is:

Wall 3m at 1,500
Door at 3,000
Door frame additional 1,000

Total available for damages 5,500afa. 23A admits his Huskey driver hit the wall, but the damage is minimal. Will have words with Smudge about his driving through the village. Thank God he didn’t hit the Mosque on the other side of the road.

– ANA commander from CP Shin reports his second well is now unserviceable. Invest possible repair from Hekmat Wali Construction. ‘Terp to phone Gul.

– Compound 5 identified as Ghani’s house. Has been know to be a teacher at some stage.

– District Council member failed to show at Shura again. Claimed to ‘terp on phone that security ‘wasn’t good enough’. Shura held at CP Shin. Talking bollocks.

The Shura (a meeting or consultation) that I made the notes for didn’t go to well. I basically had to tell the local elders that the central funding had been reduced. This was because there was an up-coming major Op to capture Loy Mandeh from Taliban control in the offing. This would mean the money that there was available from the central funds would have to be shared out amongst more people and places.

Obviously, I couldn’t tell them that there was going to be an Op – security and all that – so it was difficult to get the elders to understand that they would have less projects in their villages. This meant less development and less construction. This meant that people still had to get their drinking water from filthy irrigation ditches, that their fields were not irrigated efficiently, and that they would have to try and work as a community more for their own development.

The reason for my job out there was to reduce the locals dependence on foreign aid and foreign advice. They simply had no idea how governance worked. They had no experience of operating as a community and how to prioritise projects and ideas. The aim was to get the locals to think about how THEY could improve their own communities by themselves. We were there for help and advice, and to try to get them to see what they needed, rather than what they wanted.

When I first arrived in the villages, I asked at a Shura what the locals thought was important for the development of the area. They all asked for generators to provide electricity to the compounds, for a new road to be built, for a huge wall to be built next to the River Helmand and for a big bridge to be built over it.

All good ideas for development and progress. But not exactly what they needed right then. What they really needed was the roads they had to be made safe and resurfaced. They needed to be able to access medical care for their families. They needed to have access to safe, clean water.

And they needed to start thinking about their own community and how they governed themselves. They needed facilities for government and governance. A place to meet. A place for the community to use as a small market. They needed a small school and maybe support for the three women who operated as midwives and the one man who acted as a doctor (although in reality he just sold medicines that he bout in the Bazaar in Lashkah Gar).

I spent a long time with the 20 or so elders trying to get this point across to them. They were proposing huge projects that had no chance of being approved. Me and my ‘terp sat with them for over an hour arguing and explaining and repeating…some of them saw my point, but a few refused to see it. When I told them that just one project per village would be allowed at a time, several elders got quite angry. Eventually I had had enough We were going round and round and getting nowhere. I told my ‘terp to say that the Shura was over and that everyone needed to calm down.

A few of the more sensible elders agreed and nodded. But I got up and walked towards the door, I shook hands with the senior elder there and went around the room shaking hands saying goodbye until next time, and went to leave.

One man was still angry, he started to shout and began to move towards me. I told the ‘terp to say we wouldn’t be speaking about the projects any more today and that the Shura was over. I would be happy to speak in a day or so, but not today.

This didn’t placate the man. He was still very angry, another man appeared on his shoulder, shouting. He shouted again and stood in my way. My terp got very nervous. I got very nervous. The man pushed me and as I tried to walk past him he pulled on my left arm to stop me from leaving. My right hand went to the handle of my pistol, nestling in my pocket. I used one of the few words of Afghan that I knew ‘DREZH’ – ‘STOP!’ In English I shouted for everyone to calm down, but I don’t think my terp translated that, he was too shocked by what had happened.

One of the other elders, a man I really respected, an ex-afghan police commander, a really shrewd and clever man, named Daroo saw my hand move. He himself moved quickly. He pulled the man away. He looked him in the face and said something quickly to him and then quickly turned to me. I was standing at the door. My Terp was just behind me. I still had my hand on my pistol, but it was still in my pocket.

He spoke and my terp told me that Daroo was very sorry for what had just happened. He said that some of the people there didn’t understand that they had to move on themselves. Daroo said that it was time for the people of Afghan to start to look after their own affairs, but it was difficult for some because they didn’t know how to. The other man moved towards me slowly and held out his hand in apology. He told me that he was sorry for what had happened.

And I told him that I was sorry too. But I understood why he had gotten so angry. And I told him that the reason that he had got angry was a good one. Because it meant that he cared for the people off the village that he represented. He wanted the best for them and he wanted the country to develop and grow and become a better place to live. I told him that the only way to do this properly was to work with us and to work with the Government of Afghanistan. He should use his passion to fight for his villagers, and that they had a good elder who obviously cared for them.

I looked over at Daroo who was nodding in agreement. ‘Shaa’ he said – an Afghan word which sort of means, ‘yes, indeed, true’. I thanked him for his intervention and for his wise words too. I told everyone, not to be disheartened by what had just happened, and that it was a good thing. I wanted them to care about their communities. Because if they cared about them then they would want to build, develop and improve them.

None of this went into the notebook. But I remember it vividly. I remember my terp after saying he was not happy about what had happened, and that it had been a good job that Daroo had been there.

But not as glad and happy that I was. And I am glad that people like Daroo are there in Afghan, because for all the stories in the news about insurgents and ‘Green on Blue’ and the implications by the media that the locals don’t want us there in their country, there are people out there who do. People like Daroo who want to work with us to help develop a country that has had so little for so long.

And on the day I left the CP to begin my journey home, Daroo and a few of the elders from the village came to see me and say goodbye. And I noticed that the last one who shook my hand was the man who had tried to pull me back into the Shura. ‘Manana’ he said, ‘Deera manana’. ‘Thank you. Thank you very much.’

I sometimes miss Afghanistan. Much more than the dry facts in my notebook describe.

Boxes…

Parcels. We all like getting parcels. They give us a buzz, they remind us that people are thinking of us, or are sending us something important.

But when you are deployed to a war zone, when you are thousands of miles from home, they mean even more.

And if they are sent with love, care, thought…then the effect that a simple box filled with some goodies has is immeasurable. And it’s all in the anticipation. It’s all in the having the box in your hands, on your bed in front of you…the morale boosting moment is just before you open it…it’s lovely yo have the stuff inside, but it’s not in having the stuff. It’s not in having treats and goodies sent from home, it’s in the actual box itself.

Someone at home, thought enough of you to go to the effort of choosing and buying some goodies, packing them, taking them to the Post Office and send them out to you. They went to all that effort. The content isn’t what a box is all about…

But I do often get asked what to put in a box.

After all, even if the content isn’t the most important thing, it’s still nice to send something out that will be used and will be useful and will be welcomed.

So IF YOU HAVE A FRIEND AND RELATIVE WHO IS DEPLOYED TO AFGHAN (and only if you know someone out there – I know that some people want to send parcels out to ‘A Soldier’ or ‘A Marine’ but these aren’t really recommended, as they can clog up the system particularly at a busy time of year like Christmas – if you want to help ‘someone’ out there then you can google charities that have deals with the MOD who send welfare parcels out there) what should you put in a parcel to be sent to them?

Well obviously the best person to ask would be that person themselves. Often they might want something in particular, but be unwilling to ask, thinking they are being a bit greedy, but it does well to ask them…you should have their address, so send them an ebluey to say that you are going to send a parcel and ask if they have any requests. It’s also a good idea to ask them what they DON’T want.

But if you want it to be a surprise…if you want that moral boosting moment to be even better, to get something that you weren’t expecting…then the sender should have a look at the archived BFPO WEBSITE at what shouldn’t be sent out, and HERE for the Frequently Asked Questions about sizes and such.

But what generic things are good ideas to put inside?

Well I can only really speak for myself, but I can also say what wasn’t used out there and what always seemed to end up in the Welfare Box of Spares in the Welfare Tent…

Stuff I liked:

Pringles, nuts, crisps, trail mix, dried fruit in pouches (like mango or apricots), flapjacks, cereal bars. These are the basics to put in. Always welcomed. these can be eaten back in base, and can be stuck into the daysack or pouch and carried on patrol. They also make nice ‘gissits’ to give to the local kids – some of the Afghan children’s parents were (rightly) complaining at the amount of chocolate that was being given out.

Super Noodles, Pot Noodles, savoury rice pouches. Good to send out, especially if the recipient is on rations all the time in a forward Check Point. But to have a check to make sure that they aren’t only for cooking in microwaves. There are a distinct lack of microwaves in patrol bases and check points….

Baby wipes, Zip lock bags, a nice shower gel, moistened toilet paper packets. There is no shortage of shower gels, deodorants, razors, shaving gels, tissues…but a really nice small bottle of something smelly to take to the shower is really, really welcomed. A small bottle of a blokey Moulton Brown shower gel would go down really well! And if you are poo-ing into a bag in a CP, then the value of some of that fancy moistened toilet paper can’t be understated!

Maoams, sherbet dips, sherbet fountains, swizzle lollipops. Blocks of jelly jellied sweeties, like the ubiquitous Hariboos melt into one big blob in a bag in the heat of the Afghan summer, but Maoams…they are the future…

Coffee sachets. Not just a couple of Nescafé sachets you swiped for the office canteen – but some of those posh packets that you get in Starbucks, or even nicer, some of those instant cappuccinos that are popular now. Even some fruit teas would be welcomed.

Things not to bother with: (This might sound ungrateful, it’s not meant to be – its just better for your hard earned cash to be spent on something useful and not just shrugged off and chucked in the ‘Welfare Box’.

Shower gels, toothbrushes, toothpastes, deodorants, rolls of tissues. This sort of stuff is either very personal or else will be sent by close family. Don’t bother sending it out, it’ll really, very likely, just get tossed. At one stage I had four bottles of shower gel stocked up. I ended up donating them to the local Afghan interpreters when I left.

Hariboos, chocolate bars, cereal bars with yogurt or chocolate bases. These just melt. Don’t bother. They’ll just go in the bin. Sadly.

Cup-a-soups. Most people just don’t fancy having a soup in the heat of the Afghan summer, they are a good idea to send in the winter, but but don’t bother in the summer.

Like I said, this list isn’t exhaustible. It’s based on my personal preferences, and what I saw always ending up in the Welfare Box or even in the bin. The things not to bother sending isn’t about being ungrateful, even if it sounds it – I just don’t want you to waste your money on something that will be wasted. And please remember only send a box to a named person THAT YOU KNOW…please don’t send unsolicited boxes out there…if you want to help and support the troops there then there are charities that have special links with the MoD that you can donate too. There’s a link from this page on the British Army website.

The items listed are meant as an idea of what to send to someone who is deployed to a Forward Operating Patrol Base or Check Point. If you have any ideas of other stuff to send out then why not leave them as a comment below?

You have to move out…

‘Fetch it!’ And I threw the ball.

The dog sat up and watched the trajectory of the ball as it looped through the air and plopped into the irrigation ditch. It took stock, worked out all the angles, took three steps forward and leapt into the water, legs splayed, landing with a huge splash in the dirty, muddy water. It was nearly noon and the temperature out there in Afghanistan was building up. Being early May, it wasn’t yet the high summer, but certainly the heat was rising. I’d run out of water and I was jealous of the dog who was able to jump into the cool of the water and swim about.

Memphis was a specialist ‘high threat’ search dog. His job was to go into the compound we were taking over and search it for any traces of explosives or weaponry. And we were waiting under the shade of some trees, by the wide, but relatively shallow, irrigation ditch for the occupants of the buildings to leave.

What I had just done wasn’t the best part of my job on the deployment. In fact it was the worst part of my job out there. We needed to establish a new checkpoint as part of the Op (Operation) we were on and it was my job to sort out the negotiations for us taking over the compound. It had been specially selected based on its location and the amenities that it offered (such as they were) – notably a large field inside the compound wall that would serve as an easy to secure Helicopter Landing Site. The only problem was that it was occupied by a family.

And so for us to move in, they would have to move out. An operational necessity.

The lines we had to take with the family was that they would be compensated for the inconvenience of having to move out of their home. That we would make every effort to ensure that any damage to the compound buildings would be minimised. That if there was any damage caused by our occupation, we would again, compensate the family. That we would pay rent for our occupation.

I would do a full survey of the building to note down the condition and state of the buildings and any damage evident when we left, well, we would pay for it. Any changes we would make to the doors, windows, roof…we would be responsible for and would pay for.

And always a good one for the family in the long term; that we would be building a well inside the compound that would mean that once we left and they returned they would have access to clean fresh water INSIDE their property and they wouldn’t have to drink water from the dirty ditch at the edge of their field.

But this was a long way down the line and once we had left the property. All hard for the family to take. All out of the blue. Imagine a knock on your door. A ‘spaceman’ in helmet, goggles, gloves, body armour with a rifle stands there and through an interpreter says you have 30 minutes to leave the house.

Through the interpreter I told him that this occupation has been authorised by the President of Afghanistan and the Local Governor. That it was needed by the government and by the UK forces to bring peace and security to the area. That they had no choice but to go. Where they went was not our problem. But they would be compensated…

I felt terrible. The farmer explained he had a wife with a one month old baby. That he had women and children in the compound. Where would they go? What would they do?

I had no choice but to look straight ahead and say ‘I am sorry, but you have to leave…’ and repeated the same lines again. Say the same thing. Make no change. Keep to the same lines. Say the same words. Do not get drawn into a conversation. Apologise, but be firm. Be understanding of his position and the massive change this would be, but keep to the script.

I took my notebook out and asked for his name. For his family details. For where he might go once he left the compound. I told him the amounts of rent and compensation he would be entitled too. That we would build a well for his family.

He asked how long we would be there. What would we do to his buildings and his land. Obviously I couldn’t say. But I told him he would be paid well for the occupation. That he would be helping to bring peace and security to the area. That by his sacrifice others in the surrounding villages wouldn’t have the oppression of the Taliban insurgents.

He sighed. He asked again, ‘Where shall we go…?’ I returned to the script again. Round we went. You have 30 minutes. You must clear your belongings and leave this compound. He should move out now. And my final trump card. I opened my pocket and brought out a wad of cash. This is your compensation. It is an advance of your rent for the next two months. It will help you to find a new place to live.

He wasn’t happy, rightly so, but he was placated. He didn’t want to be seen taking our money outside, so we went inside the compound and I sorted the paperwork. He accepted the cash and in return he ‘signed’ the receipt for it with his fingerprint. I smiled a thin apologetic smile at him, shrugging at the same time. He didn’t smile back.

I felt terrible. I felt like some sort of sheriff from the Middle Ages or an evil character from a Dickens’ novel throwing people onto the street. I had just made a family homeless. I was the evil oppressor. The farmer opened the door for me and I left with ‘DJ’ my interpreter. The farmer followed through, walking round to the compound nearby, to ask permission from the local elder to borrow his mini-van so he could move his family and belongings out.

But it was a necessary evil. How could we bring security to the community, without being IN the community? We needed a base to show the enemy that we were here to stay. The Afghan culture is also one where people band around to support others.

We’d already spoken to the elder of the village and explained that we needed the compound and that the family would have to move out, and he was happy that we would be there bringing ISAF and the government to his village. He was on hand to offer help and support to the farmer. He proffered his keys straight away and went to console him. The Elder had already told me that there were empty compounds nearby that the family could move into.

It hadn’t made me feel any better.

But we left them to it. We went back to the shade of the trees by the ditch. We replenished our water using the ‘Lifesaver’ bottles. We had a bite to eat. We petted and played with the dog and took pictures of him and of each other standing in the ditch – cooling our feet. We bantered, we joked, we laughed.

Well the others did. I felt terrible. I tried to chat to Memphis’ handler, also an Airman – and RAF Policeman also a little out of his comfort zone here in the ‘oo-lu’, but my heart wasn’t in conversation.

I stuck my head into my note book, copying out the details onto the forms I had in my bag. Trying to work out just how much money the farmer would be getting for our occupation of his buildings, for our use of his land. It was a good sum. Not a huge amount, but would compensate for the disturbance of his family. Provide money for food.

But then I looked across and caught a glimpse of an older child leading what was probably his mother to the minivan. She was in a full light blue Burhka, but was moving very slowly, carrying her precious baby. She got in carefully and sat there as the farmer and the other children loaded up their belongings. Mostly carpets, a few boxes. No real furniture like we would have. Bundles of blankets and what I assumed to be clothes. Pots and pans. The detritus of a poor family in a poor nation scratching a poor living from the land. Not much ‘stuff’ in relation to us.

A dog on a length of rope was pulled out and thrown into the back of the van. It was scruffy, mange-y, light brown. I looked across at Memphis who took a passing interest in the other dog, but who then just laid down and closed its eyes.

I looked at my watch. The 30 minutes were up. And it was clear that the family needed a bit more time. We were all in cover, and we gave the farmer the time he needed. After 45 minutes he came out and glanced across at me. I couldn’t meet his gaze. I thought of home. Of how I’d feel. Of having to clear my belongings so quickly and move out of my house. Of carrying my daughter out to the car. It was one of the lowest moments for me out there in Afghanistan. A moment I am not proud of.

The with a slam of the van door, he drove off. The vehicle overloaded with people and belongings. The carpets and blankets balancing on the roof. Pots, pans and yellow palm oil containers banging against the side of the windows as it wobbled along the dust track that served as a road. He didn’t go far. Just down the road were a cluster of empty compounds. He stopped outside one and began unloading his family there. I guess he must have wondered why WE didn’t take the empty one. I did…but then I remembered pooring over the aeiral map in the Company HQ during the plannign of the Op. This one was ideally situated, just on the edge of the village, with all the ticks in the box for the things that we needed. Plenty of buildings for accommodation for the lads, security, a wall around it, a field inside for an HLS…

‘Right’ said the boss, shaking me out of my own thoughts. ‘Lets get that mutt in the compound so we can get it searched and we can get inside. Then I can take this bloody body armour off.’

Memphis’ ears pricked up and he set off with his handler towards the house. After he had done his work, he came back to us. I looked over to him and was cheered by his waggy tail. He came to us and I tousled the fur round his neck. I stroked his back and he sat right in front of me and offered me his paw.

At least someone was pleased to see me that terrible day.

Importance…

I do try, but generally, my admin is shocking. I know you’d expect a member of the RAF and the armed forces in general to be good at admin, and to be sorted and stuff, but sadly, I think I am a little bit to ‘right brained’ for that.

My worst thing is paperwork…I try, but I lose paperwork. And the very worst for me is car paperwork – insurance documents, MOT’s that sort of thing, so that each year when the old Car Tax comes around, I have a mad panic trying to find the right bits of paper so that I can get my Tax disc…

But I know that this isn’t true for everyone, and I have a theory that the amount of paperwork you have is inversely proportional to the importance you place on it. So, there I am, with wads of paperwork…a form for this, a paper for that…and they end up all over the place. Each important paper has an important place for it…not that I can remember where each one is.

But I was shown a different way out in Afghan. The main bulk of my job was dealing face-to-face with locals, with their problems, their desires for building projects, claims for damages caused by our troops out on the ground.

And bits of paper were amazingly important to the locals. And with a piece of paper, even though the vast, vast majority of the people couldn’t read what was on the paper – be it in English or even written in Pashtu by one of the interpreters, it was the most important thing in the world.

Even when comparing it to money – it was worth more to them. It became power. It became credibility. It became a promise.

The usual case would be, for instance, a patrol would walk across a field, and a farmer would come up to them and ask if the government would help to build a well for his farm and the surrounding compounds. In the area we were, at the time, there was very little government representation and so the locals would use the British as a conduit to get information to their representatives. The Patrol Commander would give the farmer a bit of paper with the details on – exactly where the well would be, who would be building it, how many people would benefit…and so on. And then the farmer would LOOK AFTER THAT BIT OF PAPER.

And when I say LOOK AFTER, I mean guard with his life. It became more important than we would treat our passport. More important than anything. Despite it being just a scrap out of a notebook that was scrawled in tricky handwriting because writing is difficult in thick gloves, with a rifle in your hand bent on a knee in a field, it was treated like some ancient and valuable manuscript by the Afghan. The local would then keep it safe and bring it long to a ‘projects clinic’ held by me at the Check Point where I would collate all the details of potential projects, interview the local, and write a submission for the project to go off to the government so that they could make a decision about which one to build.

I often was giving out these ‘chits’ as we called them and once I had written it down the local would always treat the paper the same way, in fact the farmer would always do exactly the same thing.

After giving the chit to the man, he would always look at it, as though he was reading it. Smile broadly, and wave it a gently in the air. He would then reach inside his jacket pocket – local farmers out there always worse a single or double breasted suit type jacket over the top of their traditional ‘dish-dashes’ (even in the high summer) – and pull out a small plastic bag. Maybe like a money bag used at the bank. Or maybe like a ‘plastic pocket’ that students use at collage, maybe just a thin, clear, plastic bag. He would then take the paper and fold it just once or twice, and then place in reverently in the bag and return the bag to his jacket and pat the pocket saying ‘Manana’ (Pashtu for ‘thank you’).

And the following Monday morning at the projects clinic the man would turn up – having come straight from farming in his fields, often barefoot, most of the time with filthy hands, covered with the rich Helmandi soil, and sit down in front of me and fish out the paper and pass it to me.

I was always amazed that even though the farmers lived in very poor conditions, with very poor houses, often un-educated, that the paper would still be pristine, perfect. The paper was more important than anything.

The movement of pieces of paper was amazing, and the importance placed on them was incredible. ‘He wants a chit’ would be one of the common phrases that the interpreters would say to me, so much that I quickly learned what it was and often, when they were asking for a chit for damage (that often hadn’t actually been caused by us) to a compound or a field, then I would, without the need for a ‘terp be able to say ‘Ya! Ya chit!’ – (No! No Chit!) and go on our way.

Project chits were important to the locals, but by far the most important to them were when I had to give out a cut for genuine damage. Take, for instance, early in the tour of the Rifles lads, who were learning to drive the massive Huskey vehicles through the tiny, twist-turny streets of the villages. Occasionally the drivers would not quite make it round a bend without clipping a building and damaging it. Here the local would rightly make a claims complaint. He wall might be knocked down or his door frame damaged. And as we had caused the damage we would have to pay to put it right.

The proper procedure would be for a claims form to be raised and given to the owner of the building and he would go along to Lashkah Gar to get his money to repair. I would fill in this form, providing evidence of the damage and proof that it had been caused by us and then give this to the local. This paperwork – several pages of form (god bless bureaucracy!) would be treated with reverence folded and placed in that same small plastic bag and looked after as though lives depended upon it.

It’s a good lesson really. Maybe I should follow their lead. They never lost any paper. They always knew where to find the important paperwork. They wouldn’t spend hours searching through drawers and folders and envelopes searching for their MOT documents…to make sure that those bits of paper that are really important to me are kept safe…I should just get a small plastic bag…

Beginning of (another) Great Adventure…

Life is an adventure.

I believe this quite firmly.  I think that we can either get on with life or it can just fly past us.

I didn’t always think this way. Once I was quite happy to potter on and let life happen around me.  It wasn’t an adventure, it was a meander. A gentle sway through the world.

And this is ok.  If that is you, then fine! That is what you want – good for you.  But (and this is getting a bit needlessly ‘Trainspotting-esque’ here) I chose not to think that way. I choose to live life to the full.  To do as much as possible.  To get a lot of ‘experiences’ in my bag so that (a) I can bore my grand-children to death about it and (b) hope that it might make me as better and as good a ‘me’ as I can be.

That was why I chose to go to Afghan last year.  It was a year long marathon that took me well outside my comfort zone.  It pushed me to the edge of me physically – and one rainy night on the Training Land just behind Corunna Barracks it pushed me to the edge of me mentally.  I was close to quitting that night. But I got a lot of support from the lads and lasses I was with and I had a sleep and a laugh at the situation I had gotten myself into and realised…THIS was living.  I realised that in the long run I wanted to go to Afghan to prove to help the people over there.  And if that meant it tested me to the limit, so be it.

Me Versus Afghan.  Me Versus IEDs, being shot at, living in the back of beyond with few comforts.  Me seeing things and doing things that would scare my mum (if she’d have been around to see it) and me testing myself against myself to see if I can measure up. Sort of Me  Versus Me.

And I did all that.  I found that at times I didn’t measure up to what I wanted to be, but HEY! Life is an adventure and it takes you to places. That means it’s also a bit of a journey (oh God, this is getting all ‘X-factor’ now!) and we learn things on the way. I am not at the end of my my adventure (life) and so I still have things to learn about myself…so I can do more stuff and learn more about me and embody my maxim that ‘Experience isn’t something you have – it’s something you use’.

I want to keep pushing myself and keep testing myself. And that is why I have just started another adventure.

I am running the 2012 Virgin London Marathon.  In April. The 22nd. That’s just 107 days away.

Now I am not a very fit guy. I am not a fast guy, but I like to think I have stamina.  I don’t go fast, but I plod and I get there.  And I need something to drive me – to push me on.  So running a marathon is not too crazy an idea for me.  I might not do it fast, and it might hurt me to do it, but I think it is – like going to Afghan was – an achievable aim.  It holds risks (not life-threatening obviously) and challenges, and it needs me to become more focussed, more determined, more dedicated – AND THIS IS A GOOD THING FOR ME.

And I am doing it for a charity too of course.  I am doing it for the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund – who’s aim is to support the RAF family whenever and wherever it is needed. My family has a bit of history with the RAFBF – my father received help from them in the past when he needed it.  He was still serving at the time and a family tragedy meant that he needed help and support. The RAFBF provided that help and support. So I feel we sort of owe them.

And if I can help them and that help is by running a marathon…then I will! And of course this means that you can too.  When I was in Afghan, blog readers and Twitter followers were very kind, generous and supportive.  From messages of goodwill through to sending me out ‘welfare’ and ‘goodie’ boxes (which I enjoyed eating and sharing around with my fellows at the Check Point) you all helped and supported me out there.

And once again I ask you to help and support me.  You can of course provide me with encouragement and support – and call me out when I don’t want to go for a run on a wet and windy Sunday morning – but you can also support me AND the RAF Benevolent Fund by sponsoring me to complete the run.  You can visit my charity donations web-page here – www.virginmoneygiving.com/RAFairman Please, anything that you can give would be amazing and will go a long way to help those people who are part of the RAF family who require a little help in their time of need.

And of course, as I undertake this adventure – this journey – I will be keeping you informed on here with tales of my training, and if possible stories of how the RAFBF has helped and continues to help those Airmen and Airwomen who need it.

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