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World Book Day…

It’s World Book Day. 

And here to ‘celebrate’ that, is an extract from something I have been working on for about a year now. It’s a novel about a Multiple – a section of infantry – in Afghanistan. It’s fiction. Not real. I need to make that clear. 

Anyway, I have a first draft off the book finished and I am starting work on a second, revised draft. It’s taking me a while as I have never written fiction, or put a book together before so I am sort of all over the place. But anyway, here is a stand alone piece that you can have a read of. And yes, I know there are a lot of abbreviations and jargon in the piece, but it’s part of a greater work and the terms are all explained elsewhere. I don’t think the language takes away from the content or the readability.

So, let me know what you think. After all, I’d kind of like all you good people to be the people who’d be buying a published novel of my work…

It had been a long couple of days for the Multiple. The final exercise had been wet and cold, with snow still on the ground that melted overnight to form huge patches of thick cold, wet, mud.  They had moved locations twice in the course of the exercise so far and were tired beyond belief. They knew that end-ex would be called the following morning, and were already looking forward to the post-ex pint and pizza party that they would have. 

But they were still there, in the mud and cold of Salisbury Plain at the moment.  They’d been told that they were the advance party that would be moving into a new village that had, as yet, not had any contact with the British forces.  They were up early and heading off over the hillside in the dark to get there.  The route had been convoluted and difficult.  Against Booty’s better judgement, they had stuck to the high ground, mainly to keep out of the mud and mire of the valleys, but this itself had meant that they had not been as stealthy as they could be, often being silhouetted against the skyline of the coming day.   

They’d not made good time either as they’d been taking an extra man with them – an attached Navy  man who would be acting as a Stabilisation and Reconstruction Officer when in theatre.  He’d been a nightmare, he’d dropped a mag off his rifle, forgotten his NVGs and then had tripped over and fallen into some mud.  He’d really held them up, hopelessly searching for the magazine in the dark. Without night vision, when walking through the tussocked grass fields he’d constantly tripped and couldn’t keep up with the pace of the multiple.   All this meant that they’d arrived at the stepping off point to enter the village late. 

‘Right,’ said Mason. ‘We go onto the square and we make contact with the local elder.’  He looked at the Navy man ‘That’s when you do your reconstruction bit – asking them what they want and such, whilst my lads proved point defence in the square.  Booty, you run the cordon to the north of the square, Tee, you run it to the south.’  He continued to brief the team, as quickly as he could, trying to make up the time that had been lost. 

From their viewpoint on a small rise overlooking the ‘village’ they could see that it was nothing more than three barns around a courtyard.  This courtyard would be the market, and the barns would be playing Afghan compounds. There was an open entry from the south, with a track leading out to open fields to the north.  To the east they could see a small alleyway that led away from the courtyard between two large walls.  It was difficult for them to imagine that it was an Afghan village, with the red brick and the slate tiles of the barns and their walls standing against the green of the Salisbury Plain grasslands.  It looked nothing like the landscape and construction of the buildings of the lands they had been fighting gin for 10 years. It had been built to train the British Army in the fighting of wars in Northern Europe an snow was obliquely out of place being used to pretend to be Afghanistan.  Making it worse was they were of course training for a summer tour and the heat of Afghan in, in the freezing cold mire and mud of an English winter.

They slogged on.  Slowly and carefully trailing down from the hillock towards the village.  Badge led them along trying to avoid the worst of the mud and the filth.  Tentatively they entered the ‘market square’.   

This was populated by a motley collection of people. All in civilian clothes were volunteers from other units who were used as actors and locals to train the British.  Some were actual Afghans there to push the military ‘terps, some ex and serving Gurkhas there just to speak their own language so they could confuse and hinder the British.  There were even some soldiers there who were real amputees, set up to play injured people, with fake blood, but real absent limbs to focus the minds of the trainees. Mostly though there were just squad dies, of both sexes, there to act as villagers and local populace.  Hardly actors but still playing a role. 

There were about 10-15 of these ‘actors’, stooging about in the courtyard, trying to pretend to be doing their shopping, or just hanging out together in the way that Afghan men do at a market.  They looked at the Multiple as it patrolled into the square.  Booty went about setting up the defence, Badge, Smidge and Houseman went to the northern exit, and took up positions.  Stretch, Bartman, Lambo and Tee stayed at the southern exit, as Horewood and Booty Moved to cover the alleyway; Horewood facing down the alley, whilst Booty faced back inside to the see Mason and the Crab start talking to a man who had approached them.   

Booty looked to the south and saw a man in a green Snugpak puffa jacket come out of a doorway in the wall of the eastern building. The actor went across to where Bartman and Lambo were sitting crouched against the wall.  He said something and the two uniformed soldiers shoo-ed him away.  Suddenly there was a flash and a bang and a lot of smoke.  The actor had detonated a Battle Noise Simulator and a smoke grenade and then threw himself on the ground.  He screamed. There was chaos in the square.  The locals running in every which way they could with the aim of confusing the Multiple even more.  Another local who had been sitting near to Bartman threw a blanket off his legs and screamed and screamed.  

He was one of those limbless injured ex-soldiers who was now playing a role he knew from first hand experience.  The stumps of his legs had been made up to look injured and bloodied.  He screamed at Lambo.  ‘Contact IED – suicide bomber!’ shouted Booty. 

Out of the door that the bomber had come from stepped a uniformed Captain in a high-vis jacket.  He looked at Lambo and Bartman and said ‘Sorry lads, but he’ pointing at the pretend suicide bomber lying on the floor ‘has gone and killed you. Sorry. If you wouldn’t mind getting down on the floor.’ 

Bartman and Lambo smiled at each other, and relaxed onto their backs on the cold stones of the courtyard.  They would have no further active part in this scenario and would be dragged and carried around from now on. Lambo gave a thumbs-up to Bartman.

Tee however, shouted ‘Man down, man down!’  

Mason stood in the middle of the square and looked around.  In front of him the man playing the local elder smiled at him and then started to shout into his face ‘Help us!’ over and over. He pointed at the amputee lying on the floor.  He had been joined by a woman who was screaming at Tee to help her.  To add to the confusion the RAF stabilisation man was now lying on the floor with his eyes closed. Booty ran over and kicked him. ‘Get up you stupid, fish-head.  It’s not fucking real.’

Mason still just stood there. The smoke started to clear and he could see Tee and Stretch trying to pull Bart and Lambo into the middle of the square.  ‘We need to get out of here’ said Booty. 

Mason’s mouth opened but no noise came out. Booty took over. He turned to the northern exit and called Smidge and Houseman to go to the casualties aid.  Badge slowly moved into the square, standing on the corner of the northern most building.  From somewhere there came rifle fire, but given the confusion and the noise of the locals it was difficult to tell where it was coming from.  ‘Contact small arms’ shouted Tee. 

‘Yeah, thanks for that’ said Booty. ‘I can hear you know.  Colour! We need to go.’

Smidge and Stretch dragged Lambo by his body armour straps, one on each side of him. ‘You fat bastard. Lambo’ said Smidge.

‘OI! Watch my ass on these stones,’ replied Lambo. 

‘Aren’t you meant to be dead?’ asked Stretch. ‘You are the biggest moaning dead git I’ve ever come across.’

Mason was still standing there in the centre of the square. ‘We need to find out where the shooting is coming from’

‘Sod that we need to get out to the north, it’ll be coming from the south, from that hill over there,’ screamed Booty. 

‘No. No…’ Mason looked to the north, to the wide exit, ‘They are pushing us up there…’ 

‘Don’t be daft man, if they are going to push us anywhere it’ll be down that alley.’

‘That’s where we are going.’ Mason turned in the direction of the alley. ‘Horewood, lead on.’

‘What?’ Booty was irate. His face flushing red with anger. ‘That’s a VP. It’s mental to go down there!’

‘The shooting is from the north, we…we go that way.’ He nodded to himself.

Horewood led on down the alley, followed by the Navy man, and then Tee and Houseman dragging Bartman, Mason the followed and then Smidge and Stretch with Lambo. Finally Booty and Bartman entered the alleyway.  As Badge backed into the corner, one of the locals smiled a knowing broad smile and waved at him. The High-Viz wearing Captain appeared again at the head of the alley and stood in front of Horewood. ‘And stop there,’ he said to the Rifleman. ‘You are all dead.’ He looked at Mason and said ‘Wrong choice I’m afraid, Colour. The scenario has murder-holes along the walls of this alley with Insurgents chucking grenades in here. It’d be all a bit of a mess to be honest. Nasty.’

Mason closed his eyes and sighed. Booty looked at Lambo who was slowly getting up and trying to wipe the mud off the arse of his trousers.  Booty shook his head. Lambo rolled his eyes and shook his head in return.

 

Please post your comments below…

The Colour of the Poppy Doesn’t Matter, But What We Remember Does…

It’s that time of year again. When we remember. Remember the fallen, remember the dead.  Remember those who have given their lives in wars throughout the last 100 years or so, in service of us, those left behind to have a free, decent and peaceful life 

And as part of this remembrance we buy and wear poppies.  And as with everything today, this has become a political act.  We buy red poppies, we wear white poppies, purple poppies, even black poppies. Remembering according to our politics, remembering according to our beliefs.  

I am not going to get in to the outrage caused and felt by the colour of the poppy. Christ, there is room in the garden for poppies of all colours – as long as we are remembering that people died and were killed and fought and suffered for us to have the privilege – the honour – to chose the colour of our poppy. By exercising the choose to wear what the hell we want – or even NOT to wear – we are honouring those men and women.  They died so that we can exercise that choice.  

We don’t dishonour them by not wearing the right colour.  We might dishonour them by what we say though. Calling a poppy a symbol of hate or warmongering, or a symbol of cowardice or a symbol of disrespect does disrespect those who gave their all. It doesn’t matter what colour poppy is worn. As long as some form of remembering is carried out.  Remembering that they lived and died in terrible conditions, facing great hardships that I hope, and pray (even though I am not a religious man) that no one would ever have to suffer again.  Because, at the end of the day we are remembering that people died.  

They were here, then they were not. And in the instant between the two states they felt pain, fear, hurt, loss, disappointment, anger.  And none of those feelings and emotions are good feelings.  They might have only lasted for a second or two – or they may have been long drawn out periods of extreme suffering only relieved by a blessed death. But none of the deaths were good.  None of them individually made the world better.  we can hope, though, that by their fight, by their sacrifice we might learn. 

But there is another reason to wear a poppy. Not all those who have suffered in war or fighting have had that blessed release. They were hurt, either in body or mind, and they continue to suffer.  They face years of pain, struggle and hurt.  So we buy and wear poppies to raise money to support and help them.  We remember the dead and support the living.  We donate our money to repair the lives of those who have been hurt in their service to this country, but who didn’t die.  

Our charity pound goes into the box and we wear our poppy, thinking of the dead.  But we should also remember the living.  In this house between my wife and myself, we have about 45 years of cumulative service. Me 25 years, her 20 years.  And her service in the Army was cut short by injury.  Not in the fields of Afghanistan. Not in the streets of Iraq.  No, in a field in Germany, on an exercise, ‘tabbing’ – marching 60km, carrying a huge load – she compressed two vertebrae in her spine. This was sorted out, but slowly over time, she got referred pain in her arm, caused by nerve damage from her accident.  

Eventually this nerve pain has made it so that she could not continue in her job in the Military as a Medic and she was eventually Medically Discharged a year ago. Since that time she has gone downhill. Her nerve pain has extended to lower back pain, lower leg pain, and a shuffling, slow moving gait that means she has become virtually house bound. This has had a similar effect on her mental state. That has gone downhill too. Not just by being married to me, but the loss of status, sense of self, sense of worth that has gone with being tossed on the military scrapheap…it’s pushed her down too.

And we together have had to fight.  She has been given a War Pension for the injury, but her problems mean that I am unable to work full time, and whilst we are just about ok, and just about keeping our heads above water, we have very few luxuries.  45 years of service and we struggle to get by.

Her War Pension, and her disability benefits are no-where near the figures that equate to her disabilities, and we are fighting, fighting fighting to get them changed to reflect the way she – we – live our lives because of her service to this country.

As she is injured, we are members of various support groups that help us. Me, I am the member of a group that supports the carers of Wounded Injured and Sick service personnel.  And We share our stories, our moods and our troubles and even, when they happen, our successes.  And in this sharing I see that we are not the only ones fighting.  The stories are terrible.  With stories of unfairness, of bad treatment, of injustice, of discrimination, cover-ups and errors.  

People injured in service having to buy their own prosthetic legs.  Pay for their own treatment.  Fund their own adaptations to their houses.  People forced to leave the service they have loved and given their all for and forgotten about and ignored.  

Thankfully the Charities don’t forget them.  Help 4 Heroes, the Royal British Legion, Combat Stress, SSAFA, the individual Benevolent Funds and many many more organisations provide support, both physical and mental to people.  And they do it through the donation of YOUR charity pound.

But, and here’s my rather long winded point, they shouldn’t have to.  It should not be the responsibility of the charity sector to support and aid our injured.  Our own fight seems to be a fight with the government itself.  It seems that governments of all colours throughout the years have consistently said they have supported and cared for the injured of wars and conflicts. But the evidence, clear for all to see is that they haven’t. They don’t.  In fact, from our standpoint, and the view from a lot of other injured and their carers, is that the governments through time have done exactly the opposite.  They have obfuscated, obscured and obstructed help and support to the very people they owe the biggest debt to.

For soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines exist to do one thing.  To do the will of the people through the government of the day.  To do our dirty work.  To go to places that we wouldn’t want to go to, and do things that we wouldn’t want to do for our good. For our freedom. They do it for many reasons, far too many to go into now, but one of those is that they do it for a reward and do it knowing that if they give their all they will be cared for.  This Psychological Contract is the basis of the serviceman’s continued sacrifice.  The soldier will give up his personal freedom to say ‘No’ in return for pay.  He will give up his liberty to fight for the people who pay him.  He will, if required place himself in danger and death in return for knowing that he will be cared for by the country.

Sadly this is not happening.  The country isn’t fulfilling the contract – well, actually the people are…that charity pound again is doing it… but it shouldn’t have too. Our debt to troops doesn’t end when they finish their service, like our debt to the dead doesn’t end just because they are dead.  Our tax pounds should be spent on supporting the injured just as much as it is supporting the serving.  Governments have abdicated responsibility for our veterans to the charity sector.  They have done so for years, no one party better or worse than the other.  They have used our servicemen in war, but forgotten about them in peace.  And in forgetting about them they have broken the contract with them.  Thankfully the people of this nation haven’t and they, each year, provide money to the Charity sector to help and support veterans.

But they shouldn’t have to. YOU shouldn’t have to.  Veterans, the wounded, the sick, the injured, who have served this country are forgotten about by the powers that be.  And the governments should be ashamed of themselves.  We are all proud of of forces, and I can tell you that the wounded, sick and injured are proud of the fact that the people care about them but saddened, on a daily basis that they have to fight the government for the care and support, financial, physical, and mental that they are owed.  And that is our national shame.

 

From Litter to Daniel Pelka to Syria, are we in danger of becoming a ‘walk-on-by’ Society…?

I spent 25 years in the military. The abiding principle of military service is that service itself. Service before self. Your mate, your buddy, your team, your unit, your organisation, your nation, your people. It is all about thinking about how you can help the person next to you – because in doing so, you help the next level up that chain all the way up to helping the whole country; doing the bidding of the nation through the government.

And as a serviceman – you just do it. It becomes second nature. You look after your buddy. Because if you look after them, they will be able to look after you. When I arrived in Afghanistan, I was the only RAF man in a Check Point of 40 Paras. I expected that life was going to be tough, that I would be ignored and left alone. Not at all, they welcomed me, checked my kit, organised my pack and what I carried so that my kit carried matched the reality of the ground and the situation I was in. The could have walked on by and left me to myself – but they didn’t. They knew that if they helped me, their life would be easier, and I could then perform better on the ground and be a better part of the team…of the community that we were part of.

But I am no longer in the military, and I have noticed something. Something worrying, disturbing. A creeping selfishness. A walk-on-by attitude. A somebody else’s problem out look where if something doesn’t directly effect someone, they will do nothing about it.

Around the village I live in, people walk by litter. People don’t pick up their dog’s mess on the pavement. It’s a low level of walk-on-by…but it is here where it starts. And where does it end? It ends with Stafford Hospital. It ends with Baby P. With Daniel Pelka. To objecting to help Syrians gassed by their government.

It’s a big jump from some litter dropped by kids in the park, to a regime gassing their own people with chemical weapons, but the levels are there. If what happens doesn’t directly effect you and your life; if you can walk around a corner and forget about what you have seen…if you can lock yourself inside your house and close off the world to yourself, then why worry about it? Why do something about it? One of the biggest arguments I heard against intervention is that the situation ‘isn’t our problem’ – that we always intervene and ‘somebody else should do it’. People being gassed is not our problem? People dying is somebody else’s responsibility to sort out? We should have done more far earlier before 100,000 people were killed in a pointless civil war that will only have one outcome in the end anyway – the removal of the regime (hell, no regime lasts forever).

The Daniel Pelka case review makes terrible reading. Agencies not communicating with each other. Teachers raising a report and then carrying on without any further input. People not challenging the parents. Not talking to the child. Walking on by past his suffering. In the Khyra Ishaq case, rights of the mother were considered, but not her responsibilities. She wasn’t challenged, learning from the case was not passed on. Peter Connelly – Baby P – was failed by carers who lacked urgency and were incompetent. In all cases the approach was inadequate, communication failed, there was no follow through, the agencies were not joined up.

This is all very depressing. It leads to the terrible idea that the nature of the human being is to be uncaring, to walk-on-by. To only care about themselves. We are happy to pump out car exhaust carbon dioxide and raise the temperature of the earth, but not care about polar bears dying because the ice they live on is melting. If it doesn’t effect us, we can walk on by. It’s a sad indictment of ourselves as a species and as a society. We are turning into a culture where we are happy to say something is very sad, and someone should do something about it, but we are overwhelmed by the amount of things to do. If we start to have to do something, then we feel we have to do everything and that is just too much. We live busy lives (so we are told – doing what exactly?) and so we do very little about what matters. People walk-on-by. And if we walk on by the litter, we can simply say ‘something must be done’ about the state of child protection – but not actually do anything about it ourselves. We can let people die in hospitals, left in filthy sheets by organisations that pressure people to chase targets and not quality of care. We can eventually say that a genocide carried out in another country is ‘somebody else’s job’ to sort out. We should, as a society, as a nation, be ashamed that we let these sorts of things carry on.

And I don’t know why. I can’t figure it out? People are, on the whole, caring, loving, generous people. We give to charity in great quantities even though our own incomes are pushed and squeezed – Help4Heroes and Children In Need make record amounts of charity income each year, but we live in areas that are dirty, full of litter. In a nation where people die in situations are easily avoidable. Are we assuaging the guilt of rushing past a beggar on the street by rushing home and texting Sport Relief and donating to them? I don’t know the answers.

But it is not all bad. There are those that do oppose this sinking of our society into selfishness. I followed the village vicar up the lane yesterday, and watched as he picked up the litter dropped by children at the bus-stop that morning. We read about Amanda Donnelly and her daughter – the so called Angel of Woolwich – who stopped their care to sit by the dying body of Trumpeter Lee Rigby. About Tina Nimmo who tried to restore some sort of order at the scene of that murder. We hear about the soldier in Afghanistan who threw himself on a hand-grenade to save the lives of his patrol mates.

We has the capacity do so so much evil, and to let other people get away with that evil, but we should fight it at every stage. We should fight the failures in child protection, not just say ‘why wasn’t something done’ but pressure for changes in the system, so that targets and paperwork are not the important issues – but the people involved in the cases are the important issues. There is no difference to walking on by some litter to not reporting a worry of child abuse heard through the wall of next doors house. If we let it go on, we will sink slowly as a society and as a nation. We should take the example of those who challenge, of those who do ‘do something’. We should all ‘do something today’. We might not save a life, but we might make our lives and the lives of those around us a little bit better. And that link will be passed on up the chain and the world will be a better place, because, the world is what we make it.

What kind of future do we want for ourselves…?

We are at the fork in the road that leads to our future. If we go down one fork, then the future is dark, cloudy and dangerous. It’s a future where dodgy regimes all over the world can get their chemistry sets out, and knock up some poison gas and use it however they want, on whomsoever they want. The other fork is one where despite the fact that bad people will do bad things – there are certain lines that are never allowed to be crossed.

‘If you tolerate this, then your children will be next…’

We are facing a future where it is either OK to use chemical weapons – or it’s not. And every rational, decent and normal person in the world really knows the answer to that dilemma. It’s not ok to use chemical weapons. Ever. It’s not ok to kill people – your own people or other countries people – but on a scale of ‘not right’ then gas is about as evil as you can get. At all stages we should have been working for a way for the civil war in Syria to have been stopped. It is not ok for people to die, by any means. But our inaction to stop something in the past is no reason for not doing it now or in the future.

We all put up with things, until they reach a point where we can’t do it anymore. From our neighbour’s noisy party music, through to our husband’s visits to the pub…eventually we get to a point where we cannot accept that anymore and we do something about it.

We are at that point in Syria. Yes, we should not have allowed thee government to shell residential districts, but it happened and we – the right thinking people of the world – did. But the gassing of people is a point where we have to stand up and say ‘enough’. You will do this no more. You will not do this. And we will make sure that the precedent is set that nobody else ever thinks they will get away with it either.

We might have to put up with a world were people kill each other and blow each other up, but we will not put up with a world where it is ok to gas people to death. To paraphrase Orwell, all killing is wrong, but some killing is more wrong than other killing. 

We simply do not want a world were the use of Gas weapons is ok.

 

‘The boy who cried wolf…’

The problem is, that we are faced with a public who’s perception is cynically built on previous events. But we have to remember something else. A story. A fairy story. Remember the boy who cried wolf? He said there were wolves coming to attack the sheep when there weren’t. They said there were chemical weapons in Iraq, when there weren’t. They walked into dodgy and dangerous wars overseas by crying ‘Danger! Warning! Bad things!’ even when there weren’t any. They made the worse things worse than they were to justify what they wanted to happen. They made the facts fit the cause and the justification to fit the end result.

But now we find ourselves in a situation were the boy is right. The bloody wolves are circling. They are there. Mouths snarling, teeth wet from drool and slavering at the thought of doing what the hell they want out any response to it. And now when the governments who shouted so loudly in the past are shouting again, some people respond in the same way they did in the past. ‘They are wrong to do this…they are warmongers…they don’t want peace…they make money out of war…’ Ad nauseum. But farmers, your sheep are about the be eaten. The regimes who don’t care about what is right and what is good are going to get their way. If we do nothing, they will be allowed to do what they want, and they will do it all the more because we do nothing this time. Future regimes will look at our inactivity and say – ‘They won’t do anything because they will be faced with criticism at home’. We have seen the lack of appetite in the US administration for getting involved in ‘another foreign war’.

 

‘For evil to flourish…’

And here is the rub. As the proverb says, ‘For evil to flourish, all it needs is for good men to do nothing.’

If we do nothing, then evil will flourish. More people will suffer. More people will be killed. More children will be gassed. 

So now is the time to stand up. And we should stand up and do it because it is the right thing to do. The perpetrators of gassing of innocents should be identified, targeted and wiped out. Yes, more killing, more destruction. But sadly, the only thing the people who do such acts actually understand is just that. They won’t stop by us ignoring them. They will get more brazen. More courageous to do more bad things. And if we allow things like the gassing of civilians to go unpunished then we embolden the bad people.

And so the argument goes round, because if we tolerate this, then our children will be next.

Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers…

Apparently, you need a new car. A bigger house. A new TV. A sofa. A big kitchen, with shiny metal appliances. A wifi enabled music streaming device that brings you all the music the world has ever produced direct to your ears. You need to eat out, you need to eat in. You need to visit friends. You need to stay at home. You need to have an ethically sourced table made from trees that wanted to be in your house that you never, ever, put your feet on. You need to stop smoking, you need to exercise, you need to go away on holiday to sun drenched beaches that enrich your life with wonder and awe. You need to visit the country and relax in the gentle surroundings of a calm way of life that reminds us of what life once was. You need to have a job earning £50k a year, you need to be busy, you need to be successful.

What a load of bollocks.

I don’t want to preach.  I don’t want to tell you what to do.  I just want to tell you something that I have figured out.  

I have figured out that one person’s definition of success is not the same as someone else’s. What works for you doesn’t work for me.  What works for me may not work for you. 

You see, I have figured out that my definition of success isn’t all those things in listed up there.  They don’t matter to me.  And it is me searching for those things and feeling pressured into wanting those things and feeling that I should want those things that has made me sad.  

So I don’t want them. They are not the things that make me happy.  They are the lines being fed to me by the people who tell me that I should want them, but they aren’t really interested in me.  They tell me I want them because it is in their own interest to want them. 

I want to be happy – hell, it’s the depressives mantra – but even that was wrong.  I don’t want to be happy.  In searching for happiness I am doing the same thing as I am searching for the big car and the stainless steel german washing machine…fighting, struggling, being told.  YOU WILL BE HAPPY. But that’s wrong. By looking for happiness you don’t see what you have and that happiness is not searching, but realising. 

And the sooner I stop wanting happiness, the faster it will happen. Because by not being happy, I am saying this is what i want and I haven’t got it, so I am sad because I haven’t got it. 

So by logic, it comes down to one thing. Don’t want happiness, Alex. Don’t search for it.  Look out of the window at that fantastic view.  Look at what you have and what you do and how you do it and realise that, actually, if you just accept…then it will all be easier.

This may sound like bollocks and may sound like a load of tree hugging-hippy crap, but sod it. I need to write this down. I need to get this sorted in my mind. I need to define it for myself and propose it to myself and agree on it.

And that is what I have done. i am successful by NOT having a fancy car, or a posh house with integrated washing machines and an internet connected fridge that orders my cheese.  I am not going to be happy by searching for happiness.  I am going to be happy by realising that I have all I want. And make my way accordingly.

Detached…

I have been out of the military for just under three months, although I have lived away from the military life for about 6 months.  And as I have said several time I have not really missed military life.  The people, now there’s another thing… but the life itself…not really.

I am enjoying my part time work, and enjoying my life in the countryside and even more enjoying village life, with all that I need – the small shop and post office and the pub, and my daughter, Lily, has her school just a few hundred yards down the road.

But I don’t miss the military life.  Don’t miss living behind the wire, don’t miss the community of other people who work in the same place as you, living in the same place as you, doing the same things as you.

Well, I thought I didn’t miss it.

But the other day as part of one of my jobs, I drove past RAF Cosford, where I once lived and worked as part of my posting as an instructor.

And that afternoon I felt a sudden pang of pain.  The fence at the edge of the camp was no different from when I was on the other side of it, but it suddenly seemed a million miles high. And thick.  As I sat at the traffic lights waiting for the green light, the perimeter changed, in my imagination, from a chain link fence to a thick high wall. Impassible and impenetrable. 

Automatically, I checked my wallet was in my pocket, as I would have if I was going to to get my ID out as I passed through the gate. But it was pointless. My ID was not there. As I am no longer in the RAF, I have no ID.  None, other than a drivers licence and a couple of bank cards. And my library card. 

And I felt empty. I felt alone.  As the lights changed I pulled around the corner and sat looking through the fence at the Med Centre, the Dentists.  The all ranks club.  The building I used to work in.  Just 50 yards away.  50 yards might as well have been 50 million miles. It was unobtainable, separate, distinct. I saw trainees marching about.  An instructor parked his car outside the Med Centre and stared through the fence at me. Looked at me and must have wondered why was I staring through at him.  Maybe he took a mental note of my description and my car details, thinking of security. A different culture; a different life. I was no longer part of that.  I had no right to go on that camp anymore. 

And my detachment from the RAF became complete.  I am an ex-airman.  I am a civilian.  I am no longer special like those people in there.  

And I missed it.  Missed the ability to just go in there, to go to the gym, to just walk around as part of something bigger than just me. I felt alone. Because you see the RAF, the military, the armed forces are about being part of something bigger than just yourself. About being part of something with a history, tradition and meaning that is more than just one person and more indeed is more than the sum of all of it’s parts. It’s about belonging.  Your very identity is given from what you are and what you do.

And I was part of that, but now I am alone. What I stand for once was pride and uniform and honour and comradeship and serving others and putting my own needs behind those of the wider community and the country.  But now I am just me.  I might still personally embody those values but the visible symbol of that is now gone.  When people looked at me once, they saw a serviceman, but now they just see a person. They might be kind and say veteran, but I am no longer a serviceman. I have handed that on to the next generation. I am just an individual.  I can do what I want, go where I want, when I want, think what I want, say what I want, but that is no compensation for the fact I am no longer part of all that

But then.

I got home. And I realised something. It hit me like a bolt from the blue.  It hit me like a four year old running through the dining room to bash into me and hug my leg when I arrived in the house. 

I still am part of something bigger than just me.  I might miss being part of the RAF, but I still am part of this family.  And I am always going to be part of it.  It will always be there. 

As wil the RAF. I might have physically left the RAF.  I might no longer have the card that allows me access to a free gym and to free medical prescriptions and to not to have to worry about what clothes I was going to wear to work – but I will always be part of the RAF, like I will always be part of my family.  I will always have my brothers and sisters – my colleagues. I will always have those who served before me – my parents.  And I will always have my children – those who will follow me into the service and make their sacrifices and maybe give their lives.  

Life goes on. And even though I am not in the RAF, it will always be part of me, and the material things that showed I was part of it are just that, material things that tarnish, fade, rust and decay.  But my memories will be with me, all around me, inside me, like my family is.

And will always be.

Play Fair…

In Afghanistan, we rely upon friendly Afghan local civilians to help us do our work out there.  When I was working out there, helping in the reconstruction work, it would have been impossible for me to engage, liaise and progress any of the projects there without the help of Afghan interpreters.  I lived with these people, mostly from Kabul or off to the West of the country, for just over six months.  I shared food with them, jokes with them, my life with them.  In one fraught incident, I probably owe my physical well-being to one of them.   They went pretty much everywhere with me, and without them I, and the other troops out in Helmand, would be just wasting their time.

And the British Government is turning it’s back on them. After the pull out of Iraq, the British gave – en masse – asylum to the interpreters that had helped us in that conflict, but the ‘terps in Afghanistan are going to have to apply for the same asylum on a ‘case-by-case’ basis.  The glorious British government says that the previous scheme was “was expensive, complex to administer and took little account of any individual need for protection”.

Well I say shame.

Shame on you, British Government.  Shame on you.  

Turn you back on these men who have risked their lives just as much as any Squaddie from Leeds.  They wear our uniform.  They follow our rules and laws in theatre.  The take the same risks as our troops. They are injured and die and risk injury and death in just the same way and a British soldier.

But once we are gone, they are going to be left to fend for themselves.  

People like Kareen, Abu, Abdul, Abdullah, Mohammed*.  People I lived and worked with.  They accepted our pay – like I did out there – and put their lives on the line – and not just for their own country but for US as well. To allow us out there to do our jobs.  To do the job the government sent us to do.  

Haroon*, from Kabul, was shot through the arm whilst out on patrol.  On the same patrol, in the same engagement, one of our own troops was killed.  I bumped into Haroon whilst on my way home, outside the shop in Camp Bastion.  He showed me his scar and told me he was soon to be heading back to the CP and would soon be back out on patrol.  Yes, he was paid for what he did (and paid well too) but to be shot and nearly die through loss of blood , and yet still want to return to do his job shows more than just wanting to take the money – it showed that he had put his trust in us to make his country a better place, and wanted to help us to make it so.

And unlike me, when the British pull out and return home, they will return home to…

Well, what will they return to? A stable and safe country where the insurgents are defeated and where no-one will remember the ‘sins’ of the past? I don’t think so. They will return to their homes where they will face fear, intimidation and the prospect of death for helping us to do our work.

That, is wrong. Plain and simple it is wrong.  Particularly when the precedent has been set differently for other people. The ‘terps of Iraq. The Gurkhas…remember them?  Allowed to settle in the UK after serving with the British Army.  How are the ‘terps of Afghanistan any different? Why are they not to be treated the same?

I can’t begin to understand the idea behind why the British have made this rule, and it makes it harder to understand when other NATO governments are doing just the opposite and are looking after their ‘terps.

It hurts me, and makes me ashamed that the government, once again, hasn’t the integrity to stand up for, and help people who have risked their all for us.

Mr Cameron, give ALL the ‘terps who have lived, worked and put their life on the line for us, the right to come and live in safety in this country.  

Play fair.

 

*Of course to protect the ‘terps who are still working out there, the names listed above have been changed.

An Empty Pot…

We all have good days.  We all have bad days.  But on the whole most days are average and go by unnoticed. We awake, rise, plod through our routines, eat, watch TV, maybe chat to friends, go to bed, sleep.  We get little highs, and little lows, but days, by and large, life and it’s grind goes by without any significant events.

No one upsets you, you upset no one. You bring a little light into the lives of people you touch by smiles, hellos and goodbyes.  You hold a door for someone.  Someone maybe catches the lift doors so you can jump in.  The world, whilst not being an eternal endless beach party, is not a dark and lonely place.

But.

For some people it is not like that.  To some people, those average days are the good days.  To some, those days when someone smiles at them, and they can smile back and mean it, are the days of endless summer.  And, to them, the bad days that others have are the average days, and worse their bad days are horrible.  Those days gnaw at their bones, close them in, lock them inside a bubble of hell that closes in, squashing their personality, changing them, making them into something smaller than themselves and turning them into something that they don’t want to be.

Lately I have been having a couple of good days.  Good for me.  Average for you…the sort of day where you get your jobs done, and you sit and relax and just not think about the day – just another day. But these last couple of days were the days of wine and roses for me.  Days when I thought was getting better.  But then I get a day like today. And I realise that I am not.  Back to square one.

Today is a day when I feel like everyone and everything is closing in on me. That there is too much to do, that I can’t even think of how to tackle it all.  I have paperwork to fill in, jobs to do, work to get on with, but I can’t face it.  I can’t face other people, because all I do is upset them.  I don’t want anyone around me as I will just be horrible and snappy at them and then that will make me feel worse about me. 

It’s taken me long enough to bring myself to write this, and I am doing it because after I have written I feel a lot better.  This writing, you see, is cathartic for me.  Unburdening myself. Like the feeling I got in Afghan when taking off the body armour at the end of a patrol. Of a weight lifting.  Which is why I have to do it.

I’ve been horrible this morning.  No patience.  Everyone has been in my way.  Too much is on my mind, too much is going round – and none of it will sort itself out.  The cloud of depression doesn’t allow any clarity of thought. It masks the solutions that everyone else can see. The worst thing about it is the realisation, just a minute later of what you have done. You know that you have irrationally snapped.  The facade has fallen and you have exploded and made whatever situation you were in a million times worse – worse for others involved, but the impact upon yourself…the realisation, the hate, the anger.  The feeling that you can’t go on like this any more, but that there is nothing you can do about it.

The feeling that you are ‘Slip Sliding Away’ as Paul Simon put it.  It’s funny how when you are  depressed that you can see somethings so clearly – but find it impossible to see other things. My depression has allowed me to see when things are about depression.  I see art and hear music and know that the artist was feeling the same way as me.  That the deep melancholy they suffered is the same as mine.  I see that so much. It is often the only time I will smile at a thought of my own. 

A knowing sniff and hunch of the shoulders. And a thought that is comforting for a second – I am not alone.  Someone else felt this way.  But then that resonance is broken and I am stuck in that internal world again.  I am trapped; voiceless, expressionless.  Like I want to scream and shout, but the words…the words don’t come.  Not even a guttural sound.  Nothing is inside you.  And it certainly isn’t able to come out.

An empty pot makes the most noise they say…

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.

We Could Be Heroes…

Today, 16th March 2012, is the 100th anniversary of the day that Captain Lawrence “Titus” Oates did an amazing thing. During the disaster that was the Expedition to the South Pole led by Captain Scott suffering from terrible frostbite on his feet, Oates realised that he was slowing the rest of the party down, and that his injury was putting the others in jeopardy. During a terrible storm he decided that he could not hold the rest back and made the decision to sacrifice himself so the others had a better chance to live. He made the famous quote ‘I’m just going outside. I may be sometime,’ and walked into the storm and was never seen again.

This is an amazing thing. He did an amazing thing. Sacrificed himself for others. Laid down his life for the greater good. He did a heroic thing. A true hero. From an age of heroes. Scott. Amundsen. Shackleton. Doers of great things.

Heroes.

We live in another heroic age. Or do we? Or do we live in a similar age, but just use the word ‘hero’ too much.

It’s an easy word. It trips of the tongue. But it is everywhere. Help for Heroes. Our Heroes. Even bloody Miniature Heroes. But does the over-use of the word devalue it? Are even the people we call heroes, actually heroes? What are heroes? What makes a hero?

I have often listed my heroes on this blog. Sqn Ldr Brian ‘Sandy’ Lane, Flt Sgt George ‘Grumpy’ Unwin, Grp Capt Willie ‘Tirpitz’ Tait, Ernest Shackleton. But why are they my heroes? What did they do that made them heroes to me?

Well they all were men of ‘distinguished courage or ability; admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.’ And they were all people who ‘in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal’. (Sorry I HAD to look on Dictionary.com.) They were a ‘standard or example for imitation or comparison’, and had ‘an exalted moral or mental character or excellence’.

And it came to me that suddenly the appending of the title hero to someone isn’t just about what they do. It’s not just about what they are. It’s all about a matter of perception. If you value a person, what they do, how they do it and more, what they stand for – than that person is a hero.

Maybe not a hero to everyone. What makes Shackleton a hero to me; you might think is a weakness. I don’t think that Scott is a hero – he was arrogant and didn’t listen to others, but Shackleton (who at times similarly didn’t listen to others) is a hero because he thought of others and worked so hard to make sure that all his crew survived a calamity.

A hero is someone who inspires you, makes you want to be better than you are. It’s subjective, not empirical. You can’t count or catalogue heroism. You just think something is heroic. You think he, or she is heroic. You think what they do is.

Clearly not everyone can do heroic things. And anyway, heroes are traditionally flawed. The ancient Greeks had a thing for heroes…Paris was vain. Achilles was brave and fierce but ultimately vulnerable. Hercules was noble and strong but murdered his own children! Modern heroes are similarly flawed. Scott was an egotist, Bader was arrogant. Mandela was a killer. Beckham is seen as an idiot.

But here’s the thing. Maybe everyone I listed there were just normal people. Maybe like everyone, a hero is just a normal person with problems, issues, weaknesses, faults.

I spent yesterday asking people over on Twitter what they considered made a hero. Who their heroes were. What made them heroes. And I got nearly a hundred responses. And it was interesting how different each one was. There were lots along similar line – that heroes put other people first; that heroes are brave. That heroes sacrifice themselves for others. Some people were adamant that heroes could only wear a uniform. That they had to work for the greater good. That they are parents, they are soldiers, sailors, airmen. That they are NOT footballers. I ended up asking myself lots of questions. Can anyone be a hero? Is it what you do or what you are that makes someone a hero? Is heroism about service or about inspiration?

Doing great things for others, putting yourself in harms way for others IS heroic, but are you a hero just for achieving great things. For instance David Beckham scored amazing goals and inspires people to play football and is a shining example of personal fitness – and yet because of what he IS some people don’t consider him or Terry, or Lampard, or Ferdinand to be a hero.

And this is where it is back to values. A hero is someone who does stuff or is something or has an outlook that you admire. That inspires you. That makes you want to be better than you are. That makes you want to be a better human being and, that you accept despite the fact that he or she is flawed. They are just human. Like you, but they offer you a view that you could be a better you. A you that you want to be.

Sometimes that view is one that is shared by pretty much everyone. Oates, 100 years ago gave his life for others. What he did entered the national psyche as being heroic. Oates was, and is a hero.

Today soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen are doing the same. Is everyone of them – of us – a hero? Some are braver than the rest, and it’s not up to me to decide that they are or not. It’s up to you. If you value what anyone does, despite what it is that they actually do – play football, fight in a war, bring up a child, be a parent, visit dying strangers, whatever, then they are a hero.

Is the word hero over-used? No. There are hundreds and thousands of heroes. Heroes are just what we all think they are. No one is right. No one is wrong. We make other people heroes because we think they are. And if you think someone or a group of people are heroes then, do you know what? 

You are right.

They are heroes.

 

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