RAFairman's Blog

An RAF Airman's Blog

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.

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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…

Just out of reach…

Depression is a bugger.

It’s a fact. An absolute shite. 

It takes away your you-ness and leave behind a doppleganger who looks like you, sounds like you…but certainly isn’t you.  You are locked inside a glass cabinet, soundproofed, but watching what the alt-you is doing and saying and how it is screwing up your life, unable to get it to hear you banging on the window trying to stop it.

It fucks you over, takes away your tact, your skill at dealing with people, your patience, everything that you have worked for years trying to develop in yourself.  It leaves you stuck. Helpless. It has a go at ruining your work, your home, your relationships.  It takes away your sense of self. It takes away your ability to think.  It takes away every part of you that you like and leaves behind an empty husk of a body, with a shell-shocked and tired mind.

And there is nothing you can do about it.  You feel hopeless against it.  You feel like you are the worst person in the world. You are worthless and that there is no reason why any one would want to be with you.  You push people away.  You push people away.

I have felt all this.  This has been me, my life…well what could be called a life for the past 18 or so months.  And like I have said before I have no idea why.  That doesn’t matter anyway.  It’s hard enough trying to deal with the whole shit-ness of it all, I don’t think I have the capacity to think of the why quite yet.

But I am feeling a little bit better.  I have most importantly had my meds changed.  I was on Citalopram, but the side effects…they got to much for me.  The initial side effects I could cope with, indeed I got over the nausea and the headaches and the tiredness quite quickly, but after time, the OTHER side effects. The ones that ended up depressing me more than the actual depression got to much for me.  These are the side effects that can best be listed as…private…but if you google them…fairly common.

I had these for a few months.  In fact I had them when I went to see the RAF Psychiatrist for the last time in November.  I told him of the effects and how they made me feel and his reply was damning. ‘Well, those are the breaks really. Either you take the meds and feel better, or you stop taking them and feel worse…’

I hated that man. I had no rapport with him.  It seemed he wanted to give me the meds and then all would be good.  I think I was seeing him, just to make sure that I wasn’t thinking of harming myself (which I never have, by the way). 

I left his office with one word under my breath, and then, sucked it in for a month or so more and then went to see my new Civvi doc when I needed more tablets.  He was more understanding, and has shifted me from Citalopram to Cymbalta which we can only hope affects me less in the same way as the old meds! 

But oh! The side effects of switching.  The tiredness. Loss of appetite. The tiredness. I mention that twice simply because it is the worst I have ever come across. The wave of sleep just hits me and I just have to go to sleep…normally just after eating…it is a massive hammer blow that knocks me out.

Which is not good.  Because, dear reader, here is the second of my admissions.  You see I am also a full time carer.  My wife, as you may know has not been well, but she has actually been Medically Discharged from the Army due to an injury sustained a few years ago whilst on exercise.  She compressed a couple of vertebrae in her neck carrying a heavy load, and these were fused in a German hospital. 

The human body being the human body though tries to repair itself and sometimes can ‘overdo’ the repair and this has resulted in a bone over-growth into the central canal through her neck vertebrae which has impinged on the nerves that feed her right hand. With lots of neck and arm pain, and no feeling in her fingers she takes lots of drug – heavy duty painkillers that would result in a drugs test not only flagging a fail, but also playing the trumpets and setting of a siren to call the cops immediately.

She cannot do a lot of the things that an normal 39…sorry babe…37 year old do.  She can’t walk far due to the neck pain, she can’t drive, she can’t lie in bed comfortably…she takes many and various drugs that knock her sideways.  Somedays she doesn’t move for the pain and the drugs knocking her out.  

This means I do everything.  Thankfully, we have the two armed forces pensions coming in which gives us a modest (if we don’t want too much) income, and we’ll have a small mortgage on this place once we buy it, a mortgage that is much less than renting it. So it means that I don’t have to go out and work full time, which means I can be here all the more to look after her and my daughter.

But this impinges on my depression.  I feel angry (again) at the illness and at the drugs and at the whole bloody world, and I can’t seem to find a coping strategy to overcome it.  And I want to overcome it, because if I do, I really think that the whole bloody depression thing would be licked then.  it might not be a reason for the depression, but in solving it, it might be enough to give me a breathing space and to get my head back in order and to start to really enjoy life again.

I do enjoy my life, but it is not a full life.  That fog; the fog of my depression; is always around me…And dealing with my wife’s illness and injury is one of the reasons I call it a fog.  I can see there is a way of dealing with it, but I just can’t bloody find the buggering thing. It’s just out of reach andI won’t be able to cure myself until I can grasp it.

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.

Beginning anew….

There’s something about being at home. Something about returning to a familiar front door, wiping your feet on the mat and about seeing things about you that are yours. The pictures on the wall, the table, the photos on the mantelpiece.

They all add up to making you feel like you are in a place that is right for you. Making you feel at home. Going away, no matter for how long…well, it’s all in the coming home that lifts you. When you are in the arse end of a crap hole somewhere, soaking wet, stinking, filthy, all you want is to be home.

I have done my time of going away when I was in the service, to nice places (hey! I’m the first one to admit 6 weeks in Vegas wasn’t hell…) as well as less nice (a check point in Afghan where I was crapping in a bag held up by the uprights of a ladder for instance), and the one thing that guides you on…that lifts you to carry on doing it, over and over again is the going home at the end of it.

And tonight, as I write this at 10:21 on New Years Eve, I am glad to be home. My poor wife, is ensconced next door (nearer to the bathroom!) in the spare room feeling absolutely shite. We’ve been away, visiting her mother and the day we arrived she fell ill, with sickness and diarrhoea. With a history – a bad history – of a particular hospital in Liverpool and her condition deteriorating we made a run for home.

And even though I felt bloody awful after spending two nights listening to MrsF retch and vomit my mood was lifted from miserable to content just by entering the front door. And then to make things better…family.

My brother and sister-in-law who live just 30 minutes away then descended after just one quick phone call to help. Help by entertaining my daughter, Lily, and then taking her to their house for the night so I could look after MrsF and get some sleep.

And you realise even more the value of home. The value of family. The worth that people who are important and enrich your life are.

Sod being heroic. Sod all the fighting and the struggling and the service and the duty. Sod all that. All a serviceman who is away thinks of is being home…and the people who are there. Well, all I thought of when I was away, was going home, arriving home, being at home.

The last three months since I stopped working, and the last 20-odd days since I stopped being in the RAF have been strange. I’ve been home. All the time. No thoughts of going away, no sword of Damocles over our heads spelling impending separation, the rest of our lives at home together. And it’s not been easy. Not simple; when you have spent time away from each other it can be difficult being together all the time, and it’s taken time to adjust to a different pace of life.

But it’s also been brilliant. It’s not been the end of something. Yes, my service career has finished and I have left things behind, but that’s not the way I want to be. Instead it’s become the beginning.

I liked being a serviceman, I loved it, but hell, I like being a civvy. And even though I am still not working full time yet, and am awaiting the comfort of a proper pay check coming in, I don’t mind. I might be a little mental still, and have things I still need to work through and adjust to, but I like not having to be in the service any more. I like being me. Not being a Sergeant. Not calling anyone ‘Sir’. Not having to bite my tongue at the inane bullshit of certain Squadron Leaders who clearly only wanted to further their own careers. Of making my own choices of being the master of my own destiny.

And at this time of year when we naturally look back and forward, and make judgements about the past and resolutions for the future I resolve to keep this positivity that all of a sudden has swung over me. To remember the service that I did, and yet to enjoy the life that I have now. The future that I have…the beginning.

Not of a great adventure this time, but of a steady journey. Of a life as a civilian. Of being me.

Remembering…

I started this by trying to write something deep and profound about this time of year. I junked it.

I next tried to re-write a peom by Rudyard Kipling (my favourite one, Tommy – you know the one… ‘An’ it’s Tommy this, and Tommy that, and Tommy ‘ow’s your soul?’) but I am no poet.

I wanted to try to be clever, I wanted to try to be deep and thoughtful to make a post for this time of year…for Remembrance Day.

But I can’t.

It all sounds to trite. It’s too pretentious. So bollocks to it. It all cuts down to just one thing.

As long as humans are human we will fight and we will have wars. And people die in them. Too many have died. They will, sadly, continue to die. So for each one, no matter what nationality, what religion, colour, race, sex…service or civilian who have died in war I want to say just one thing, but particularly to the two lads I served with and who didn’t come home – to JJ and Dooner…

‘I will remember them.’

Who will you remember?

Tiredness…

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

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

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

Tired.

Dog tired.

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

But why? Why so tired?

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

Everything. Life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost…

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

But not tonight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving, for the last time…

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

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

Home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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