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Archive for the tag “Afghan”

A million miles away…

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

Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boxes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what generic things are good ideas to put inside?

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

Stuff I liked:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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