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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.

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Music Matters (Even More)…

I have waxed lyrical on here many, many times about the power of music. About how it has stirred me, soothed me, made me nostalgic…and on Friday night I had another of those moments.

Last week was a big week for the history of the RAF. The unveiling of the Bomber Command memorial in London brought together the RAF from today with the RAF of yesterday. Airmen and Airwomen coming together across time, sharing with their families, and with the families of those who fought but did not enjoy the peace. It was a moving, emotional day for those veterans.

But for me, it didn’t really stir me as much as I thought. I was concentrating on trying to get the story of the day, and whilst I met and talked to people all day, I didn’t really feel the emotion of it. I was a step away from it. I understood the sacrifices, I knew the suffering, I was aware of the hardships…it was a step away from me. I had no direct link with the Bomber Boys you see. I could feel the power of what was happening amongst those people directly affected by it…I still felt a little…adjacent, but not involved in it.

That was until the following night. When I went to the RAF Museum at Hendon, where a local Brass and Wind Band were to play an evening concert in the shadow of the Lancaster – an original Bomber Command aircraft that flew 137 missions with 83, 463 and 467 Sqns.

Now, brass and wind bands aren’t really my thing. But I thought that it’d be a nice evening out, and the chance to have a wander around the Museum with very few people there would be lovely.

And it was. I’d enjoyed good company, enjoyed a nice Spitfire Ale beer sat BESIDE a Spitfire, had a nice chat and taken some cool photos. All was good, but still no real emotional connection.

And then the band played a song called ‘Evening Hymn and Sunset’.

And the gentle strains of the wood wind instruments moved quietly through the museum. It built slowly, getting louder, not with an urgency, but with a gentle insistence. It rose, it built and just as you expected a shout from it there was a change of key and the same air was repeated and the loops of wind and brass instruments rolled around again. It truly was like evening and sunset.

It was the musical equivalent of the sun setting and the sky fading. I looked up and was under the wing of a Lancaster. The power and the glory of this aircraft. I closed my eyes and imagined the aircraft flying into the evening, the sun setting and the camera in my minds eye saw the Lanc heading off into the distance, powering off and away and below me. Then with a tip of the wing, a slow bank away to the right, the four Merlins running at an easy pace, no where near the full power it had available…cruising away…and then…and then the music changed. A gentle drum roll and two cornets took over the theme. It changed from a gentle hymn into the striding tune that was instantly recognisable as the Last Post. Achingly beautiful. Poignant. Evocative.

The band took the music to it’s crescendo. I opened my eyes and looked up again at the wing of the aircraft above me, the two visible engines, the open bomb bay. But then my focus was shifted to the cockpit, the forward turret, the mid-upper, the rear guns. Where the people were.

This is where men flew. That Lancaster in my minds eye, flying through into the night, was flown by men. It was here that the emotion in me was pricked. The connections were made. 125,000 men flying. 55,573 who didn’t return. This music, this machine, both together came to represent more than the sum of their parts.

And as the Last Post theme faded away and the music came to a stop I finally felt connected to the whole thing. The power, the glory, the sadness. The sheer and utter pointless waste of it all.

Because war is pointless. You can argue that it was good against evil and that it was where fine and noble and brave things happened; where freedom was fought for, where good battled evil. But it was also where young men with such potential were cut down. They gave their lives for us, and for our freedom and for our future, for good to win over evil ideas, but war, in itself is totally absolutely and bloody pointless.

It shows us as a species of contrasts. The most evil and stupid of things, but the most beautiful and bravest of things. In war we reach the lowest lows of morality, and yet the highest highs of ideals. People give their everything for others…they give their lives. But if we as a species could be just that little bit cleverer when all that waste wouldn’t even be necessary. We are too stupid to see that war is so stupid. That is why we continue to peruse it. And we always will, because we as a species are too stupid to see any other way.

It’s a romantic image that I painted of the Lancaster rolling off into the setting sun, the engine noise roaring, the colours of the sky, the strains of a band playing beautiful music…but the romance should be tempered with the fact that this is all about war. About death. About killing. About the crazy dichotomy that is the human race. It can produce something so absolutely bloody beautiful as a Lancaster, but do it for the reason of something so absolutely bloody hideous as the purpose of war.

And that piece of music connected me to that. It reminded me of that. We should honour and remember those who took part in that battle, whatever nationality they were. Whether they were in the air or on the ground. Whether they were loading the bombs, dropping them having the explosives dropped on them. War is stupid. Death is stupid. No matter what the reason for war, it is ultimately stupid and pointless; just or not, it brings out the worst and the best in us. And the memorials to those who fought and died in wars are not just about those people who did the fighting and dying, they are about us as a species.

They are about how clever we are in building and designing something that stirs the emotions and evokes thoughts and feelings in us, but also about how stupid we are to keep going to war. The grandness and pomp and sombreness of a memorial is not just a monument to those people named therein, they are monuments to our stupidity for the actions that led us, as a species, to get involved in a war in the first place.

If we were wise we’d remember both of these things when we look at a monument or a statue or an aircraft or any other memorabilia in a museum and remember…we are bloody stupid to go to war in the first place. War brings out the very worst in some people, but even if it brings the very best in others…war is bloody, bloody stupid. If the dead of Bomber Command, and the dead of their actions, can teach us but one thing, they would shout to us today, louder than the loudest music that we should put as much effort into finding a different and better way than war of solving our problems.

As beautiful and clever as the human race is, we are too stupid to be able to do things differently. We will keep on fighting and killing. We will keep on hoping and praying. We will keep on creating horror and beauty. Whether it is in the skies over Germany, or in the fields of Afghanistan, or wherever the next war and conflict will be…in the Middle East, in Africa…wherever…sadly for all the memorials we build, we will keep on fighting and killing.

War and death. Honour and sacrifice. Two sides of the same coin.

And the beauty of friends fighting for friends, heroic deeds, of the aesthetic image of a lone aircraft flying away into the setting sun is a testament to that. That aircraft, flying into the darkness can represent us as a species; beautiful, stupid. And it represents everyone who has fought in a war before them, with them, after them. Their loss is a testament. A message of hope that for as long as there is stupidity and hate and evil, there are good and great and beautiful men and women who will give their all for the rest of us.

And we owe it to them to keep on trying to find a better way so they don’t have to.

Closure…

I’ve been a lucky sod.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For us.

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

Family…

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

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

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

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

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

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Memorial…

Today is the day. 28th June 2012. The day, after 67 years, that the men of Bomber Command are finally given a fitting memorial.

It may be 67 years late, but we can’t do anything about the past, other than of course learn from it. This permanent memorial, built in Green Park in London, that Her Majesty The Queen will unveil at about 12 noon, is now here. It is and will be a fitting tribute to not only the 55,573 who died, but also to the ones who survived the war, who grew old, who passed away, who are still here.

And here we are today. In Green Park. Through modern tech, I can blog live from the Opening Ceremony. I am here, standing in the presence of greatness. All around me are old men, occasionally unsteady, some in wheel chairs, others still sprightly. All wear jackets with a badge or emblem on their breast pocket a Squadron badge, the Bomber Command Association badge…and above that are rows of medals.

A few have three or four medals 39-45 Star, Defence Medal, France/Germany Star, Victory Medal. a few more have a longer row. Some have blue and red striped DFC or AFC. Others wear commemorative medals given by the occupied nations – Operation Manna for instance.

All, irrespective of how many and what they have on the outside of their chest all today have something worth even more valuable than that. They have something inside their chests instead.

It’s pride.

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There’ll be more later during the day!

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