Thursday, May 28, 2009
Colour Sergeant Mike Saunders, 2 MERCIAN, blogs from Helmand - Part 11
Greetings friends and readers at the Marwood, Worcester!
By the time you read this I hope you are nursing a hang over that justifies a good day at the "support the troops" fund raiser. I can assure you that any funds raised will make a real difference to those serving at the front line. As they can't speak for themselves at the moment I would like to pass on their sincere thanks to you all.
As we are now past a third of the tour, men are now returning from the forward operating bases (Fob's) some of whom are going on rest and recuperation leave. The men that are returning are changed somewhat from those we flew forward two months ago. Back then most were pink faced and earnest, burdened by heavily loads with the slightly pained expression of men who are about to face the fiercest test of their careers and in some cases lives so far.
Now these same men seem to have a hardened edge and a look of lean hungry fighting men that indeed they are. Most have stories to tell and I for one am glad to give them the chance to tell them. For these individuals flying out of these danger zones is like stepping back into an alien world and I know from experience this can be very disorientating. Within days many will be put on flights that will take them back to home and in to the arms of loved ones. Try to imagine if you will the extremes of high and lows these men have experienced thus far in the tour and while enjoying their leave it will be forever in there mind that Afghanistan and the Fob's are but time and a flight away.
From the feedback so far on the blog, many have asked what it is like living and operating in a base at the front line. To answer this while not compromising any security, this week's blog will be a fictional diary entry made up from my personal experiences on the previous tour here and from the experiences of the troops here to date.
Life next to the edge
As I come awake via the insistence of the soldier responsible for doing the rounds ready for "Stand To", I am struck that the first things that remind me of where I am are the smells and the already increasing heat. It is early summer now and first light is before 0430 in the morning when the sun rises as a great ball of fire, searing all that it touches including my Platoon in our improvised shelters. We have to be up and ready before this time, as tradition and tactical necessity dictate that we mark the change between night and day routine. This means we are all dressed, body armour on and with personal weapons in our hands ready in case of a dawn attack.
It is somewhat comforting to know that soldiers for hundreds of years have observed this routine and in doing so a link to the past is maintained.
As many of the Platoon have pulled "stag" or night duty, defending and monitoring those others lucky enough to grab some fitful sleep in the still heat of the Helmand night, few words are said as men shuffle to their pre-appointed positions and prepare to mark another day in the insurgents back garden.
One of the few constants here, the sun climbs quickly into a sky only partially obscured by the fine sand of a local wind induced sand storm. This is a near daily occurrence and will ensure man and machines are given a fresh coating of dust ready for cleaning. In fact a good part of my life is now spent removing dust from the thousand and one pieces of equipment that we rely on to keep us alive, this ranges from weapons through to medical equipment and vehicles.
Post "stand to" we who are not on stag observe one of the more social parts of the day as we put the kettle on for breakfast. The day we occupied this compound we arranged a rental fee with the owner for what was his house. In addition we purchased for the princely sum of ten dollars a large kettle, which we now use as the platoon cooker in conjunction with our boil in the bag rations. It is safe to say that the kettle is rarely off, as the Platoon Sergeant is a "brew monster" and seems to run on tea!
While the kettle is boiling we set about our weapon systems, as logic dictates only half the Platoon clean weapons at a time, leaving the other half able to react should the insurgents pay a visit (which is often). This week alone the insurgents have fired a number of mortars at our base, some of which have landed inside the compound. Fortunately nobody was seriously hurt and the only lasting damage is some interesting modifications to the Platoon latrine which suffered a near direct hit.
After we finish breakfast and the sentries are swapped (to allow them to administrate themselves) we send out a section of eight men to conduct a sweep of the area around our base. Once this is complete we start to plan the plan and receive a brief for the patrol operation to take place. We have a small village about 400 meters from our compound, and we are charged with its security and working with the local people to establish a fragile peace.
At times the locals will talk freely to us about their expectations and their fears of further conflict; it would seem that they regard us with a certain amount of suspicion until they are shown that we are only here to guarantee their freedom and safety. At other times they will not talk to us at all and will avoid us entirely.
These are nervous times for us as it probably means that insurgents are in the area and the locals fear reprisals when we are gone. Just last week a local man was beaten badly after being set upon by insurgents. They did this publicly in the village market and also issued a threat that "any Afghans seen passing information to the foreign forces will be killed and their families banished from the area".
Today we deployed on a patrol to re-assure the locals that we are here to protect them and in addition to show our strength to the insurgents. It seems to have worked as we gathered some good information from the local villagers and we now have a good idea where the enemy are hiding and mounting their attacks from. In a few days time we will deploy forward to investigate the compounds indicated to us, I hope we find them as they are beginning to destabilise the whole area.
Occasionally the locals will sell or barter with us for some fresh rations that we use to supplement our boil in the bag rations which while being very good are even better when mixed with some fresh spices or eaten with the local flat bread. In addition the pears and other fruit grown here are a good source of vitamins and are very refreshing.
As I sit here in the late afternoon underneath the dancing shadows of a desert camouflage net, I am drawn to memories of home, of grass and water and the thousand other things that we take fore granted until they are taken away. Perhaps that is what makes the British soldier what he is and provides him strength when it is needed. We do not hunger after those things outside our grasp but find contentment in the little things.
It is strange to me that while I am here your "world" continues much as it does when I am there, yet the world in which we survive is like a place from another time. Often I have seen photo's of the troops here and if they were compared to pictures from other times they would be almost indistinguishable.
Soon it will be stand to again and we will go into the long night, often the insurgents will carry out probing attacks on our perimeter which will mean hours staring in to the darkness for any signs of movement.
For now though I sit and watch my small world from beneath the shade and observe the many comings and goings of my Platoon. The smell of cooking, tobacco and stale sweat is in the air as we take a moment of down time after the patrol, each man in his own way winding down and passing out the hours until the light draws in.
The fact that we miss home is a subject that few discuss as it is easier to avoid than confront, in its place is routine and the actions of the insurgents that are outside our control. We also rarely talk of the danger that we face and if we do it is quickly dismissed with bravado and black humour.
Soon I must go and do my part in administrating the camp ready for night routine and part of this is packing all of the kit I have away that I am not using. I find it a little sad but also strangely liberating when the things that make your life can be counted in a couple of bags and a set of Army webbing.
Well readers that was a small snapshot of routine life in a Forward operating base, a life that is both simple but very often punctuated by moments of extreme danger. This is reality for many of your soldiers who live a life not unlike those who have been here before. But in doing so are laying the foundations for peace in this country.
Until next week stay safe and be careful.