Saturday, November 21, 2009
BATTLE OF WILLS
The start of a tour is always incredibly busy. Every day is a new experience.
Yesterday we held a Shura at the base. Or more accurately, we had a Shura come to us. A large group of elders arrived to protest the innocence of a man who had been arrested in a security operation. There was no doubt that they had been sent by insurgents, but they were a notable gathering.
In Afghanistan, age, gender, and facial hair are all indicators of seniority in open society. Inside the compound there is alleged to be a matriarchy, outside, in Helmand, mature men with long beards get respect. It was as an impressive bunch of beards as you are likely to find.
We talked for about two hours. They are good talkers and the conversation moves at a sedate pace. "You have the watches but we have the time" is a popular Afghan jibe.
We sat on our haunches until my western joints creaked and we moved to benches. Green tobacco is taken with care. Small globules of spit form a circle of dust balls on the ground around each chewer.
Afghans often suffer myopia alleged to be the result of a lifetime of dehydration. They break into your personal space to look closely from behind a beard and leathery skin tanned by a thousand Afghan suns.
At one point I was told that we both believed in the same God. "There is only one god," he assured me. We had been going for an hour an a half at that point and I felt we might have only just warmed up if the theology continued. So I felt inclined to agree and left it at that.
We arranged to meet again in three days to see if their issue had progressed.
It all appears to be a caricature and a slightly idyllic one, but it is not. The Shura had been delayed for an hour because two children, both nine, had been brought to the FOB having stepped on an IED. Innocent victims in the battle of wills.
I will not describe the full extent of their injuries but horrific barely does the scene justice. Our doctor, medics and medically trained Riflemen worked for 35 minutes to save them. They were alive when we put them on the Chinook helicopter to the hospital in Camp Bastion with relatives. They died of their injuries there.
It is hard not to believe it was a small mercy. Their uncles returned later in a taxi with the two coffins. They were buried today.
We are left with the moral dilemma of having found, marked clearly and avoided that device only for two children to detonate it.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Filmed on the 1 November 09. Moving along one of the many canals in the Nad-e-Ali Valley in Helmand Province, Corporal Phillip Hodgson from Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team (OMLT) Four 2 YORKS, noticed something odd about the troops surroundings.
The locals we just passed all took off, said Cpl. Phillip Hodgson. So keep a look out for any enemy activity. It usually means we are going to be under attack soon.
After being here for five weeks, Hodgson and the rest of the OMLT have started to notice the subtle clues that help keep them on their toes while on patrol.
Its like a sixth sense you pick up when you are out on the ground, said Lieutenant Tom Dawson, the team commander. After being out here for a month you start to notice everything going on.
Minutes later, the OMLT come under attack from small arms fire. As soon as the team hears the shots, they quickly jump into the nearby canal. The ditch is filled with waste deep water and mud that swallows their feet as they take cover from the incoming rounds.
After 40 minutes of back and forth firing, the shots from the enemy slow down and the enemy retreats after being ineffective. After the fire fight ends, the team decides to return to their compound to plan for their next mission. For these troops, these events are a near everyday occurrence.
We come in to contact with the enemy about 80 percent of the time we go out, said Hodgson.
When the OMLT goes on patrol, their primary mission is to mentor the Afghan National Army. The patrols are lead by the ANA with the OMLT supervising. The OMLT gives guidance and helps the ANA to be better Soldiers. The OMLT does not limit the training for patrols only.
When we find time, we try to give them medical lessons and practice finding IEDs and other tactical training, said Dawson.
Although the troops are mentoring the ANA, they have been learning from them as well.
They have taught us how to pick up on improvised explosive devices better and to pick up on the atmospherics of the area we are patrolling. Sometimes you even pick up on a bit of the language, said Dawson.
Saturday, November 7, 2009
HOPES AND FEARS
It's finally here, day one on Operation Herrick. It's been some time coming as I was first told that A Company would be going to Afghanistan in early January. A Company is usually part of 4 Rifles. For this tour we are under command of another Rifles Battalion, 3 Rifles. We are to form part of Battle Group North in Helmand which is based around Sangin.
A Company is over 100 strong and with attachments from other branches of the army is considerably more than that. We have been training together since Easter.
As I look back it seems like an incredibly long period of training for the mission we are going to undertake. That said I've never heard anyone in my position say we were too well trained for the task.
The training has many aspects. Everyone going to Afghanistan needs to know how to operate safely. They need to know enough about the culture to avoid inadvertent offence.
We learn a bit of Pashtu to be able to break the ice and give basic instructions. We all do first aid training and the majority of the company are trained to a more advanced level.
And of course there is the requirement to keep people physically fit and healthy.
The collective training has been a tour of all the most delightful parts of Britain. Kent, Northumbria, Norfolk, Wiltshire and Wales - twice.
We were the second group through the new Afghan village complex in Norfolk. At times on Army training areas it is hard to replicate a civilian population this however was about as realistic as it gets, manure and straw with a number of the Afghan diaspora.
I got put through my paces in a post mission Shura trying to convince the local population that we had done something that would increase their security. Not an easy sell.
I also found it amazing how much of Norfolk is irrigated in the same way as the valley of the River Helmand. Good practice manoeuvring around the ditches, wet feet, deep mud and not much commander's dignity.
After the bulk of the training was complete we were able to take a couple of weeks leave. Whilst the training is vital there is nothing as dangerous as fatigue. Tired minds and bodies are prone to bad decision making.
We have had the chance post leave to do some refresher training and get the administration of the company in order. We will get our final training top up on arrival in Afghanistan just to get the latest from the guys who are already there. Then we'll be good to go.
Every father has hopes and fears. It is part of having children. I am no different from every other father in the land in that respect.
My greatest desire in this regard has crystallised round the hope that I will be able to take my son to the first day of an Ashes Test at Lord's. My greatest fear being that I will not be there to go with him.
This fear may be no different from other parents' but it is perhaps brought into sharper focus by the prospect of six months in the Upper Sangin Valley.
On a professional level it is rather different. We don't generally deal in fears. We harden our hearts against the prospect of some very difficult decisions.
My personal hopes and fears are wrapped into the same moment. Making the right decision. Through training, experience, character and enough thought I hope I make good decisions.
I will spend a good deal of time planning and conducting operations. During that process and over the course of my tour there will be plenty of decisions to make.
Most of the time the result of a bad decision will be rectifiable, yet in my profession and very obviously in Afghanistan it is sometimes about life and death.
It is an incredible privilege to command a company of Riflemen and all the soldiers and officers who will be part of the Company Group. I have got to know some of them and their families extremely well.
I know from friends and colleagues that the worst moments of their professional lives have been in the moments of grief following the death of a soldier for whom they feel totally responsible.
I hope that I can face that with stoicism and sensitivity. It is easy to get fatalistic about operations in Afghanistan but there are Companies in Battlegroups that all come back. I hope we all come home.
The summer has been sobering in that regard and the families and comrades of those serving in Afghanistan this summer have barely been away from my thoughts.
There will be many factors involved but I certainly feel that the decisions I make and have made during training will play their part. It is a good pressure if used properly.
My final hope is that the Company Group can do a difficult job in the right way. I hope we can understand, persuade and influence as well as clear, secure and protect.
I hope we can hold and build on ground that we clear of insurgents. I have no doubt that this is not just a six month project but I hope we can make a positive difference.