Saturday, December 26, 2009
Happy Christmas, from Helmand
This year instead of waking up to two very excited little girls with stockings full of presents, I prised myself out of my winter sleeping bag and stepped out into a bitterly cold Christmas day in Helmand Province Afghanistan.
I have been in the reserves now for just over eight years and have spent lots of time away in places like Iraq and Kosovo and I have been to Afghanistan once before. But this has been the first time I have spent Christmas out of the country let alone away from my family.
In all that time although far from home in some very challenging places I know that it is harder for wives and children than it is for us soldiers. Christmas is such a special day and with the girls just four and nearly six they are very aware that daddy is not there to share it with them.
But I was with a small team of British soldiers at Patrol Base Talibjan near Musa Qala, and we were just two kilometres from what is called the FLET or Forward Line Enemy Troops. And it was to the FLET that we headed out to on Christmas Eve.
The Brits I was with work alongside the Afghan National Army, sharing the same basic mud walled compound. Each day they patrol the surrounding area talking to the locals, meeting with the Afghan National Police and reassuring their rural community with a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign. But Christmas Eve was different. While I would have given anything to back with the family the lads and I had to keep those thoughts at the back of our minds.
As you slept tucked up in bed with snow flakes falling outside we were already in the thick of a fire-fight with the Taliban. Christmas Eve was a different operation altogether, not just one of the usual patrols. We were there to intentionally probe the Taliban, to test their positions and to test their resolve. To ensure we had the upper hand we brought in support.
Once the Taliban took us on and tried to out flank us, we pushed out our Scimitar light tanks and the armoured Mastiffs broke cover. For what seemed like ages the air filled with the sound of gun fire and the sonic cracks as Taliban bullets whizzed pasted our heads.
As we pushed them back an RAF Tornado flew in low drowning out every noise in its wake, reinforcing how serious we were in our intent that day.
The team had been awesome. We pushed back the Taliban, swept through their compounds and captured a raft of components destined to make deadly IEDs, the improvised explosive devices that soldiers here fear more than anything else. But we didn’t get them all. One of the vehicles got hit by and IED. Luckily no one was hurt, the armour did it thing. It does make you think that as infantry on foot we can go where ever we choose. But in a vehicle you can be channeled by the terrain and targeted.
Not until we marched back through the fields and over the hills and once the heavy body armour and day sacks were off, did we start to think of home – wondering what our loved ones were up to – maybe sledging. Then deep in our own quiet thoughts as the events of the day sank in, did we really start to miss them.
But, being British soldiers we crack on and move forward. There was much to do. The Taliban don’t take Christmas off, so nor do the troops. But we can always squeeze in a bit of a celebration as nothing gets in the way of Christmas. Many of us had parcels from family with Santa hats and treats. We even had a small Christmas tree, not a real one, but it was there flashing away in the ops rooms.
A frozen turkey had arrived together with stuffing, carrots, potatoes and sprouts. And the Afghan soldiers’ bread oven had inspired our ammo tin oven built into one of the compound walls that cooked the turkey to perfection.
With the sun blazing in the sky, I have to say I sat down to one of the most unusual Christmas lunches I think I will ever have. I pity the girls who will no doubt hear the tale each and every year as they grow older. But this year using a satellite phone to talk to them I told them Santa had visited the little boys and girls here, just like he had at home. For now they think that I am out here to help the little boys and girls have the sort of life that they take for granted. In a way that is what we are here to do. But for now, how we do that can wait as they need not worry like my wife.
Hearing them laughing and giggling with excitement on the phone makes you realise how much you miss them. But, you have to stay strong and reassure them. However you feel at the time, it is not for them to hear, so that is not what they get.
With half of the tour complete there is still a long way to go. Looking to the future I can see that I will be back here again. But, things are improving. The ANA we fought alongside are getting better all the time. Once we get them up to speed fully and they can master their own destiny we and the International Security Assistance Force can come home.
What a day, what a Christmas Eve and what a way to celebrate Christmas. I know it isn’t the norm but it is what we are trained for, it is what we expect. It is hard out here and the environment is tough, but we take pride in what we are doing and we will do the very best that we can.
Lying here, in the cold on my cot bed with what seems like all of my clothes on, there is just one thing left to say and that’s ‘Happy Christmas’ from Helmand. We’re thinking of you.
Major Paul Smyth, RIFLES
Follow Major Paul Smyth on twitter: http://twitter.com/MediaOps
To see more pictures from the front line at christmas click the links below:
On route from Musa Quela to an OMLT Patrol Base
On ops with the OMLT from Patrol Base Talibjan
Reassurance patrol from PB Talibjan
Christmas Eve reassurance patrol from Patrol Base Talibjan
Christmas day in Patrol Base Taliban
British Troops Tuck Into Xmas Lunch in PB Talibjan
UK troops celebrate Christmas on the frontline
.50 cal sunrise on Boxing day
Living at Patrol Base Talibjan