Saturday, April 25, 2009

Lt Col RJ Thomson, 2 RIFLES BG - blogs from Helmand, part 1

Dear All,

I write for the first time from Sangin and the Battle Group is now well established in its temporary home. Afghanistan is the most fascinatingly diverse and striking country. The inhospitable mountains rise, seemingly out of nowhere, at the edge of the desert, which rolls, in places, all the way down to the River Helmand. The river is currently in spate and, up at Kajaki Dam, the water thunders off the spill-way with a vehemence to rival the River Zambesi in Zimbabwe. We need our canoes.

The Green Zone is like England in spring - the most brilliant green. The wheat is growing fast but, for now, the locals are focused on bringing in the poppy harvest. And it involves everyone, right down to the smallest child. The roads… well the roads are like driving across hardened sand dunes.

Life is very hard - most people here are subsistence farmers who work the land and sell anything which is left over. Sangin itself is a very linear town - one high street but you can buy pretty well anything. I was being offered an engraved head-board for my bed on my last visit! Not convinced about the butcher's shop but the bread (khobs) is delicious.

We have five major Forward Operating Bases where we mostly live and a handful of Patrol Bases, where we live alongside the Afghan National Army. The RSM and I have made it round almost all the FOBs and most of the PBs. You will be glad to hear that we are not living in discomfort but it certainly isn't The Marriott Hotel. The food is amazing and the chefs are doing stirling work.

For those of us who like bacon grill (a sort of bacon-y spam), we are in seventh heaven because it is on the menu every morning. The bathrooms are 'al fresco' but there is no better way to start the day with a wash and shave in the sun (temperatures are Mediterranean at the moment but will rise another 14-16 degrees - help!). The showers have fancy, zip-up curtains and there are no real decisions to make about the temperature as they are all cold, but in an encouragingly refreshing way.

We are a huge Battle Group - there are over 1000 soldiers working in the team with over 18 different cap-badges. There is a tremendous sense of purpose and you can almost see the determination of the Riflemen to make a difference - both for the government of Afghanistan and, (in a way) more importantly, the Afghan people.

The Riflemen have made a cracking start - everyone has got to grips with the job in hand very quickly - and we are working closely with Afghan soldiers and Policemen. We have established a good understanding of the ground on which we operate and have been struck by the friendly reaction from most people. The Afghans desperately want security so that they can go about their daily business without fear and intimidation. The Taleban Insurgent influence though is never far below the surface.

We know that you are supporting us and we are hugely grateful; it makes a big difference. I have had some great letters wishing us well and I know that we are in the thoughts and prayers of many back at home. And there have been some huge parcels - keep them coming. I know that the separation is not easy but hope that the news, blogs and photos on the website can bring us a little closer. We miss you all and think of you often. And it is great to hear that there is much happening back in Ballykinler. We will certainly returned bronzed heroes and probably a good deal leaner. For some of us, that is no bad thing. Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers as we do our important work out here.

Bugle Major, Sound the Advance



Monday, April 20, 2009

Maj Iain Moodie, OC B Company, 2 RIFLES BG - blogs from Helmand, part 1

I am writing this piece from a dusty hillock on the edge of the Helmand River surrounded by fields of white and red flowering poppies and sweeping desert, which eventually reaches the mountains to the east. Forward Operating Base (FOB) INKERMAN is a basic, yet tranquil spot at this time of year, with flocks of tropical birds swooping over the lush vegetation of the ‘Green Zone’ while nomads herd their goats in the wilderness.

Occasionally the peace is spoilt by a low-flying fighter aircraft circling overhead or a helicopter arriving to drop of mail, people and all manner of supplies and spares that keep us going and our morale high. Life is good in INKERMAN and everyone is definitely pleased to be out of the sprawling tented maze that is Camp BASTION.

B Coy is almost complete, having received a very comprehensive handover from a very sun tanned Yankee Company of the Royal Marines. The main issue has been getting our heads round the Marines’ terminology, for example try and decipher: ‘I’m off to get some ogin to make a mega hoofing wet to go with my scran in the galley before I use the heads’. It's a completely different language and the next hurdle is learning Pashto. Snowy, Mick Brandon and Lusio Tanoa have brains spinning enough with all the serial numbers and complicated army abbreviations they have had to deal with taking over endless signals kit and stores of stores without having to deal with ‘Jack Speak’ and ‘Pusser’s Gen Dits’.

On the intelligence and influence front Cpl ‘Jona’ Jones has certainly been making an impression with the local farmers by hosting a number of Shuras (meetings), he has already received a number of gifts including; bread, a knife and even a pet cockerel, which the Interpreters promptly cooked up and ate.

The majority of the company have now been on patrol into the local villages and through the local ditches, the latter being a refreshing escape from the mid-day sun. The locals are generally friendly, greeting us with a wave and a few words of Pashtu that we are yet to understand. The children are always curious, especially if there are pens and sweets involved.

Most people that surround the FOB are extremely poor, living in very basic mud-walled compounds with their animals and the extended families. The only piece of modern technology being the ‘wind-up’ radios that are handed out by the patrols and on which they can listen to DJ Pete Manley's INKERMAN FM aka Radio-in-a-Box - a combination of wailing noises (Afghanis’ version of Top of the Pops) and educational programmes for the young ‘The Rabbit and the Cat’ being a particular favourite (I won’t spoil it for you but it is bad news for the rabbit).

The next week will be busy as B Coy settle into our new home, building shelves out of ammunition tins, learning how to do our own washing and thinking up imaginative ways of digesting the diet of noodles and dried scrambled egg that is served up to the troops every day.

They say that a six month deployment feels like twelve months, and for B Company that may almost be true. Our pre-deployment training started in October 2008 and we have been flat out ever since.

The training delivered by the Company, Battalion and Operational Training and Advisory Group has been thorough, focused and demanding. The exercises have been realistic, challenging and, dare I say it, fun. The resources that we have had have enabled us to do realistic and relevant training although we could have always done with a bit more time with a metal detector, more time on the specialist weapons, or half-decent weather to actually see an Apache helicopter. Despite this, the Company is well-honed and up for the challenge that awaits us in Forward Operating Base (FOB) Inkerman.

FOB Inkerman will be our home for the next six months. It is an impressively large FOB made out of Afghan compounds and purpose built shelters that will deliver all our infrastructure requirements. It is well placed to launch us on our patrols to provide security for the local Afghans, support the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and assist the Afghanistan National Security Forces, both Police and Army, whilst we are there.

It will prove to be a challenging tour, with everyone being tested to the limits. That said, it will also provide us with the best opportunities that soldiering can offer. I have no doubt that everyone in the Company Group will deliver. We are ready for this.

Our equipment has been issued, and although we have received everything that we could have wanted, it still has not stopped certain members of the Company spending small fortunes to get their ‘rig’ just right. The importance of this is paramount, and although many of you will be wondering where on earth all the money has gone, it is critical that in the heat and terrain, we have it just right.

The test will be when we return and you see what has not been used. We are hugely grateful to B Company, 2 PARA and Y Company, 45 Cdo Royal Marines for helping us to get ready. Their advice, patience, expertise and willingness to impart information to us has been invaluable. From Toms’ and Marines’ Top Tips to the top of the shop – all has been greatly appreciated, so thank you.

Our FOB will be one of the most austere locations we will have ever served in. We will be on 10-man rations mostly and one day of fresh food a month if we are lucky. The communications home are not great although there are plans to improve this. There are already six internet terminals in the FOB but they are slow and we have 200 people trying to get on them. We are hoping to get an E-Bluey machine into the FOB to improve mail times, giving us our mail 24hrs after it is sent. Parcels are a different story because of the tortuous supply chain and can take anything up to five weeks to arrive. Please bear with this as it is out of everyone’s control and we will do what we can to speed things up. Bearing this in mind, please pack your parcels accordingly: we would hate to hand the enemy an easy victory because of an over-ripe camembert!

We will all get R&R and will look forward to seeing you at some stage during the tour. The opportunity to spend time with loved ones, getting some decent ‘scoff’, sleeping in a comfortable bed, having a washing machine doing our ‘dhobi’ and having flushing toilets will be a great punctuation mark and we all anticipate it eagerly.

Finally, thank you for reading this and for your support. We have had the privilege of it in the past and will be reliant on it over the course of the next six months.

Please know that it is never taken for granted and that everything is hugely appreciated. Please keep those letters, parcels; blueys etc coming because news and treats from loved ones at home is what will keep us going. Thanks again and more news next month.

Maj Iain Moodie, OC B Company

Friday, April 10, 2009

2 Rifles Battle Group introduction - Upper Sangin Valley - Helmand - Afghanistan

2 Rifles is part of 19 Light Brigade, which took over responsibility for Helmand Province for six months on 10 April. 2 Rifles is a battalion of approximately 600 soldiers in strength, but while in Afghanistan is receiving support from troops in all three services making up what is known as a Battle Group, of more than 1100 troops.

This is the first time 2 Rifles has been to Afghanistan on Operation Herrick. Its last six month deployment was to Iraq in 2007

Monday, April 6, 2009

Lt Col Simon Banton, 2 MERCIAN, reports from Helmand (Part 1)

Lieutenant Colonel Simon James Banton from 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment (2 MERCIAN) deployed to Afghanistan at the end of March 2009. He is writing blogs about his experiences in Helmand which will be published here from now on, starting with his first blog on his arrival in Helmand in April.

06 April 2009

Part 1:

Troops from 2nd Battalion, The Mercian Regiment began to deploy to Afghanistan on --- March.

For the majority, the move to Afghanistan was a charter flight from the UK to Dubai followed by a military flight by C17 to Camp Bastion (BSN) in the middle of the Helmand desert. Immediately on landing, no matter what time of day it was, there were mandatory briefs to listen to, after which everyone could get their heads down for the night - before the Reception, Staging and Onward Integration (RSOI) commenced in earnest. The RSOI package for the OMLT Battle Group (BG) is slightly different to the rest in southern Afghanistan. After one long day of Powerpoint presentations in Bastion we moved direct to Camp Tombstone for an OMLT specific four-day training package.

The first day incorporated an overview of the ANA and the whole spectrum of operations. The second covered basic personal skills specific to theatre involving key reports that would need to be filled out whilst on operations, theatre hygiene and most importantly specific medical training that would be useful to us over the next six months. The third day covered, what was for most, the most interesting subject - weapons training. Here the Heavy Machine Gun, Grenade Machine Gun, General Purpose Machine Gun, Sig Sauer pistol and the traditional SA80A2 personal rifle were fired by every individual. The highlight (although some would disagree) being the live firing section attack, carrying radios and a casualty on the withdrawal - not something we expected to do in the first few days of arriving in Afghanistan - but something that could become very real over the next six months. The fourth day was split in half: one half completing Signals and vehicle equipment care demonstrations, while the other covered counter measures for dealing with Improvised Explosive Devices at day and night (a salient issue at the present time and a sobering piece of training for most).

Each night there were several lectures for all ranks to attend to ensure the plethora of information was fully taken in. These covered an array of subjects, including how the OMLT fitted into the NATO role and how individuals were expected to interact with the ANA - a lot to absorb, in such a short time, but highly relevant to what we were about to take on.

Everyone agreed that this was one of the best RSOI packages that they have taken part in and congratulations go to the 1 RIFLES Battle Group for delivering such a worthwhile package. The lessons we have learnt will stand us in excellent stead for the tour and there is no doubt that we will hit the ground running.

The regiment is now complete in Camp Tombstone, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Located next to Camp Shorabak the home of 3 Brigade of 205 'Hero Corps' of the Afghanistan National Army (ANA), we are in a prime location to be the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team (OMLT) Battle Group (BG) for the ANA.

From Tombstone the Battle Group has deployed to over 20 different locations spread over hundreds of miles to start their handover and takeovers. As of the 27th March, this was completed and I took command of the OMLT BG; the Battalion's soldiers are in place and even now patrolling with their ANA counterparts.

Over the next six months I look forward to working with our ANA allies, fostering our links with them and furthering their abilities. They are the future for this country and it is our job to support them and mentor them until they are ready to take the helm.

For all of you at home, we hope that you are well and as always I pass on my best. Morale here is high and the men are itching to crack on with their task. This promises to be a memorable tour and one that will allow us to make a real difference to the ANA.

Lieutenant Colonel Simon Banton
Commanding Officer
2nd Battalion, The Mercian Regiment