Captain Lisa Irwin is a Territorial Army Officer, currently deployed to Afghanistan as a Female Engagement Team Commander. The second three months of her diary are presented here, covering January to March 2011.
To view the most recent entries, click here.
To view the entry for the first three months, click here.
2 January 2011
Firstly Happy New Year! My New Year was spent in the Passenger Handling Facility at Kandahar waiting to board a Hercules C130 for my onward flight to Bastion after flying from RAF Brize Norton (via RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus). Not really how I expected to be seeing in the New Year but to be honest New Year on tour really is just another day. On my last tour I spent the evening in the EFI in Bastion and taking part in sober karaoke – at least my being stuck in Kandahar saved the guys from having to put up with my singing attempts this tour!
It was lovely (and unexpected) to be at home for Christmas; the travel chaos caused by the great British weather thwarted my attempts to travel back to theatre and so I was able to spend the festive period with my family. Christmas Day, however, took an unexpected turn when my 17-year old son tripped and fell through a glass door which resulted in 3 hours in A&E and 8 stitches in his hand. Still, I was glad that I was home to look after him and my nursing skills were put to good use. I travelled back to Brize Norton on 27 December to try and get a flight back to Afghanistan and ended up being stuck in a cold, foggy Brize for 2 days as there was no seat available until 30 December! I was glad to finally get my journey back to theatre properly underway, even though it still wasn’t completely smooth and I had to overnight in Kandahar. Eventually I made it back to Bastion and from there to the FOB.
I’m now back in FOB Shawqat, having only just managed to get on the helicopter last night due to confusion over timings. Trying to run to get on a helicopter wearing body armour and helmet and carrying a 70lb bergen, patrol sack and weapon is not much fun. Especially when the said helicopter is a Sea King with a couple of high steps to try and climb in. However, despite much cursing I made it and am now officially back to work.
I arrived back to the FOB to 8 parcels (from friends, family and old work colleagues) which was lovely – lots of goodies for me to share with all the guys. I also brought back several goodies for the guys myself and so the teasing about me doing a half tour and avoiding coming back etc was minimised! I stress that was not my reason for buying the goodies, most of them had been bought and packed before my first abortive attempt at getting back to theatre.
I’m now in the midst of planning my movements over the next 3 months (until the end of tour), looking at where I may be of most benefit. I know I need to try to go back to the women who were willing to engage with me on previous occasions and have identified (after advice from experts on our area of operations) other areas where I may be able to have a positive effect. It is a little frustrating that I am the only one doing this job (originally it was planned to be a team of people but time and other constraints have meant that it couldn’t happen that way this tour) as there is so much I would like to do and not enough time. Every potential engagement has to be planned, the movement to and from the PB or CP had to be factored in, and I have to ensure that my plans tie in with the relevant company as I need their guys to patrol with me. However, I truly believe this is a worthwhile role and one that can make a difference in the long term. I know that it may be difficult for people to see the benefit after this tour as I am really just laying the ground work but I comfort myself that we all have to start somewhere and, as the saying goes, from little acorns large oaks grow.
8 January 2011
It’s almost like I’ve not been away and R&R never happened, time at home with my family seems like a distant memory. Still, it did recharge my batteries and female engagement seems to be progressing better than I thought possible at the start of the tour.
Last Monday saw me going out to a local shura, along with our Cultural Advisor, Helen, who is a Pashto speaker. My attending the shura was a follow up to the first shura I attended on tour and I was hoping that my little Pashto may persuade the elders to allow me to speak to their women (last time I met them they said no as I didn’t speak any Pashto). Unfortunately it was a vain hope! The elders were adamant that any engagement with women would have to take place in their own compounds (ie no gathering of women) and I had to be accompanied by a female interpreter. Helen would love to help me but she doesn’t have long left on tour and has many other demands on her time and skills so this may be something that has to be put on the back burner for now. It is a shame as the village seems to be progressing well; it has a busy, thriving bazaar, a new ANP station, and is about to have a temporary school erected so that the children (only boys unfortunately, but that is frequently the case) can be educated again. The old school will soon be demolished (well, soon in Afghan terms could take several months!) and a new, permanent school will be built on the same site.
Whilst waiting for the shura to begin Helen and I talked to some bazaar owners (actually Helen did most of the talking, I was mainly listening and trying to work out what they were saying – thrilled whenever I understood something!) The bazaar was very busy with lots of adult males, teenage males and male children – but not one female in sight. I’m not sure if that was because people knew there was an ISAF patrol around the bazaar, as that would definitely prohibit females coming into the area, or if women generally don’t go to this particular bazaar. It is something that is difficult to assess as the presence of our troops can affect normal behaviour but I do know that culturally rural women cannot go out of the home unless accompanied by a male relative.
Helen’s ability to speak Pashto fascinates locals wherever she goes, no doubt even more so because she is a female soldier, and walking about with her is like being with the Pied Piper. The young men and children crowded around us desperate to ask questions, to ask about our families (Are you married? Do you have children?) so photos of my children were once again passed around. Helen is usually told that at the age of 30, not yet married and no children, she is past it! In Afghan culture it is rare to be unmarried by late teens. I had some pens with me to distribute to children but could see that there were so many children in the bazaar that it would not be possible without causing a riot – especially as Afghan children do not politely wait to be handed a pen. They just charge at you snatching whatever you’re handing out , trying to grab as many as they can. If I misjudge the timing of handing anything out it can be quite scary! That is why I tend to donate pens etc to schools or give them to parents when I have been engaging with a family.
Helen and I carried out another engagement with the midwives in the District Centre Health Clinic. As the Health Clinic is close to the FOB we were driven there by security contractors, which meant I did not have to tie soldiers up for a couple of hours, and the contractors provided security whilst we conducted the engagement. The two midwives were really pleased to see us and had stayed behind after work so that they could talk to us. We talked about women’s health issues concerning pregnancy and birth and I was able to find answers to health questions that, as a paediatric nurse and mother, I had concerns about. Unfortunately we ran out of time as one of the midwives husband’s came to collect her from work (the women are not able to drive themselves around, they must be escorted and, therefore, need to have family support for their role). I could have spoken to them for hours. I’m not sure that Helen felt the same as translating medical terminology was very challenging for her- a lot of the conversation was carried out by mime! We gave the midwives a small gift of sample sized perfume, hand cream and shower cream, which they seemed to like. As we left one of the midwives said we should go to her house for tea, which would be great, but I was unsure about the logistics of it. It’s not like we could just pop round for a brew! However, later that same evening she phoned Helen, again asking us to go for tea, so I have liaised with the Coy that operates where she lives, so that we can patrol with them to her compound and they can provide a cordon, and we are therefore planning to go for tea next weekend! The engagement with these midwives offers excellent potential for further engagements with other women and the opportunity for me to gain a good insight into the lives of Afghan women. I am very excited!
This week it was also brought to my attention that male elders had asked at a shura in another area about starting a sewing cottage industry for their women as they had heard about a similar project elsewhere. It is great that the men are interested in something for their women, something that can give the women a future and if managed properly can be sustainable. However, it is not just a case of handing out equipment – I need to talk further to the males to ensure everything is handled properly, to gauge and manage their expectations, and also speak to the women to ensure it is what they want and that they will be capable. It is a hopeful sign though for the future of Afghanistan.
22 January 2011
I’ve escaped Shawqat and am back out doing the job I came out to do. I’m at a check point (CP) so it’s back to rations, going to the toilet in a plastic bag and outdoor showers. I’ve been sharing a bunk with a big Fijian who’s snoring sounds like a tractor starting on a cold morning – so sleep has been a little difficult. At least the weather is improving and it’s warmer in the daytime, but it’s still freezing (literally) at night.
I was brought here by Mastiff, an excellent Protected Mobility vehicle that has proved its worth time and time again out here, several have hit IEDs and in the main the occupants of the vehicles have escaped with minor injuries.
On my first afternoon here we visited a compound that housed a cotton processing factory as the Development Advisor (an American lady) located with the Battle Group is looking at opportunities for Afghan economic development. All present at the meeting introduced themselves and I introduced myself in Pashto, much to the delight of one of the elderly Afghans present. I did reiterate that I only understood a little Pashto but whenever I understood some of the conversation (unfortunately not very often) and nodded understandingly, or spoke to one of the children present, he smiled broadly telling everyone that I understood Pashto! The cotton factory was a very small business and in terms of a Western factory it was barely a factory at all and looked more like a farmyard, but it worked and it employed several people and there is the possibility for expansion.
The following morning we patrolled back into the village to meet women living in one compound at the request of the compound owner. The Rangers at the CP had told him that a female soldier was coming to talk to women and he was keen for me to talk to his wife. Fortunately the husband allowed me to communicate through our male interpreter, although he had to remain outside the women’s room, but the men of the compound stayed throughout the engagement too and had a tendency to dominate the conversation, as is often the case. Three families lived in the compound so I was talking to three women. The women are not used to talking directly to Westerners and were very shy but by engaging with them I learned a lot from them about education, health and the needs of women. I talked to them about the Health Initiative that will be coming to their area and both they and the men in the compound were keen to take part with the husbands saying they wanted their wives to be educated. As I left the interpreter told me that I was the first ISAF female the women had seen and they were incredibly happy that I had made the effort to talk to them about their lives and their issues.
The next day I went back to see the same women to take them some small gifts (a radio, some hand and face cream and pens for their children) but when we arrived at the compound we discovered the men had gone out for the day. However, to my surprise the women still invited in the interpreter and I, set up a shura mat and we all sat out in the centre of the compound and talked, with the women not even covering their faces. They were very happy that I had come to see them again and grateful for their gifts, though they were obviously a poor family and were asking if I could get clothes for their younger children as they were only wearing upper garments. When I think of all the items of clothing we discard in the UK, to families such as these it would be a godsend.
After we left their compound we patrolled to another compound where we thought I may be welcome. On the way we noticed a young adult male closely watching and following the patrol so the Sgt challenged and searched him. As this was going on his father approached and on being told what his son had been doing, and that his son had tried to resist us searching, his father cuffed him severely about the head – a normal practice in Afghan.
The next family I engaged with lived in a large compound with a central building that had ornate windows. The family had set up a shura rug in front of the door to the women’s room so that I could sit and engage with the women in the compound whilst the interpreter was out of sight of the women. The women were pleased to be able to talk to me and again I spoke about the Health Initiative and the family was keen to participate so I am hoping that I can return next month and ensure the Initiative is brought to their area. After the meeting closed we moved back to the CP as the lads had another patrol to do in the afternoon, I was not required so was going to do some admin – such as have a shower and (hand) wash my laundry.
26 January 2011
My admin afternoon ended up being a little disconcerting. Once my laundry was washed I hung it out to dry and then went to read a book. Laundry takes ages to dry in winter when ringing by hand – I wrote to Soldier magazine on my last tour suggesting that old fashioned mangles would be useful in CPs and PBs but it was not felt to be a good idea. Having spent ages trying to wring out clothes by hand I still maintain it would be good (and my CO agrees with me!) I had hardly sat down when we heard gunfire close by and it transpired that the afternoon patrol was in a contact on their way back to the CP, with one of the call signs pinned down in a ditch. I sat in the Ops room listening to events as they unfolded willing the guys to get back OK. After sporadic gunfire, and one of our sharp shooters engaging the enemy, the guys made it back – very sweaty, out of breath and most of them laughing! Another patrol, another contact I suppose. As long as everyone makes it back OK then all is fine.
That evening I moved to another CP as the CP commander believed the locals in his area may facilitate female engagement. However, on patrol the following morning it became evident that the locals were not going to be on side. The males put up a variety of arguments as to why I could not engage with their women, and whenever we offered a solution another objection was raised culminating in their reasoning that the women would not be able to talk to me because they were not educated and so would not understand me! We realised we were flogging a dead horse at that time so returned to the CP. I shall try to get the idea of female engagement introduced to shuras in the area and maybe, slowly, the men will allow me to meet their women. Whilst on patrol I saw a small child with a severe laceration to his left eyelid, which his brother said had been caused by razor wire near the ANA check point. It needed steri strips but when I tried to treat the child he became upset and as no adult was present I had to leave the child untreated, I couldn’t force him to have treatment. It’s frustrating as I had the capacity to help but the child seemed unconcerned about the injury and not in any pain.
On return to the CP I based myself in the Ops room to write up my patrol notes. I could hear the radio in the background and realised a fairly large, prolonged contact was going on. As I listened I became aware that the guy on the net (radio) under contact was someone that I have become particularly close to during this tour. Listening to events unfolding was even worse than the day before as it was particularly prolonged and I care for him, but he’s out there doing his job and I know that he, and all the boys (and girls – myself included) wouldn’t have it any other way.
I spent some of the the remainder of the day in the small gym that had been built in the CP (practically every CP or PB has some form of gym even if it’s very Heath Robinson) and then packed my kit for my next move the following morning. Dinner that evening was lovely, the guys had clubbed together and bought some potatoes from a local ($40 for a medium sized bag!!) so we had chips. Beats rations any day.
The next morning I moved to CP Silab, on the Western border of our Area of Operations (AO). The move was via PB Samsor where we were in time for a lovely breakfast – funny how important good food becomes out here. I suppose it’s one of the few pleasures we get. Once at Silab I met the guys and discussed potential female engagement. I wasn’t patrolling until the next morning so took the time to chat to the lads and the one female (medic) in the CP until I went to bed.
We patrolled the following morning to some compounds near to the CP. The compounds are inhabited by nomadic Kuchni people who only live there for 6 months of the year, the remaining 6 months they move about with their cattle. The land about the compounds is relatively barren as it is on the edge of a desert and therefore seemed very exposed and isolated. As we patrolled to the compounds we passed a burial ground; initially I didn’t realise what it was as from a distance all I could see was lots of brightly coloured flags fluttering in the breeze and silver reflective flags/markers. As we drew near I began to see burial mounds and some headstones, the first time I have seen a burial area in Afghanistan. We ensured throughout the patrol that we did not encroach on to the burial ground.
The first compound we approached was reluctant to allow me to engage as I had no female interpreter. Eventually the male elder said he would relay my questions to the women but in practice he answered most of the questions and no actual female engagement was possible! Frustrating but at least he tried to meet me half way. The second compound was initially no different but the elder said his wife had a problem with her arm which I offered to look at as a ‘Doctor’ (I used to try to say I’m a nurse but to many Afghans anyone with even basic medical training is a Doctor and that is what they understand so I go with it). He was still reluctant saying that the women in his compound would be scared of the way I was dressed but when I offered to remove helmet and body armour he was happy for me to go in, providing I wore a headscarf. Luckily I usually carry a headscarf with me in acknowledgement of their culture.
The women in the compound were, as most women are, pleased to see me and talk about their issues. The conversation was limited as I had no interpreter but I was able to attempt engagement and I also examined the wife’s arm. I could see nothing wrong with her arm so gave her husband some advice on pain relief via the interpreter, and I gave the women some small gifts at the end of our engagement. The one thing both compounds asked for is a clean water source as there is no well in their area, so I promised I would look into it when I got back to the Battle Group and see if it would be possible to help. I have now passed it on to the guys that deal with such projects and maybe their help will be forthcoming.
As I type this I’m waiting for my next move. I’m going out to a different area with D Coy (my last few days have been with C Coy) where I’ll be used to help search compounds and hopefully be able to conduct some female engagement when I’m in the compound. It’s an area that the Battle Group have not really worked in so it has the potential to be ‘interesting’ but so far I’ve managed to avoid a contact so maybe my luck will hold!
4 February 2011
As I write this I’m sitting in the coffee shop in Bastion 2 enjoying a cappuccino, but it’s not where I want to be. At this moment I should be out on the ground on an Operation with D Company but unfortunately my plans were thwarted by me having an accident in one of the Check Points that resulted in me being casevac’d (casualty evacuation) by helicopter back to Camp Bastion.
I’ll start from the beginning. On the morning of 26 January I was up at 0500 as I had been told my transport out to the Check Point from where I’d be working with D Company was at 0730. I was up that early because I wanted to try and complete all my patrol reports before I went back out on the ground. The reports I complete are sent to Task Force Helmand for analysis, plus I forward any relevant bits to interested parties such as our Military Support and Stabilisation Team (MSST), our Regimental Medical Officer (RMO) or our Development Advisor (DEVAD), so I want to make sure they are completed as soon as possible so that any points can be followed up. However, 0730 came and went and no transport. It transpired I’d been given duff information and the next transport would be at 0900 hours, so I duly turned up at 0840 to be told ‘No room for you on this move, Ma’am, next one’s at 1330’. And so it went on throughout the day – on the bus, off the bus as we say in the Army, until eventually I was moved to the Check Point by Husky (a Protected Mobility Vehicle) at 1700 hours. All I can say is that I was glad I had relatively minimal kit (because I was going on an Operation I only took essentials, which meant a relatively light Bergen and a day sack, plus obviously rifle, body armour and helmet) as I lugged it backwards and forwards several times that day!
When I arrived at the Check Point I was quickly orientated, it didn’t take long as it was tiny, but organised chaos was going on all around me as it was in the process of being changed from a Check Point to a Forward Operating Base (FOB). In order to do this the Royal Engineers were extremely busy carrying out various forms of construction. I was introduced to my tent mates – a female medic Lucy and a male nurse, Phil. I knew Phil as I met him when I was on OPTAG (a week of that training all soldiers have to complete prior to deployment) and again on my mobilisation course. It was good to see a familiar face so we sat and had a chin wag over dinner. One of the lads had made chilli for everyone and it was good too. I was asked if I would do a sangar stag whilst there and as the lads were being hammered for stags I was more than happy to do one. That meant that later that night I found myself climbing in to one of the two sangars for a couple of hours. It felt a bit nerve-wracking doing sangar duty at a check point. I know I’ve done several sangar duties at FOB Shawqat but around there is very benign and very little happens, that might not be the case at a Check Point. As the sangar was situated right out on a corner of the Check Point, 3 sides looked out on to the surrounding area and left me feeling quite exposed and vulnerable. However, I rapidly settled down and began to enjoy the solitude, using the night vision equipment to scan the area and the solitude to think about things. When I have time to think my thoughts always drift back to my family, wondering what my children are up to, how things are back home, and also how they will be when I get back. At the moment I have no job to return to which is worrying but I am applying/have applied for several Full Time Reserve Service posts so I am pinning my hopes on being successful with one of them. As the sole provider for my family I need something.
As my shift ended my replacement arrived, I wished him a quiet shift and then attempted to manoeuvre myself down the sangar’s Hesco steps – unfortunately not very successfully. I misjudged the depth of the last step (the depth of the steps all varied slightly) and went ‘arse over tit’, clattering to the ground, and immediately I knew I was in trouble. The pain in my ankle was excruciating and I lay on the ground, in pain, unable to move. I tried to shout to the guy that had replaced me in the sanger but the noise of nearby generators drifted over me and drowned out my cries. After 10-15 minutes of trying to shout and no-one coming I started to flash my head torch on and off and eventually a couple of the lads came and helped me to the Medical Tent. Initially I told Phil and Lucy that I would be fine and any treatment could wait until morning, I’ve gone over on my ankle before when out running and though extremely painful to begin with it settles down fairly quickly so I thought this might be a similar situation. I was wrong. The pain began to come in waves and before long I couldn’t bear it. Phil came to assess the injury and felt that I’d probably broken my ankle as it was swollen and incredibly tender, and I was in a lot of pain. A 9 liner (casualty report, called 9 liner as there are 9 lines of detail about the casualty detailed in the report) was sent to BG HQ (Battle Group Head Quarters) and a casevac (casualty evacuation) was requested. Initially I was a relatively low priority but, as time went on and my pain worsened, I was cannulated and given IV morphine and my priority status was increased (though still not urgent, compared to some of the injuries sustained here a broken limb is nothing). The morphine did its job and I managed to sleep fitfully until morning when the effect was wearing off so Phil gave me a little more until I was evacuated late morning.
To ready me for the casevac I was strapped to a stretcher, all my belongings gathered together, and when we knew the helicopter was on its way I was placed, strapped to stretcher, on the back of a quad trailer. The quad was driven out to the emergency Helicopter Landing Site (HLS), in this case in a very rutted field so I felt as though the stretcher could be thrown off the quad at any minute, to meet the helicopter as it touched down and I was rapidly loaded into the back of the helicopter and handed over to the USMC aircrew medics. The flight to Camp Bastion was very short and on landing I was moved by ambulance to the hospital and was there within a couple of minutes. The hospital staff were excellent, I felt a fraud presenting with nothing more than a potentially broken ankle, but I was afforded the same excellent standard of care as all casualties. My ankle was x-rayed and fortunately not broken so I was then discharged, on crutches, for physiotherapy and rehabilitation. I have damaged ligaments in my foot which, though very painful, with physio and rehab should heal relatively quickly and I can get back to doing my job. After 2 days the bruising came out in spectacular fashion but the swelling started to go down and I was able to abandon the crutches. I was thankful crutches were no longer needed as the uneven surfaces out here make walking with crutches very difficult! I’m now on day 4 of rehab and it is going well. The rehabilitation facilities here are excellent so I have 3 hours of fairly intense rehab every day, exercises to improve the mobility of my foot as well as general body conditioning exercises to make sure my whole body is strong – the PTI (Physical Training Instructor) is making me work hard. People pay a lot of money for good personal trainers and I’m getting it for nothing! Before I can go back out to the FOB, and ultimately out on patrol, my rehab has to progress to the point where I can pass a FOB test – a fitness test where situations encountered on a patrol, such as jumping over a ditch, are simulated. The test is carried out wearing body armour and carrying some weight to ensure it is realistic. If my recovery continues at the same pace I am hoping that I will take the FOB test next Wednesday and be back out to the FOB as soon as possible. I can now verify, from personal experience, how good our casualty procedures are and what good facilities we have, I’m just so glad it wasn’t broken and I didn’t need to be evacuated (aeromed) back to UK (the next bit in the casualty chain) and with luck and a bit of hard work I’ll be back out on the ground soon.
Captain Lisa Irwin with an Afghan baby
14 February 2011
Today I went back to the village I visited at the start of tour as the Officer Commanding (OC) the company covering that area felt it would be ready to engage with the Female Engagement Team (FET). I went to attend a shura and to promote FET to key elders – however the plan backfired slightly as none turned up! Afghans do have a tendency to come to meetings when they feel like it and also to work to ‘Afghan time’ which for UK military personnel, who always work to the “five minutes before” rule, can be incredibly frustrating. The Afghan concept of time management is no surprise to me as I have also lived in Cyprus and the Cypriots adopted a very similar way of living- perhaps it is something to do with living in a hot climate!
I was beginning to feel very pessimistic about female engagement in this particular village as this was my third attempt at engagement with no positive result, but the Afghan National Police (ANP) officers at the police station where the shura was meant to be held were more than happy to sit and talk to me and the OC, resulting in us being there for 3 hours. The police officers were fascinated by my attempts to talk to them in their own language, and fascinated by my being female – unfortunately sometimes too fascinated as they did have a habit of talking to my chest not my face. I was, however, able to talk to some of them about their lives in the village and about the possibility of engaging with their wives in the future. Initially they were uncertain about the idea, stating that their wives didn’t need any help with anything, but I spoke to them about the Health Initiative and they seemed to be in agreement that it might be good for their women to attend training. Talking to them allowed me to gather information on their opinion of the government, local healthcare, schooling for girls and women ANP officers. To my surprise they were supportive of women joining the ANP (though in all likelihood not their women) as it would make female searches more culturally sensitive. There are female police officers in Lashkar Gah, the Provincial Capital, but I think it will be a long time before rural Helmandi women are anywhere near being able to join the police – or even want to. At the end of the meeting all the police men were keen to have their photo taken with me – quite disconcerting! I now have some idea of how it must be to be a minor celebrity!
I was then moved (by protected vehicle) to a small Check Point where another shura was meant to be held. The Check Point was housed in a small compound and the courtyard in the compound was a mud bath due to the recent heavy rain. However, it wasn’t as bad as some of the other Check Points and Patrol Bases. Some guys attending the shura had come from a Patrol Base that was about a foot deep in muddy water. The shura was again a no show, but some local nationals did come with compensation claims. If ISAF damage any local property then the owner will be compensated providing he (or incredibly rarely she) has some form of proof of ownership. Locals do sometimes do present with fabricated – and sometimes bizarre – claims and then are sent away empty handed.
Once the meeting had concluded I was moved again to a different Check Point where I was to remain for a couple of days so that I could get out on foot patrol and hopefully conduct some female engagement. My accommodation in this place was the medical ISO container (big metal box) which on cold nights is like sleeping in a fridge. I was given a small kerosene heater for the ISO but the CP didn’t have any kerosene so were running the heater on diesel which meant that it only gave out minimal heat, enough to take the chill off the air but certainly not enough to warm the container.
Fortunately I purchased a wonderful sleeping bag on R&R and on cold nights it has been a lifesaver. I was orientated to the Check Point (CP), given a quick brief on actions on (ie what to do if anything such as a contact or medical incident occurred whilst I was there) and then had dinner – back to 24 hour ration packs, yummy (not!). I was also given my stag time for stagging on in the Ops Room, listening to the radio and responding to anything relating to the CP call sign.
I was up the next morning at a reasonable hour to be ready to go out on patrol after breakfast. Initially we were just going to patrol out to compounds to speak to people living there and gain information about them (Human Terrain Mapping) but the plan was altered when we were also tasked with providing protection for engineers who were carrying out some work near to the CP. As we set off the day was starting to warm up, the sky was blue and cloudless and, due to the recent rain, the fields were green. It was quite a nice sight – until I saw the muddy, rutted and deep puddle riddled road we were walking down. However, as usual we weren’t on the road for long before moving onto small tracks and ridges along irrigation ditches, through muddy fields and over yet more irrigation ditches. It was certainly a test for my healing foot, which it passed but grudgingly.
The first few compounds we stopped at had no men in them as they had gone to the bazaar for the day. Through the (male) interpreter we asked the nephew of the men if I could engage with the women in the compounds but he wouldn’t allow it. Frustrating but not unusual. However, the next compound we approached invited me in, but on my own as they wouldn’t allow a male interpreter to talk to women. The woman of the compound was keen to talk to me but although my Pashto is much improved the conversation was generalised as my vocabulary is limited. I have tried to improve my ability to report on the conversation by procuring a tape recorder which I have placed in a pouch in the front of my body armour. I then record the conversation and play it back to the interpreter later to see what I missed during the engagement. It’s not a perfect solution but it helps. The woman I spoke to was 40 years old and had 7 children, her eldest son being 24. When I told her I was 42 she remarked on how good my skin was for my age. Afghans tend to age prematurely, probably from the harsh conditions that they live in, so many Afghans have expressed surprise at my age. All the money I have spent on moisturisers must be paying off! She told me her husband and one of her daughters were unwell so I offered to see if I could help in any way but it transpired that the husband was 80 years old (very old for an Afghan male, whose average lifespan is 42) and his ill health was due to his age. The daughter’s situation was pitiful, she was 15 years old and blinded by cataracts and spends all her time lying on a rug in the compound unable to properly interact with her family. I tried to speak to her and held her hand to let her know I was there, it reminded me of nursing severely disabled children when in UK, and my heart went out to her. However, there was nothing I could do to help. The mother said they had taken her to Pakistan for treatment but it was obviously unsuccessful and I could not help but be moved by her plight, her future will be very limited.
I managed to gain access to 2 more compounds during the patrol and spoke to several women, in both instances I was again on my own as the male interpreter could not enter but I seemed to manage to have some form of conversation and the women seemed to appreciate my efforts. The patrol then moved off to form a screen (the protection) for the engineers as they worked on culverts near the CP so we had to remain in place for some time. Whilst we were static I was surrounded by children and young men curious yet again at a female soldier and even more curious when I spoke Pashto to them. The children asked constantly for chocolate and pens but there were too many of them for me to start handing out the few pens I had in my bag – it would have been bedlam. Once the engineers had completed their work we moved back in to the CP. In the CP I watched our security camera in the Ops Room in disbelief as locals swarmed around the newly-banked culverts trying (and succeeding) to pull out small bits of the metal supports in the Hesco Bastion that the engineers had installed. It is frustrating as we are trying to rebuild for the Afghans and sometimes as soon as we have completed works locals pull it apart to take what they can.
I was invited to have dinner that night with the ANP officers co-located in the CP. They were living in an ISO so feeling it would be rude to refuse I went there with one of the Rangers and the 2 interpreters not really sure what to expect. Dinner was served in the ISO where the ANP slept, with us all seated on a rug, and the ANP commander was keen to talk to me about various things. The food was a chicken stew (of sorts) served with local flat bread and whilst the bread is lovely and the stew sauce was nice I didn’t eat much chicken as Afghans cook the whole bird, bones and all, which I found a bit off-putting. I had to eat some though as it would have been rude not to. The drink accompanying the meal was a pot of goat milk flavoured with small pieces of cucumber and/or melon. It was actually quite palatable and reminded me of tzatziki. After dinner we talked about family whilst taking chai, with me again showing the photos of my children, and then talked about religion and life in UK compared to life in Afghanistan. It was certainly an interesting experience.
The next morning I was again on patrol, this time to the local village. I was lucky enough to be invited in to 3 compounds but again I had to go in on my own as my male interpreter could not enter. One of the compounds I entered was very dilapidated and the family seemed to have few possessions but as I spoke to the woman she told me that her husband was an ANP officer and the family had been burned out of their former home in Musa Qala by Taliban. I felt desperately sorry for her and have arranged for one of the patrols to revisit and take the family some blankets and a radio, items that we can give to locals as part of stabilisation. Whilst in another compound one of the children came in with a badly-cut heel whilst I was taking chai with the women so I took out the medical kit that I always carry and cleaned and dressed the wound. It is always satisfying to be able to give immediate help. During the patrol I went in to one of the private clinics in the village to talk to the doctor running the clinic. In this particular village the GIRoA clinic was poorly thought of and many locals attended this private clinic so I felt it would be good to see what facilities the clinic had and how well trained the doctor was. The doctor was extremely accommodating and happily spoke to me and showed me round the clinic. While I was there a sick baby was brought in and as my interpreter had told the doctor that I was also a doctor I was invited to examine the baby. Fortunately the baby was not too sick and the doctor and I came to the same conclusion, so the father was given paracetamol for the child and took the child home. I managed to have my photo taken holding the child, trying to be careful not to be weed on again as I had been when holding a baby earlier in the tour!
Once the patrol had finished we moved back to the Check Point where I then radioed through to Company HQ to determine my next move. Whilst waiting for the OC to decide where I would go next I decided to cook dinner for all the guys in the CP. As we had little variety in rations and no gas or oven (ie the only way to cook was over a hexamine cooker) I had to be a bit inventive and eventually managed to make a tuna fish pie and a steamed jam sponge. I was extremely pleased with the sponge as I had to guess quantities and we only had powdered egg, and no electric whisk, but it turned out to be a nice light sponge. The lads were impressed anyway!
18 February 2011
The following morning I was woken abruptly and told I had 10 minutes to get ready as my lift was on its way. Fortunately I had most of my kit packed away anticipating the move so I was quickly dressed and in the vehicle which took me to another, much smaller, Check Point. On my arrival I was shown to my bed space, I was sharing a room with 3 guys. Not really a problem but it was a little bit smelly – there was a slight whiff of unwashed feet!! I quickly determined that the Check Point was only manned sufficiently to carry out vehicle check points (VCPs) and did not have the capacity to patrol so I immediately questioned the purpose of my being there. It transpired that the OC felt it would be useful to have a female presence on VCPs to deter insurgents from using women to smuggle items and that I might be able to engage with women as I searched them. I understood the need for female searchers and was quite happy to act in that role for a couple of days as that would get the message out that ISAF was able to search females, but I did not think it would be an opportunity for engagement. I was proved right as the few females that I searched were very hostile and upset, their male relatives even more so, so I didn’t even attempt to engage with the women as it would have been pointless. The male relatives were so incensed about the searching (unfortunately we had no screen for the women as the VCPs were not permanent ones) that they turned on the young local male interpreter and almost reduced him to tears. After 2 days I radioed the OC and asked to be moved as I could achieve no more at that CP but that afternoon more soldiers were sent to the CP so that patrols could be conducted from it so the situation changed. There was to be an operation (Op) the next morning, searching suspected Taliban bed down locations, so I volunteered to go as a female searcher. I had found on a previous Op that I could engage with women in compounds when I had searched them. The patrol commander felt that was a good idea so I found myself getting up at 0300 the next morning (having also done a radio stag during the night) to go on the Op. We intended to search the compounds at first light before any males had gone to the mosque.
We left the check point very early, with me carrying a day sack containing my usual kit plus a heavy battery I’d been given to carry and a spare metal detector. It’s at times like that when I’m glad I trained hard before I came out on tour and made sure I could carry a reasonable amount of weight. I could cope fine but I knew the day sack would feel much heavier by the end of the patrol. We patrolled in the moonlight to a nearby Patrol Base to meet up with another call sign and our ANA (Afghan National Army) partners and after a quick brew we set off to the compounds. It can be a little disorientating patrolling in the dark, especially as I had no night vision equipment, but the moon was fairly bright so I was able to cope well. I could not see all the guys in my patrol though, only the guy in front and the guy behind, and I was regularly checking to ensure the guy behind me was still with us. Whenever we stop and ‘go firm’ it is essential to make sure that the guy behind knows when we start to move again, ensuring that no-one is left behind, as it can be easy to miss people getting up and moving in the dark. Before first light both call signs (groups) were in position ready to enter the suspect compounds. Initially the ANA went in to the compounds, followed by a couple of our guys and our interpreter, and I waited with the remainder of the patrol in the security cordon but it wasn’t long before I was called forward to search women and the women’s rooms. Most of the women I encountered were OK about being searched and happy to engage with me afterwards, though the male interpreter again could not enter so I was on my own. However, in one compound the woman was petrified and had tried to hide herself in the corner of a small room that looked like a store room. I had to search her so squeezed into the room and explained why I was there and assured her again and again that I was a woman. Initially she allowed me to start to search her but as I moved down to pat down her legs she became hysterical, moaning and keening and desperate to get away from me. It was upsetting but I had to conclude the search so I quickly finished and left her alone as no amount of verbal reassurance from me was going to make any difference. Nothing was found during the searches but it appeared that Taliban had used a small outbuilding as a bed down location. Searches over, we patrolled back to the CP and I snatched a few hours sleep before a call sign arrived in vehicles and transported me back to Shawqat.
23 February 2011
I’ve now been back in Shawqat for a couple of days. It’s good to be back to hot showers, flushing toilets and good food but I’ve been trapped in BG HQ for the 2 days typing up reports and I’m also back to sanger stags. However, there was some good news waiting for me on my return, my application for a Full Time Reserve Service post as a Cultural Advisor was successful so later in the year I shall be commencing a 3 year contract. It means completing a 15 month Pashto course before yet another tour of Afghan but I am looking forward to it and am so relieved that I have a job. I’m also looking forward to becoming semi-fluent in Pashto and coming out here again but next time being able to properly converse with the Afghans I meet. In the meantime I shall just get on with the job in hand at FOB Shawqat. Still, I anticipate not being here for too long as I’m hoping to be used as a female searcher on another, much bigger Op in the near future.
1 March 2011
I have just come back in from my second air assault Operation, but this one can only be described as awesome! We were conducting a Battle Group air assault into an area right at the southern edge of our area of operation, somewhere we haven’t really worked before. The Op started with rehearsals on Saturday in Camp Bastion, basically all patrol multiples practising getting on and off the helicopters, and then the Op for real was on Sunday. I was going on the Op with A Company 5 SCOTS, to be used as a female searcher and when doing so I hoped to try to engage with the women I encountered. The Op was only to be a short one (36 hours) so we had to carry everything we required for that time on our backs and, as it can still be cold at this time of year, warm kit was essential, plus at least 4 litres of water, rations, medical kit, spare ammunition and my influence items (gifts I give to the women). My day sack was pretty heavy at 40lbs, but that was nothing compared to the weight some of the boys were carrying. Then again, a 40lbs day sack, body armour weighing minimum 35 lbs, rifle (9lbs) and helmet, is more than enough for a 42-year old mum of 3 to be lugging through extremely muddy fields!
The morning of the Op was an early start as usual; up at 0450hrs, quick wash (which was disturbed by 3 ANA soldiers who did not understand the sign on the door saying female ablutions! They ignored my Pashto and English asking them to get out – it transpired they only spoke Dari of which I know nothing), breakfast and then bussed across to the flight line. The patrol multiples were placed in ‘pens’, with the pens corresponding to the helicopter each multiple was to fly in. It was a cold morning, but fortunately dry, and spirits were high as we waited for our time to mount up on to the helicopters. Everyone knew that this Op was fairly significant in its scale, one of the biggest air assault Ops for quite a while and the biggest that the Royal Irish have done since the Second World War. Even I felt like an excited child on Christmas morning as we waited to board. We were in for a relatively long wait though, and a slightly anxious one as we all wanted the helicopters to be in working order, but one by one the helicopters were cranked up and all ready to go. We were given the signal to mount up and once the troops were on board all 12 helicopters took to the air. It must have been a pretty awesome sight; 12 troop carrying helicopters, accompanied by Apache gunships as escort, rapidly moving through the skies to insert us all for the Op. From my position inside a Chinook it looked pretty spectacular as I could see several helicopters behind and alongside us and at intervals the helicopters would fire off chaff (flares to deter missile attacks on the helicopters) which could be seen as a bright orange flare streaking past. At exactly the predetermined time the helicopters simultaneously landed and over 200 soldiers poured out of the helicopters onto their designated landing zones. As my helicopter landed I was concentrating on making sure I exited properly as it was quite a drop from the tail gate and I wanted to ensure I didn’t go over on my weak ankle again, but I successfully jumped down and ran into my practised position. Once all troops were on the ground there was a slight pause to make sure we were all in place and 12 helicopters lifted into the air and moved off as one. Even the most battle hardened soldiers amongst us found it a thrilling experience – that’s the sort of thing I joined the Army for!
After the lift had moved off all the patrol multiples shook out and prepared to move. My call sign (grouping of soldiers) was providing the screen to the South of the operation so we were one of the last multiples to move. Only 10 minutes after we had begun to move the first shots were fired, about 200m from our position. I was surprised as it would be unlike insurgents to engage us with so many boots on the ground, but it quickly transpired that there was no enemy activity involved and it was in fact an Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier shooting a dog! The movement forward was initially very slow and we had to go firm several times to allow other multiples to move ahead of us and create a gap. The weather was deteriorating with a harsh cold wind blowing right across us and then a shower of hailstones rained down on us. At that moment it felt like it could be a very long Op. Once we were given a target compound we began to move forward with purpose but the ground dictated the pace and as the area in which we were working posed a high IED threat we patrolled away from tracks and obvious routes. This meant trudging through wet, muddy fields and jumping over, or climbing through, several irrigation ditches. The going was quite treacherous as the sticky, clay-like mud became more and more slippery as the patrol moved through it. The weight the guys were carrying made things even more treacherous as we were sinking into the mud with every step. I wasn’t anywhere near as bad as some; there were Counter-IED (C-IED) guys in our multiple who were carrying all the equipment required to carry out controlled explosions or exploit IED finds and their bergens were so heavy I could barely lift them. Most people fell at least once, including me as I fell when crossing a small ditch. As I tried to step across, the piece of earth that was my launch pad crumbled away pitching me forward, but fortunately I only fell to my knees preventing myself from falling face first by using my rifle as a crutch. Eventually we came to the first compound of interest and I entered the compound along with 2 Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP) officers. The ANCOP officers carried out the initial compound search and then I searched the women’s room. I usually find that the ANCOP, ANA or Afghan National Police (ANP) are appreciative of my presence as it is much more culturally sensitive for women to search women. Once I had searched the women’s room I asked if I could talk to the one woman in the compound and she said she was happy to talk and her husband allowed the male interpreter into the room with me. However, when I sat down to engage with her she seemed scared and most of the conversation was with her husband, despite my best efforts to talk to her and draw her in. She did say that she was happy to see a female soldier and that she had never seen one before. The main concern of the family was the security in their area, they had little freedom of movement due to insurgents being in the area and GIRoA currently had little influence in the area which means that there is no very little in the way of government facilities such as schools and clinics. I assured the family that ISAF was now focussing on their area to push out insurgents and enable GIRoA to bring development to the area.
The remainder of the operation continued in a similar vein with the women I encountered in every compound willing to speak to me with the male interpreter present. One woman I spoke to was a widow and she and her daughters were fascinated with me and my lifestyle asking questions about my life in the UK. They also commented on my ‘lovely pale skin’ and I told them how ironic that is when many people in the UK are desperately trying to get brown skin!
By mid-afternoon on the first day we had to take over a compound so that we had somewhere to stay overnight. It is always preferable to take over an occupied compound as it is very unlikely that there will be IEDs placed within it, although we do still check most of the compound. However, taking over an occupied compound does mean that we have to displace the resident family for the night. They are often not keen but once the financial recompense is made clear they are usually happy to decamp to a nearby friend or relative’s home and it is also made clear to them that should any damage occur whilst we are in the compound they will also be compensated for that. Once in the compound work began on sorting out sentry positions, filling sand bags to provide some cover in the sentry positions (on the compound roof) and identifying ablution locations etc. All of us carried the WAG bags (plastic toilet bags) with us so we wouldn’t have to leave any unpleasant surprises behind. Once the compound was set up then everyone set out their sleeping area and water was heated so we could heat up our ration pack meals. I was sleeping in what was essentially a store room, with 6 of the guys in there too so it was a bit of a squeeze, but we had roll mats and sleeping bags so most of us were comfortable enough. I had been put on sentry from 20 00 hours so I managed to grab an hours sleep before my turn came.
It was pitch dark when I got up to go on sentry, with no moonlight at all. I had to climb on to an oil drum and then try to drag myself up on to the roof. It was no easy task and after much effort and cursing (and sometimes giggling at how rubbish I was though it would have been no problem were I not wearing body armour) the outgoing sentry had to come across and unceremoniously haul me up. It was very disconcerting being on the compound roof in pitch darkness. I felt incredibly exposed and unable to see anything at all with the naked eye so I regularly scanned the area with night vision equipment. Part way through my sentry duty a thunderstorm started so I was lying watching the forked lightning in the distance, and also watching illumination flares that were put up every now and again. At one point it also started to rain but fortunately for me the rain wasn’t heavy. Unfortunately for the guys going on duty later on the rain increased in intensity as the night progressed resulting in several soggy soldiers.
The second day began with us planning to move off early to destroy an insurgent hide location but as we moved toward the location a request came over the net (radio) for the C-IED team to deal with a suspect IED. An escort arrived to take them to the device and the remainder of our multiple had to go firm and wait for another multiple to come to us so that we could join them. We went firm beside a compound and watched as the other multiple approached us across an incredibly boggy ploughed field. One by one the sticky mud sucked the guys in and it was quite entertaining watching as they sank in the field up to their knees and struggled to move. We weren’t able to go to their aid so all we could do was watch the show! It was also a little disconcerting as had they been contacted (ie shot at) they had no cover and would have been sitting ducks. Fortunately they managed to get out of the field and once they had joined us, and dealt with all the leg pulling they inevitably got, the patrol continued on. Eventually, just before dark, we were cleared to move back to a CP location where everyone was meeting up to get helicopters back to either FOB Shawqat or Camp Bastion.
By the time we reached the CP we were all hungry and dying for a brew so it was a relief to see a hot meal (a bowl of instant noodles, and though not normally my favourite fare at that point it was delicious) waiting for us. Once in the CP we had a 2-hour wait for the airlift out so most people stood around chatting about their experiences on the Op. The helicopter extraction felt incredibly surreal as the Helicopter Landing Site (HLS) was in a field outside the CP and walking out to the field felt like I was almost blind. We couldn’t use torchlight as we did not want to advertise our presence and I had no night vision equipment so I had to blindly follow the guy in front and hope the ground was OK. It was a little nerve-wracking as we had to cross a bridge over a canal and although I could hear the water rushing along the canal I couldn’t see it and nor could I see the edges of the bridge. As we waited for the Chinook to come in I could hear an Apache hovering nearby providing security for our extraction but could see absolutely nothing. I couldn’t see the Chinook when it came in to land, although I could most definitely hear it, until just before it touched down. As soon as it was wheels down we quickly moved in and then it took off and within minutes I was back in Shawqat. Back to normal toilet and a hot shower- bliss. I did feel for the 5 SCOTS guys as they still had to tab back to their CP and there would be no hot shower for them.
I shall now be in Shawqat for a couple of days so I can complete reports and do some essential admin- including giving my rifle a thorough clean as it became incredibly dirty during the Op (although I did try to keep on top of it during the Op, as a functioning rifle is the soldiers best friend).
4 March 2011
My stay in Shawqat was much shorter than planned – not even 24 hours respite and I was on the move again. I moved to one of the CPs I was at about a month ago where I had successfully engaged with several families, as we intended to hold some Health Initiative training there and I was hoping to interest women in the initiative and persuade both them and their male relatives to attend. If I could drum up enough interest then we proposed to hold training at two separate sites, one for the males and one for the females. The CP commander informed me on my arrival that my return was fortuitous (not his exact words!) as the locals had been asking the patrols when I was coming back- something I was really pleased to hear as it shows that Female Engagement is beginning to work. I knew that progress throughout my tour could (and more than likely would) be painfully slow but to have locals asking if I am coming back, and fully accepting my role, is a huge step forward.
Once out on patrol many of the locals recognised me and were keen to say hello and have a quick chat, with the kids surrounding me again clamouring for pens, chocolate and to talk to me. I was able to distribute several pens as many generous people from my home town of Brechin had donated pens to my local paper, The Brechin Advertiser, to be sent out to me and to date I have received 1 ½ mail bags of pens to give to local children.
The first compound I went into was one that I was invited into on my last trip to this particular village and the family were pleased to see me again, offering me bread and chai and the girls in the family trying to touch my hair. Unfortunately the conversation was limited due to my limited Pashto but the family did tell me they would all like to come to the Health Initiative training which was positive. I engaged with another two families during the first day, with them appreciative of my attempt to converse with them in their own language. Maybe too appreciative as one of the male elders asked me to stay in Agfhan and become his third wife! Amid much banter I told him I had to decline as he couldn’t afford me. Again both families were keen to come to Health Initiative training.
After the patrol was over we returned to the CP where I set up my bed for the next few days. The rain started (again) and the CP was a mud bath riddled with deep puddles. I was sharing a room with two guys and though not too uncomfortable the roof was leaking in a few places (fortunately not directly over any of the beds) so all that could be heard in the room was a steady drip, drip. I managed to sleep though as patrolling can be physically hard work so I’m usually fairly tired at the end of the day.
The next day we were to patrol in the afternoon so I spent part of the morning preparing the evening meal for everyone in the CP (shepherds pie followed by apple crumble). As it was all prepared one of the guys not coming on the patrol had to just put them in the oven (a metal oven that sits on top of the gas stove) and the plan was that we could come back to a hot meal, much to the amazement of many of the guys who are not normally quite so organized. That is obviously the mum in me coming to the fore.
During the afternoon patrol I spoke to several males who were in the fields or near their compounds telling them about the Health Initiative which was to take place the following day. Most people were interested and said they would try to get their womenfolk to attend, but many also asked me for advice about health issues as I was patrolling. I was invited into a compound to engage with some women but the engagement was a little chaotic as there were at least 35 excitable people in the compound (men, women and children) and I was trying to engage with them with my limited Pashto as the male interpreter was not invited in. It was still a positive engagement though and again they were interested in the Health Initiative. I have also started talking to all Afghans I engage with about first aid treatment for burns as their initial instinct is just to get the casualty to medical care but that can sometimes take up to an hour, during which time if first aid is not given the burn will get worse. Burns is a common injury among Afghan children as lighting fires for cooking and heating is often a child’s responsibility, and during December some children brought into Camp Bastion hospital died because of their burns, so I am hoping that simple first aid advice may help mitigate serious injury or death.
Dinner that evening was a success, with the guys really appreciating the apple crumble. However, the weather forecast for the following day was for heavy rain so I doubted the Health Initiative training would happen. My doubts were unfortunately correct and the following morning the local elders spoke to the CP commander to tell him people would not attend due to the weather so it was postponed to a later date. I was deeply disappointed as it would have been my first proper gathering of a group of Afghan women but it is not cancelled, just postponed, and will take place as soon as it can be rearranged (weather permitting). I therefore returned to Shawqat to complete more reports, carry out basic admin and dry out my very soggy feet!
17 March 2011
Happy St Patrick’s Day – very apt as I’m serving with 1 ROYAL IRISH! We had a parade today where we were presented with shamrocks to wear in out corbeens (head dress), a tradition for Irish soldiers, by Lord Eames. The chefs went all out this morning too in honour of the occasion and we had a proper fried breakfast with fresh rations, including soda bread, instead of the usual fried spam and tinned sausages. A good start to the day.
The weather has completely changed out here now, this country really is one of extremes. The temperatures have recently been in the low-30s but less than 2 weeks ago we had driving rain, cold and the whole place was a quagmire. Now it’s bright sunshine, almost unbearably hot some days (patrolling in the heat with all your kit on is no fun – thank God I’m not on a summer tour) and the place is becoming a dust bowl again. The better weather unfortunately also means that insurgents are trying to come back to fight but we (1 ROYAL IRISH) are working hard, in conjunction with Afghan Security Forces, to deny them any chance of gaining a foothold in our area again. The lads have worked hard to increase security in Nad-e Ali South so that locals can live their lives in relative normality, so we don’t want to allow that to disappear again.
Female Engagement has also moved on apace. I held my first female shura (gathering of women) this week with over 25 females turning up. The shura was held to teach the women about health, including antenatal, delivery and postnatal care. It was very well received and the women even listened to the section about contraception, most of them grinning widely! Many families have lots of children, partly due to the mortality rate of under-5s, but the Afghan Government wants families to space out their children which should decrease the poverty I have seen as I have patrolled. However, many people that I have spoken to maintain that they want to have large families so I think it is something that will take time to change. I try to emphasise that spacing out children allows the mother to have better pregnancies and stronger, healthier children, but I think locals will take some convincing!
At the same time as the female health training a male shura was held to educate the males and about 80 attended. The health training is very well received wherever it has been carried out and the hope is that those who attended will pass on their new-found knowledge to their friends and relatives. I was so glad that both sessions were well attended as I had spent several days patrolling in the area, speaking to locals to message them that the Health Initiative would take place, and whilst many said they would come until the actual day dawns you can never be sure how many will turn up. In fact, as we left the CP to set up for the shuras it initially looked like very few would turn up as the first few locals we saw said that no-one would be ready and could we come back later?! We weren’t able to reschedule so decided to run it for the few that were there but word quickly spread round the village until both sessions were fairly crowded – a good result all round.
Whilst patrolling in the village prior to the shuras a vehicle stopped beside the patrol and the driver said that he had heard about me and my role and that his wife would like to meet me. As he lived almost 1km from the village in which I was patrolling I was unable to visit that day but I intend to program it in if I can, as it is extremely positive that people are coming forward to ask for FET to visit them and that the message of Female Engagement is spreading. This particular local was ex-Taliban so I don’t want to go in to the compound on my own but it is a good influence opportunity and the conversation could certainly be interesting!
I discovered last week that my job profile for this tour was sent to the media to coincide with International Women’s Day so stories appeared in several national newspapers and I was on BFBS TV news. I knew nothing about it until people starting getting in touch telling me I was crated (if your photo or name is published you have to buy the guys a crate of drink – obviously not alcoholic out here!). So far it’s cost me over $40, but maybe my kids will appreciate their mum being famous!
It has been decided that I will not end my tour on the original planned date. I was due to leave on 5 April but my replacement would not have been here yet so I was asked if I would stay for an extra 11 days so that there will be FET continuity for 45 Commando (who take over from 1 ROYAL IRISH) and I can give a proper handover to my replacement. Fortunately my wonderful parents have stepped up yet again and are happy to hang on to my kids for a bit longer, though the kids aren’t too impressed. I have mixed feelings as though I’m longing to go home to my family I didn’t want to leave without a good handover because I have worked hard to make progress and I want my replacement to be able to continue to progress. Still, it’s not too long and I can still say I’ll be home next month- just a little later than I anticipated.
It is weird seeing people starting to leave theatre and the Marines of 45 Commando coming in. I will have to adapt to the way they talk again (my last tour was with 3 Commando Brigade), they refer to the toilets as the heads, a brew as a wet and the cookhouse as the galley (plus numerous other differences!). Still, it will be interesting working with them again, if only for a short while. I am planning to go back out on the ground again from Monday, working with Ops Company doing some searches so that may be interesting – it may also be very hot! It’s all part of the job though and I just have to get on with it, and to be honest I am so glad I got the opportunity to do this role as it has been fascinating, challenging and fulfilling.