Long days at Camp Price

Trooper Jonny Ritchie from the Royal Dragoon Guards writes about long days at Camp Price, and of trying to get better at Mario Kart!

Another week has passed and quickly too! Although through the past week we have had time to relax, it has been mixed with some very long days indeed.  At the start of this week we handed over responsibility of QRF at PB2 to the Gurkha Mastiff group and made our way back to Camp Price for this week’s activities. Not a good start to being back at Price; caught the end of England’s 4-1 defeat to Germany. Oh well, there’s always the Euros…

Found out that I’m the HMG gunner for Cpl Stead so that helped bring back some smiles after the football results as I get to be on his Mastiff named ‘Big Love’. I’ve known Chris – aka “Steady” – since I joined the Army back in Germany in 2006 and ever since Iraq his vehicles have been named ‘Big Love’. Well if he ever reads this he owes me a drink, for mentioning his beloved wagon.

The day after this we had a no move day to sort out admin, including washing and maintenance on the Mastiffs. There was also time to catch up on some sleep.  Then it was back to the job at hand; we rose the next day at 0430, did a CLP and arrived back at Price just in time for evening scoff (meal). Then we were back out at 2200 to move infantry from one of the PBs to another location for an Operation. A very long day and night indeed – got back again to Price at 0100 and as I’m sure you can imagine bed was not long after our return.

After about six hours sleep I was up again with my driver Tpr John Laryea to take our Mastiff to the REME for our monthly inspection. After that was complete, it was back to bed until lunch. The rest of the day was ours to do as we pleased; I used my time wisely trying to beat some lap times on my Nintendo that Tpr “Eddie” Edwards and LCpl “LB” Lawton had set during our stint as QRF. Although many kids would state otherwise, Mario Kart is harder than it looks!

The next day arose for a CLP to Bastion, got there for lunch and, as we had a couple of free hours while the RLC loaded their trucks, we went to the American PX (like our NAAFI). My driver John bought a new laptop which he now looks at as if it was a new baby. On returning to Price later in the day we had to sort out a noise that we had coming from under our Mastiff with the REME.

I look forward to what the next week may bring and to beating lap times. So it’s bye for now…

Back To Work

Trooper Jonny Ritchie of the Royal Dragoon Guards is back in Afghanistan after R&R at home in Northern Ireland. Here he reflects on getting back to work.

Hello again! Back from R&R; brilliant time at home in Northern Ireland, great to see family and friends, get out for some drinks (just one or two mind…) and unwind for a short period.  On returning to duty and while collecting my kit in Camp Bastion, ready to get back out with our Mastiffs and still on a high from R&R, the reality of being back out in Afghanistan started with news from the RSM that no serving soldier wants to hear.  The sad news being Trooper Ashley Smith had been killed. My feelings from R&R disappeared instantly and they turned to the utmost sadness. I would like to say on my behalf and from the rest of the lads in 3rd Troop, B squadron: our thoughts and prayers go to his family and friends back home. Fare thee well Tpr Ashley Smith, rest easy.

Later, I was picked up from Bastion and taken down to Camp Price, to carry on my role out here.  Spent the first 2 days catching my feet again, getting rid of jet lag and doing maintenance on the Mastiffs.  Then I joined the Troop Leader’s group of Mastiffs as the gunner for Cpl Stead, heading down to PB2 to take over from the Troop Sergeant’s group as QRF. So what has QRF in PB2 involved?  Being very busy is definitely a start!  We’ve been called out to recover one Mastiff from PB4 that had lost a wheel in a IED incident. We have also been taking a lot of mail to the PBs and CPs or, as some call it, delivering morale. Early in the week we also joined D Squadron in PB2 to hold a vigil for Ashley Smith.

Most of our days while on QRF have started at sunrise and ended in the dark of night. All I look forward to at the end of each day is a cold shower and bed. Why a cold shower I hear you cry? Well the temperature out here is unbelievable, holding in the high 40s. Being in a PB there is no air-con which means no escape from the heat. We also took the CO of 1 RGR to a shura and to see the work on a new school being built in our AO. As the changes become visible and you see improvements, it really keeps you going in our job to stabilise, rebuild and pass over control. Until next time, bye for now.

Sad news from Kandahar

Captain Jeremy Hann, an Armoured Vehicle Commander with the Royal Dragoon Guards, is based in Kandahar for Operation HERRICK 12. In this posts he writes about recent events in Kandahar.

Without wishing to erode the gossamer-thin veneer of machismo and testosterone afforded me by current situation… I would like to thank my mother publicly for her recent aid-package, and specifically for the chargrilled artichoke hearts in extra virgin olive oil. Delish. The enjoyment of the second half of the contents was slightly marred by the light garnish of sand, compliments of the ‘120 days of winds’ and the unique, fetid and rank aromas provided by the open sewers. Dining Al Fresco is not perhaps what it is on the Cote D’Azur.

The last few weeks in Kandahar Province have been rather grim. I have mentioned previously the low price upon life by certain organisations operating in this country, and if there had been any doubt, the explosive attack at a wedding ceremony this week, which killed 40 and seriously injured a further eighty-odd surely provides indelible evidence of this sick and saddening perspective. As the temperature has risen so have the number of incidents and attacks. Whilst I have no immediate involvement with everything that falls in this category, where I have it has been a positive sign that the Afghan Security presence is both eager and increasingly capable of dealing with the threat at the tactical level on the streets.

The attack, like many others, has been featured on CNN, and the coverage is extensive. They appear to have a much greater handle on events in this province than either the Beeb or Sky, which is hardly surprising as the majority of the British are to be found west of here in Helmand. The instantaneous nature of the reportage is staggering, and is sponsored and propelled by technology unimaginable during the great conflicts of the twentieth century. If greater media coverage descends on this city over the summer months, as it surely will, the truth may get lost in the throng of multiple-source reporting. Within thirty minutes of our main base coming under attack at the end of last month ‘news’ of it was already being conveyed to the global audience. The efficiency is awesome, (I mean that in the truest sense, not in the way Americans use the word to describe a new pair of sports socks), and equally frightening. Public opinion can be formed in ‘real-time’ before those embroiled in the violence have literally had a chance to pause and reflect on what they have just gone through. This is all a far cry from the weekly cable from Africa that the likes of Lord Deedes would have been sending to his Fleet Street editor, all immortalised as William Boot by Evelyn Waugh in ‘Scoop’.

I suppose the dangerous element is that public feeling can be influenced so readily and easily by media groups which can call upon instant global exposure. I am not saying there is an agenda, just an ability to apply a filter.

Dave from Notting Hill has been in Afghanistan this week and he seems to be much more in tune with the needs of the Armed Forces than his predecessor, which can only be a good thing.

A corpulent Afghan Police Officer has taken a shnning to a few of my soldiers over the last couple of weeks. We often see him at the Governor’s Palace. He has a build often ably demonstrated by the regular perched upon the far right hand side bar stool at any number of Public Houses the length and breadth of England. He has the aspect of one who has benefited from decades of the steady influx of pint after pint of Bishop’s Finger or Old Thumper, is no stranger to a stilton ploughman’s, and has on occasion been caught with his hand in the jar of pickled eggs. Exercise is an infrequent companion and can only be spotted between the armchair and the sofa. This stalwart member of the Gendarme is a jovial chap, who likes nothing more than rubbing his protruding stomach up and down which ever of my men happen to be still long enough, before suddenly thrusting with tremendous force. It is all in a playful manner, and I have encouraged those ‘bumped’ to respond in a like for like manner. I would hate for us to be thought of as not observing the niceties of local customs.

Namaste – a general greeting in Nepalese

Trooper Jonny Ritchie is from 3rd Troop, B Squadron, of the Royal Dragoon Guards, which is currently the Mastiff Group for the 1st Battalion, Royal Gurkha Rifles battle group. Here he writes about a week on the move in Afghanistan.

Riding shotgun in Afghanistan

Riding shotgun in Afghanistan

So what has happened since we were assigned to the Gurkhas two weeks ago?  We left Camp Price to go to Patrol Base 2, taking over as the Quick Reaction Force from the Troop Leader and his merry men. I say merry because as they left I could definitely see their happiness at returning to Camp Price and its extra facilities! Once they had left it was straight to work for our call signs. I had only just started to unpack my kit and unravel my sleeping bag when we were called out on a Combat Logistic Patrol to Patrol Base 4 and CP (checkpoint) Elliot.

On returning to PB 2 and sorting out my admin (sleeping bag, bed etc) we were tasked to run guard command through the night making sure the guard sangers had communications, that there were people on guard, and passing on information from the guard tent to other locations throughout the PB.  After guard duties finished at about 7am on Tuesday morning we had a rest period until lunch time. After lunch we had a briefing about a two day exercise that we were to be part of. We left camp around 2pm on Tuesday to set up snap VCPs (vehicle check points) and once nightfall came we went into all round defence.  In-between guard duties the lads played cards, slept or ate. Personally, as a driver I caught up on sleep as in my job it is important not to be tired.

On returning to PB 2, and excited about fresh food, we were informed that we were still on ration packs!

The next day we took the Commanding Officer of the Gurkas to PB1 to take part in a shura with locals. While the meeting was going on I showed the Gurkhas correct hand movements at night using cylumes (neon glow sticks) or torches, as during the two day operation there seemed to be some confusion as to how to guide vehicles at night. Trooper Ritchie and his ‘bread and butter’ skills to the forefront!

So it has been a week of long hours, a lot of movement and a little more knowledge of Nepalese. When the Quick Reaction Force week is over I look forward to going back to FOB Price for all the little things we often take for granted like fresh food, proper showers, cold cans of pop and sweets. If there’s one thing being in Afghanistan does, it makes you appreciate things back home.

Longing for a good Bordeaux

Captain Jeremy Hann, an Armoured Vehicle Commander with the Royal Dragoon Guards, is based in Kandahar for Operation HERRICK 12. Here he writes about missing French wine and Afghan hairdressers.

A photo of me

A photo of me

Sometimes the most innocuous of comments, in the most curious of environments, delivered by the most incongruous people, trigger pangs of longing and bouts of home-sickness or frustration. And so it was one balmy evening this week when I found myself in downtown Kandahar talking to a bearded Scotsman, who had been working in private security here for the last eighteen months.  I was picking his brains for some local ‘knowledge’ and a download of insurgent activity. He was regaling me, in front of a map, with the various bombings, kidnaps, murders, fire-fights etcetera, when he used the phrase ‘and there was claret everywhere’, and suddenly I lost concentration and drifted into a Bordeaux-craving reverie. Maybe for five minutes afterwards my thoughts turned to the produce of those clever little men of the Gironde and my excellent and kindly vintner, Simon Wrightson who gifted me a delicious Chateaux Beaulieu for a last drink before I departed a month ago. What I wanted at that moment, more than any other earthly pleasure, was to be sat in an English garden, with the Darling-Betrothed enjoying a bottle, or two, without a care in the world. Sadly the apparition quickly passed and it was back to the task in hand. Writing this has in no way slaked that thirst.

The view from my gun turret

The view from my gun turret

When moving around Kandahar, either in our armoured vehicles or on foot, it is hard to travel more than a street without passing flowering oleanders, either long swathes or solitary plants. The majority are of the cerise variety which lines the byways of Tuscany and Umbria. It is a striking concurrence of the natural beauty of these handsome flowers and the urban degradation and bullet holes, that allows you to glimpse briefly into a world that might have been, had the region endured prosperity rather than war, hosted with a fierce and depressing frequency.

Getting a close-up view of the streets of Kandahar

Getting a close-up view of the streets of Kandahar

There has been much media coverage in recent years over an alleged systemic failure of our military/government/whoever to provide the Army with the ‘kit and equipment’ it requires in order to execute its missions effectively, and with minimum loss of life. There have been instances where coroners have returned verdicts of unlawful death and where people much more knowledgeable than I have criticised the equipping of soldiers.

I have nothing but good things to say about the equipment at our disposal in Afghanistan. It is all good quality, there has been no shortage of it, and as an end user it fulfils my needs and criteria for the job I am performing. The armoured vehicles that are my trusty steeds are excellent, offering protection, urban mobility, and a variety of firepower that is apposite to the situation and terrain. We have new helmets, ballistic eye protection, and personal body armour. The night vision and thermal imaging systems are state of the art. We have other equipment which I do not understand as it has been designed by people in lab-coats, with all manner of science related post-nominals, who eat plenty of fish. But this stuff helps to stop bombs going off around you, and is the envy of the other members of the coalition force here in Afghanistan.

I suppose the truth is, several years ago when I first deployed to Iraq I purchased bits of kit that I needed to supplement what I was to be issued. Now however, I have bought and brought nothing to aid me in my deployment. Further to that, since I have been here, I cannot think of anything I could have self-purchased that would have benefited me on the ground.

One of the most trivial hurdles to jump when on operations is that posed by the problem of getting a haircut. A quick fix solution would be to shave the lot off, but I am disinclined to burn the old onion anymore than is entirely necessary. Standards, both those of the Army and those of a gentleman dictate that growing the mop is also a non-starter.  So I plucked-up the courage to go to a dingy place at the airfield run by dour middle-aged Russians. My heart was in my mouth when I saw the only English words on the price list were ‘flat top $5.25’. Anyone who has seen any war-movie featuring the US marines will understand my horror. Keen not to be sporting a ‘jarhead’, I mentioned this, but the hairdresser spoke no English and so the upshot was I had no idea what was about to happen. My panic, much like my writing, was a lot of fuss about nothing, for, like every time I have had my haircut for the last thirty two years, the result has been astonishingly underwhelming. And this was no exception.

Op MASTIFF versus Op MASSIVE

This is Trooper Jonny Ritchie’s first blog for 3rd Troop, B Squadron, of the Royal Dragoon Guards –  currently the Mastiff Group for the 1st Battalion, Royal Gurkha Rifles battle group.

Riding shotgun in Afghanistan

Riding shotgun in Afghanistan

Well, where to start?

After saying our goodbyes to friends and family back in the UK we made the long journey from Catterick Garrison to Manston in Kent.  We arrived to find the airport was closed!  Being in desert combats and with the bus dropping us off in the cold we had our first challenge; trying to stay warm and entertained.  (At this stage we hadn’t even left England!) Some opted for their sleeping bags as protection and the rest listened to hilarious old stories, passing the time and taking our minds off the chill in the air.  LCpl Wright and Sgt O’ Fee delivered most of the entertainment and before we knew it the security opened up the airport.  We booked in with our bags and the journey to Afghanistan and the next six months began….

The Troop touched down in Camp Bastion, the main camp in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.  The first six days was our training package, which consisted of perfecting our skills and drills that we had been taught and practised during pre-deployment training.  The training days are run by the people who have been out here before us and they make sure our skills are up to scratch, and update or change drills that may have altered since we were taught them, keeping us at the top level of training which is expected of British soldiers.

Once we finished our training package we were ready to head to Main Operating Base (MOB) Price which will be our centre of operations during this six month tour, with a team rotated through a PB (patrol base).  We awaited a pickup from the Kings Royal Hussars (KRH), the group we were taking over from.  What does a takeover mean?  Well it consists of signing over the KRH mastiffs (large, well protected vehicles), moving into their previously occupied tents and learning what tasks they have completed in their tour.  After the takeover we returned the last of the KRH lads to Camp Bastion to await their  well-deserved flights home.

That is the basic set up of the tantalising first few steps into life for us in Afghanistan.  I know what you may be thinking, and I will try and make the next few paragraphs more interesting!  What is the standard of living in MOB Price and the PB?  First I will talk about MOB Price.  The tents have the best air-conditioning you could ask for, which is a godsend after a long day in the heat.  The camp also has proper showers and sinks with portaloos beside.  Also, within the camp is a gym, laundry service, cookhouse, Danish cafe (which has TV, darts, table tennis, barber and games console), NAAFI, internet/phones and during the week locals set up a mini market.  On to the PB where life is a little less comfortable!  There is a small gym, the usual phones/internet, a welfare tent with a TV, there is also cookhouse in which ration boxes are used, and toilet and washing facilities can only be described as basic.  A trip to the toilet is always an interesting experience.  We split our time between these locations and although life is not always comfortable, and everything is covered in sand, we are all making the most of it.

Hopefully that has opened your mind to what the camps are like out here.  Next is our role, and the jobs we have been doing since takeover.  We are involved in a variety of tasks, including CLPs (Combat Logistic Patrols) in which we escort RLC (Royal Logistic Corps) so they can travel safely with valuable and much needed kit from one location to the next.  We have also been used for moving people from different locations as Mastiff is the safest form of land transport out here.  Also our Mastiffs have been used in OPs (Observation Posts) so that the American engineers could clear IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) in safety.  This meant that both local nationals, and troops could travel in safety along the route.

Well as you can imagine life is not all work, work, work, out here.  In our free time we work on our tans (yes, mostly Troopers Edwards and Patterson) and overdoing the gym for those all important topless photos (Trooper Cook).  One of the lads has outdone himself at making the connection between the Gurkhas and ourselves with his fluent Nepalese.  Trooper Eglintine has earned the Gurkha nickname of Onda (which means chicken egg) after a particular evening involving some homemade Gurkha curry…

The higher ranks, they have also played their part since our arrival.  The troop leader, Lieutenant Walton-Rees for best-kept moustache and the Troop Sergeant, Sergeant  O’Fee for morale and life guidance (“Oi! Trooper, tie your boots!” and “the best way to write a letter is with a pen”). What would we do without him!  Until our next thrilling instalment…

“Never was anything great achieved without danger”

Captain Jeremy Hann, an Armoured Vehicle Commander with the Royal Dragoon Guards, is based in Kandahar for Operation HERRICK 12. He writes about his impressions of Afghanistan.

A photo of me

A photo of me

If you think donkeys had it tough in Milne’s post-apocalyptic, anthropomorphical-tragedy masterpiece, Winnie The Pooh, when poor old Eeyore had lost his tail, that is nothing compared to the lot of some of Afghanistan’s local mules…

This week in Kandahar there have been a few IEDs (homemade bombs) that have been detonated, one of which was donkey-borne. It is a sad and mortifying truth that insurgents use all manner of vehicles for delivering these horrifying blasts. It is indicative of how they regard life, human or other, in such a callous, contemptible and expendable manner.

Breathing has been causing me some concerns this week. I am not generally regarded as one of the great respiratory practitioners of our time, and the cloying cocktail of heat, sand, dust and air-(un)conditioning systems has lead to a sore nose, and no doubt an unhelpful amount of snoring.  Another advantageous consequence of exposure to the elements is that my nose is now peeling like a well-motivated troop of campanologists, setting about their task with vim and vigour.

In that rip-roaring, unputdownable, renaissance-based, page-turner ‘The Prince’, Machiavelli pens: ‘Never was anything great achieved without danger’.  Whilst not the wittiest bon mot ever recorded for posterity on parchment, it is entirely apt and worth remembering in my current circumstances. It is a quotation that is indicative of the will to succeed that I have witnessed from the Afghanistan National Security Forces, their people and indeed the International Security Assistance Force, of which we British are a part. The fact that those involved and committed to improving the ‘security’ situation in this country are all-too-often aware of the dangerous aspects of completing this job, yet still find it within themselves to give everything, can only be a positive, and one that should ultimately provide success.

Kandahar City down the barrel of a gun

Kandahar City down the barrel of a gun

There seemed to me an opinion, largely touted by metro-leftie imbeciles, that the west is conducting a didactic expeditionary subterfuge in order to force some sort of neo-democratic grandeur on those who really don’t want it; a sort of quixotic colonialism. My experience so far would indicate that there is nothing in this fanciful notion. Speaking to people, it is clear that the rationale is much simpler, and that safety, which will enable the indigenous government to bring forward their country, is the motivating factor. Cynics will probably point out that there is no such thing as a truly altruistic act, and they are right, but I cannot foresee anyone arguing that a safer world is not a desirable and preferable prospect.

Whilst having a cigarette this morning, I was joined by a small white scorpion, travelling up my trouser leg. Suddenly smoking indoors seems a much healthier option.

Prepare for trumpet blowing. There isn’t a great deal I don’t know about food. There is a little, yes, but not a great deal. Both my nickname (Gastro) and my ever-evolving waistline bear this proclamation out. I am relatively certain that Luxembourg is not regarded as a gastronomic Mecca; in fact I am not sure if a Luxembourg-er restaurant exists outside of that tiny country. One seldom hears: ‘Shall we eat out tonight darling? We could try that Indian that has just opened off Goodge Street?’

‘No. I’m not in that sort of mood. There is a lovely Thai place just on Cambridge circus?’

‘I fancy somewhere we can have a decent drink. What about the Tapas Bodega just off Sloane Square?’

‘I know. Why don’t we go out for a Luxembourg?’

Anyway, the reason for the rather long preamble is that the cookhouse nearest our HQ is called the Luxembourg Dining Facility, or D-Fac in the vernacular. I am not really sure of the relevance. It peddles salads, burgers, sandwiches hot meals and curries. (The British Army is never too far from that generic dish). I am not sure which of these is indigenous to that country.

At Kandahar Air Field there is also an East/West D-Fac, which as you may expect is similar to the Luxembourg offerings but with more stir-fry and noodles. There is the American D-Fac which I am not allowed in as dictated by my nationality. I could imagine a world where there are enough hot-dogs to build a handrail to the moon, more Mexican than you could squash into your sombrero and all manner of healthy and not-so-healthy alternatives.

Our food is perfectly passable, and I certainly have no cause for complaint. I wasn’t naïve enough to believe I had booked into the Ritz for the next seven months. It provides exactly what it should for the diverse cross-section that requires feeding. However, if anyone is worried about whether or not I will be able to fit into my summer trousers, there is honestly no cause for alarm.

Encountering the unusual in Afghanistan

Captain Jeremy Hann, an Armoured Vehicle Commander with the Royal Dragoon Guards, is based in Kandahar for Operation HERRICK 12. Here he writes about the multinational operation in Afghanistan.

A photo of me

A photo of me

Working as I am in a multinational combined service environment, there is all manner of nuance, nicety and niggle that one must observe, mediate and work around. The most obvious issue when on the ground, or in camp for that matter, is the language barrier. The different ‘flags on the ground’ are too numerous to mention in entirety, but apart from the obvious there are Poles, Romanians, Danes, French, Dutch, and Hungarians working with me. English is the language currency here (luckily for me) and most make a credible and intelligible stab at it. The most fluent English speakers are the Dutch and the Danes, closely followed by the Americans. Those that are the kindest, most talkative and warmly welcoming are the Australians, again closely followed by the Americans. As I type this, an excellent fellow by the name of Dennis Volpe, who is an US Navy Officer, has kindly gone to get coffee to aid this late night vigil.

From a British public perspective it may be easy to forget that it is not just the Army operating here but the RAF and the Royal Navy too, (The Marines obviously are well known). The job of the RAF is fairly self-explanatory and, to the best of my knowledge, since the tranche of Naval Officers have been operational here, there hasn’t been a single incidence of insurgency in any of Afghanistan’s coastal waters!

For someone who is used to suckling in comfort at the bosom of a Cavalry Regiment, the differences can provide both gentle amusement, confusion and, ultimately, a much wider and considered view, benefiting from the vast breadth of differing experiences, cultures and customs.

I have just heard someone talking about finances describe a friend of theirs, a helicopter pilot, as being no longer ‘upwardly mobile’, no doubt a sticky predicament for one in that profession.

Gardens are a wealth indicator in Afghanistan. It is very much a status symbol for those who are, or want to be, Someone. The Provincial Governor of Kandahar has a formal Rose Garden in the inner compound of his palace.

It consists of two square borders inside a whitewashed perimeter, with a central tree-lined promenade splitting them. Both Hybrid Tea and Floribunda are present, and there are a few Geraniums intermingled. I would guess that the reason they have become the prominent marker of affluence is that one makes a statement that one has enough money to be able to afford the surplus water required to maintain a small floral garden.

Along Highway One, which is the main road that bisects Kandahar from east to west, there is often a central island of twenty metres or so in depth. Each Island is fenced and divided into small symmetric gardens with stone pathways between. Inside you will see small groups of men having a drink and chatting, most dressed in smarter clothing, enjoying their afternoon. It creates a striking juxtaposition with the dirt-encrusted poor, dilapidated mud and concrete buildings, damaged vehicles and famished livestock that line either side of the road not five metres away from these oases.

If you have ever wondered why Army Officers can be so dull and tedious, and seldom talk about anything other than their work or variations on a theme, I think I may have the answer. Of the few distractions available when on an operational tour, when you have an hour to relax, DVDs and books are the easiest route to escapism. The majority of my brethren could not be accused of having Catholic tastes. Theirs is not a broad spectrum of interest. Audiovisual stimulus is generally in the form of ‘Sharpe’, ‘Band of Brothers’ or some other war movie. The literature tends to span the myopic chasm of military autobiography to military history, (although some do read fiction – see Sharpe). Whilst this engenders a solid springboard from which to dive into conversation about all things Army-related, it also provides the anchor which prevents a swim in the pool of variety and culture.

I know few Bishops but I expect they don’t unwind of an evening with the Old Testament in their lap or an episode of The Vicar of Dibley and I would hope that teachers don’t spend their life with a nose in a textbook, or watching Dead Poet’s Society. Next time you are at a dinner party, you have been warned…

The remainder of this week shall be spent in Camp Bastion, in Helmand Province, with the rest of my troop going through a process called RSOI. In essence it is a last chance to hone everything we have trained for over the last nine months, especially procedures designed to minimize the threat from IEDs and also a chance for those new into the country to start to acclimatise.

Heat and dust: First impressions of Afghanistan

Captain Jeremy Hann, an Armoured Vehicle Commander with the Royal Dragoon Guards, is based in Kandahar for Operation HERRICK 12. He writes about his first glimpses of Afghanistan.

A photo of me

A photo of me

County Durham, Oxfordshire, the Gulf Region, Helmand and finally Kandahar constituted my rather circuitous route to what is to be my home for the best part of the next seven months. (I know, I know, carbon footprint and all that! But I simply had far too much luggage to cycle with.) And so, having feigned sleep in order to avoid the airline meals, I arrived in Afghanistan as hungry as an Ox, but far too excited to be able to eat, and tired, but my head too full to sleep.

The first few days have passed in a whirlwind of disorientation; new faces, names (most of which instantly were forgotten) and heat. The pre-tour training in North Yorkshire, Norfolk, Wales and Wiltshire, whilst very good in most respects, has not attuned my sweat-glands to the continuous hard graft they are going to have to put in over the upcoming weeks. The mercury is bouncing around in the mid-thirties and whilst a touch too warm for some tastes, it is at least bearable and should help me acclimatise before the summer sun sets in and I have to carry out my work in the ‘high forties’.

A view across the city of Kandahar

A view across the city of Kandahar

Before entering a country for the first time one’s pre-conceptions are constructed from a disparate cocktail of the opinions and stories of others, any media coverage and one’s own experience in similar climes. And so for me (in my head at least) I have been using my experiences of Iraq as a benchmark for misconceptions and erroneous judgements. There are some similarities. It is hot, there is a lot of sand knocking around, and the country is littered with all manner of unexploded ordnance. Whereas Iraq had itself and the Iranians to thank for the proliferation of legacy explosives, Afghanistan can doff its cap to Russia for its sub-surface treasure-trove. Some eagle-eyed historian will no-doubt be able to credit other factors to the above statement. I, however, am in no way a historian.

The differences I have noticed so far have been both subtle and geographically obvious. I have a pleasant mountain view of the north of the province and some flora, thanks to the river Tarnak. Irrigation here would appear to be much more difficult as the volume of water does not compare favourably to that of the Euphrates and the Tigris. Iraq had huge wealth poorly distributed, and my guess at first sight of Afghanistan is that it has huge poverty well distributed.

Over the coming months I hope to be able to elaborate on the culture, society and the nuances of serving here. For starters though one of the first happenstances to grab my attention is the use of nail varnish by some of the younger men. This does not occur in the ‘action-transvestite’ Eddie Izzard sense, or indeed the Soho drag queen tableaux, but is merely an adornment of the hands, possibly to impress others or possibly as a part of taking pride in their own appearance. The male ‘friendships’ are much more public than in other Arab Nations I have visited. There is a touch of the courtesan here.

Kandahar is Afghanistan’s second city and is a bustling, if small by European standards, low rise connurbation, almost all of which nestles at two storeys or lower. It has a similar feel to the outskirts of somewhere like Gwalior or any other town in Muhdra–Pradesh. The roads are flanked by fruit-sellers (a lot of which would not make it onto the shelves of our national supermarkets – the bananas being a touch too umber for the English palette), bicycle and tyre vendors, road-side food stops and gaily coloured general stores. One competes for space on the tarmac with a veritable assortment of ‘jingly trucks’, livestock, tuk-tuks, battered cars and that perennial favourite, the Toyota Hi-Lux. Anyone who has driven around L’Etoile in Paris, or attempted to navigate their automobile through Athens on a busy market day will have a good grasp of the level of road etiquette, and the level of application of a clearly defined highway code, assuming such a thing exists at all.

Many of the locals smile and wave as we pass in our armoured vehicles, but it would be an untruth to suggest that all do. This dichotomy of reaction from the population is perhaps no different to the one I garner when travelling around Yorkshire, and is probably three-quarters more genial than the general public in London. I suppose the key is how superficial this amicability is?

Out in my vehicle on patrol

Out in my vehicle on patrol

Animal life will be a running theme over the next few months, and so I’ll kick off with a couple of ignorant generalisations. The livestock I have encountered are about half as big  as those on England’s lush pastures. That is to say the cattle, sheep, donkeys and horses look roughly the same shape as they do in the green and pleasant land, but it just looks like they are standing further away. Most could fit comfortably into the size ‘S’ bracket and the goats would have no problem squeezing into kid’s clothing.

To address this balance, the Creator has compensated by making the average insect unfeasibly large. The ants are gargantuan, and had Queen Cleopatra known of their existence, she could have enlisted the help of a good half-dozen or so to carry her and her throne to Rome for her rendez-vous with old Julius, and given the rest of Egypt a well-earned day off. You would struggle to squeeze more than three of the native bumble-bees into an Airbus without a liberal helping of goose fat, and the moths have a wingspan comparable to that of Brighton’s seagulls.  If any enthusiastic naturalist has the misfortune to read this, an explanation for this phenomenon would be greatly appreciated.