Herrick 18 Stories
Captain Mau Gris is team leader for the British Army’s Combat Camera Team (CCT) based in Afghanistan throughout the summer 2013 as part of 1 Mechanized Brigade. Op Herrick 18′s CCT also includes Sergeant Barry Lloyd – video cameraman – and Sergeant Barry Pope – photographer.
This trip was the reason we exist, though at the time we didn’t know it. Going in alongside fighting troops to capture their experiences and help out if required.
‘If you don’t get it, you might as well not be there’
It was only meant to be an hour and a half on the cordon for a search operation. The team and I had been put with 3 troop of the Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF) along with Matt Cook, a war artist covering the search for bomb making equipment.
I didn’t really think much was going to happen. They aren’t going to put a war artist in the thick of it; even though Matt Cook, who has illustrated for The Times, is a hugely experienced war artist. We would be stuck in one place, the boys would cover it in five minutes; then there’d be an hour of sitting around.
If there is anything that two previous tours has taught me; it’s always those little trips that prove the most interesting. We inserted as we had with the Brigade Operations Company before, with the ground assault force. I knew what was coming (read about that here…) – a ride in my favourite vehicle, the Warthog.
The insertion was as expected, hot, cramped and dusty. Without going into to much detail, the place we were had a bad reputation, everyone was a little on edge and keen to get into some cover.
We moved off into the green zone. I could see we were going to get some great material from here. It was that classic Helmand landscape, lush green in places, working out to desert through various shades of brown and beige. Photogenic but dangerous, as hiding amongst it is easy to do.
Lloydie and his Holiness were moving up and down the line of troops as they moved out to get those ‘patrolling shots’ that have graced fronts covers and illustrated reports for 10 years. I had one eye on them; and one eye on the 3D handycam that I was attempting and failing to master.
We gained access to a compound with the guys fanning out to cover the surrounding area. Using ladders guys clambered up to the roofs to increase their line of sight. I suggested to Matt, did he want to get up to get some pictures? He takes pictures on the ground to work from later. He said, ‘yup,’ and clambered up.
I then moved the ladder to a nearby compound climbing up myself. The moment I reached the top of the ladder, three bullets cracked overhead in rapid succession. Accurate, controlled and close. I dropped down. Immediately regretting telling Matt to get up then taking away his only method of getting down. The lads started returning fire, adding to the noise. The guys were shouting;
‘Get cookie off the roof. Get him down.. Now!’
‘The fudging war artist, you know, THE CIVVY.’
‘Oh, fudge’ (or words to that effect.)
Matt hadn’t been with the guys that long so the nickname threw everyone. I was already moving the ladder. Matt climbed down smiling like a Cheshire cat. Adrenaline has that effect on some people.
To report the incident, we needed more than just the audio of guys firing, so I told the two Baz(s) to get up there and gather the material. It was at this point that I paused. Previously, when I have ordered soldiers to put themselves in at risk; in situations like this one, the reasoning is clear. It would give us an advantage on the battlefield. Now the risk verses reward was not as clear cut.
In the end it came down to the basic reason for our existence as a combat camera team; as it is in our mission statement: “The Combat Camera Team provides broadcast standard news footage, audio content, photographic images and copy on stories involving the British Army which, for reasons of national or foreign security, operational necessity or general sensitivity, would not ordinarily be available to the public media.”
We take the same risk to show people what our fellow soldier goes through. We were in danger anyway and if you don’t get it, you might as well not be there in the first place. Lloydie and His Holiness were straight up there.
The contact tailed off quickly, and we had to move to a new compound. Before moving, I tried capturing the reality of what a fire fight sounds like for the soldiers, whilst it was fresh in their minds and because I had recorded the actual fire fight I would be speaking to them about. So I made a quick recording with one of the guys before we moved out.
You can listen to that here: Crack,Thump. It’s only a minute or so long but the feeling is there, and we were preoccupied at the time. We moved off to get a better view of the area and ended up on the border where green zone meets desert, in a raised compound. Lloydie hopped up to the best vantage point and me and his Holiness hung around Matt Cook as he sketched.
As the firing had died down the guys went back to the original tasking of compound searching for any enemy weapons stashes. It wasn’t long before it picked up again.
A hollow sound, like something being spat out of a tube; followed the shout of ‘incoming..,’ The troops dived for any available cover. A pregnant pause preceded the dull impact and explosion of a grenade launched from a UGL (underslung grenade launcher).
With the same accuracy of the initial engagement, the grenade had landed 30 metres behind me and between the Baz(s). A bullet landing on the domed roof two metres in front of Lloydie meant it was probably time to move.
Before we got the chance, another shout of ‘incoming.’ This grenade landed within 15 metres of his Holiness. Lloydie hopped off the roof and joined Baz Pope and me beside a wall which offered us cover. As the BRF suppressed the enemy, with their own grenade launchers, the fire eased up.
At that point, I poked my head above the wall. A ‘crack’ followed by that small puff of dust on a compound wall not far from my head made be duck back down. It felt personal.
As I was the only one exposed, he could only have been shooting at me. This has happened before, but it is rare and I always come away feeling the same. Despite my chosen profession; it still strikes me as strange from an objective point of view that someone would try to kill me or I them, despite no personal grievance between us.
It is an obvious thing to say, and naive too, I am sure some would also say. It’s not something that I dwell on or particularly think about other than when I am in the situation or immediately afterwards. Or when I am blogging…
After that, we were joined by the guys who would be taking our place. These guys had landed with the main body on the helicopter assault force and had experienced more fighting than we had that day, but not without reward.
Some significant finds had been made. Enemy machine guns, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and bomb making equipment had all been uncovered. For us though after only an hour and a half, the operation was over.
We returned to Patrol Base Lashkar Gah Durai, not minding the Warthog ride as much as usual; anticipating the material we had gathered and the stories we could tell. The guys from the BRF were interested in what we had gathered as well. There’s a certain pride in seeing the interest and the reaction of the guys to the footage the team had produced.
There was one downside. We hadn’t seen the stuff being found, so we couldn’t tell that story as well as we should be able to. Secondhand recollections and helmet cam footage - poor material for us to build the story with. The curse of TV or photographic reporting - ‘If you didn’t get it and you can’t show it, you might as well have not been there’.
Speak to you soon.
Follow Mau on Twitter: @mau_gris