I was sitting in my office back in October 2009. My civilian job as a secondary school teacher in a busy inner-city district was wearing me down and it was, I thought, time for a change! Taking the plunge, and having contacted the Regimental second-in-command, I emailed a short note of my wish to be mobilised and my civilian CV to Manning and Records in Glasgow. Only days later I received a call from our Training Major outlining a job in Afghanistan. The details were sparse but it sounded interesting. It also meant beginning training at Chilwell on 2 November, around three weeks away. But in for a penny, I thought.
The two weeks at Chilwell were both interesting and challenging. The standard training we had done helped, along with the enthusiasm and empathy of the instructors keeping us on track where needed. After completing the fortnight, passing all training and now in possession of a car full of new clothing and equipment courtesy of the QM I was off to the town of Shorncliffe and Operational Training and Advisory Group, (OPTAG) training. OPTAG involved a week of various stands and briefings pertaining to life and operation in Afghanistan. That was an interesting eye opener! Thus, once the preliminaries had been undertaken I could begin specific training for the job.
The Military Stabilisation Support Group (MSSG) is an organisation involved in the rebuilding, construction and development of the many war-torn areas of Afghanistan. Members of the unit are embedded within routine patrols with the aim of making contact with and talking to local people, with a view to understanding local issues and the needs of communities. This information is then used, along with that gained from formal meetings with community leaders, in order to understand what towns and villages need first and foremost to rebuild or make life better. The actual work will, where possible, be undertaken by locals themselves thus creating work, civic pride and an ethos of sustainability.
The 40-strong group of newly-introduced associates from all three services, male, female, many cap badges and trades came together at Corunna Barracks, Ludgershall and our twelve-week training course began in earnest. It was however a small surprise that on only the third day a Rifles Sergeant Major introduced us to the fact that, as we were going to be out on the ground, we had to be at “Infantry standard”; thus began four days of an intensive range package, one of three others to follow! As you can imagine most of us ‘Corps’ guys, Navy and RAF personnel had not used the SA80 A2 with drop down forward grip, let alone fired wearing Osprey body armour, laser sights and goggles. Luckily too, one of the weeks was booked whilst the snow was at its worst. Just love those planners…
A large section of the course so far had involved lectures and indoor exercises. Guest speakers came from a wide sphere, including individuals newly returned from theatre, Sandhurst lecturers and subject matter experts. It has also been necessary to ‘improve’ our fitness; the average age of the students is……erm…..early forties. One of the most interesting weeks was when we were trained as Team Medics by RAMC personnel. This I feel did bring home some of the realities to many of us but also has given a vital tool to all of us should these skills be required.
The training we received was intense but interesting and as a wider group of strangers only a short time ago, we are now a forty strong conglomerate of working teams.I was headed for Gereshk in Helmand Province, and a patrol base run by Danish soldiers, working as part of Task Force Helmand, which has proved to be one of the most “active”. The living is hard. There are no luxuries, not even the food which is all rations, although we can alternate between British and Danish fare. We live in a small room with only one electricity point, which has at times been like a furnace as the temperature hit the high forties. I have a campbed and a mosquito net – and an absolutely essential fan.
We share our PB with the ANA and when we patrol we patrol with them.
It has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. In the next blog I will start to give you a taster of the “real” Afghanistan.