Lieutenant Colonel David Eastman is the new Spokesman for Task Force Helmand. In his second post he writes about the journey to Afghanistan, of settling into the job and of dealing with his first serious incident.
I had a somewhat adventurous flight to Afghanistan, which involved an unplanned stop somewhere in the Middle East for a few hours, on the way to Kandahar Airfield in Southern Afghanistan. This was followed by a flight in a Hercules aircraft to get me into Helmand. Despite my lack of sleep on arrival I was swept straight into the Reception, Staging and Onward Integration process that all deploying soldiers must go through. This involves zeroing your weapon – to make sure that it still shoots straight following the long flight (!) – and a series of lectures and exercises to update troops on the latest tactics, techniques and procedures for operating and surviving in the Afghanistan environment. The topics are diverse and somewhat eclectic, but all are vital to ensure that our troops are given the best and most up to date information. This is not just about how to fight the Taliban, or working with the Afghan security forces – amongst other topics the lectures also deal with driving in the desert, environmental health – malaria and a number of other diseases which are still prevalent here – improvised physical training exercises for enclosed environments and small spaces, working with the plethora of journalists that are a daily feature of life in Afghanistan, as well as the all-important emergency first aid/life-saving refresher training. On completion of this training I donned my helmet, Osprey body armour and my newly issued multi-terrain pattern combat clothing, picked up my ammunition, rifle and morphine, and flew by RAF Merlin helicopter to Lashkar Gah – my home for the next 6 months.
To say that Lashkar Gah Main Operating Base has changed since I was last here 4 years ago would be a huge understatement. The population in the base has more than tripled and the Provincial Reconstruction Team incorporating the Government officials has grown exponentially – part of our remit is about improving Afghan governance and developing the Afghan economy after all, as well as securing the population and training our Afghan military and police counterparts. The nice thing about Lash is that because of its proximity to the Helmand river there is even some evidence of plant life and greenery. Camp Bastion really is in the middle of the desert, and the dust and sand gets into everything, especially your lungs when you are out and about. It is amazing the pleasure that can be derived from seeing a few plants and flowers, not to mention being able to breathe without choking on dust! There is even a garden in the compound where I am living tended by a very talented Afghan local, who is engaged in his own constant battle to keep the plants alive through the very harsh Afghan summer months.
As I write, 16 Air Assault Brigade are about to take command of Task Force Helmand, with 4th Mechanized Brigade departing back to Catterick in North Yorkshire following their 6 month stint. Having been away from 16 Brigade for four years I find myself constantly bumping into friendly faces from my past, many of whom deployed out a few days or weeks before me. One of the great aspects of the transient military life is that wherever you are posted to you will almost always end up meeting someone you know. I spent 3 days taking over from Lieutenant Colonel James Carr-Smith, having the intricacies of the Afghan media environment, the operational situation, embedded journalists, appearing on TV as the spokesman, planning media operations, Senior Officer briefing requirements and operating with the US Marine Division that is commanding us in Helmand explained to me in graphic detail and words of one syllable. I am new to the media game so James had his work cut out trying to explain everything in simple terms in such a short period!
Literally hours after taking the reins and hoping for a period of calm to get myself settled into the role, I was faced with my first serious incident – a suicide bomber blew himself up in front of a patrol from the Royal Gurkha Rifles in the Nahr-e Saraj District, killing a young soldier (Rifleman Suraj Gurung) and injuring two others. Although extremely unfortunate, situations like this obviously generate significant media attention which needs to be dealt with, although there is quite rightly an understanding that the military should be given the opportunity to inform the next of kin before names are released. My part in this is to act as the conduit for information to the military communications chain of command and the media, providing press releases and making sure that the detail about what happened is reported correctly. I must admit that I had been expecting to have to deal with this type of situation, but not quite so soon after taking over. Hopefully the coming months will not see me having to do this again.
My next task will be to fly up to Kabul to meet the various people that I will be working with in the British Embassy and the main ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) headquarters in Afghanistan. I will then need to get around the area of operations in Helmand to get a better idea of how our operations are shaping up, and where I might find some interesting stories, either for my team to generate, or to send some embedded journalists to. I have to say that I am very much looking forward to getting out and about into the real world having spent the past week stuck in the Operating Base doing my handover. I’ll keep you informed!