Lieutenant Colonel David Eastman blogs from Task Force Helmand Headquarters on preparations for Christmas.
It never fails to amaze me the interest that the British public has in what our soldiers are doing during times of national celebration. Christmas and New Year being just such occasions, we have a very full programme of journalists from a wide variety of organisations hoping to catch our young men and women enjoying the festive occasion no matter what their living conditions.
We do all that we can to try to make these celebrations as normal as possible for our soldiers, sailors and airmen. We even have a Combat Logistic Patrol “delivering Christmas” to each of our forward locations. As well as their normal combat supplies of ammunition, fuel and food, the Patrol and Forward Operating Bases receive Christmas turkeys, decorations and trees as well as presents funded by UK4U Thanks!, a UK-based charity which provides Christmas boxes full of presents (known as the ‘square stocking’ because they traditionally come in a red tin) as a gift from the nation to all those serving in the UK Armed Forces overseas.
Most areas in the Task Force have started sprouting Christmas trees and decorations already, as well as the odd chocolate Advent Calendar, although the sight of a Christmas tree in the middle of the desert does seem a little odd.
During the build up to Christmas we have a number of regional journalists coming to us; BBC Scotland and the Daily Record will be embedding with 2 SCOTS and 5 SCOTS, and we are looking at setting up some live links with BBC Scotland to cover Hogmanay. We also have Sky News, ITV, The Wall Street Journal and some documentary teams in town.
Similarly, we usually have some kind of high-profile visit to the troops around the Christmas period, and this year was no different. The Prime Minister came to see us, accompanied by a large press pack to whom I was required to give a contextual brief on what is happening in Helmand. The difference was that these journalists were political correspondents rather than the more usual Defence Correspondents that I am used to briefing, so their angle (not to mention their questions) was from a completely different perspective to what I normally get – especially in light of the recent Wikileaks revelations.
As a further treat for us this year, the Band of the Parachute Regiment is deploying out to help entertain the troops. They will play a number of Christmas concerts at the large FOBs, but will also be deploying out to the much smaller and more isolated forward locations to do the same there. As part of the package, they will be taking on some of the guard duties of the troops in the forward bases to allow them to enjoy Christmas that little bit more, which I think is a tremendous idea.
All in all, an awful lot of time and effort goes into trying to make Christmas a special occasion for our troops, although of course operations must continue throughout and our celebrations have to take account of this. But we were all a little disappointed by the recent Sun headlines that “Christmas had been cancelled” for our troops – nothing could be further from the truth.
Unfortunately, we lost another of our young soldiers this week, possibly as a result of friendly fire from a US aircraft. I have seen some vitriolic blogs against the Americans since the information on this incident was released. All I would say to that is that our American allies have saved innumerable British lives since we have been here, and whilst the investigation into this incident is still to be completed, this is a dangerous business and the old “fog of war” cliché remains as true today as it ever was.