Padre Robin Richardson, currently in Afghanistan attached to 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment (3 PARA) blogs once more. Since his last post he’s been back to the UK on R&R, but took time to visit injured soldiers, in hospital in Birmingham and undergoing rehabilitation at Headley Court.
I’ve not written for a little while now, and that’s because I’ve been on R&R. That’s the two-week break we all get during the tour to get home and recharge the batteries a bit so that we can maintain the tempo that modern operations require. In Afghanistan we don’t get ‘days off’ and with things happening 24 hours of the day, and some people sleeping whilst others are on duty and the like, our perception of time, and what would constitute a ‘normal’ working day can get somewhat skewed. And so a couple of weeks of civilian clothing, of flushing indoor toilets, carpet, proper plates, the car and the family really do make the world of difference.
I don’t know about others who are serving, but I didn’t really switch off during R&R. My friends, colleagues, those with whom I had shared all of life for the last three months were still in Helmand and so was part of me. Something that was brought home to me in stark terms when I visited our injured lads in hospital in Birmingham. You will, I am sure, understand why I shall not use their names here, but those of you who know J and P will know of whom I speak.
Our welfare team back in Colchester work terrifically hard with Gary, one of the most energetic and committed men you could want to meet, traveling up to the hospital sometimes three or four times a week to make sure that every one of the injured lads’ needs, and those of their families are met. He gave me lift there and on the way brought me up to date with myriad events, issues and happenings that the rest of the welfare team, under the watchful eye of Zac, had been up to. They do so much, and I could barely begin to scratch the surface in a single entry but needless to say, there was much to catch up on during our trip.
When we arrived Gary took me straight to the ward. One of lads who had been admitted just that morning – injured since I had left Afghanistan – was being operated on whilst we were there. I didn’t get the chance to see him. And one of our most seriously injured guys was now at the rehabilitation centre at Headley Court having made swifter progress than anyone could have imagined. But that is hardly surprising when you meet any of these brave young souls who will throw themselves energetically at whatever the new challenge is.
The last time I saw J he was on a stretcher being rushed to a helicopter, having just been badly injured. His mates had gathered about, some carrying, others shielding J from the flying debris from the helicopter , yet others somehow finding the words to keep J awake and focused, and yet all of them giving the young medic, Lydia, space to keep working. Once J had been handed over to the medical team on the helicopter the group slowly, silently made their way back to the compound. “How goes it Lydia?” I ventured to ask. “Sound Padre, fine, we did our best for him.” Lydia, slight and dwarfed by most of the members of 3 PARA has treated almost every casualty our unit has suffered, as well as the civilians who were attacked by an insurgent gang a few weeks before. Every time she has done so with an understated professionalism that has earned her the respect of all. Barely able to get the words out as Lydia walked back into the med tent, one of lads summed up everyone’s thoughts just then: “They don’t come better than her, they just don’t.” The group dispersed to deal with what had happened to J as they needed to; they would talk about it together, later in a process of sharing called TRiM (Trauma Risk Management), but not just yet. I found a corner, I prayed and though my words were far from eloquent, I knew I was heard, because God’s good like that.
J was sitting up in bed, his girlfriend next to him holding his hand, and he was smiling. “Hello Padre, how are you?” “Better now I’ve seen you.” And it was true; I had somehow needed to, see him back in the UK and to, in my my own mind, hand him back to his own family; let go I suppose. I don’t know whether it was just the air conditioning, or something much deeper, but I rubbed my eyes and blinked away whatever was surfacing. ‘ It’s the air-con’ I said, but I doubt they believed me!
“More importantly, how are you?” I asked. “I think I’m going to get gripped about my hair this week, but other than that, getting better; so pretty good, thanks.” From that point on banter and time-frames for getting to Headley Court, and for getting better and the future and loads of other stuff filled the conversation until we had said all we needed to, and it was time for me to say farewell and to catch up with P.
He wasn’t in the ward because it is often the case that as soon as any of the injured lads are able to get themselves about, they do. If they need a wheelchair, they’ll get one, and if there is somewhere they can go and explore, they will; oftentimes the smoking area. But P had been down to get a posh coffee with his parents who were visiting and it took a while to find him. When I did, he was laughing and smiling and keeping everyone amused with the opportunities that he could grasp with a prosthetic limb. “London 2012 I reckon Padre!” was almost the first thing he said. Was he making light of his condition? Yes he was, and will there be times when the reality of his situation will get him down in ways I cannot understand. Yes; but for now he was refusing to feel sorry for himself and was looking forward with as much energy and hope he could. The last time we had seen each other was watching BFBS TV in a mud walled room in his PB, and now here we were surrounded by his family and getting to grips with a different reality. “We’ll have a different kind of chat when I get back from Afghan,” I said, “Yeah, that would be good Padre, and I’ll make things sound as exciting as I can” came the answer with a wry smile. We both knew there would be more to say when the time was right, but for now, a little lightness was enough. Aside with his parents I could see the fuller narrative being played out across both the relief and the pain they were experiencing for their son; but they will get through this; and so will P and so will J and so will the other lads who are engaged in a new battle now; and there will be tears, and frustrations and all sorts of other things along the way but they have the spirit and the determination to do absolutely the best they can in the situations they find themselves in and they will continue to astonish people all along the way.
And as for me, I am now back in Afghanistan. R&R seems a long way away now and as it is 5 o’clock it is time for me to turn to prayer. For the injured, the bereaved and those whose wounds lie deeper; for the Afghan people, their security forces and government. For the scared, the oppressed, the voiceless, and all those who have suffered in this conflict. For hope and solutions and education and possibilities; local initiatives, inspirational and gifted leaders and enough optimism to believe that ‘possible’ is ‘reachable’. For grace and kindness, understanding and a willingness to listen; for forgiveness and hope, compassion and humility. and faith. And for my family, and mischief, and changing the words to songs so they make us laugh; and for being listened to and held beyond words, because God’s good like that.