As Lent approaches, Padre Robin Richardson – in Afghanistan with 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment (3 PARA) – blogs about catching up with a commander he hasn’t seen since the start of the tour.
Jerome K Jerome wrote: “Experience is a book all men write, but no man reads.”
That, I believe can be true, but it is not always the case. Last week I visited one of the battalion’s companies that has been attached to another battlegroup for the tour. It was there I saw Nick, a friend I’ve not seen since the start of the tour and with whom there was much to catch up on. Nick’s closely cropped hair, his focus, his intensity and his phenomenal fitness could give the impression of quite a warry man. After our battalion 50 mile march in late 2009 I saw the open wound on his back from where just a minor rub from his bergen had worn its way through to raw flesh. But he hadn’t slowed, he hadn’t complained, he wouldn’t have even mentioned it if I hadn’t noticed. And the scar’s still there. At first glance then it would be simple to stereotype Nick, but that would be a mistake because yes, Nick is fit, strong, focussed, dedicated and more than ready to make difficult decisions when called to; but Nick is not just a quick thinker, he is also a deep thinker; and a learner and a man who has experienced more of life than years. His leadership and valour have been recognised but not courted and his experience is written is the cipher of both suffering and triumph, the key to which, as Jermome would put it, is found within his memories of past and present tours of Afghanistan.
Nick’s appreciation of what lies beyond winning the battle for security within his area of operations is a great encouragement. His understanding of local tribal identities and the desires of the village, voiced through the elders he meets each week and with whom he drinks a lot of tea, is born of something beyond mere pragmatism. He isn’t just getting to know them as a means to an end, he is getting to know them because of their shared hopes for a community in a little patch of Helmand where they have a stake together. Nick’s encouragement of the Afghan Army commander he is partnering is paying dividends too, as it is this young man who is the primary spokesman for security in local meetings. Not just an Afghan face speaking on behalf of ISAF, but a bright, articulate and professional young Afghan officer who wants the best for his country and is sharing his hopes, his vision, his enthusiasm, with his people.
Nick does not want to talk about the statistics of rounds fired, battles fought and insurgents killed. Whilst I was visiting one of the company Check Points with him a patrol found a massive insurgent weapons cache. But again Nick’s focus was more about the impact this would have on the local population than headline-grabbing figures. His point is the find had to be seen within the broader hope of crop diversification, the new school being built and the local population feeling empowered to deal with insurgent intimidation. Nick, like so many commanders in the Army today, has experienced what it is to fight, and to fight hard, and this, I think, has given him great wisdom in his approach to his present task.
The book of Nick’s experience has been penned in one of the most challenging and complex of environments during his tours of Afghanistan. And though it is in quieter moments, when he sits and sometimes speaks of what has been, that some might say Nick recalls what shapes him, I would state that it is in his appreciation and affirmation of those in his command; it is in his encouragement of others to aim high, to lead, to make a difference; it is in his compassion towards a community that has had little reason to trust for many, many years, that we truly see what has he learned in life and in his service to our nation. And when I watch the news, when I hear of what is happening around the world day to day I am minded to wonder whether perhaps we could all do with looking back a bit more as we make decisions about how we go forward.
This is a little of what Lent is about. It is a time of reflection; of re-reading our own lives and seeking God’s wisdom, mercy, love, hope and promise for what lies ahead, through the lens of the cross and the hope that it brings. For as Tony Campolo puts it, “It may be Friday, but Sunday’s coming!”