Padre Robin Richardson, attached to 3 PARA in Afghanistan, blogs once more.
I have spoken a great deal over the past months about the changes I’ve seen in and around Nad Ali North, but there have been other changes too, more personal, closer to home for us. Some we make light of and hope that time back in England will temper. Super-sensitive vigilance in every step, normal here, perhaps over-cautious at home. We don’t tend to have many crowds here either, and queues are orderly affairs with time to chat. Our default setting is to look out for others, and after six months this becomes social-habitual – its how everyone thinks. And yes, there are also those things that we see, that we experience, that we work through, that we’re less keen to talk about with those who weren’t here. But it is to be expected, it is part of the package; and it is why upon our return the occasional brew, the chance to sit and chew the fat with others who have been through whatever it is too, the shared experience, it helps a great deal.
For me, faith is also central, it is vital to things, because I know at the deepest level, God is, and has been, with me in all things. And of course in the darker corners of life on tour, where the memories paint pictures we would rather discard, the cross to which we journey at Easter points Christians to a God who has known humanity’s worst laid upon His Son, but Who extinguished all the power of pain and hate and hurt in the resurrection.
And so yes, we are changed by our time away, but this does not make us victims, and change is not always a bad thing. Much of what we experience, that becomes part of our story, is phenomenally positive and leaves us far better people because of it. Many have said of our youngest soldiers, that they deploy boys and return men. And this foundational change can be an amazing privilege to behold.
Yesterday, late afternoon, a youngster came to see me because of an issue going on at home. Such problems are always difficult, but when you are thousands of miles away and needing life-death concentration every time you patrol, it is worse. But often in the quiet of a mug of tea, and sometimes a wiped tear or two, the anxiety subsides.
‘The lads are great Padre, but it’s all Army out there. Nice just to talk things through.’
‘How have you been finding the tour?’
‘Amazing and I only just got to the unit when we deployed.’
‘And how are the lads?’
‘Our lance-jack’s mega. He got me in, made sure I was squared away, always got his eye out for me. I look up to him. It’s how I’d like to be. And the rest of the lads are top too.’
The young Lance Corporal he was talking about is Aidan, a slight man with kind eyes and a quiet but granite air about him. He has the confidence to speak openly with anyone, but without arrogance, and is instantly likable. When he talks about his girlfriend he does so with a humbling devotion and on issues of faith and life and the future his wisdom and insight has been formed and informed by seeing life through the lens of a great deal of active service. There is no pretence, no mask; what you see is what you get. And what you get is second to none. When one of his lads was badly injured early in the tour all these qualities and more had Aidan running through a hail of bullets to reach his comrade and render life-saving first aid. With rounds so close he could feel their impact in the wall nearby, he did that which lays beyond training and which sets the very best apart.
And Aidan has been there watching out for, encouraging, helping a young lad grow into the battalion and with a mentor like him, and with the dedication, commitment and willingness to learn of the young man with whom I was speaking, the man coming home will be an asset to any situation he finds himself in.
After a half hour or so, my young visitor knows that unit will do all it can to help out with the issue at home, but he’s also had the chance to have a fresh look at all he’s been achieving, all he’s becoming, of whom he is a part and I think, I hope he feels good about himself – he should, he really should.