I fell off the back of the helicopter

Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick

Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick

Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick is the Task Force Helmand spokesman for Operation HERRICK 14. Like his predecessor, Lieutenant Colonel David Eastman, he will be blogging throughout his tour. In his first post he writes about his first month in Afghanistan.

One of the strangest moments of any operational tour is when you drive away from your family knowing that you won’t see them for a number of months and that a lot of water will pass under their bridge – as well as yours – during the intervening period. So it was for me, as I set off from home for RAF Brize Norton one evening in March.

Travelling from Britain to Camp Bastion was remarkably pain-free. We had a Portuguese carrier fly us to the Middle East where we changed to an RAF C-17 which dropped us into the Central Helmand desert in the middle of the night. It was great to be met by Major Patrick Jackson who, when I was Commanding Officer of the Media Operations Group (Volunteers) (MOG(V)), was one of my officers and is now the SO2 Media Operations in the Joint Media Operations Centre based in Bastion. Another MOG(V) officer – Capt Andy Whitehead – was also there, in his final weeks as the Officer Commanding the Combat Camera Team.

Camp Bastion is an ever-growing metropolis, forever wreathed in a fine talcum powder which permeates your clothes, hair and anything you’re carrying from the moment you step out of your tent. The US Marines based at the neighbouring Camp Leatherneck have already tarmacked many of their roads and it makes a big difference to the quality of life and air.

On my first night I flew up to Kabul which should have been a 2-hour flight and took over 6 – I think we visited every airport between Bastion and Kabul. I eventually crashed into the basic transit accommodation for an hour or so. I was there to meet with media staff from the British Embassy, the National Component Command and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Joint Command (IJC) to get the top-down view. Our media man in IJC is Lieutenant Colonel Mark Wenham, who is Chief of Public Affairs for the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC). Mark and I served together briefly in Iraq four years ago and I remember him talking to me then about getting into Media Operations so it was good to see he had achieved this aim by being at the heart of the media mission here in Afghanistan.

Kabul is higher, at around 6,000ft, than Helmand and it was noticeably thinner air to someone who had just come from sea level a couple of days before, bounced through Bastion which is about 2,500ft. Mountains surround Kabul. Some stark, arid sentries and others in the distance snow-capped, all sharply defined in the bright sun against the clear blue sky. We sat outside having pizza surrounded by the voices of nearly 50 nations which make up the coalition of nations supporting Afghanistan. It was a very cosmopolitan atmosphere and in huge contrast both to life, as I imagined it, just on the other side of the base’s wall and of the military life down in Helmand. I wasn’t complaining, of course, as we drank Turkish coffee and I was presented with a box of Ferrero Rocher by Will Calladine from the Embassy, as he said, he couldn’t let me get away with a false impression of the life of a diplomat.

Heading back to my reality on a US Air Force C-130 later that afternoon, I looked down from the cockpit at miles and miles of snow-covered mountains and valleys of the Hindu Kush that make up the central mountain range across Afghanistan. It was a beautiful wilderness.

I restarted my Reception, Staging and Onward Integration (RSOI) training. This is designed to give the new arrival the latest information which will help them look after themselves and their comrades while they are here in Helmand. Those staying inside the wire do the first 2 days up to zeroing their personal weapons. Those travelling around and who need to get out and see things do the first 5 days and those who will be at the front do the full 7 days. It was a good reminder of everything from combat medical care – surely one of the most innovative, practical and excellent instructive periods I have had in the Armed Forces – through environmental health, welfare, patrolling and physical fitness.

Then I was on the helicopter flight line with all my kit waiting for a lift to Lashkar Gah – the Headquarters of Task Force Helmand. I met a US imam who was on a visit to speak to religious audiences across Afghanistan and I was given a very illuminating insight into his work with the religious leaders in Afghanistan. I caught a US Marine Sea Stallion to Lash and had a nighttime tour of Central Helmand. I’m not sure where we went but we bumped up and down a few times before I got the thumbs up to jump off – not that I was jumping anywhere with my large bergen, black bag, day sack, guitar, rifle and body armour. So, I fell off the back of the helicopter.

I was met by Lieutenant Colonel David Eastman, the Spokesman for Task Force Helmand and the man I had come to replace, who helped me drag my kit to the accommodation. In a blur of a very comprehensive handover I became the Spokesman for Task Force Helmand, ably assisted by Capain Si Poulter, Major Matt Allen (another MOG(V) officer), Ben Wilkinson (the MOD Media Advisor) and Warrant Officer Class 1 Bob Alexander, the SNCO Media.

On that first night I had to write a statement about the death of  Private Daniel Prior from 2 PARA, who died of wounds in the Queen Elizabeth NHS Hospital in Birmingham. Known as a ‘cap badge statement’, these announce the death of a member of the Armed Forces on operations, specify their unit and summarise what the individual was doing at the time that they lost their life. Five days later I was writing statements for Major Matt Collins and Lance Sergeant Matt Burgan both of 1st Battalion Irish Guards. The contrast with this most sad duty and the rest of my work in Media Operations could not be greater. In those first hours quite the worst aspect of losing a comrade, perhaps for all of us here, is knowing that within a few hours a family will be receiving the most awful news that they may have feared getting throughout the time they have been separated. Every death is a tragedy which lasts a lifetime.

A couple of days later Major General Richard Mills, the outgoing US Marine commander of Regional Command (South West), came down to Lashkar Gah to receive presentations from senior staff at the Provisional Reconstruction Team (PRT) – the civilian organisation managing governance and development across Helmand – and Task Force Helmand. He’s a gruff, shaven-headed, straight-talking United States Marine Corps General. He presented commendations to two members of the PRT and gave Brigadier James Chiswell, Commander Task Force Helmand, and Michael O’Neill, Head of the PRT, US Marine Corps ka-bar knives making the point that the reason Brigadier Chiswell’s was not mounted on a wall plaque like Michael O’Neill’s was that he figured Brigadier Chiswell knew how to use it.

I went down to the Regional Training Centre (South West) with Captain Niall Archibald, the Unit Press Officer for 5 SCOTS. RTC(SW) is responsible for training Afghan National Police officers using instructors from 5 SCOTS, the Ministry of Defence Police and the Afghan Ministry of Interior. Archie has done a fantastic job in keeping the focus on this important part of the capacity building being done by British civil and military staff in the public eye. The ride down there in a Husky vehicle was a little like buckling a Michelin man into a matchbox as, with body armour on and the armoured door closed, there was just about enough room to get my four point harness on – just glad I’m not a strapping Jock. We drove out through the bustling Lashkar Gah market, headed past a huge tractor dealership and out past a mass of house building and into the vibrantly green agricultural zone on the City’s outskirts. As we arrived at the Kandahar Gate we turned into RTC(SW) just in time to see the first dignitaries arrive for the graduation of 156 new patrolmen. After the ceremony, which involved a number of speeches, certificates for the students and a march past, we had an Afghan lunch before heading back home to base. One thing which struck me at the end was the good humoured joshing and joking between the newly-graduated policemen and their British military and police instructors, a clear sign of the bonds established over eight weeks of hard graft required to complete the course.

Lieutenant Colonel Purbrick with General John Toolan, Commanding General Regional Command (South West) at his Transfer of Authority ceremony at which he was presented with a pot of Dorset honey by Tim.

Lieutenant Colonel Purbrick with General John Toolan, Commanding General Regional Command (South West) at his Transfer of Authority ceremony at which he was presented with a pot of Dorset honey by Tim.

I flew up to RC(SW) for the handover ceremony between General Mills and General John Toolan, the incoming US Marine Corps General. General Toolan and I were at University in Philadelphia together 25 years ago. He was then an instructor at the Officer Training Corps and I had been a scruffy student. I saw him last year in Plymouth when he came to talk to us during the Brigade’s Conceptual Week – a week of briefings on all aspects of operations in Afghanistan – and then again in Camp Lejeune in North Carolina when we visited 2nd Marine Expeditionary HQ for their own training. Now he was taking command of all coalition forces in the two south western provinces of Afghanistan. I gave him a pot of Dorset honey to celebrate the occasion. The following day General Toolan came down to Lashkar Gah and we looked after his ADC, Lt Padraig Flynn, and his Close Protection Team with cups of Earl Grey and Lapsang Souchong – they liked them so much they took some bags away with them.

Over my first month here the Media Operations team which supported 16 Air Assault Brigade on Operation HERRICK 13 has gradually been replaced by the incoming team supporting 3 Commando Brigade on Operation HERRICK 14. The 6,500 troops making up the new Task Force Helmand are based on 3 Commando Brigade with 2,000 soldiers joining the Brigade from 7th Armoured Brigade (The Desert Rats) – the formation I was in as a tank commander during the Gulf War in 1991 – and a further 1,000 individual augmentees from all three Services. Amongst all these there are around 650 Reservists, of which I am one.

Now, a month into my tour, the new team is complete in Lashkar Gah. The team is: Major Rolf Kurth runs the Ops – Rolf is a MOG(V) officer who makes films for businesses in his civilian career; Captain Meredyth Grant is the Planner – Meredyth has been a news producer at London Tonight, Sky News and the Weekend News Editor at Five News; Beth Cowley is the Media Advisor – Beth works in the Ministry of Defence Press Office and was previously in commercial radio in Wales; Petty Office Hamish Burke is the Brigade Photographer – Hamish is a trained and experienced military photographer with a previous tour in Afghanistan under his belt and he is also a trained Electronic News Gathering (ENG) cameraman; and, Sergeant Ben Perkins looks after all our administrative business as well as being a Royal Marines Physical Training Instructor and Weapons Instructor.

We have already scored some successes in the media, bringing to the attention of people at home a small number of the many individuals who every day are making significant contributions to making Afghanistan, and Central Helmand in particular, a better place in order to make Britain a safer one. Take 20-year old Royal Military Police Lance Corporal Sophia Turner, who arrested 17 insurgents in one day. The story was offered to the Daily Mail, who ran it, and the Daily Star and her local papers followed it up. Our HERRICK 14 Facebook page has been a phenomenal success. Probably by the time you read this more than 1,000,000 people will have logged on to see what is happening here in Task Force Helmand. We are making and loading short videos, uploading pictures and story, providing useful contact information, creating discussion groups and answering questions to keep our insatiable audience of families, friends and supporters abreast of our activities.

Mothers’ Day messages from the troops went down very well on Steve Wright’s Sunday Love Songs and on local ITV stations and Corporal Debbie Bailey, a Mum, who is a patrol medic with 16 Close Support Medical Regiment attached to 5 SCOTS whose story we placed in the Sunday Express on Mothering Sunday.

As part of the conclusion of the 16 Air Assault Brigade tour I proposed a valedictory press briefing by him to the media in Lashkar Gah alongside his partnered Commander, Brigadier General Shirin Shah, the Commander of 3rd Brigade of 215 Corps of the Afghan National Army. I spoke to Captain Lisa Jones, who is responsible for Afghan Communications in the PRT and she agreed to ask the media. Happily it all came together. On the day I briefed both Brigadier Chiswell and Brigadier Shah on the format of the briefing and the likely lines of questioning that would come from the media so that they would be prepared. When we got down to the PRT, there were just 4 journalists there but a few minutes later we were joined by another 15 so we settled down to statements from both Brigadiers followed by a question and answer session which, luckily, covered the questions that Lisa and I had predicted would be important to the media and we had briefed the Brigadiers on. Then it broke up for a friendly chai and chat before the media left to write up their stories – which we are still seeing coming out more than a week after the event.

BFBS flew into Lash to meet the media team. Charlotte Cross is a BFBS staffer on a three month attachment and Tristan Nicholls is more usually the Defence Reporter for the Plymouth Herald but he too is on an attachment to BFBS based at Camp Bastion. We had an ideas sessions and sketched out a rough plan of action for their three months with us and we started that morning by putting the 5 SCOTS/2 RGR handover in the can as well as a story about our HERRICK 14 Facebook page, an interview with Lt Col Matt Stovin-Bradford, CO of 30 Commando, and one with Lieutenant Colonel Adam Griffiths, Commanding Officer 5 SCOTS. Adam has driven 12,500 km around Central Helmand over the last six months as he says it’s easier to drive than to take helicopters. He can change plans at a moment’s notice, go and see his soldiers who were mentoring the Afghan National Police, get a feel for atmospherics around the towns and villages and, if you like, prove that we and others can have freedom of movement around Central Helmand.

Brigadier James Chiswell of 16 Air Assault Brigade hands over authority of Task Force Helmand HQ to Brigadier Ed Davis of 3 Commando Brigade in Lashkar Gah.

Brigadier James Chiswell of 16 Air Assault Brigade hands over authority of Task Force Helmand HQ to Brigadier Ed Davis of 3 Commando Brigade in Lashkar Gah.

Finally came the moment for the official ‘transfer of authority’ from 16 Air Assault Brigade to 3 Commando Brigade. I had already been in theatre for a month before this moment came and I was the first of the staff officers to replace one of those who had been with the brigade for the first five months of the tour. Over that time Brigadier Chiswell must have felt his own Brigade slipping like sand between his fingers as his staff disappeared at an increasing rate to be replaced by new faces so that, by the transfer, he commanded more of 3 Commando Brigade than he did of his own Brigade. A ceremony took place at ‘the flags’ in front of the Lashkar Gah memorial and we saluted as 16 Air Assault Brigade’s flag came down and again as the 3 Commando Brigade flag went up. General Toolan was there to observe the transfer – he told me that he had been having some of that Dorset honey on his bagels.