Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, blogs from Afghanistan with another update on what he and his colleagues in Media Operations have been doing.
Although we have had the ‘transfer of authority’ from 16 Air Assault Brigade to 3 Commando Brigade, the ‘relief in place’ runs for a considerable period either side of this point to ensure that the experience accumulated over the previous six months does not just turn to the right and fall out in one fell swoop. As one of the first 3 Commando Brigade staff officers into HQ Task Force Helmand when it was 4 weeks before the transfer it was great to see a headquarters at the top of its game and also sad to see how quickly the tour was obviously coming to an end as the beret colour changed from maroon to green such that, by the time of the transfer, Brigadier James Chiswell was pretty much commanding 3 Commando Brigade. It must have been a strange experience.
So, 3 Commando Brigade is still responsible for a number of 16 Air Assault Brigade units. 42 Commando ‘rip in’ today, replacing 3 PARA on the 5th Anniversary of the start of 3 PARA’s first tour in Helmand under the then Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Tootal in April 2006. 2 PARA are preparing to hand over to 1 RIFLES while A Squadron of the 9th/12th Royal Lancers will replace D Squadron of the Household Cavalry Regiment as the Formation Recce Squadron during a handover at a secret location in the Helmand Dasht, or desert. D Squadron of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards will be the final unit in, replacing Falcon Squadron of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment running the Warthog Group, using the incredibly versatile and very well-armed Warthog tracked vehicles.
Rather bizarrely in the not too distant future the staff from 20th Armoured Brigade will be coming to Helmand for their recce in advance of their tour later this year. It seemed like only a few months ago that we did our 3 Commando Brigade recce and now we’re here – tempus fugit.
Talking of time flying it was my birthday recently. I share the same birthday as Beth Cowley, our Media Advisor, who someone in the headquarters kindly described was ‘young enough to be my daughter.’ Thanks, mate. Amazingly, our joint birthday tied in with a massive air drop of mail from home and for the first time in my nearly 7 weeks deployed on operations I received some mail other than my favourite magazine, the Antiques Trade Gazette (which I had to order for myself.) The first thing I opened was a parcel containing 2 packets of digestive biscuits with no note and no clue who they came from. When I wrote my first blog I sent the link round to a lot of mates adding my address here in Helmand and asking them to throw a packet of digestives at me – one of them clearly took that at face value and now the Media Ops shop is two packets of digestives better off. I hope not too many more take me as literally. The second piece of mail was from my sister and was a bag of goodies including more digestives! Perhaps I should have said that I was a little short of something else.
Just to show what a great community we have here in the headquarters there was a constant stream of visitors into our office all day wishing us a happy birthday. I’m not under any illusions that, if it hadn’t been Beth’s birthday as well, anyone would have come to say the same thing to the ‘old man.’ The Media Ops office has become a bit of nexus for people to come in and shoot the breeze. We’re lucky to be doing what we think is the most interesting job in the headquarters, our office is outside the main headquarters, we’re always connected to the news and the internet and we like talking to people as it’s the best way of finding out the stories that we want to tell about the work that British Service personnel are doing here in Helmand.
Later in the day we were asked over to the Provincial Reconstruction Team’s (PRT) office for dinner with a ‘senior diplomat’ from the Embassy in Kabul. When we got to the barbecue area we found that Major Rolf Kurth and Captain Meredyth Grant, who both work in Media Ops, had laid on a surprise birthday dinner with burgers, salad and chocolate cake washed down with Fanta. The Commander of Task Force Helmand, Brigadier Ed Davis, was there along with a selection of the headquarters team.
I have known Brigadier Ed for more than 20 years. We met at Junior Staff College at Warminster when we were both Captains and I didn’t see him again until I had left the Army and joined the Media Operations Group (Volunteers) – MOG(V) – when I was involved in supporting a series of exercises that he was running. Last July, when I was still the Commanding Officer of MOG(V), he called me up and told me that he was having difficulty in finding a Captain to work in his Media Ops department during HERRICK 14. Two weeks later Meredyth and I were sitting in front of him in his office at Grade 1 Listed Stonehouse Barracks, the Headquarters of 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, in Plymouth. Five minutes into our discussion Brig Ed reached across the table, shook Meredyth by the hand and said ‘welcome on board’. It was another great moment for me. Over my time in command of MOG(V), we went from deploying less than 5% of the unit on operations annually to deploying 25% of the unit annually proving, I think, the operational utility of a specialist TA unit to Defence. Two weeks after that meeting in Plymouth Brigadier Ed was on the phone again. He was looking for a Major for his Media Ops department on Herrick 14. Within 24 hours Major Rolf Kurth had volunteered and a week or so later we both met Brigadier Ed in the pillared cafe hall in the centre of the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall. Five minutes into that discussion he reached over the table, shook Rolf by the hand and said ‘welcome on board’. A couple of weeks later I was driving my daughter to football training with a bunch of her friends when the phone rang on the hands free kit. It was Brigadier Ed. This time he said, ‘and by the way, I’m taking you with me as well, welcome on board’.
All three of us were mobilised unusually early in October 2010 which gave us the huge luxury of being able to fully integrate with the headquarters staff at 3 Commando Brigade, to live at Stonehouse Barracks and to enjoy breakfast in the Commando Forces Officers Mess, the oldest continuously-occupied Mess in the Armed Forces, while being looked down on by the portraits of some of our most famous and successful military commanders. We joined the Brigade’s Conceptual Week which was focused on understanding the environment we were deploying into. I then went to North Carolina with some of the staff for the same kind of training with 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force Forward Headquarters at Camp Lejeune. Rolf and I went on the headquarters recce to Helmand. We all enjoyed Christmas leave, Wednesday Sports Afternoons – never took them – and Friday lunchtime stand-downs, had three weeks of staff training at Warminster and a week or so of pre-deployment leave before it was ‘wheels up’ at RAF Brize Norton. It was really enjoyable to be back in the military environment after twelve years in civvy street. I’m still trying to work out whether this experience is a mid-life crisis or a mid-career break.
We’re now into the routine of the headquarters here in Lashkar Gah with briefings to prepare for and deliver, meetings to prepare for, attend and then action afterwards and those ever important stories to seek out either for ourselves to make something of or to line up for the media who are starting to come out to visit the troops. We found a great story the other day about a young soldier, Private Lee Stephens, of B Company 3 MERCIAN who had, unarmed, dismounted from his Warrior, sprinted across the desert and rugby tackled and arrested the highest-ranking insurgent taken down by Task Force Helmand in the 5 years we have been here. The story was given to the Press Association and was splashed across most of the newspapers the next day.
The Combat Camera Team (CCT) came to visit Lashkar Gah. The Officer Commanding the CCT, Captain Christian Hill, is a MOG(V) officer who works for BBC Radio in the East Midlands and the Photographer, Sergeant Alison Baskerville, is the first MOG(V) Combat Camera Team operator to deploy and the first female Combat Camera Team operator in the Armed Forces. This is another source of pride for me as I started the recruitment and training of Reservist Combat Camera Team operators when I was the Commanding Officer of MOG(V) and it’s great to see the first one of those operators on the ground doing exactly what I envisaged when I started recruiting. Alison has already delivered some great imagery to the media and has put together some fabulous multimedia imagery and interview packages. She is hugely talented and will complement Christian’s ‘liquid chocolate voice for radio’ and Sgt Russ Nolan’s Electronic News Gathering capability. Russ is a Regular Army Royal Logistic Corps Photographic Branch Photographer with bags of operational experience and a natural talent for imagery acquisition.
Over our time here we are very keen to mirror, in Media Ops terms, the work being done by the Police Advisory and Mentoring Group (PMAG), 2 RGR, and the Brigade Advisory Group (BAG), 3 MERCIAN. This is about capacity building the Media Ops capability in the Afghan National Army and Police, developing the UK funded District Governor’s Media Advisors and helping the media in Lashkar Gah to develop their ability to hold the government to account on behalf of the people. Clearly we don’t want to imprint our values onto our Afghan comrades because Helmand is not Hampshire and there are very significant cultural and political differences and styles which would not permit this in any event. What we will be trying to do is to expose them to techniques, operating capabilities, understanding and the opportunities afforded by connected communications so that they can communicate the good news and information from the army, police and districts between themselves and then to the media and for the media to, within constraints, determine the story and relate those stories to the people via their various channels.
Some of the things that we have discussed with our Afghan partners are partnering our Combat Camera Team with the developing Media Ops staff in our partnered 3rd Brigade of 215 Corps, Afghan National Army (3/215), over the six months that they are here; having regular meeting between our Unit Press Officers, the District Stabilisation Advisors and the Afghan District Communications Advisors to look at stories and how to communicate them to the Helmand Governor’s Media Office for dissemination to the media; and, inviting the Lashkar Gah media to meet not only with us but always to meet us partnered with our opposite numbers in the army and police and to offer to media visiting Task Force Helmand the opportunity to meet with the Lashkar Gah media and to exchange views over a cup of chai. We’re not here to complete the campaign in six months, but we aim to take some positive steps, even strides, towards that end state in 2014, to make Helmand and Afghanistan a better place and a better-governed place, secure within its own borders, capable of looking after its own security so that international terrorists can never again take advantage of a poorly or ungoverned Afghanistan. Helping to make Britain safer.
We had a meeting recently with Daoud Armadi, the Spokesman for the Helmand Provincial Governor, Gulab Mangal. It is clear from the constant stream of positive stories accompanied by images dropping into my email inbox that Daoud is well on top of the requirement for the Government to show the people of Helmand that a better future lies with Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Daoud carries around an impressive four mobile phones including an iPhone 4, which made me rather envious. I’ll definitely be upgrading when I return from this tour.
Brigadier General Shirin Shah came through the headquarters the other day. He is the very well-respected Commander of 3/215 Brigade. He recognised me from the joint press conference that he held with Brigadier Chiswell for the Lashkar Gah media a few weeks ago. General Shah is not only an exceptional commander but he is also a great communicator and during the press conference he provided a lot of good information to the media and answered in detail their, I thought, very good questions. General Shah wanted to know when I was next going to put him in front of the media as he is keen to do more. Very soon, I assured him, but we’re keen that his own Media Ops staff start facilitating this kind of activity.
Every now and again someone has a mad idea for a great cause. This week it was Mad Major Al Jarvis, attached to the Military Stabilisation Support Team here in Lashkar Gah. After Al broke his back parachuting last year he was told that he’d never run again. On the day of the London Marathon Al completed a marathon around Lashkar Gah base. As if that wasn’t enough he wore his Osprey body armour. Al is raising money for Combat Stress, the leading military charity specialising in Veterans’ mental health. You can follow the link here to make a donation to this most worthy of causes: http://www.justgiving.com/afghanmarathonman
In a working day that starts at 0600hrs in the gym and ends, usually, at 2230hrs (or later). There isn’t much time for time off. That’s fair enough. There are troops out in much smaller bases than ours enduring very basic conditions and who are also out there doing the difficult and dangerous work on the ground while we sit in an office and try to tell that story to you. But, everyone needs a break even if it is just for a short period. I came here, with my daughter’s guitar and half an idea that I could learn a few chords in the down time. Luckily I have come across a couple of people who really can play – the Brigade Regimental Sergeant Major of 3 Commando Brigade, Dom Collins, and Captain Dave Landon of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards who is quite a dab hand. I have also found a number of other, far more proficient musicians – let me rephrase that, because I have absolutely no proficiency in anything musical other than a basic understanding of the operation of the iPod that I stole from my son to bring on tour – so, I have found out that there are some really musical people out here like fiddle playing Commando Captain Tommy Roberts (who is the brother-in-law of Dom Collins), like the singing Chief Vet, Captain Laura Holmes, and I think that the Quarter Master of 30 Commando has brought his bongo drums out with him. Is there the makings of a band here and a Number 1 HERRICK 14 chart topper in the offing? I think that I had better volunteer to be the band’s agent.
One of my jobs is to provide BFBS Radio – the Forces news network – with a weekly radio update on Task Force Helmand. This used to be done over the phone which, with apologies to our telecommunicators, does not generally provide for the best quality radio recording. I have now found a proper recording studio around the corner and each Monday I record the weekly news. Beth then edits out all my errors and the slightly duller moments and then emails it over to BFBS Radio in Camp Bastion. I’ve never heard them play out but all through the week people around the headquarters come up to me saying ‘oh, heard you on the radio this morning’. Quite disconcerting for me though it is vital conduit through which we can pass news not only to the troops deployed here in Helmand but, crucially, to Service families at home and overseas.
As I am now somewhat over 40 – ‘Dad, you’re so old you’re nearly dead’ is what I usually get told by the small people at home – you would have thought that I would know nothing about facebook. But I do now. The Herrick14 facebook page, which you can find at www.facebook.com/Herrick14 is going like a steam train with outboard rockets. There are now more than 5,000 people who ‘Like’ the page, but this slightly confuses me. If there are 6,500 Service personnel out in Task Force Helmand, which there are, surely they’ve got more than one friend or family member who wants to keep up with what’s going on during HERRICK 14? Shouldn’t we have at least 65,000 people ‘liking’ our Facebook page? On the other hand, over the last month our ‘posts’ have been viewed more than 1,100,000 times, that’s up nearly 1000% on last month. Now, that’s quite a lot. HERRICK 14 is, in size terms, behind the Facebook pages of only the three Services, HM Armed Forces and Armed Forces Day. We’re also the fastest growing military Facebook page, so keep it up, folks.