Sergeant Steve Blake is an Army Photographer with the RLC. He is currently serving a six-month tour of Afghanistan as part of the Combat Camera Team (a trio of soldiers trained in journalism, photography and videography who capture life on the front-line like no other news team can).
In Steve’s second blog from Helmand province he tells us how the troops honour a fallen comrade and how quickly plans can change, as they go out on a routine patrol to meet and photograph the locals.
The last week for the Combat Camera Team has been extremely eventful.
We paid our final respects to Rifleman Vijay Rai of 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles 2(RGR), who made his final journey home last Thursday morning. The whole of Camp Bastion came to a standstill as the bugler played the Last Post and the artillery gun fired, signifying the start of the minute’s silence. The padre, and members of 2RGR, then read eulogies prior to the sun setting. After this sombre occasion, it was down to the Gurkhas to give him their own private send-off, as they carried his union flag-draped coffin on to a C-17 during the early hours, where he would be flown back to the UK to be reunited with his family at the Repatriation Ceremony in Brize Norton.
On a lighter note, our photojournalist embed Martin Middlebrook arrived from Kabul, full of beans and ready to get working. At this point, several jobs were looming in the diary, but in Afghanistan, things can change very quickly, as they soon did. We got Martin settled before taking him on a days mandatory training. This is where he gets taught the basics of first aid, the application of morphine, and general DOs and DON’Ts on patrolling etc. This training ended by going into the Mastiff simulator, which turns you upside down, and you have to escape, in the dark. Funny to watch I can tell you!
Change of plan
We were then all set for a trip out with the Estonian Army in a Patrol Base close to Bastion. Flights were booked and things were going to plan for us to leave that night, but then the phone rang. All change! We were given 10 minutes’ notice to check in at the Helicopter Landing Site (HLS), where we would be travelling by Chinook to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shawqat. From there we were to take a road move to Patrol Base (PB) Kalang in the Nad-e-Ali South district.
PANIC! Weapons out of the armoury, collect technical kit out of office, grab our bags…
Helmets – check
Weapons – check
Ear Defence – check
Ballistic Glasses – check
Ballistic Pants on – check
Knee Pads – check
Gloves – check
Burgen – check
Washkit – check
Cameras – check
Finally made it to the HLS 20 minutes before our flight, not bad going if I do say myself! Then we were loaded and off. The ride out was awesome! FOB Shawqat is not far from Bastion, and we flew nice and low, but very fast the whole way, weaving in and out of contours in the ground for the duration. Buzzing! We arrived in Shawqat, and with a few hours to spare, so it was picture time. As we only had a short while in Shawqat, I quickly ran around camp just shooting a bit of FOB life while I could.
As the sun set and we were awaiting transport to Kalang, things changed again. The transport could only take two of us, so Martin and I had a night in Shawqat, not knowing at this point if we would ever get to Kalang. Luckily the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) for the Blackwatch took pity on us and rallied the Ridgebacks for us first thing the next day, making sure we got to our patrol on time.
On arriving at Kalang, we met with Mark and the OC, who had a bit of a saga with a bat in his tent the night before! He was a little miffed at getting bitten by the bat too. Not a good start to his day. Within minutes of arriving we were ready, weapons loaded, and out of the front gate we went. The patrol was heading for the bazaar, which was only 100 metres from the gate to Kalang. The area was quiet, but soon got busier when we arrived. Everyone wanted to say hello to us, give us the thumbs up, or in the case of the kids, they just wanted sweets and chocolate!
After talking to all the shopkeepers and locals at the bazaar, the patrol was ready to move on. The route back was like a maze. We went through several residential areas (compounds), across fields, jumped over ditches, waved to the farmers and shook hands with everyone we came across. It seemed slightly surreal that in Afghan normality does occur.
After we got back from the patrol it was brunch time! What a nice treat that was. So after some serious re-hydration we got some well deserved scoff (food). The temperature was hot that day, and we had been out on the ground for nearly three hours. We were sweaty to say the least. But the food made us soon forget about our sore shoulders and aching feet.
As we were only on a flying visit, we had one more thing to attend before our road move-out and subsequent flight back to Bastion. The Officer Commanding (OC) A Company, 3 Scots, was attending a briefing with an Afghan National Army (ANA) Commander, discussing their next joint patrol. So off we went, into the ANA compound. The compound was basic, but the men were happy. They had Chai (tea) and fresh naan bread on the stove, and soon took us into the brief.
The room was very dark, and was in actual fact, the commander’s accommodation. It was hard work, but some nice images were had, using the one small light fixed to the roof. It must have only had a 10 watt bulb in it, which pushed my camera’s limits a bit. So, briefing done, it was time for the off. Mastiffs loaded and onboard we went. After a short trip we were back at Shawqat awaiting our flight back to Bastion.
The Merlins arrived in the pitch black, with flares going up to mark the HLS. After a quick rush, we loaded-up, the lights went off and we were away. We had a nice ride back, despite the pilot’s nose dive as we approached Bastion. I am sure there is a smoother way to reduce your altitude.
So back in camp now, but not for long. We have had a frantic day editing and sending our material out, before packing for our next job.
Never a dull moment here in Media Operations!