Lt Matt Galante is an officer in 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment. He commands a Police Advisory Team (PAT) in Southern Nahr-e-Saraj district Helmand province.
Returning to Afghanistan has been the focus of my life for the past five years.
I realise that, for most people, Helmand Province is hardly the holiday venue of choice, but since I first came here in 2006 I have been desperate to return. I was a Territorial Army soldier back in those days, juggling my work commitments with a degree at Leeds University (with somewhat questionable results at times). Having finally graduated, and on realising that I am more at home in a wet Welsh field than a cozy dry office, I joined the army ‘full-time’ to endure the joys of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. I emerged 44 weeks later as an officer in the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, and swiftly found myself preparing to head back to the country that captured my imagination some five years ago.
Beast of Bastion
On arrival at Camp Bastion in late September, I was astounded at how much can change in a relatively short time span – and how much can stay the same. The fine dust that coats your nostrils and destroys your electrical goods had unfortunately remained, as had the oppressive heat. But the beast that is Bastion had grown to unimaginable proportions, with fast food chains and air-conditioned shops aplenty. Despite the relative comfort I quickly became restless to deploy forward, and within a week found myself on a daringly low and fast Chinook ride to my new home of Nahr-e-Saraj, nestled along the banks of the river Helmand.
I was finally back to the landscape that had so captured my imagination five years ago, and was pleasantly surprised at what greeted me. Thankfully, the landscape remained unchanged: characteristic mud compounds thoughtfully decorated with items from the land, unnaturally blue streams meandering through irrigated fields crammed with six-foot maize, and the ever-present river Helmand cutting jagged rocky cliffs into the desert landscape. The cliffs are a beautiful foreground to an impressive sunrise, which is accompanied by the haunting sounds of morning prayers dancing through the still morning air. I instantly felt privileged to be back here.
What was more of a surprise was what had actually changed since my last visit. To place the following observations into perspective, let me remind you of the scenes in Sangin five years ago: in all my time, I only saw one civilian family – fleeing their home village in terror. Everybody else – every single soul – was hostile towards me. Every moment on patrol was a fraught affair, as we moved through a landscape all but destroyed by months of fighting.
Yet here I was on my opening patrol of 2011 utterly gobsmacked: by the pristine tarmac under my feet, the sheer number of children running around me with cheeky smiles asking for a ‘Kalam’ (pen), the farmers waving and laughing as my team stumble across an adjacent ploughed field like Bambi after eight pints… This change is incredible, and after five weeks of patrolling I am still delighted to see the progress made. Even if it means that I have to contend with screaming kids every time I go static on patrol.
My job on this tour is as a multiple commander with the Police Mentoring and Advisory Group, 1 PWRR. Essentially this means that I am in command of 16 soldiers whose key task is to mentor and assist the Afghan National Police in their efforts to bring security to Nahr-e-Saraj and the wider Helmand region. I will go into a little more detail as to our daily routine and the more memorable characters we meet (of which there are many!) in a later blog, but in the meantime it’s about time I signed off as I’m on patrol in an hour…
I look forward to keeping you updated!
Follow 1 PWWR on Facebook here: http://www.facebook.com/1PWRR