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).
Patrol Base Wahid
Since my last blog post, the Combat Camera Team have been on our travels again. We had a one-day turnaround from our last job, just in time to start editing our material before heading out with the Estonian Army, of Estonian Company 12 (Est Coy 12), based at Patrol Base (PB) Wahid.
We headed to the HLS, this time with the full hour to spare, instead of our last rush of 10 minutes notice, and relaxed in the ISO containers prior to the flight, where we could take full advantage of a bit of shade. Our flight was jam packed. We had more freight than men, and it was very cosy indeed. We had two stop-offs prior to our destination, one at Shahzad, and then Nahidullah. For both of these we were the aircraft providing overwatch, so we were in the air for over an hour before arriving at Wahid.
On arrival at Wahid, which was an overnight stop-gap to our final destination, we were met by a huge contingent of freight movers, both British and Estonian. The Chinook was soon offloaded, and we were raring to go. As per normal we only had a couple of hours of daylight, so after a quick tour of camp, we went off to shoot some PB life.
The facilities were great. The Estonians had made all sorts of contraptions out of next to nothing, and the place felt cosy. The gym was mainly self constructed, apart from a couple of the apparatus, but this makes for great images.
We had got a bed for the night, so all was good. The PB itself was very small, but I have been in smaller too. Wahid, along with a couple of check points, is the Estonians’ Area of Operations (AO). They had very few British working with them. But the journey out to Check Point (CP) Breknal, would show just how well the two forces work together.
Check Point Breknal
The next morning we were taken to CP Breknal in the Royal Engineers’ Mastiff vehicles. The operation was to repair a culvert that had been damaged nearby. This was to aid in the traffic flow to the nearby villages, but to also ensure the water flow continued. It was a joint operation, whereby the Estonian Army would provide force protection for the Royal Engineers to carry out their work safely.
We then, shortly after arriving at Breknal, foot patrolled out to the area, in order to secure it, prior to the engineers arriving. The patrol was quiet. Several of the compounds we passed were empty, and the place had a slightly eerie feel to it. About 100 metres into the patrol, the Estonians kindly pointed out a big hole in the ground, where one of their soldiers discovered an IED a few weeks back. Not a great thing to know actually.
We arrived at our location, and in what seemed like minutes, the area had been secured with men carrying a varying range of weapons, and even an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC). Despite their kit looking somewhat pre-historic, it worked perfectly, and effectively. Soon after the Royal Engineers arrived. They assessed the situation and set out to repair the culvert.
The area we were operating in was a slightly hostile one. We were surrounded by compounds, three of which are well known as having sharpshooters or snipers firing from them – slightly unnerving.
So, with all the protection in place, and the Engineers happy with the job ahead, a whole dust cloud appeared in the shape of combat tractors and tipper trucks full of aggregate and tools.
During the six hours on the ground, we had to turn several locals away, as there was no way of them crossing, while it was being worked on. Needless to say, after waiting that long, the locals were very pleased with the results.
After our long day, it was back to Breknal for the night, and some long awaited food.
Within minutes of arriving, it sounded like the whole of Afghan was firing at each other. Machine gun fire, mortars, artillery and even an Apache attack helicopter was engaging a target a couple of Kilometres away from us. Flares were lighting up the sky, something was really kicking off. After a few minutes, and the realisation that it wasn’t that close, we set about having a proper nosey around the check point.
Breknal was awesome. The place was so atmospheric, even more so than Wahid. This was the ‘real’ Afghanistan! The guys from the patrol showed us around and introduced us to the rest of the platoon. They were an extremely welcoming bunch. Two of them had been nominated as the CP Chefs, which must have been a tough job with limited fresh food, and several ten-man ration packs. They pulled out all the stops. We had gammon, with rice, boiled eggs, veg and white sauce, topped of with some sort of pineapple, chunky syrup concoction. Superb! Just what the doctor ordered after a long day’s work.
The lads here are in the middle of nowhere. Their resources are limited. They have to find ways of amusing themselves for the long nights on a six-month tour. They do this quite well with the aid of ‘The Call of Duty’ game. So they are real life soldiers by day, and cyber soldiers battling against each other by night! Brilliant! What a way to release some frustration.
After dinner we just sat and chatted to the Estonian Press Officer about our plans for the next day, before enjoying a superb night’s sleep under the stars.
The next morning, the OC CCT hadn’t enjoyed his sleep as much as me. Apparently the Apaches were flying over all night, gunfire was heard in the distance, plus he had to listen to me snoring. For me, it was the best night’s sleep I’d had in my two-or-so months here!
The morning was a quiet one. Mark had a few TV interviews to conduct, then we were to head back to Wahid for our flight back to Bastion. For me, portrait time!
Bags packed, off we went. Another job done. Time to edit.