The Afghan experience

Lt Matt Galante at Paind Kalay police station with Husky vehicle in background

Lt Matt Galante at Paind Kalay police station with Husky vehicle in background

Lt Matt Galante is an officer in The 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment.  He commands a Police Advisory Team (PAT) in Southern Nahr-e-Saraj district, Helmand province. This is Matt’s second tour of Afghanistan.

 

Oblivious to unique situations 

This may be a ridiculous statement, but sometimes it can be very easy to completely overlook the fact you are actually inAfghanistan. I’ve often wondered why this is, why soldiers seem oblivious to some of the unique situations we find ourselves in. How can an operational tour just feel like another day at the office and not some big adventure? The only explanation I can offer is that, when your entire working life leads up to six months in Afghanistan, all the training and preparation dulls you to the reality of actually being out here – the exceptional becomes pretty mundane, and all of a sudden you find yourself completely nonplussed about sharing your bedspace with rats and being occasionally woken by gunfire.

Sometimes, however, you are faced with those unmistakable moments that remind you this is actuallyAfghanistanand not just another exercise on Salisbury Plain. Take for example today, where I found myself sat in a traffic jam of camels – all completely oblivious to my tight schedule, and all wearing that smug grin that camels always seem to have.

Another sight that never becomes tiring for me is the Afghan tendency to wring every last inch of useable space out of every mode of transport they own. A two-seater motorbike? Definitely capable of seating four. Battered old saloon car? Why wouldn’t you fit four adults in the front seats and two donkeys in the back? (I never did work out how the driver changed gears…) An average-sized tractor trailer? Best fill it with 25ft of wheat, and put your son on top of it all to weigh it down. These are the little sights that separate my tour from all the training leading up to this point, and they never fail to make me smile.

Goods piled high on the roads of Nahr-e-Saraj

Goods piled high on the roads of Nahr-e-Saraj

The realisation that ‘actually, this is a little bit fun’ can strike at some odd times. Any soldier who has lived or worked in the Green Zone will attest to the fact that half of every foot patrol is spent climbing in and out of flooded irrigation ditches. Normally, wading through waist-high, dubious-smelling water with seven stone of kit on your back can only be described as horrific, but once the first man starts laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation the giggles become pretty difficult to contain. I have often wondered what the local farmers think of the numerous groups of half-laughing, half-broken men slogging through their irrigation ditches every day, but am usually too exhausted to ask.

Lt Matt Galante patrolling through an irrigation ditch
Lt Matt Galante patrolling through an irrigation ditch

On a slightly less horrific note, one of the more pleasant experiences – and one that sums up the whole ‘Afghan experience’ for me – is the shura, or meeting. In my line of work, impromptu informal shuras tend to be a daily occurrence as my team and I patrol from police checkpoint to checkpoint, visiting the patrolmen and discussing key issues with the commanders at each location. I am pretty certain that foreigners arriving unannounced (and soaked in foul-smelling water) at our place of work back in theUK would be given a frosty reception at best, but the welcome we receive at each checkpoint is quite the opposite.

Donkey and cart

Donkey and cart

Pashtunwali, the code of conduct for the Pashtun people who make up the majority of Helmand Province, calls for all strangers seeking refuge to be treated impeccably. I can confirm that this is the case: my team and I usually arrive at a checkpoint to hugs and handshakes, before being ushered to take a seat on the Afghan equivalent of our sofa – the trusty rug. Before long the Chai appears (green tea in small glass cups), along with the obligatory boiled sweets, which are usually politely declined on the basis that they are covered in swarms of enormous wasps. The patrolmen are incredibly slim – as are all Afghans – and have a habit of crouching rather than sitting, which is difficult to mimic even without 20kg of body armour. Every effort is made to feed guests, and no request is declined. Goodbyes are an equally drawn-out process, and the whole experience gives a real insight into the Afghan culture – which, I have to say, is very enjoyable.

Yes there is hardship in being on an operational tour, and yes we all miss our family and friends – but each day brings unique experiences that we are unlikely to forget in a hurry. And the Afghan weather is far nicer than on Salisbury Plain, which is always a bonus.

16 thoughts on “The Afghan experience

  1. am a soldier en that is my proffession, i know what it takes being in war front, i say have been encouraged by your statement as am preparing to somalia in an opparation against al-shabaab militia who are al-qaeda linked gunmen, have even trained with you at BATUK i understand what it takes to there..am Pte Morris from kenyan army.

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  2. Lt Matt Galante you just see this every thing from outside but the best thing in Afghans and north west frontier of Pakistan is Pashtunwali (hospitality). if you go to there homes and they don’t have any thing to eat(poor) but in lunch or dinner time you there will be 3 4 dishes for you and once you get friend with them they are so loyal in friendship that then kill any one for you or get killed for you.

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  3. Hello
    It is a thing about the British Forces we can make light of any situation I was in the Royal Signals for 9 years and while in the Malaysian jungle took advantage of the monsoon to get a “shower” when lathered up it stopped usually they lasted an hour or so, take care all of you
    Best Wishes
    Les

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  4. Loved this blog…..just make sure you have a good shower before you come home! AND please don’t worry about bringing your kit home for me to wash will you????? Stay safe PLEASE and look after your boys too. Love n miss ya tons xxxxxx

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  5. Loved reading your blog, as do the other members of Services Families Support Group. We hope the welfare boxes that wing their way to you every month containing shower gel and other toiletries are of some help to removing the pong. Sorry we can’t offer to wash the stinky kit before you return home.. I have vague memories of dpms and kit frightening old hotpoint after being ‘in the field’ with harriers…bad enough… So my sympathy to Mrs G and all the other wives.
    Take Care and stay safe… Thanks to you and all the guys for everything you ae doing… total respect.

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  6. this was very enjoyable to read thank you Les im not scared now so if my boyfriend goes out there i will not be a compleat mess thank you les kip ur lads safe and i wish you all a safe and happy tour may god bless you all xx

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  9. Thank you for your blog I enjoyed reading it. Our Son goes out to Afghan in February (its his first time) and at the moment both my Husband and I are dreading it. We realise its his choice and he is looking forward to it, but to be honest I don’t know how we are going to cope. Reading this does help knowing what he will be doing. Take care and keep safe.

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  10. A great blog, looking forward to reading the next one. We’re due out there soon so the ‘normalities’ of life out there make interesting reading!

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  11. Deborah,you do cope and you do cry alot, my son out at momment with 1.P.W.R.R . his older brother been out before, I coped then and cried then also,but you read these bloggs and keep in touch anyway you can,You also have to carry on cos they don’t want to worry about Mum and Dad and you also drink wine !Stay low and safe all Tigers and all out there.

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  12. It’s fantastic reading this Matt – thanks for telling me you were writing it! Great hearing about everything you’re doing (and the spelling, punctuation and grammar are spot on too!). Stay safe, and keep smiling. Lots of love xxx

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  13. Great writing. I served with the 4th Singapore Infantry Regiment when I was younger. Our military structure follows the British Army closely. I can understand how it feels when we are deployed to different countries and yet we felt no stranger than we were in our local barracks. In a way, it helps us stay sane and organized,

    Nevertheless, keep safe out there.

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