Corporal Dave Campbell a member of the Band of the Adjutant General’s Corps (AGC), part of the Corps of Army Music (CAMUS) has recently returned from Afghanistan with the Band. The Band was deployed over Remembrance and the festive period to supply music for troops serving on Op Herrick.
Equipping musicians to play on the front line
In the spring of 2012 the Director of Music (DOM) the Band of the Adjutant General’s Corps informed the band that we would be deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Herrick 17 from the beginning of November 2012 to the end of January 2013. This would be in the form of three weeks in theatre supporting Remembrance Sunday before returning to the UK, and then re-deploying two weeks before Christmas. This was initially met with some trepidation, combined with the realisation that Christmas would be spent away from our families. We were informed that it would be a demanding tour but also one of the most rewarding and memorable, and all these predictions were to prove accurate.
The first step in preparation for the tour was the acquisition of some new instruments and electrical equipment ranging from a powerful speaker system to an acoustic drum kit in a box called a cajon. This new equipment gave the band the capability to perform in remote locations with a small group, to full-scale rock concerts for thousands of troops. The small groups quickly adopted the term FOB (Forward Operating Base) group, with the DOM leading one and Bandmaster (BM) leading the other. The FOB groups were to travel to as many remote bases as possible, while the remainder would provide logistical support as well as cover the main locations in theatre.
After passing all the Mandatory Annual Training Tests (MATTs) the band were ready to attend the Operational Training Advisory Group (OPTAG) course which would bring us up to speed on everything we would need to know about our tour. The subjects were wide ranging from history lessons on Afghanistan to battlefield first-aid. By this stage we had received all of our operational equipment and clothing and the reality of going to a warzone was sinking in. By the end of October all members of the band were fully prepared and trained for the tour, and were keen to get going.
Flying out to Afghanistan was supposed to be a fairly simple affair of getting on a plane and making a quick stop in Cyprus, however this was not to be. The plane from the UK was delayed by seven hours and on arrival in Cyprus the two-hour wait became almost three days. Luckily the welfare facilities at RAF Akrotiri were excellent with wireless internet, mobile phones and games consoles all of which were free enabling everyone to keep in touch with back home.
Medical support and boosting morale
Eventually we arrived in Camp Bastion at 0200hrs with our liaison cheerily informing us that our week-long Reception Staging Onward Integration (RSOI) package would begin at 0600hrs. This was another training course to reinforce all we had learned previously and also to bring us up to date on current events in theatre.
After all the travelling and training was finished with, we could get down to the job of providing musical support and boosting the morale of the troops. With Remembrance Sunday being an obvious date on the calendar the band split in order to cover the main services being held at Kabul, Kandahar, Lashkar Gah and Camp Bastion. This was an emotional time playing for these services and one that is sure to stick in the minds for many band members.
The band was helped in covering the four main locations by members of the Band of the Corps of Royal Engineers and Lt Petriz-Watts from CAMUS. With everyone returning to Camp Bastion the band then started working towards gigs across the base which were coming in thick and fast. The rock band (ROW8) performed an acoustic set outside the main NAAFI which was enjoyed by a crowd of around three hundred including US, Danish and Estonian personnel. The next day the band split into three groups and travelled to several external locations to Camp Bastion. These locations are remote locations where troops can be based for up to six months. The music was well received and offered the troops based there a brief respite from their daily routine. It also offered the band a few helicopter flights, and a chance to see life around Helmand Province.
Performing for James Bond
One weekend saw the acoustic group invited to perform at Camp Leatherneck, which is the American sector of Camp Bastion. This invitation also included a visit to their dining facility (DFAC) which had all the luxurys you would expect, including ice cream sundaes and free beer (non-alcoholic of course!) The next night ROW8 performed outside the NAAFI in Camp Bastion which attracted a large crowd. The Pipe Major from 1st Battalion Scots Guards also joined in for a few tunes backed by the band, to the delight of the audience. The Director of Music’s rendition of “500-miles” by the Proclaimers was also a particular highlight for the Scots in the crowd.
Towards the end of the first part of the deployment the band were asked to provide some entertainment for a special screening of the new James Bond film “Skyfall”. There were rumours of a special guest and the Bandmaster was asked if the band could play the James Bond theme. The BM worked late into the night and the next day produced a big band arrangement. Just before the screening it was announced that the producers of Skyfall and Daniel Craig himself would be dropping in to answer questions and introduce the film. The band struck up as they entered the theatre and Daniel Craig said he would be in touch regarding the music for the next film which the DOM promised to hold him to. After the highs of performing for James Bond himself, the band continued the showbiz by doing some recordings at the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) studios in Bastion in order to advertise the forthcoming tour, and to give the troops in the PBs a taste of what was to come.
20 PBs in ten days
After an uneventful flight home and a couple of days rest, the band were back in work learning new material for the second surge. This would see the band visiting almost every UK-manned location in Afghanistan over the Christmas and New Year period, from small compounds at the front line to the British Embassy in Kabul.
All too soon the date came round for the flight out to Afghanistan via Cyprus again, although this time there were no delays. After settling back in to our tented accommodation, the different groups were give their itineraries for the coming weeks and the locations they would be visiting. For the two FOB groups this meant over twenty PBs in ten days and for the brass quintet left in Bastion a number of carol playing engagements. The FOB groups left for the flight line with everything they would need for ten days away, including their weapon, body armour and instruments.
The equipment and instruments had been chosen because of their practicality due to the unique constraints relating to helicopter flights. Landing in the PBs the FOB groups were immersed in the reality of living in a remote location. The facilities were very basic with some PBs having hot water only once every three days and frequent power outages. These facts made the performances all the more appreciated by the personnel stationed there who thoroughly enjoyed listening and singing along to the latest chart hits being covered by the FOB group. In some locations the troops even took over the entertainment taking part in live karaoke and a few Gurkhas took it a stage further playing guitars and the cajon.
Back in Bastion the quintet were travelling around playing carols in the DFACs (main kitchen areas), various churches and NAAFI shops, as well as individual departments who had booked the band for their own Christmas parties. These included the Joint Force Support Headquarters, the Role 3 Hospital, the Flightline and the Christmas Eve service at the Vigil site which attracted a crowd of two thousand. Another gig on Christmas Eve was the Santa Sleigh Race which saw a number of units entering a homemade sled which they had to carry through an improvised obstacle course in fancy dress, with the band playing for the awards ceremony.
After the Christmas rush the band was reunited in Bastion and swapped stories, did some washing and prepared to go to Kandahar. This was the first visit there for some of the band and was a very different place to Bastion. Predominately an American base there were many facilities including popular takeaways and free ice cream in the DFAC. The real reason we were there though was to perform outside the UK coffee bar and shop and by the start of the show a crowd of around three hundred were waiting. As before, ROW8 played a solid set of current chart hits with a brass line helping out for some of the numbers.
After Kandahar the next main engagement was a smaller rock group at Lashkar Gah. This meant another helicopter flight with all the heavy electrical gear, and on arrival it was clear it was going to be a cold night. Despite the temperature a crowd still came out to enjoy the performance and the next day the band returned to Bastion with just under a week to go until the end of the tour.
Rewarding and demanding
The final engagement for the tour was a rock concert in the same tent we had done our training package in two months earlier. The NAAFI brought down a makeshift bar and some food, and every unit on base was given the opportunity to bid for tickets to attend. The band had achieved a quasi celebrity status by this stage due to the support from BFBS playing our recordings and advertising the various engagements, so it was necessary to control the numbers as the limit in the tent was five hundred. The next morning the final admin was completed in preparation for returning to the UK, including the weighing and logging of all our freight. At the last minute the jazz group were asked to perform by a General in Kabul for an important function so they left and would return to the UK a day later.
On the way back to the UK we stopped in Cyprus for to unwind and relax before heading home. On arrival in Cyprus we received a briefing about what to expect followed by a bus trip to the swimming pool and bowling alley. Everything was complementary and other activities included go-karting, horse riding and clay pigeon shooting. There were mobile phones and laptops available throughout the stay and in the evening we treated to a show by the Combined Services Entertainment group (CSE) which was a comedian and a band, followed by a film. The next morning the band returned to the airport and flew back to the UK to be treated to ice and snow.
The Afghanistan tour was definitely rewarding and demanding, with the band facing some unique problems. The band travelled throughout the country from the main bases to remote patrol bases, performing to thousands of deployed troops and judging by the reception were much appreciated.