Corporal Si Longworth is one of 38 trained British Army photographers. He left a career in aviation to pursue his passion for photography; capturing everything that military life has to offer. He is currently in Afghanistan as the Task Force Helmand Photographer on Op HERRICK 18.
When three days turns into sixteen!
Okay Okay, so I haven’t been around in a while.. I do have an excuse though. A little thing called an ‘Operational Tour’, but if you are not convinced about that, then maybe this, and this series of blogs will help convince you.
A little over three weeks ago I was briefed to pack my bags, because I was heading out. I am sure you can imagine the look of glee written all over my face. I get a little stir crazy in my office, and as you all know. The pictures I need are not in here. The men and women of the British Army are not doing amazing things day to day just outside my office door. It’s in the field where it’s all happening so I need to get out of camp to see it all for myself.
This time I was heading out for two to three days with the Warthog Group of 2nd Royal Tank Regiment. I had to jump on a flight to MOB Price to hook up with them, as they were heading out the next day, so back to the room I dashed, loaded my bags with enough supplies for the duration, plus a few extras, as I know how these things can turn out, and headed down to the flight line.
At Price, I ‘touched base’ with the commander of the Warthog Group I would be attached to. It turned out I wasn’t the only one hitching a ride. There were a section of guys from the First Fusiliers heading out too. I hadn’t spent much time in the back of a Warthog, so I got straight down to the usual safety briefs. All vehicles have a running theme: ‘strap kit down, buckle-up, enjoy the ride’ – well that was easier said than done. I know I don’t get an easy time whenever I am in the back of a vehicle and this one was no different.
A Warthog is like a reverse Dr Who Tardis. With seven of us in there, let’s just say it was less than cosy. As always, there is a top-cover man to provide essential protection to our tracked convoy. It’s a shame though, on this occasion that I happened to be sat next to top cover man, as it seemed someone was getting his or her own back on me after the Combat Logistics Patrol. Here is my view for about five hours. Pleasant, I am sure you will agree:
The other thing about tracked vehicles is that they love to be off road. Off road in Afghanistan means sand…hang on, I’ll make a correction here because I know you are all reminiscing about the best sunny beach you have ever laid on.. I mean dust! The dust that is spat out by these little terriers is beyond belief. I am going to have a hard time trying to explain it, however here a couple of pictures to try…
For some reason, the dust doesn’t want to drift away from the convoy with the breeze as we roll through the desert. No no; it circulates straight into the open top cover hatch. At times I couldn’t see the groin that was 6 inches from my head (not such a bad thing really), or anyone else in the back. I was choking on the stuff. It was in my eyes. I was giving my teeth a great exfoliation with it. It was very unpleasant. The shards of sunlight penetrated the dust and at times I could see the Afghan interpreter opposite me. Well, I say I could see him. He was engulfed in a shemagh. He knew the score. Good old Shemagh filtering out those tiny dust particles. Must pack that next time.
‘Trackpin’ and ‘Diesel’
So on we rolled to our first destination. We were going to be in this location for approximately two days before heading off to complete our mission.
“HANG ON”, I thought when this information was innocently imparted to me. I was only coming out for 2-3 days. Something smells a bit fishy, so I approached the Platoon commander from the First Fusiliers. His brief was ever-so-slightly different to mine. Five to nine days. I better start a rationing regime for my ‘skiddies’ (underwear).
So there we were, leaguered up in the desert. Not my first ‘camping’ experience but the first laid-up in the desert next to 10-plus tracked vehicles providing all-round protection. I felt safe. I loved spending time with both the fusiliers and the ‘tankies’. I got to know most of them, how they worked together and I felt like part of the team. They even let me borrow the radio headset so I could get a picture looking like I was chipping in with the routine work. That was good of them.
There were some real characters among them, and some of them had great nicknames such as ‘Trackpin’ and ‘Diesel’. The sort of old-school nickname you acquire because you made some terrible mistake in your early career and the name just stuck. Another real salt-of-the-earth guy I had a lot of admiration for had recently come into a large some of money. Six figures-plus, to be more precise, and he had had every opportunity to not come to Afghan on his third tour, but felt it was his duty to the younger lads, whom he had trained and nurtured through pre-deployment training. He has every intention on moving on from the Army after this tour, and I wish him all the best of luck. Don’t spend it all at once!
Arriving in style
So it wasn’t just a big ging-gang-goolie out there in the desert. Everyone had a role. The ‘Tankies’ were providing a home and security for the Fusiliers, who were in turn providing security for the Royal Engineers who were doing what Engineers do best; building ‘stuff’. While they built, the Commander of Task Force Helmand popped-in for a visit with an Afghanistan counterpart. He always arrives in style.
Once he left, we settled back down into routine. It was at this point that my body decided it wanted to off-load some of the waste it had been very daringly storing up over the past four days. We have disposable ‘jon-bags’ for such things. They are great. They come neatly packed up with toilet tissue and a hand wipe, and once you’ve done what you need to do, you seal it up. Store it for 24 hours and then burn it. All very civilized…unless the temperature is 43 degrees. Then it becomes a challenge to prevent the plastic sticking to all sorts of things that are hot and sweaty, and I am not talking solely about the dangly bits us men are born with, either. The bag is like the proverbial Moth to a flame. One’s bum being that flame. A sort of halfway-house fix is to wrap the bag around a loo seat. It even says that on the wrapping. Unfortunately, as there was nothing but desert around for miles, other solutions become more attractive. Take your body armour for instance:
I am going to admit, this did not work for me, and I will save you the detail..
‘Going home’ socks
As the days rolled by, and my sock spares dwindled, I thought I would cheer myself up by trying to catch the stars rotating around our Warthog harbour, and here is the result of 293 individual 30 second pictures stitched together. The lights in the background are the headlights of the engineer vehicles working.
On day 5 of my outing I was finally given news I would be extracted the next day. I was so happy, that I dug deep into my bergan (rucksack) and pulled out the last spare pair of socks I had. These were my ‘going-home’ socks. I was happy, and so were my feet. My underwear had stood the test of time however. It is difficult to wash clothing in the desert, especially without wash powder, and when the wind whips-up sand and dust just adding an unwanted texture to drying clothes.
Anyway, I was happy. I was on transport back to a base location. I made my way to the nearest phone and just like E.T, I phoned home.
“Hi Cpl L, how are you doing? About your flight out. It’s cancelled as there is another Op leaving your location tomorrow. Don’t worry; it will only be a few more days.” My boss said. Heard that before I thought. I was in good spirits though, having spent time with great guys.
It was 1800 hrs, and I was due to leave on the next Op at 0430 hrs the next day. Shower; Yes! Clean clothes: No!..
Best I get my head down then…
To be continued…
Follow Si on Twitter: @Si_Army_Phot