So, to re-cap this story; I left Lashkar Gah for a ‘three-day’ outing with the Warthog Group 13 days ago and have spent that time camped up in various locations in the desert with the Fusiliers, the Tankies and most recently the RLC. I have had one shower; pooed in bags, peed in bottles and am wearing clothes that would challenge even the most honking of skunks to a sniff-off. Communications to the outside world are down due to the extreme heat and lack of a working satellite dish, and I now want to buy a dog the minute I step off the aeroplane in Blighty.
My new task is with the Royal Engineers. These guys go out into harm’s way and look for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). They provide route assurance to all other troops on the ground, and I am heading out with them. Luckily they are a short drive away from my current location, so I am with their boss in no time at all.
Although I love meeting all the new teams of people doing different things, there is always that awkward moment, which admittedly soon dies away, when troop leaders or squadron commanders size you up. Sometimes, they have been told from ‘higher’ to embed you into their plans. This can have a negative effect, but normally doesn’t. They look at you and in those first few introductory sentences and try work out if you are going to bring anything to the party, or just be a hindrance. I try to keep my chat short and sweet, throw in a few jokes about plastering their faces over soldier magazine (even though I have absolutely nothing to do with it), talk about all the crates of beer they will have to buy when they are seen in publications, and ease their thinking.
I was going to be placed in the Troop commander’s vehicle with a medic and two searchers. The teams split into three groups, two of which were dedicated to searching and one final group providing force protection. In this case, it was guys from the First Fusiliers again. I was given the choice to spend time with either of the search teams. One of which spent most of the day ‘isolating’ the area to the flanks, and the other team searching the route itself. Each had its challenges and photo opportunities, but weighing it up in my head (mentally flipping a coin) I chose the isolation teams.
Out we rolled. I really wasn’t prepared for the journey ahead of me…because it was about 10 minutes long. Seriously, I was the happiest man alive. It was such a change to be not sat in a truck for hour upon hour. When the lads jumped out I waited in the Mastiff for a few minutes for them to set up; just long enough to find out from the medic that she had a brother who was also serving in Afghanistan. Gold dust, I thought, and convinced her allow us to write a story; getting her and her brother together. I took her details and passed them on to my bosses.
Out I jumped and walked the length of the convoy to find the isolation teams. I know I keep saying it, but everywhere I visit, I find more feats of grit and endurance from our soldiers. In the blistering heat, wearing more protection than the average soldier due the risky nature of the job, the searchers painstakingly scour the environment looking for devices planted to do harm to anyone unfortunate enough to meet one under the wrong circumstances. It is a slow and demanding process, both mentally and physically.
Water, chocolate and pen
Part of the process is moving through compounds owned by the locals. Fortunately, each patrol has interpreters and guys from the Afghan Uniformed Police there to assist in this. It was actually great to see how welcoming the locals were to ISAF troops. In several instances, they would invite us in and make Chai (tea) for us, or offer us homemade bread. I am nosey so I revelled in having a glimpse inside their homes; so far away from the comforts that we are used to.
As we moved down the route, children began taking an interest in what we were doing. A few of them came out and hung around the guys. They seemed to have learned a few words in English, such as ‘water’, ‘chocolate’ and most interestingly, ‘pen’. At times, it felt like they were begging, but it clearly paid off as some of the searchers had stashed the boiled sweets we get in the rations, and they seemed to love these. I am glad that somebody does… I tried to grab a few images of the interactions with the children, but they played shy, even though they taunted me to take their picture. They would then do this peek-a-boo style thing, which I found amusing.
The clearance was slow and methodical. The isolation teams and the road party worked in unison to clear the way. Sometimes one of the groups would have to wait for the other to catch up. This meant grabbing shade. Any respite from the sun was worth it. Even if it was only five minutes worth.
Every bit of ground that was used for parking your bum had to be searched thoroughly before hand. As a photographer, I really have to concentrate on where I am standing. There are safe areas that have been searched and it is all too easy for me to get carried away with the image I am trying to build up in my mind and stray outside that area. Luckily most of the teams I have been out with are veterans of Afghanistan and can spot if I am going to make a mistake and usually rein me in pretty sharpish.
After a small rest, we were off again; this time moving into more rural areas. We headed into a cornfield. I was instantly taken back to my childhood. I grew up in a small farming village on the banks of the River Humber and my childhood was spent running through fields such as this, and hiding from friends in the long corn. I don’t remember the beasties that were living in this cornfield though. Swarms of weird flies flew around us. I didn’t take too kindly to that, but plodded on.
Half way through the field, we were halted to allow the other teams to catch up with us. This rest wasn’t so much fun, with all the buzzing around. I was separated from the guys in front and behind me by about five metres, but when I sat in the corn, I couldn’t see anyone of them. It was ok staring at a million corn stems for a few minutes, but then I got a little bored. I could hear other guys chatting away, so I crawled over to one of them; ‘Geordie’, the patrol second in command. He was an extremely keen guy, with a great sense of humour. The sweat was pouring off my brow and he just laughed and said: “It’s fricking hot isn’t it, man?” I was inclined to agree. As I looked up at him to answer, I was met with an offer:
Politely, I declined. I did however spend half a minute explaining my cameras controls and why I use ‘back-button’ focus. I needed to do this so that Geordie could get a quick snap of me. Most people expect the focus button to be the half-press action of the shutter release button. About a year ago, a friend called Paul Shaw, who had been shooting Nikon for many years, explained the benefits. I trialled it, and liked it. The only problem comes when you hand over your camera to someone, and try explaining it… more often than not I come out blurry. Luckily, Geordie was, as they say in the Army, ‘all over it’.
If you want to know more about ‘back-button focus’ go here
Once out of the fields, we were back to compounds again, but not for long. At the end of the search, we were invited into the gardens of a Mosque and offered more food and chai. The guys and I were exhausted. It had been a long day in the sun. As we rested, the children gathered again and watched us. I grabbed a few more shots.
Before long, we were mounted up back in the vehicles and heading back to our evening retreat. That day I had seen another job role in Afghanistan, and understood a little more, what the searchers go through, and it wasn’t easy. I had it all to look forward to the next day, too, but these guys did it day in, day out.
Once I had finished my time with the search teams, it was time to get home. My boss had been working hard to secure me on a flight out from the nearest base, so long as I could find myself transport to it. As resourceful as ever, I exchanged a staged group shot at dusk with the force protection lads for a lift, threw in an Armed Forces Day flag for good measure and the ‘taxi’ was mine for the taking.
At the camp, I was told my flight was late. No problem for me. But like a protester, I sat in the dark on the HLS with an American contractor and patiently waited for the V-22 Osprey to arrive, and it finally did.
It was 15 days since I had left Lashkar Gah for what was supposed to be a three-day job. I was shattered, and I longed for my three-metre square ‘pod’ back at Lash, but I had to fly via Bastion and spend a night there. As it was around midnight when I got there, I just flopped on the cot bed that awaited me in the transit tent. I couldn’t even be bothered to undress as I knew I was on an early flight out in the morning, and to be perfectly honest, I actually couldn’t be bothered getting out of stinking kit, to just put it back on again a few hours later.
A little after sunrise the next morning I was stepping off a helicopter in Lashkar Gah, a weary but happy man. I burst into my office and dropped my gear. The Air-Con had been switched on for me, so I just sat in my swivel chair and took a few minutes to reflect on the people I had met and the things I had seen in those 16 days. Admittedly, it isn’t a lifetime, but longer than I was expecting and prepared for. I may have ‘bumped my gums’ along the way a little. All soldiers reserve the right to do that. I was glad this journey was over, but to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have had it any other way…
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