Strap kit down, buckle-up, enjoy… the never ending ride (Pt3)

Corporal Si Longworth in Afghanistan

Corporal Si Longworth in Afghanistan

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.

Force protection

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.

Soldiers climb over compound walls to clear the route

Soldiers climb over compound walls to clear the route

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.

Soldier and Child play peek-a-boo

Soldier and Child play peek-a-boo

pretending not to look at his own picture

pretending not to look at his own picture

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.

The lads squeeze under a tree’s shadow for shade

The lads squeeze under a tree’s shadow for shade

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.

Making our way through the corn

Making our way through the corn

A Royal Engineer searcher gives orders in the cornfield

A Royal Engineer searcher gives orders in the cornfield

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:

A kind offer in a field of dry corn

A kind offer in a field of dry corn

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’.

The author reminiscing in a field of corn. “Geordie” –Engineer Search teams, 22 RE

The author reminiscing in a field of corn. “Geordie” – Engineer Search teams, 22 RE

If you want to know more about ‘back-button focus’ go here

Fifteen days

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.

Children watch us rest

Children watch us rest

More Afghan children are curious of the camera

More Afghan children are curious of the camera

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…

More tc.

Read Si’s other blogs here: Life Through a Lens…

Follow Si on Twitter: @Si_Army_Phot

16 thoughts on “Strap kit down, buckle-up, enjoy… the never ending ride (Pt3)

  1. Si, thank you for your blogs…..to be honest they mostly bring a huge lump to my throat as my son is currently out there serving with the Irish Guards and it hard as a Mom knowing how hard the conditions are. But he is brave and so shall we be! Keep up the great work reporting the fantastic work that our servicemen and women do on a daily basis. I could not be more proud. God bless you all xxx

    Like

  2. I always look out for your photos, so it’s an abosulte delight finding out and read your blog posts. Absolutely love it. Thank you so much for doing what you do.

    Like

  3. Really enjoy reading your blog, my grandson is out there some where at a F.O.B. a Corporal Army Chef, Internet has been cut of so we really miss the contact. Keep safe

    Like

  4. Hello Si. Lovely to read your blog and see your images. I work with an ex-Army photographer and I never tire of the stories he can tell, or the images he took in his 17 years as an Army phot. Keep up the good work fella!

    Like

  5. Great blog Si and, as a photographer myself, really Great photos. Very interesting about the BBF technique which I’m going to try out too. Stay safe and thanks for the insight, now I get more of a feeling about what my boy is experiencing in Lash.

    Like

  6. Fabulous pictures, & brilliant blog as always, thankyou for letting us share the ride/journey with you,good to see/know what our guys have to go through everyday- look forward to your next instalment, take care, stay safe

    Like

  7. ATTENTION!!! SCAMMERS USING BRITISH SOLDIERS PHOTOS AND DATAS

    i am a brazilian single woman who has corresponded with a supposed Sergeant who’s saying is in a mission on Afghanistan. He sayed his name is Jack Bentley Whipple, and his dates following:

    Full name: Jack Bentley Whipple
    Camp: Camp Bastion
    Division: Central Division
    Army: British Army
    Camp ID: SGT0976530
    Rank: Sergeant

    He find me on a web site BADOO and we start to talk four days ago. Now he say that loves me and want to get marriage with me. After three days? According to him, he has not family, nobody and he ask me to help him to go out of there. Thereunto, I have to send an email to his commander and I did this. Below, the answer I received.

    Now he ask me 800 pounds. I searched very much on internet and finally I find some comments and I think that is a SCAM. He says that can’t give me any information because is matter of national security.

    On my search I saw some data that sounds true. Maybe it means that people can have information about the operations.

    I still be in touch with him by Skype. But he must Harry and pressing me. I would really like to help arrest this scammer.

    Please forgive my bad english.

    Like

    • Hi I was chatting to jack as well but I could tell the difference between UK and us uniforms stear well clear also someone calling themselves lingo the real Adam lingo is happily married and his family are very upset as I’m sure all the lads whose photos are being used its disgusting what these lowlife scammers are doing . These lads who are away from home don’t deserve their good names dragged through the mud.

      Like

  8. Sorry don’t want to make this about the bad but I really felt for that lady I got lucky
    LOVE THE PHOTOS AND BLOG YOUR GOOD
    You all stay safe

    Like

Comments are closed.