Captain Sophie Whitaker is a serving war artist whose main job is to provide Joint Fires Targeting support to Task Force Helmand on OP HERRICK 18. As a member of 74 Battery (The Battleaxe Company) 39 Regiment Royal Artillery – attached to 1 Royal Horse Artillery, Sophie works in the Brigade Headquarters, Lashkar Gah, where she finds time between an often hectic schedule to put pencil to paper.
The day following my last blog, I found myself sitting at the Lashkar Gah HLS (helicopter Landing Site) in the midday sun waiting for a Chinook to arrive to transport me to the Main Operating Base (MOB) Price.
There were no delays and we soon landed in Price where I was pleased to see by one of my Battery’s troop commanders! I was then greeted by my host before following him to sign in to the camp and to find my accommodation. I was placed in the ‘VIP suite’ which was by far nowhere near as glamorous as it might sound! It was a section of a tent opposite the cookhouse, which consisted of a few scattered cot beds and strewn water bottles along with the remnants of hanging shelves, a paracord washing line and makeshift clothing rails. Nevertheless I made myself quite comfortable and was thankful for the air conditioning. After a quick shower and donning a fresh uniform I made my way to the Nahr-e Saraj (NES) headquarters to meet the rest of the team.
Here I was introduced to the Drum Sergeant Major, Y Coy of the 1st Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers who had produced a few watercolour paintings with his operational art pack. Although you’ll have to wait for the OP HERRICK art book to be published before you can see those! I had also brought the last HERRICK’s published art book ‘Artists in Afghanistan’ with me to show and inspire people and had a very positive response – so much so that by the following morning I had a few more submissions to make their way into the book! However, it wasn’t long before lunch and we soon made our way over to the cookhouse. The walls of the cookhouse tent were clad with faded photographs and a collection of posters of painted hand prints from the children of serving soldiers stuck to the crinkled sides of the tent clinging on with ‘black nasty’ (duct tape).
I then spent the afternoon walking around MOB Price talking to soldiers and trying to encourage any hidden artists to emerge and get involved in the project. I also spotted a few murals painted on weathered walls around the MOB, each with a story to tell from bygone times.
The MOB also encompasses the old walls from Russian occupation in addition to the original Afghan compound walls towards the centre of the MOB. I also managed to climb up the ‘Freedom Tower’ at the heart of the MOB to observe the views.After dinner I visited Gazala troop, 74 Battery (The Battleaxe Company) RA where morale was high and I was persuaded to join in on their charity challenge – rowing, running and cycling the distance from Afghanistan to Albemarle Barracks, Newcastle 5,738km in aid of the Army Benevolent Fund. Their Justgiving site can be found at http://www.virginmoneygiving.com/gazalaherrick18. After catching up with troop I returned to my tent to pack my kit ready for an onward flight back home (well, Lashkar Gah) in the morning.
Dogs at work
I was only scheduled to stay in MOB Price for a 24 hr period but due to a busy flight schedule, with other, higher priority personnel and operational necessity I ended up extending my stay for a further 48 hrs. Thankfully I had taken advice and packed enough kit for a few days in preparation for such an eventuality! My first scheduled flight was too busy and so I returned from the HLS back to the ops room and re-booked a flight for the following morning.
Earlier that morning I had bumped into the military working dog (MWD) section who had invited me over to see their dogs at work that afternoon if I was available – which I now was. With my own re-homed yellow Labrador bitch (Lola) and my fiancé’s liver brown cocker spaniel bitch (Boots), I was pleased to be able to spend time talking about the training and experiences of the handlers and dogs alike. I am also very much looking forward to seeing Lola and Boots on R&R and taking them for some long walks in the green countryside. I shall save talking about them until I get home – only three weeks to go now!
Here are a couple of photographs of the MWD team and their dogs:
The remainder of the day consisted of a gym session followed by a slushy, before hand washing some of my kit prior to re-packing for my second attempt at an outward trip in the morning. That next morning, as I sat next to the Lashkar Gah Command Sergeant Major and one of the soldiers from the military working dog section waiting for our helicopter to arrive, it was announced that due to operational reasons only one helicopter would be arriving. R&R personnel were a priority and I knew, as a list of names was read out, that I wouldn’t be on that flight. Nevertheless we went back for some lunch and waited…and waited…
Then an announcement came over the tannoy system for all those soldiers who didn’t fly that morning to report to their Buzzard Ops (who manage flight requests and allocations). It turned out that a US Marine Corps flight would be coming in that evening to fly to Bastion, where I would then fly to Lashkar Gah the day after. Eventually I made it back to Lashkar Gah after numerous hours spent waiting at one flight line or another. Despite the delays, flying around Helmand is a quite civilised affair rather than the ‘go, go, go’ of training and the US HLS is well established with air conditioning and wifi! No sooner had I landed, showered and changed, I was sat back at my desk back to the routine.
The long and short of it was a successful trip to MOB Price where I met lots of interesting people and even managed to encourage some of them to submit their work. Alas, I haven’t managed to produce a piece of my own art this week … I have just started a 12 hour shift rotation. However, I shall still post a piece of art – and here’s one I prepared earlier! This was a picture drawn for a very good friend of mine, Hannah – a fellow member of my platoon at Sandhurst who is deployed out here with me in the headquarters of Taskforce Helmand!
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