No-one said it would be easy

A moving and very powerful final post from Padre Robin Richardson, attached to 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment (3 PARA) as he concludes his 6-month tour of Afghanistan.

Padre Robin Richardson

Padre Robin Richardson

And so I come to my last blog entry. So much has happened over the last six and a half months and as I sit, now at Camp Bastion and try to sum things up it is difficult to know where to start or what to include. As a Chaplain my role is to as best as I can, see, observe, witness, understand, value and retell, story. The story of individual soldiers and officers and what they have achieved, the story of the communities they have sought to serve, the story of a nation in transition, and the story of God and how His presence, sometimes obvious, sometimes clouded, sometimes seemingly absent threads its way through things.

I am trying to piece it together, but at the moment, in the brightness and rawness of events that have yet to settle into a single narrative, I think it is best that I simply state what I have seen, what I have heard, what I have felt, what I have known.

I have seen the effect that security can make to a community, and the tentative steps that people dare take when less threatened. Village elders feeling empowered enough to confront the insurgent leadership, parents wanting to send their children to new schools and farmers pointing out to ISAF troops where IEDs that endanger the whole community are laid. And it is upon these building blocks that I think I have seen a genuine peace starting to establish itself. The security has not been the answer, it has just given the people the chance to ask the question.

I have heard young men in a foreign land speak tenderly of loved ones they miss, and of battles they have won, of people they have helped and of friends they have lost. I shall never forget the sound of rain-sodden sleeves forcing a final salute as the coffin of a friend is carried shoulder high through silent ranks to return home. And I have heard the crash and silence of the closing cargo door of the plane as we hold a solemn moment before returning to duty, to the job we have been tasked to do, to the freedom the fallen sought to gift. It is what they would have wanted. It is what they would have done, and we will never forget Jack and Tom, Lewis and Conrad.

And yet the strange counterpoint to this has been the sound of children’s laughter getting louder and freer and gunfire becoming more distant as those who would intimidate are forced from the centre, to the sidelines of life in Nad Ali North. And I have heard  exasperation and hope in equal measure as democracy is learned within the imperfections that freedom demands; but no-one said it would be easy, and the cost has been high, in every sense.

I have felt the ache of missing my family, my friends and the freedoms of life at home; but I’ve known also the warmth of fraternity, of being part a group so close, so committed to one another that the improbable seems all at once, possible; and the lurking fear of being alone that tracks so many lives within western culture is kept far, far away from eight in a tent in Helmand. I’ve felt great pride and optimism when I have seen young people given something to do, a reason to do it, and the sense they are about a higher purpose, shine like the sun and dedicate themselves to the task with enthusiasm, assurance, professionalism and the knowledge that there is hope, even if cynics would rather scoff from afar.

I have known tiredness, and I’ve known good sleep, sadness and hilarity, disappointment and gratefulness but in all and through all I’ve known the presence of God, the hope of faith and the power of prayer. Yes, I have seen man’s inhumanity towards man and I’ve heard it sold in religious, philosophical and intellectual terms; but I know impious hate will use any means to twist the minds of those it seeks to control. For I have known in far greater measure the selfless actions of people of different faiths and of none, I have heard words of understanding and grace when I’ve met and eaten with mullahs and soldiers and farmers and police. And though there have been many things on which there are differences of opinion and ideology, I have felt and I have seen in concrete terms, that away from insipid romanticism and tabloid headlines, the truth that states, the hope that underscores, the trust that believes, and my faith proclaims; that in the end, when all is said and done, and all of history is revealed, selfless love and the giving of ones all for another, wins, full stop.

That we had no kind of font or baptistry was irrelevant

Padre Robin Richardson, deployed to Afghanistan with 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment (3 PARA), writes about a week of unexpected events.

It is strange how some days unfold, pan out, change along the way. Last Monday night we heard that one of our soldiers had been badly injured in a blast and, separately, that a close member of another lad’s family had died. The RSM got to work getting helicopter flights booked to get he, the CO and I to the hospital and to the injured soldier’s Check Point (CP). I spoke to the other lad’s mum in England and got my move to his CP in place for early Tuesday. It was a sad evening and we knew that the next 24 hours would be full of challenges.

Tuesday morning arrived and as the CO and RSM jumped onto a helicopter to visit our injured lad in hospital in Camp Bastion before his fight back to the UK, I set out for a little CP just a short distance away from our headquarters in Shazad. When I got there I was greeted by Sam, Ben, Shaun and the other members of the multiple and as I sat down with our youngster who had received the sad news of his relative’s death just the day before, Sam brought us both a brew and we discussed how he was feeling and something of the conversation I had had with his Mum the evening before.

‘The support I’ve been given helps a lot Padre, and thanks for coming out.’

We had been aware that this might have happened and so the Company had been working towards getting this bright young soldier on the first available flight a few days previously, and so as we talked it was good to assure him of the practical steps that were being taken to help too. But mainly we shared his sadness, but sadness that was overridden by happy memories from good times spent, and there were smiles and some questions and not a little quiet. A short while later it was on with body armour once more to get back to Shahzad and onto my flight to catch up with the RSM and CO. And as I left I reflected on how though a very sad start to the day in many ways, there was also much to be thankful for. For a young lad who has a great relationship with a very loving family; for his ability to own his grief but receive the support and friendship of those around him and for a company and a battalion, who were doing all they could within the constraints of our situation to look after one of the boys the best it could.

I had been at Bastion a short while waiting for my flight forward to our injured lad’s CP, finding a quietish spot next to the helicopter flight line to pray and read my Bible for a bit, when the CO and RSM arrived from the hospital.

‘He’s doing amazing well, Padre. Strong as an ox and doing as well as he could be considering. He’s sedated, but he opened his eyes as we helped lift him onto the stretcher for the flight. The nurses said the medics did everything right, absolutely perfect treatment.’ Again, from the midst of sadness, and a situation you wouldn’t wish on anyone, hope, and goodness and promise. We boarded our flight and a few minutes later arrived at the company headquarters in a Patrol Base that sat on top of a hill overlooking a village that has changed dramatically for the good over the last six months. We sat for a while and chatted with the OC about how everyone was doing after the incident, and listened as the details of all that had gone on were relayed. The CO and the RSM listened, not asking technical questions about how, why, what, when and where, but listening as those whose primary role just then was to care, to hear what was been said and understand how it was being said.

We climbed into a armoured vehicle to make the short journey to the CP where our injured lad was based, but just before we did the Company OC asked if I would look after the Bible and Daily Reading notes I had given to the injured lad at the start of the tour and that had been next to his bed when they were packing his kit up earlier that morning.

‘His faith is important Padre, he’ll want you to look after these for him until you can get them to him back home.’

‘Of course, it helps doesn’t it?’

‘Too right, and whilst we’re on about that, one of the boys down there wants to be baptised. Wants you to baptise him there today, with his friends around.’

‘Of course, couldn’t imagine anything better.’

Padre Robin Richardson baptises a soldier in Afghanistan

Padre Robin Richardson baptises a soldier in Afghanistan

We arrived at the CP after the short journey through the village to warm handshakes, smiles and the anticipation of news about their mate. All the lads gathered around and hung on every word that the CO said. The look on their faces as he told them how he and the RSM had lifted him onto the stretcher as he started his journey home was one of relief as it had been them just 18 hours earlier who had lifted him onto quite a different stretcher to get him back to Bastion. The RSM explained how the medical staff wanted to pass on their appreciation of the exceptional medical care the lad had received on the ground, and it was only then, as Walshy the medic tried to downplay what he had done, that one of the others piped up:

‘And it was pitch black, we couldn’t see a thing and we were in a hole in the ground in a wood.’

The staff at the hospital didn’t know that bit, all they knew was that a badly injured young man couldn’t have been given better treatment, the circumstances just made the feat even more impressive, but as Walshy said:

‘it’s what we’re trained for, it’s no big deal, I’m just glad he’s OK. That’s all that matters.’

After a brew I made my way across the compound to chat with Adam before his baptism. As  I did so aware of the austerity of the place, the heightened state of everyone’s state of mind and soul after the night before’s incident I was reminded of the words of George Macleod:

‘I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the centre of the market place as well as on the steeple of the Church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles; but on a cross between two thieves; on a town garbage heap; at the crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek… And at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse and soldiers gamble. Because that is where He died, and that is what He died about. And that is where Christ’s men ought to be and what Church people ought to be about.’

That we had no kind of font or baptistry was irrelevant. We had a big blue plastic barrel that the lads dunk themselves in after a patrol to cool down, and we had a mug cut from the  container that held a mortar round. And we had Adam’s friends, those he lives alongside, and with whom he had discussed his decision, his choice, his desire to be baptised. And so as we stood next to the barrel I read the words my friend Bob had told me would be important during the tour. Words I’ve prayed with lads in CPs during the tour, words I prayed with a young man as he laid critically ill in a hospital bed and now words of promise for Adam at his baptism. Words from the book of Joshua chapter 1 that God had promised a faithful soldier thousands of years earlier;

‘Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.’

There was silence as I baptised Adam, until he stood and his mates, some of toughest most professional soldiers you could find, paratroopers all, clapped and stepped forward wide-armed to congratulate their friend. I needed a few moments to let it all sink in. It was quite simply one of those moments that helps to remind you what its all about. I really wasn’t expecting the day to have unfolded as it had, but so often life is what happens in between the best laid plans and sometimes you just have to roll with it. And then someone shoved a cup of tea in my hand and the lads gobbed off for a bit.

The pains of life had tried to define the day just 24 hours earlier. Bereavement, injury and life as austere as it could be. But that was not the only story at work that day because running through it all, and rising triumphant above it was hope, promise and faith. And that for me at least, is the triumph of Easter.

Aidan

Padre Robin Richardson, attached to 3 PARA in Afghanistan, blogs once more.

I have spoken a great deal over the past months about the changes I’ve seen in and around Nad Ali North, but there have been other changes too, more personal, closer to home for us. Some we make light of and hope that time back in England will temper. Super-sensitive vigilance in every step, normal here, perhaps over-cautious at home. We don’t tend to have many crowds here either, and queues are orderly affairs with time to chat. Our default setting is to look out for others, and after six months this becomes social-habitual – its how everyone thinks. And yes, there are also those things that we see, that we experience, that we work through, that we’re less keen to talk about with those who weren’t here. But it is to be expected, it is part of the package; and it is why upon our return the occasional brew, the chance to sit and chew the fat with others who have been through whatever it is too, the shared experience, it helps a great deal.

For me, faith is also central, it is vital to things, because I know at the deepest level, God is, and has been, with me in all things. And of course in the darker corners of life on tour, where the memories paint pictures we would rather discard, the cross to which we journey at Easter points Christians to a God who has known humanity’s worst laid upon His Son, but Who extinguished all the power of pain and hate and hurt in the resurrection.

And so yes, we are changed by our time away, but this does not make us victims, and change is not always a bad thing. Much of what we experience, that becomes part of our story, is phenomenally positive and leaves us far better people because of it. Many have said of our youngest soldiers, that they deploy boys and return men. And this foundational change can be an amazing privilege to behold.

Yesterday, late afternoon, a youngster came to see me because of an issue going on at home. Such problems are always difficult, but when you are thousands of miles away and needing life-death concentration every time you patrol, it is worse. But often in the quiet of a mug of tea, and sometimes a wiped tear or two, the anxiety subsides.

‘The lads are great Padre, but it’s all Army out there. Nice just to talk things through.’
‘How have you been finding the tour?’
‘Amazing and I only just got to the unit when we deployed.’
‘And how are the lads?’
‘Our lance-jack’s mega. He got me in, made sure I was squared away, always got his eye out for me. I look up to him. It’s how I’d like to be. And the rest of the lads are top too.’

The young Lance Corporal he was talking about is Aidan, a slight man with kind eyes and a quiet but granite air about him. He has the confidence to speak openly with anyone, but without arrogance, and is instantly likable. When he talks about his girlfriend he does so with a humbling devotion and on issues of faith and life and the future his wisdom and insight has been formed and informed by seeing life through the lens of a great deal of active service. There is no pretence, no mask; what you see is what you get. And what you get is second to none. When one of his lads was badly injured early in the tour all these qualities and more had Aidan running through a hail of bullets to reach his comrade and render life-saving first aid. With rounds so close he could feel their impact in the wall nearby, he did that which lays beyond training and which sets the very best apart.

And Aidan has been there watching out for, encouraging, helping a young lad grow into the battalion and with a mentor like him, and with the dedication, commitment and willingness to learn of the young man with whom I was speaking, the man coming home will be an asset to any situation he finds himself in.

After a half hour or so, my young visitor knows that unit will do all it can to help out with the issue at home, but he’s also had the chance to have a fresh look at all he’s been achieving, all he’s becoming, of whom he is a part and I think, I hope he feels good about himself – he should, he really should.

The fruits (and vegetables) of progress

As Operation HERRICK 13 draws to a close, so does 3 PARA’s time in Afghanistan. In this blog, Padre Robin Richardson – attached to 3 PARA – reflects on what he has seen to change over the last 6 months.

The Battlegroup is drawing towards the end of its tour now. Time has flown by and there is still much to achieve, but I have had mind this week to look back and reflect a little on what has changed over the last 6 months. Lives have changed – for all those injured, and for the families of Jack Howard, Colin Beckett, Lewis Hendry and Conrad Lewis within our battlegroup and for all the others across theatre who have lost loved ones, life will never be the same again because of the sacrifices our bravest and best have made. But the lives of those whom we are seeking to serve have changed too, and in most cases significantly for the better. On 10 March I saw what some would consider a strange monument to the astonishing work the lads have been doing. A vegetable stall. Skipping around the front of its rickety frame a wide-eyed little boy waving and laughing without a care in the world. Beside it the weathered face and greying beard of a man whose years, accelerated by others’ ideologies, have tired him, but who was resting a while in the warm spring afternoon. Business was good and that day life’s fleeting hopes appeared to be lingering.

Vegetable stall

Vegetable stall

That it was a vegetable stall is important, and I wish that sometimes journalists would pay them a bit more attention. Allow me to explain. On a hot street in unrefrigerated boxes, fruit and vegetables go off quickly. The man selling them only had on display what he knew he could sell within a day or two. That this stall was full was a sign of the level of both footfall and general business. Maybe it’s the building work that A Company helped to organize with the traders, contractors and the stabilisation team. It has enclosed the market area and with a number of solar-powered street lights the opportunity for trade hours stretching into the cool evening and for the night watch to protect the businesses after hours better has become a reality. The soft-leaved greens, the cucumbers and many of the other fruits and vegetables have been grown reasonably locally which points to planned, sustained, diverse and successful farming, which in an area historically rife with poppy growth is another positive pointer. Bananas, oranges and some of the other products need to be regularly resupplied and for high bulk, lowish-cost items, it needs to be worthwhile for the trader to get them in. Any taxation along the road or too much associated risk and it wouldn’t be worthwhile. So oranges point to safer roads and better lines of communication. Lastly, that this was not the only vegetable stall in the market shows that this agricultural community is enjoying the fruits of a growing agricultural economy. Now these are only my musings – my own reading of the situation – but I passed down the same street just a few months ago at the start of the tour and it wasn’t the same then. And now there’s a doctor too and the school is planned and soon to be built and with check points manned by the Afghan Police and ISAF at the entry and exit everyone is known, and people feel safer and change appears to be cementing itself into the lives of the population.

And yet there is still so much work to be done. Just a couple of kilometres away a joint patrol between our troops and the Afghan Army was attacked by insurgents. A British soldier, an Afghan soldier and an insurgent were injured. It was a humbling thing that evening to stand and talk with a Sergeant Major who, when the battle was won, ran forward to give first aid to the injured insurgent. Who carried him to a helicopter and who would do the same again in an instant. ‘It’s about being the best people we can be,’ Danny said, ‘even when its tough, especially when its tough.’

Nick

As Lent approaches, Padre Robin Richardson – in Afghanistan with 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment (3 PARA) – blogs about catching up with a commander he hasn’t seen since the start of the tour.

Padre Robin Richardson

Padre Robin Richardson

Jerome K Jerome wrote: “Experience is a book all men write, but no man reads.”

That, I believe can be true, but it is not always the case. Last week I visited one of the battalion’s companies that has been attached to another battlegroup for the tour. It was there I saw Nick, a friend I’ve not seen since the start of the tour and with whom there was much to catch up on. Nick’s closely cropped hair, his focus, his intensity and his phenomenal fitness could give the impression of quite a warry man. After our battalion 50 mile  march in late 2009 I saw the open wound on his back from where just a minor rub from his bergen had worn its way through to raw flesh. But he hadn’t slowed, he hadn’t complained, he wouldn’t have even mentioned it if I hadn’t noticed. And the scar’s still there. At first glance then it would be simple to stereotype Nick, but that would be a mistake because yes, Nick is fit, strong, focussed, dedicated and more than ready to make difficult decisions when called to; but Nick is not just a quick thinker, he is also a deep thinker; and a learner and a man who has experienced more of life than years. His leadership and valour have been recognised but not courted and his experience is written is the cipher of both suffering and triumph, the key to which, as Jermome would put it, is found within his memories of past and present tours of Afghanistan.

Nick’s appreciation of what lies beyond winning the battle for security within his area of operations is a great encouragement. His understanding of local tribal identities and the desires of the village, voiced through the elders he meets each week and with whom he drinks a lot of tea, is born of something beyond mere pragmatism. He isn’t just getting to know them as a means to an end, he is getting to know them because of their shared hopes for a community in a little patch of Helmand where they have a stake together. Nick’s encouragement of the Afghan Army commander he is partnering is paying dividends too, as it is this young man who is the primary spokesman for security in local meetings. Not just an Afghan face speaking on behalf of ISAF, but a bright, articulate and professional young Afghan officer who wants the best for his country and is sharing his hopes, his vision, his enthusiasm, with his people.

Nick does not want to talk about the statistics of rounds fired, battles fought and insurgents killed. Whilst I was visiting one of the company Check Points with him a patrol found a massive insurgent weapons cache. But again Nick’s focus was more about the impact this would have on the local population than headline-grabbing figures. His point is the find had to be seen within the broader hope of crop diversification, the new school being built and the local population feeling empowered to deal with insurgent intimidation. Nick, like so many commanders in the Army today, has experienced what it is to fight, and to fight hard, and this, I think, has given him great wisdom in his approach to his present task.

The book of Nick’s experience has been penned in one of the most challenging and complex of environments during his tours of Afghanistan. And though it is in quieter moments, when he sits and sometimes speaks of what has been, that some might say Nick recalls what shapes him, I would state that it is in his appreciation and affirmation of those in his command; it is in his encouragement of others to aim high, to lead, to make a difference; it is in his compassion towards a community that has had little reason to trust for many, many years, that we truly see what has he learned in life and in his service to our nation. And when I watch the news, when I hear of what is happening around the world day to day I am minded to wonder whether perhaps we could all do with looking back a bit more as we make decisions about how we go forward.

This is a little of what Lent is about. It is a time of reflection; of re-reading our own lives and seeking God’s wisdom, mercy, love, hope and promise for what lies ahead, through the lens of the cross and the hope that it brings. For as Tony Campolo puts it, “It may be Friday, but Sunday’s coming!”

Baz

Padre Robin Richardson

Padre Robin Richardson

Padre Robin Richardson, in Afghanistan with 3 PARA, writes about meeting a Para called Baz, visiting the construction of a new community meeting area and seeing the reaction of local children to some small gifts sent by a little girl in the UK.

Less than 2km away the ongoing firefight was furious, but as I sat in the Operations room in this little Check Point (CP), it could have been another country altogether. Peace is getting its chance to break out here because of the security that being fought for just a short distance away. In Helmand these two front lines move together. The security bubble provides the opportunity for the more enduring work of peace building within the community to really take root, and a stronger community in turn supports local security.

I had travelled out from Shahzad that morning with a FET – a Female Engagement Team, two female soldiers, one a fluent Pashtun speaker, who meet with the ladies of the village in a local compound. ‘They were a scream; laughing and joking,’ Steph said when they were back, ‘and quite happy to talk.’ Slowly, gently, carefully as relationships grow between the FET and local ladies, the ups and downs of the village’s life can be seen from this very different angle and a broader understanding of the community we are serving grows. Nothing is imposed, but important voices are heard, and that has to be a good thing.

I had taken a couple of parcels to the CP with me that day, one that had been put together by the daughter of member of 3 PARA and another that had been sent by the members of a Church home group in Gloucestershire. Both were destined for a little school that the lads in the CP had sunk their hearts and souls into getting off the ground with the help of a local elder.

The driving force behind this has been Baz, a tough man, but passionate, and organised, bright, articulate and focussed. Everything in his bed-space in the mud-walled building he calls home is labeled and placed in neat rows; its clinical, ordered, meticulous, but not impersonal. In an alcove, just an eye’s glance from his pillow are photos of his family, especially his son, not quite three, and the apple of his Dad’s eye. As we sat, Baz told me of his nerves at the start of his R and R. ‘I went to pick him up from nursery on the day I got home. What if he’d forgotten me? Anyway, I got there. I saw him. He saw me, and he ran; he ran, he ran right into my arms and he put his head on my shoulder and he hugged me. Then he pulled his head away to tell me something about his day, and then he put his head against me and again and he hugged me.’

As Baz told me, the story every element of him warmed, and yet in almost the next sentence he was saying how well the lads in the CP were doing. He is a man for whom the term vocation is well suited. The most natural of family men and a born leader with it.

An Afghan boy examines a gift from the UK

An Afghan boy examines a gift sent by a little girl in the UK

As we donned our body armour to make our way to the school, Baz grabbed a plan he had drawn up. ‘They’ve started work on this today, Padre.’ We went and looked at the rough bit of ground across the road that was to become a community meeting area. ‘We paid for the materials, but the labour is all voluntary,’ Baz explained as he started discussing the plan with a local elder. The negotiations were far from easy, but with mutual respect and the help of an interpreter, things were moving on.
Then up to the school. Forty children all sitting, listening intently to the teacher and all learning to read and write. Baz asked a lad in the front row if he would open the box sent by the little girl from home. The youngster looked firstly to the teacher and after a nod he opened the box. As he pulled things from within they were handed out and though the children are poor there was no grabbing and they made sure that the youngest of them got the toys first. A small pencil case in the shape of a cow grasped to the chest of frail little boy; and excited waves greeted the bubbles Baz blew them across their heads.

I handed the box of pens and paper, glue, white board markers, crayons, pencils and all sorts of other things from the Church group in Cranham to the teacher who beamed and shook my hand and then it was time to leave. We bid the children and their teacher good bye and walked down the steps to the road. It was there that we met the elder again and as we chatted in the background we could hear the squeals of delight as two little girls played in the water pump. ‘It’s the school Padre. People here are proud; it’s their’s. And they’re going to be proud of their meeting area too. There’s no end to what they can do.’

Peace is breaking out; and yet just a couple of kilometers away it’s security that is the most pressing need. The local authorities with our Battlegroup’s help are working at both, and as I watched Baz and the elder laugh, and plan and smile as kids played in the water I thought to myself, there is hope, there really is.

Tom

Padre Robin Richardson, currently in Afghanistan with 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment (3 PARA) writes about the death of WO2 Colin “Tom” Beckett at the weekend.

Padre Robin Richardson

Padre Robin Richardson

I have been struggling this morning in thinking what to write as we all come to terms with the death of WO2 Colin Beckett. We only ever knew him as Tom, and around the lines now it is only ‘Tom’ of whom we speak. We all have two lives in the Army, that which takes its form in uniform, and the other which lives away from what we are at work. These lines are blurred though, and when I talk with folks in the arena of banter and ops and the difficult tasks that are frequently the soldier’s lot, conversation is often about that other side of who we are. The Parachute Regiment – and 3 PARA especially – will ever remember ‘Tom’ Beckett, and so shall I, for this week I lost a friend. But his memory will live on well beyond the lives of those of us who knew him at work.

It was just a few weeks ago that as I crouched next to Tom by a low building, him watching  his arcs, ever vigilant, keeping danger as far from us as he could, that he spoke in tender terms of his life at home; of all that he hoped for away from the fields of Afghanistan and in the silences that strong men sometimes need, he spoke of the love that could not be framed in terms of words alone. And for just a moment, in a fleeting glance as he adjusted his position next to the wall, Tom’s contented grin betrayed the fullness his heart has known.

On the night that Tom died I flew into his Patrol Base with the Commanding Officer and the Regimental Sergeant Major so that we could spend some time with those who had been with him that morning. Even in rawness of grief there were smiles, because that is what Tom brought with him. And as we sat and chatted in ones and twos I heard from one young lad something I had experienced myself before: “…and Tom pushed out to the west, just a little way, to watch that arc.’ He always did. He always had our backs. He always watched.

Our hearts are all low as we prepare for Tom’s repatriation later on this week, but it is not just  our loss that hurts, but our thoughts and our prayers for Tom’s family and how they are suffering. Though there are no words that can do him  justice or express our feelings and condolences, we can but ask that God may hold his dear ones close through the storm and comfort them in their grief.

Dave and Phil

Padre Robin Richardson, in Afghanistan with 3 PARA, writes about meeting Dave and Phil as they recall a close contact with insurgents and in turn reflects on the shared benefits of talking about experiences.

Padre Robin Richardson

Padre Robin Richardson

At one of our Patrol Bases last week many of the lads were involved in an operation in an area in which we are still facing a high level of resistance. They had been out on the ground for 9 hours when they were contacted by heavy machine gun fire from a tree line just a couple of hundred metres away. 40 kilograms of kit per man and tired after hours on the ground – yet their reactions were as sharp as they always are. They returned fire, got themselves into cover and fought the battle. It was afterwards when everyone was back at the Patrol Base and brews had been drunk that I a sat and chatted with Dave – or Shanky as he is known – and Phil.

Dave joined the Army 17 years ago and is full to the brim with banter and self-confidence. But a couple of months back I saw, in a time of rare transparency, the man that has made Dave such a fine medic and such great company. When an old man brought his grandson into camp, scared of the insurgent repercussions of his doing so, Dave poured such care, attention and compassion on the little lad that the old man that I found it hard to speak. The lad had lost a leg in an insurgent IED explosion a year back and he had an infection in the stump. There was silence in the Medical Centre as the doctor and Dave did what they could for the brave little fellow, even finding him a colouring book. There was just the slightest squeak and a determined grimace when the infected area hurt as they tried to pinpoint the problem. And all the time, the sad, but grateful eyes of the old man looked over his charge as he waited. When the treatment was over I was invited in to meet the couple. When the interpreter explained to the grandfather that I was a Christian religious leader, he smiled, and stood, and held my hand tightly as we shared a moment – inconvenient to those who would divide and hate and judge, but which celebrated the many, many things we held in common in that moment. ‘He says he is glad to meet you and is very grateful for the care your doctor has shown the boy,’ the interpreter said, echoing the quiet, deep, almost lyrical words of the old man. ‘I am honoured to meet you, and this very brave young man,’ was all I could muster in reply. Whilst we were speaking, Dave had found some strong glue and was fixing his young patient’s shoe. His silence throughout, speaking volumes. As the little lad was carried to the gate by Hugh, so strong the little lad was no weight in his arms, Dave took a deep breath, grinned, shrugged his shoulders and in an instant was back to his public self. But I know what I had always suspected and the blokes in the unit have experienced time and time again – Dave is a hugely compassionate man.

As Dave, Phil and I sat on our camp cots, it was Dave who spoke first. ‘ That was just a bit too close.’ He looked at Phil, a sniper and on his third tour of Afghanistan. ‘I could taste the lead,’ Phil replied. A 7.62mm round from the insurgent machine-gun had whistled past his face so close that is had filled his senses. ‘Too, too close.’ There was the grin that excitement brings on Phil’s face, but behind it was the story of a man who had known close before. He reached for the chain around his neck. On it two items hung, one a St Christopher, the second a misshapen round. ‘That’s the one that got me in the plate in 2006, Padre. Too close, not that much fun.’ We talked about the whole of the patrol, from me standing on the HLS with them in the middle of the night to see them off, to the various tasks they had completed during the day, to the contact itself and then to this time of pulling it together, of remembering, reflecting, reviewing. It helped everyone involved to process what they had been through in the context of the whole day, the wider tour, and even their life and career in the Army.

I have seen too often people’s lives held captive by a single event. It can be that a few minutes, or seconds even, can be the reference point from which they view themselves and the world, far beyond the reach you might expect. Talking about it seems to help though; friends and colleagues can bring a greater, wider perspective to something that otherwise could become all-encompassing. Sometimes the talk can turn to God and faith and purpose, but often it doesn’t, but the process is cathartic and always worthwhile. It is a funny thing, but in a world that seems so enthusiastic about the gossip of ‘he said this’ and ‘she said that’ and of the cringing details of celebrities’ lives, I wonder whether what we could really do with is talking a little bit more about our own experiences; how we have seen things that affect us; how perhaps our perspective is not the only one; how we feel as a result. It is the essential process of knowing and being known, of relationship, of feeling what we do and who we are is valued; which is, of course also at the heart of a living, active faith.

Phil and Dave did not dwell on the events of the day and we certainly didn’t get all analytical about things, but we shared some time and some laughs and a few excitements and in doing so much more than the sum of the words. And then it was to doss bags and some well-earned kip, because for these lads, it would be the same again tomorrow.

“They don’t come better than her, they just don’t”

Padre Robin Richardson, currently in Afghanistan attached to 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment (3 PARA) blogs once more. Since his last post he’s been back to the UK on R&R, but took time to visit injured soldiers, in hospital in Birmingham and undergoing rehabilitation at Headley Court.

Padre Robin Richardson

Padre Robin Richardson

I’ve not written for a little while now, and that’s because I’ve been on R&R. That’s the two-week break we all get during the tour to get home and recharge the batteries a bit so that we can maintain the tempo that modern operations require. In Afghanistan we don’t get ‘days off’ and with things happening 24 hours of the day, and some people sleeping whilst others are on duty and the like, our perception of time, and what would constitute a ‘normal’ working day can get somewhat skewed. And so a couple of weeks of civilian clothing, of flushing indoor toilets, carpet, proper plates, the car and the family really do make the world of difference.

I don’t know about others who are serving, but I didn’t really switch off during R&R. My friends, colleagues, those with whom I had shared all of life for the last three months were still in Helmand and so was part of me. Something that was brought home to me in stark terms when I visited our injured lads in hospital in Birmingham. You will, I am sure, understand why I shall not use their names here, but those of you who know J and P will know of whom I speak.

Our welfare team back in Colchester work terrifically hard with Gary, one of the most energetic and committed men you could want to meet, traveling up to the hospital sometimes three or four times a week to make sure that every one of the injured lads’ needs, and those of their families are met. He gave me lift there and on the way brought me up to date with myriad events, issues and happenings that the rest of the welfare team, under the watchful eye of Zac, had been up to. They do so much, and I could barely begin to scratch the surface in a single entry but needless to say, there was much to catch up on during our trip.

When we arrived Gary took me straight to the ward. One of lads who had been admitted just that morning – injured since I had left Afghanistan – was being operated on whilst we were there. I didn’t get the chance to see him. And one of our most seriously injured guys was now at the rehabilitation centre at Headley Court having made swifter progress than anyone could have imagined. But that is hardly surprising when you meet any of these brave young souls who will throw themselves energetically at whatever the new challenge is.

The last time I saw J he was on a stretcher being rushed to a helicopter, having just been badly injured. His mates had gathered about, some carrying, others shielding J from the flying debris from the helicopter , yet others somehow finding the words to keep J awake and focused, and yet all of them giving the young medic, Lydia, space to keep working. Once J had been handed over to the medical team on the helicopter the group slowly, silently made their way back to the compound. “How goes it Lydia?” I ventured to ask. “Sound Padre, fine, we did our best for him.” Lydia, slight and dwarfed by most of the members of 3 PARA has treated almost every casualty our unit has suffered, as well as the civilians who were attacked by an insurgent gang a few weeks before. Every time she has done so with an understated professionalism that has earned her the respect of all. Barely able to get the words out as Lydia walked back into the med tent, one of lads summed up everyone’s thoughts just then: “They don’t come better than her, they just don’t.” The group dispersed to deal with what had happened to J as they needed to; they would talk about it together, later in a process of sharing called TRiM (Trauma Risk Management), but not just yet. I found a corner, I prayed and though my words were far from eloquent, I knew I was heard, because God’s good like that.

J was sitting up in bed, his girlfriend next to him holding his hand, and he was smiling. “Hello Padre, how are you?” “Better now I’ve seen you.” And it was true; I had somehow needed to, see him back in the UK and to, in my my own mind, hand him back to his own family; let go I suppose. I don’t know whether it was just the air conditioning, or something much deeper, but I rubbed my eyes and blinked away whatever was surfacing. ‘ It’s the air-con’ I said, but I doubt they believed me!

“More importantly, how are you?” I asked. “I think I’m going to get gripped about my hair this week, but other than that, getting better; so pretty good, thanks.” From that point on banter and time-frames for getting to Headley Court, and for getting better and the future and loads of other stuff filled the conversation until we had said all we needed to, and it was time for me to say farewell and to catch up with P.

He wasn’t in the ward because it is often the case that as soon as any of the injured lads are able to get themselves about, they do. If they need a wheelchair, they’ll get one, and if there is somewhere they can go and explore, they will; oftentimes the smoking area. But P had been down to get a posh coffee with his parents who were visiting and it took a while to find him. When I did, he was laughing and smiling and keeping everyone amused with the opportunities that he could grasp with a prosthetic limb. “London 2012 I reckon Padre!” was almost the first thing he said. Was he making light of his condition? Yes he was, and will there be times when the reality of his situation will get him down in ways I cannot understand. Yes; but for now he was refusing to feel sorry for himself and was looking forward with as much energy and hope he could. The last time we had seen each other was watching BFBS TV in a mud walled room in his PB, and now here we were surrounded by his family and getting to grips with a different reality. “We’ll have a different kind of chat when I get back from Afghan,” I said, “Yeah, that would be good Padre, and I’ll make things sound as exciting as I can” came the answer with a wry smile. We both knew there would be more to say when the time was right, but for now, a little lightness was enough. Aside with his parents I could see the fuller narrative being played out across both the relief and the pain they were experiencing for their son; but they will get through this; and so will P and so will J and so will the other lads who are engaged in a new battle now; and there will be tears, and frustrations and all sorts of other things along the way but they have the spirit and the determination to do absolutely the best they can in the situations they find themselves in and they will continue to astonish people all along the way.

And as for me, I am now back in Afghanistan. R&R seems a long way away now and as it is 5 o’clock it is time for me to turn to prayer. For the injured, the bereaved and those whose wounds lie deeper; for the Afghan people, their security forces and government. For the scared, the oppressed, the voiceless, and all those who have suffered in this conflict. For hope and solutions and education and possibilities; local initiatives, inspirational and gifted leaders and enough optimism to believe that ‘possible’ is ‘reachable’. For grace and kindness, understanding and a willingness to listen; for forgiveness and hope, compassion and humility. and faith. And for my family, and mischief, and changing the words to songs so they make us laugh; and for being listened to and held beyond words, because God’s good like that.

Rob

Padre Robin Richardson writes from Afghanistan about meeting Rob, a Parachute Regiment Physical Training Instructor.

Padre Robin Richardson

Padre Robin Richardson

Rob is a quiet man, but wherever he is, things happen. He is practical in ways I know I shall never be, with an eye for detail that means everything he puts has hand to is done well. Rob is also one of 3 Parachute Regiment Physical Training Instructors (PTIs) and so daily ‘phys’ is an important part of his routine. Now, I’m sure that many of you will have an idea of what a Parachute Regiment PTI is like and how he would get the best out of people, and many would be wrong. Rob’s quiet, encouraging nature and his desire to see everyone improve their fitness, strength and endurance means that he skilfully differentiates within what he demands of a group so that all get pushed hard enough to improve, but not so hard as they get injured.

Rob is also keen to keep alive the old form of PARA fitness, long distances, high speed and battle ready at the other end. For his own fitness regime here at Shahzad he has therefore marked himself out a mile-long route that he runs in body armour and carrying a general purpose machine gun (GPMG) every day. He has also decided that he would like to up his challenge by running a marathon in this kit around the uneven and dusty track that he’s been using. That Rob is also 39 years old is also no mean feat, as years as a PARA take quite a toll on the body. Rob sums up in many ways much of what is astonishing about the fitness and determination of paratroopers. Many units have a good number of exceptionally fit individuals serving within them, it just seems within the Parachute Regiment it is almost everyone and for a lesser mortal like me it makes it quite a challenging environment in which to work – but massive fun!

Rob is planning to do the run in February, after he has had been on his R&R and enjoyed some time at home with Jenny and he wants it to raise money for the Afghan Trust and for the NSPCC. It would be great, therefore if any of you read this blog, to make a donation to either of those organisations, and as you do so think of Rob and of all the other members of the Battlegroup and beyond who day in and day out are pushing themselves in amazing ways as they do their best to support the Afghan people, government, army and police.

But also, please think of and pray for all the local people we are getting to know and who we are trying to help whose lives are so tough and for years have been so downtrodden. Attendance at shuras is going up all the time as many of those who had been previously intimidated by insurgents feel confident enough to come and have their voices heard at the meetings. More and more boys and girls are getting to go to school as their parents feel it is safe for them to do so and local medical centres are getting built and supplied with staff and equipment. And all this work is being driven by the local political leaders with whom we are working and that has to be good news for those whom we are serving.

I hope that Rob’s effort in his upcoming marathon in body armour and with a GPMG will make a difference to the lives of people he will never meet through the money he raises, and similarly, it is my hope that the wider efforts of the Battlegroup will make a massive difference to the lives of those whose voices are now not only being heard, but which are also bringing change.