The adventures of a Unit Press Officer on tour

Lieutenant James Wakeham, Press Officer of the 4th Regiment, Royal Artillery (4 Regt RA) looks back at Operation HERRICK 12.

Lieutenant James Wakeham

Lieutenant James Wakeham

Recently, as I sat in an Afghan compound eating sun-warmed Baxter’s Tomato Soup (and in 50 degree heat that is more than adequate!) with small arms fire snapping in the air overhead, I couldn’t help but think back to the strange road that had led to this current situation.

When late last year I was chosen from a cast of literally… well, one – to take up the post of Unit Press Officer for the 4 Regt RA deployment to Afghanistan, my reaction was one of devastation. I had joined the Army to ‘soldier’ and now I was condemned to fighting the war from an office – cue  the world’s smallest violins, playing the world’s saddest songs just for me.

Leaving the Adjutant’s office with slumped shoulders and watery eyes (figuratively speaking of course!), I spent a short while feeling sorry for myself before realising that at least I would still be going on ops, and secondly this job looked like it presented some serious opportunities ‘to cut one’s own detail’; a thought that cheered me greatly.

With this in mind I booked and completed the necessary media-related courses and set about forming a media action plan for the Regiment. It was quickly apparent that having a CO who had previous Influence experience, coupled with a great opportunity to build on the Regiment’s corporate image, provided ample opportunities for subaltern graft and creativity.

A short course at Blandford later and it was time to completely rebuild the Regimental ArmyNET website. The great thing about starting from scratch is that you can make it look exactly how you want it to. The bad part is that this is by no measure a small undertaking. However, after a couple of weeks spent in the Learning Centre, who kindly donated considerable internet access to ‘The War Effort’, we had a website that was none too shoddy, in fact you could even say it was good.

Next on the list prior to deployment was the creation of a Facebook group that we could also utilise to pass back pictures and updates to friends and family back home. One of our Regimental veterans had already started a suitable group, which has now been adopted by the Regiment as the official method to get our updates back home for the period of the tour. With over 1600 members, “4 Regt RA – A safe tour of Afghanistan” is very active and a great tool to help reduce the separation between home and our deployed soldiers.

On top of this we also revamped our pages on the Army website to reflect the current Regiment. In addition, the Wikipedia entry for 4 Regt RA has received some loving attention. With the ‘new media’ element to 4th Regiment being a continuous ongoing project, it was time in theatre for the attention to be turned to gathering ‘stories from the boys’.

This was where my job became pretty fun. ‘Mission critical’ visits were organised to MOBs and FOBs throughout theatre to gather information for various projects. To date we have produced around seventy ‘home town stories’ on various members of the Regiment and attached personal, of which a significant number have been published. The Batterys are providing photos, updates and articles which are edited, cleared and distributed for maximum coverage.

Product placement for the Gunners has been shameless, with attempts to get a Gunner flash or a cap badge in the press wherever possible, one of the most famous so far being the picture of LBdr Casson with the Prime Minister that is constantly in the news. Good work Bombardier!

In addition to this, as a media asset, I have been tasked by the media cell to conduct various hosting duties, which dutifully brings me back to sitting in a compound and eating soup whilst being shot at. In this instance it is Operation OMID DO, the first Afghan National Army-planned and led operation. The 2 day operation gave me a real insight into what our guys ‘on the ground’ are facing and it was a privilege to be allowed to help get their achievements back to the folks at home.

The media department comes second in the order of topics discussed at the Commander’s brief every evening, a clear demonstration by the Commander of the importance he places on public opinion and how what we’re doing is being reported back home. Whilst public support for our troops is high, their views on the mission are less clear cut. It’s up to us to help provide the media with as much info to rally support as possible, especially when the price paid is so high.

So far, what has been thrown at me has been both exciting and interesting and I am glad to say that this job has turned out to be one of the more varied and exciting jobs available to the subalterns of 4 Regt RA on this tour.

Cycling from Lashkar Gah to Topcliffe – on tour

Lieutenant James Wakeham, Press Officer for 4th Regiment Royal Artillery (4 Regt RA), writes about the soldiers’ unusual exercise regime.

94 Battery has done one month in Afghanistan now, and is split into two distinct groups.

The beautiful flower garden in Laskar Gah camp

The beautiful flower garden in Laskar Gah camp

The Command Troop is working in the headquarters of Task Force Helmand in Lashkar Gah.

They make decisions about what the artillery does, planning for future operations. They also act as a ‘sounding board’ for ideas produced by the planning teams. Alongside the long hours being put into ‘day jobs’, Command Troop is also heavily involved in camp security, manning the sangars or watchtowers, and controlling access to the main gate when on guard.

The view from one of the watchtowers

The view from one of the watchtowers

We watch the people going about their daily lives.

We watch the people going about their daily lives.

Despite this, most of the troop have found time for both ‘Op MASSIVE’ and ‘Op BRONZE’ – otherwise known as getting fit and getting brown.

There is a new charity initiative involving members of the Battery covering the distance between Lashkar Gah and Topcliffe by treadmill, static bike, cross trainer or rowing machine. Most of the Battery are avoiding the rowing machine and have opted to clock up the miles on the bike or the treadmill, apart from one guy that is who appears determined to row the entire distance on his own.

The other half of the Battery is in the Quartermasters’ department at Camp Bastion. The Padre and the Regimental Sergeant Major also work out of Camp Bastion, but they spend the majority of their time visiting the members of the Regiment who are scattered around the Province.

Seeing Sangin after a rollercoaster helicopter ride

Lieutenant James Wakeham, Press Officer for 4th Regiment Royal Artillery (4 Regt RA) recounts his first trip to Sangin.

After a short helicopter ride from Camp Bastion our stomachs churned as the pilot dropped at breakneck speed into the Sangin Valley and FOB Jackson.

All of the Gunners there are in high spirits and have settled into their routine well. The welfare facilities are excellent, with access to phones, internet and a well-established television room with BFBS, DVDs and computer games. The accommodation is also pretty good, and everyone has a cot bed and their own personal space. The food in camp is fairly basic, with a mixture of both rations and fresh food, but there is more than enough to go around.

There is a river which runs through the camp, where the guys and girls can have a refreshing dip when the afternoon heat is really at its peak (duty depending of course).  It is a particular favourite for troops that have just got back from a foot patrol and wish to cool off. A great source of morale!

Lieutenant Matt Goudin wading in the Green Zone

Lieutenant Matt Goudin wading in the Green Zone

There are a large number of both Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police that work in the area, which is good to see, as it shows how real progress on the ground is being made by the local forces that are being recruited to take control of their own country. Added to this is the ‘Avenue of Hope’ which has been built by the locals as part of an ISAF initiative, providing a school, hospital, government buildings and the home of the District Governor. The bazaar in town is also growing all of the time as Sangin starts to recover from years of conflict.

Just before leaving we called in on Gunner Jonathon Brown who is based in one of the small patrol bases in Sangin with 40 Commando. He is there as the only Gunner but ever cheerful, a testament to the spirit of the ‘North East Gunners’.

Heat and dust: An Afghan baptism

Lieutenant James Wakeham, Press Officer for 4th Regiment Royal Artillery (4 Regt RA) describes his first impressions of Afghanistan.

Welcome to the first update from the ‘North East Gunners’ on Operation HERRICK 12. With all of the deploying troops now in Afghanistan we have gone through the RSOI package, standing for Reception, Staging and Onward Integration, which is essentially the last part of training before deploying onto the ground.

Eating dust during RSOI training

Eating dust during RSOI training

Taking between four and eight days, depending on each person’s role, it covers essential skills such as ensuring the sights on our weapons are set correctly, defence of a Forward Operating Base, and ensuring all troops are acclimatised properly. This is hugely important as temperatures are already hitting 35 degrees in the shade and it is set to get hotter. Part of acclimatisation is getting used to carrying weight, and so we marched to the ranges wearing body armour. This made it clear how important fitness will be in this environment as the Osprey body armour and attached essential kit is very heavy. It was also an experience to see the afternoon dust storms in Camp Bastion, and that gave us a real insight to how tough an environment this country will be to work in.

Along with the main range-based lessons there were also several briefs covering life in Afghanistan.

Camp Bastion is an impressive place, both for those new to it and even some returning troops. It seems to extend forever in every direction. It has grown since the last time 4th Regiment was here and now has excellent facilities with a coffee shop, NAAFI, phones, internet and even a Pizza Hut and Indian takeaway! The tents in the temporary accommodation were fairly full with every soldier new in theatre staying there, but they were air-conditioned and everybody found a bed.

From Bastion, the batteries have deployed throughout Helmand attached to the separate Combined Forces. They will be providing essential artillery support to Afghan and Coalition forces in different areas of Helmand. We are now looking forward to getting on with the jobs that we have trained for, and putting everything we have learnt into practice. There are, of course, some nerves and anxiety but these are overridden by an eagerness to succeed and perform well. Wish us luck!