Lieutenant Claire Jackson is team leader for the British Army’s combat camera team for Herrick 19. She works alongside Sgt Dan Bardsley (photographer) and Sgt Paul Shaw (video cameraman). They are based in Afghanistan and will be covering the work of the Armed forces, in particular 7th Armoured Brigade – the Desert Rats, throughout the winter. They capture moving and still imagery from events out on the ground that national broadcasters don’t have access to.
I feel very privileged
It seems like only yesterday when I was packing my bags, trying to force a kit list as long as my arm into two military bags, saying goodbye to friends and family, and boarding a plane laden with body armour and helmet with mixed feelings about the next six months. They were mainly feelings of excitement, nervousness and slight panic. What had I done? I had given up a perfectly good job and left my boyfriend (now fiancée) and creature comforts to go and live in the desert in a tent working alongside different ranks from all three services, entering into a whole new world. So six months on….was it what I had expected?
I guess the military side of things in terms of day to day living was pretty much what I had imagined. I got used to not wearing make up and jewellery quite easily and not having to choose what to wear each day was one thing less to worry about each morning. I soon made myself at home in my little ‘pod’ (corner of the tent that we sleep in) – it was actually very cosy and had a feminine touch to it. It’s amazing what you can do with a few fairy lights and a bit of tinsel in terms of livening up a living area.
The job itself – Officer Commanding of the Combat Camera Team (OC CCT) has been a real challenge but then that’s what I wanted when I signed up for this tour. I wanted to play my part with the troops, I wanted to see a new country and experience other cultures, but mostly I wanted to put all my training into practice to prove that I had earned the right to an Officer commission.
The biggest challenge I‘ve found being a reservist and having only been in a few years, was the military jargon that is used on a daily basis – the number of different acronyms, unit names, and regiments, flashes (badges) and their roles within the battlegroup that everyone seems to know off by heart. By working on a number of stories with the CCT each week though gave me the opportunity to start remembering a vast majority of them through meeting people in different roles across the whole of Op HERRICK from Camp Bastion to Kabul, Khandahar and Lashkar Gah. This has given me a real insight into the day to day running of operations and how everyone plays a part no matter how large or small. From the soldiers who provide force protection on the perimeter fence to the ATLOs (Air Transport Liaison Officer) who check in the passengers and their baggage at the flight line, to the engineers who are helping with the base closures, to the officers who are providing education to the troops in their downtime. Everyone has a part to play and I feel very privileged to have been given an insight into this operational world.
Key highlights and memories
The first thing that strikes you as you arrive in Camp Bastion is the dust. No matter what time of year it is, there is always a certain level of dust. For the first few months when we got out here most people avoided running in the day, preferring to stick to the early morning runs before the traffic around the camp starts to build up.
Then in complete contrast to the heat and dust that consumes Helmand Province for most of the year, the temperature drops a fair bit in the winter. In preparation I had packed my cold weather gear and have made full use of it, especially when we got caught off guard with several inches of snow a few weeks ago. Not once did I think I would be building a snowman on my tour!
Covering VVIP events has been a key part of our role, but I must admit I didn’t think we would get the chance to work with so many. Our tour started off with Teresa May, Home Secretary, followed by HRH Duke of York who came out for Remembrance, then the very memorable ITV production which saw Gary Barlow ‘singing to the troops’.
The tour continued on with a visit from the Prime Minister, David Cameron who came out with the England football player, Michael Owen to announce a bid to launch a new UK-Afghan football partnership to boost the sport by developing the existing league system. There was also a visit from the lovely welsh opera singer, Katherine Jenkins who flew out to Camp Bastion to make a last appearance to the troops before they leave Afghanistan. A very petite and stunning lady with such an incredible and powerful voice.
Turkey, stuffing, crackers and party hats
I must admit I wasn’t looking forward to spending Christmas in Afghanistan, but one thing for sure is that it will definitely be one to remember. The day started off with a fancy dress half marathon around Camp Bastion and Leatherneck which was great fun and a bit different from the usual Christmas morning stroll across Dartmoor. Then back to the office to upload imagery to the various broadcasters before heading off to interview the troops enjoying their Christmas lunches in the canteen which was the full works (but sadly still served on paper plates) – Turkey, stuffing, crackers and party hats, and non alcoholic fizz! Then finally time for our Christmas dinner before one final bout of work uploading the last few bits of footage and imagery back to the UK in time for the morning broadcasts. And all our hard work paid off with mentions in most of the big national papers, Sky News, BBC and ITV.
In terms of places and people who have left a lasting impression with me, at the top of the list has to be the Afghans themselves followed by the capital city, Kabul where we spent a week filming them for an internal video for the Afghan National Army Officer Academy (ANAOA).
Our first encounter with any Afghans was at Shorabak when we saw them proudly marching across the parade square at the opening ceremony for their new battle school (RCBS).
We then spent some more time later on during the tour at Shorabak with the Brigade Advisory Team (BAT) who were training the ANA on their weapon systems. On all occasions they have struck me as being very receptive and wanting to learn. They have come on in leaps and bounds and are improving every day now that they have been given the opportunity to take the lead on operations with the ISAF troops in a mentoring and liaison role.
Another highlight has been the encounters we have had with local Afghans. The locals generally tend to be very friendly and curious and love having their photos taken. We take it for granted that we can capture photos so easily but for some of them they have never even seen a photograph of themselves or a camera.
A new found confidence
I will be taking back many memories from this tour, with plenty of ‘war’ type stories to tell the kids in years to come. I can’t believe it was only a few years ago that I passed through Sandhurst and talked amongst the other newly commissioned officers about going on operations at some point. I honestly didn’t think I would have the opportunity to get onto Op HERRICK but here I am having successfully completed a six-month tour in Afghanistan.
By the time you read this blog I will hopefully be back in the UK starting my leave. With a well earned holiday in Mexico lined up, followed by some time with the folks in Devon and some wedding planning, and not forgetting some job hunting at some point I think my leave will go fairly quickly. I’m not sure what the next chapter will be, nor where this tour is going to take me, but I know for sure that it has filled me with a new-found confidence that will hopefully stand me in good stead…