Trooper Sam Lowe (RDG) arrives in Afghanistan

Trooper Sam Lowe

Trooper Sam Lowe

The Royal Dragoon Guards have deployed to Afghanistan as the Police Mentoring and Advisory Group and are also responsible for Mobility Protection, with soldiers working in the Warthog Group. In the second of the Royal Dragoon Guards’ Blogs, Trooper Sam Lowe describes how he has found his first few weeks in Afghanistan. Sam, from Rotherham, is 22 years old. He is working in a Tac Team and this is his first tour.

Go go go…

On our arrival into CampBastion in the early hours of a Tuesday it was all go go go, straight into day one of the Reception, Staging and Onward Integration (RSOI) package. This is the final bit of training that we all do before the tour can properly get started. Day One was a load of briefs that told us all about what we needed to know for our time in CampBastion. Most of the Regiment got a ‘day zero’ to recover after their flights but because the flight was late, we were all pretty tired and so it was a very long day. The remainder of the week involved everything from marching in body armour (to get us used to working in the hot conditions) to stands about Health and Hygiene. Day Four even includes information on the life expectancy of fruit and veg in our Patrol Bases (PBs)! I thought that day 3 was the best day of RSOI because the staff taught us the most up to date life saving techniques and it gave me more confidence in being able to carry out my drills correctly.

Our new home!

At the end of RSOI, most of the lads flew out to their new bases, but not for two lucky people (Cpl Bob Littlefair and me) who had to conduct even more specialist training. But we eventually finished our training, had some time to get our kit squared away, and got on the flight to MOB Lashkar Gah… our new home!

Departure for Afghanistan

Soldiers from the Royal Dragoon Guards wait for the first of several flights taking them to Camp Bastion

A real eye opener

On Patrol in Lashkar Gah

On Patrol in Lashkar Gah

On landing in the base, we were greeted by some of the lads who came out on the earlier flight, and we were able to start the take-over from the Welsh Guards. The Royal Dragoon Guards lads have loads of different roles out in Afghanistan, but I’m one of the ones responsible for driving and patrolling everyone to the locations they then need to get to. The first time on the ground for me was a real eye opener, speaking with the local Afghans and starting up a new working relationship with the Afghan National Police (ANP). It was pretty daunting seeing how busy the area is, but you soon become more used of what’s normal and the way people act around you. Having been out a few times now, I now feel comfortable carrying out my job professionally and have belief in myself.

Going out in the vehicles, is not as daunting as doing the foot patrols, because you have the added protection of all the armour. Vehicle patrols also mean you get to see more of the Afghanistan countryside. It’s not much like our home in Catterick but at least there’s a lot to look at. I’ve had a really varied start to the tour and have visited most areas to protect lots of different shuras, as well as taking some long vehicle patrols. I’m really enjoying myself and I’m looking forward to seeing what the rest of our tour holds for me and the lads.

Trooper Sam Lowe; Photographer: Lt Crean
Soldiers from the RDG wait for the first of several flights; Photographer Lt Crean
On Patrol in Lashkar Gah; Photographer: Sgt Elliott
All material is Crown Copy Right

Afghanistan… preparing to deploy

Lieutenant Tom Shorland-Ball, Second-in-Command of B Squadron, Royal Dragoon Guards (RDG), is preparing to deploy to Afghanistan on operation HERRICK 17. The Royal Dragoon Guards will have two, quite separate roles during their tour. One Squadron will be working as the Warthog Group (a brigade-level asset) with the remainder working alongside Afghan police forces as part of the Police Mentoring Advisory Group (PMAG). Over the course of this tour, soldiers and officers will be describing their varied experiences in this blog.

Here, Lt Tom Shorland-Ball describes the build-up to deployment.

Afghanistan… here we go! As I’ve watched Alma Lines slowly emptying over the last month or so, the anticipation of what is coming has been mounting, not only amongst my call sign, but the whole of B (The Black Horse) Squadron and indeed the Royal Dragoon Guards. Needless to say, we have been hearing back from the troops who have deployed early, but nothing will match one’s own boots hitting the desert. For some, myself included, this is a first tour and so anxious excitement has been mounting throughout the whole of the Mission Specific Training (MST) package which has run from January but for the old hands, who have the legacy of Op HERRICK 12 and one or even two Op TELICs before that, it is the familiar rotation of preparation, reassurance to the tour first timers, and goodbyes.

A Squadron, Royal Dragoon Guards, carry out casualty evacuation training during the final exercise..

A Squadron, Royal Dragoon Guards, carry out casualty evacuation training during the final exercise.

Morale is good – I never thought I would see the day where I listened to young soldiers with wives and families tell me that they just wanted to go, but then I suppose the sooner you leave, the sooner you get back. I joined the Regiment in September 2010, at the beginning of Hybrid Foundation Training, having finished at Sandhurst the previous month and so I have been fortunate to have been put through the full two year training rotation, which includes nine long months of MST.

One of my soldiers arrived from basic training last week, yet he too will soon be qualified to deploy and will be doing so with myself and the main body. MST, the long tailed beast that it is, has entailed everything from exercises in Thetford and Salisbury plain to obtaining too numerous to count weapon and vehicle qualifications and driving around the countryside of North Yorkshire on patrol with the NYPD (North Yorkshire Police Department!).

Families and friends get up close and personal with a Challenger II main battle tank on the Dettingen weekend in June.

Families and friends get up close and personal with a Challenger II main battle tank on the Dettingen weekend in June.

Basic survival in Afghanistan

One of the memorable occasions that sticks in my mind during this training was the celebration at Families Day on the Dettingen weekend in June. Not only was this a chance to celebrate the British-German allied victory against France in 1743, in which our antecedent regiments were instrumental, but it was also an opportunity for families of members of the Regiment to gather in a casual environment and enjoy themselves on the various stands, looking at vehicles, weapons and enjoying a few drinks, games and rides. It was a rare opportunity to meet the soldiers’ families and friends, and was as important to me as any of the MST exercises, as it put into context all of the soldiers that I have the pleasure of working with on a daily basis.

These training events have given us the chance not only to hone the necessary skills and drills for basic survival in Afghanistan, but allow one to build relationships with the other units which will be on the ground with us. As a Police Advisory Team (PAT) you are required to visit multiple Afghan police checkpoints daily and spend a lot of time moving from one to the next, and it is only with a good relationship with the other troops on the ground that this can safely be achieved. I can confidently say that I am looking forward to working closely with 40 Commando Royal Marines and Delhi Company, 1 Royal Gurkha Rifles.

Finally, am I nervous? Naturally the answer is ‘yes’, but this is heavily outweighed by the fact that I am about to deploy on a trip that I have been wanting to go on ever since I started craving to wear green in about 2000. I am excited and I feel ready. I am sure it will be good. Let’s just see.

A shopping trip to Camp Bastion

Trooper Jonny Ritchie gets back to a few home comforts in Afghanistan.

After finishing our duty on QRF in PB2 it was back to the lavish surroundings (OK, lavish is over-selling it, but it has better conditions than PB2) of Camp Price. The next day we had a run to Bastion with equipment and men.  The troop leader hasn’t been with us this week as he is with another group of Mastiffs, so Corporal Stead has taken charge. My new commander is Lance Corporal Lawton with Trooper Patterson gunning.

My new commander, Lance Corporal Lawton

My new commander, Lance Corporal Lawton

The atmosphere in our wagon has been electric. Indeed, having myself (Northern Irish), Patterson (Geordie) and Lawton (Yorkshire) the banter is unstoppable and there’s been many a debate on board about accents and which one is more attractive to the opposite sex!  I know it’s mine, so no worries there!

I digress.

Getting to Bastion this week has allowed the lads to cash cheques, buy treats and even enjoy a trip to the American PX (shop) to stock up on my personal obsession, which is beef jerky.

I’ve finally admitted to my new commander that his Mario Kart timings on my Nintendo DS are unbeatable, much to his amusement!  Of course, being a very understanding fella he hasn’t rubbed it in my face at all (I’ll never hear the end of it) but if it was the other way around I’d do the same!  As we look to the end of this week we are still waiting to find out what next week’s assignment will be.

Until then that’s all for now.

Hotting up in Kandahar

Captain Jeremy Hahn, an armoured vehicle   commander with the Royal Dragoon Guards, is based in Kandahar for Operation HERRICK 12. Here he writes about pre-election violence in Kandahar and the comfort of missives from home.

With all the grim predictability that the White Star Line employees must have felt regarding the jewel in their nautical crown about one hundred years ago, as that ever-so-tedious iceberg hoved into view, knowing the ship didn’t quite have the turning circle of a polo pony, it is my duty to report that the situation has got worse in Kandahar.

Having callously crowed that the amount of violence was reducing and that the true enemy of soldiers deployed on operations is  boredom, it was perhaps inevitable that the last couple of weeks have been anything but.

We just had our busiest stretch of the tour and this is only going to increase as the orchestra in Kandahar plays out. The fact that we have been well utilised is good. It helps the time go more quickly, and I think there is not a young man (or woman) deployed here who does not keenly desire to be involved and ‘doing their bit’.

The sad fact is that the last few days have been brutal in the province. There has been another spate of members of the Afghan National Police being executed off duty, and the amount of Improvised Explosive Device incidents has risen. I am not entirely sure what the catalyst for this is, although one credible school of thought is that with the elections just a fortnight away this may be a desperate attempt to destabilise the region, and the country, in order to drive a wedge between the population and the agencies of governance. I do so hope the population are not negatively swayed.

One of the most unpleasant actions of last weekend was a multiple murder. A female politician, who is running for re-election, had a large number of her office and support staff murdered by insurgents. She is still running for office, and I admire her.  That there are people who can be so cruel and myopic, based on gender discrimination, is choking. This comes after another female politician was murdered in April in Baghlan. It is a stark reminder of the differences between our two countries, and the difficulties some people are having to endure in order to make a difference.

Genuine surprises are few and far between out here. The policeman with a speed camera hiding on the Woodstock Road last year and the time I was told I was cast as Titania (Queen of the fairies) in the school production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ when I was 14 (my voice hadn’t broken, so I started on the Marlboro Reds immediately and was soon reading the much more macho role of Bottom), being two examples. I was taken aback last week when it was brought to my attention that this bilge that I pass-off as a column and blog, due to the InterWeb, has been read by many thousands, and the responses were touching.  A big thank you to all of you who sent me birthday wishes and kind thoughts, and to those that made suggestions for the SOUPs  (Single Officer Unnecessary Purchases) and anyone who has taken the time to comment. At the risk of gushing like an under-water BP oil well, it means a great deal that people in the UK take such a positive interest in this soldier’s welfare. Thank you again.

As the temperature slowly starts to drop, and we approach the season ‘o’ mists and mellow fruitfulness’ the wildlife concern turns in the direction of the mosquito. Whilst these airborne disease-bearers of the insect world must exist for some higher purpose, I am entirely ignorant of what that may be. The worry is that if they are going to appear on the same size scale as the local ant community, it will be akin to being bitten by an albatross with teeth. I feel that a phalanx of windmills may be a more appropriate defence than netting.

Celebrating my birthday in Afghanistan!

Captain Jeremy Hann writes about birthday celebrations, or the lack of them, in war-torn Afghanistan.

It was thirty three summers ago that ‘The Minstrel’ underneath Mr Piggott won the Derby; that Elvis left the building and that I arrived in the world to much celebration and ward-wide plaudits (except from my darling mother who complained to the Doctor that ‘he cannot be mine, he is far too ugly”).

Today is my birthday, and to the best of my knowledge it is the first time I have celebrated by a good day’s work.

The usual modus operandi of having champagne poured into myself and forgetting to say when, and generally over indulging, was replaced by an ice-cream and a ungentlemanly amount of sweating.

Amongst many kind emails that I have received, the one from an old friend in Brighton hoping ‘that you get totally messed-up’ was surely the strangest to send to someone in a war zone. I get the sentiment Toby, but I am glad the day is drawing to a close without the aforementioned eventuality becoming a literal reality…..

Someone with a much greater gift for memorable writing than I said that being on an operational tour is 99% boredom, punctuated by 1% extreme violence. It is to the boredom that I wish to turn. Guarding against the complacency that inevitably accompanies the repetition of the daily grind is one of the hardest tasks of remaining professional whilst on operations. It can be difficult to keep morale high whilst staring into the abyss of monotony, and how one occupies oneself outside of the patrols and other bits that make up the daily workload, defines how one deals with the unglamourous side of being away.

This is doubly hard when returning from mid-tour leave. Going from summer in England to Afghanistan is like going to bed with Marilyn Monroe and waking up with Susan Boyle.  On the whole it has been a very quiet week in Kandahar, which has meant time has dragged for us, but we should be thankful that the operation is now starting to yield a positive outcome for the people of this city.

Over the course of an operational tour, unless one has an online auction addiction, a sizeable sum can be squirreled away. This is where SOUPs (Single Officer Unnecessary Purchases) start to grab the imagination. These can run the gamut of extremes from a Malacca cane with rapier inside, to 1960s sports cars, a monocle to an ivory-handled riding crop. The key is they must be entirely unnecessary. Suggestions are most welcome and shall be passed on to the wider Royal Dragoon Guards Officer community. The most original or best idea will be presented with a baboon skull penholder; no writing bureau can ever be called complete without one.

Wildlife update….. The gargantuan ants are conspicuous by their absence and the goats are still merrily going about their daily graze, although I can’t imagine that the sand is particularly delicious or nutritious. The new guys on the scene are lizards. August is obviously the month that the Afghan lizard community carries out its business with gay abandon. They are in plentiful numbers and seem unperturbed by events leading up to the Afghan elections.

Cloudy, but with no chance of rain

Trooper Jonny Ritchie blogs about enjoying  a slightly less frenetic pace in  Afghanistan…

Another week on Quick Reaction Force in PB2. I don’t work for the  Met Office but the temperatures definitely seem to be dropping slightly, making it easier to sleep at night.  During the week we even had two days with intermittent cloud – sadly without rain though. Amazing wanting rain! If it was the UK I’d be begging the weather to stay clear! The week’s workload was steady and efficient and we didn’t have to dip into our rations once this week, as we made it back for all our meals.

Most of our runs throughout the area were to escort trucks with mail, essential equipment and food to the various patrol bases and checkpoints. We also had to move a lot of passengers in our Mastiffs to the patrol bases. In our free time, before chilling out, we caught up with maintenance tasks. I’m sure I speak for the troop when I say the Mastiffs have excelled in the jobs we have used them for. The vehicles are used with very little break between tasks and when they do break down it’s not long until we can have them up and running again. They’re not Challenger 2 tanks, but they are great vehicles in their own right.

Being away before in Iraq I have noticed the hardest point in a tour is passing the halfway point, but not quite being close enough to the end to plan ahead.  To everyone at home that has/is posting out packages, emails, blueys, letters, and e- blueys, you probably underestimate the power that these gestures have on the lads out here. Even a short letter can lift someone from feeling a little down to smiling by the time they read the last word, so a thank you to all that have sent out stuff.

Me and Lance Corporal Lawton playing Mario Kart

Me and Lance Corporal Lawton playing Mario Kart

During free time the lads have all started reading books as I think we’ve seen all our movies and out played most of our games! I mentioned a book last week, ‘Just One Look’ by Harlan Coben, brilliant writing and delivery and the end of each chapter has a twist to capture you into the next. I have finally accepted defeat to LCpl Lawton (LB) on Mario Kart. During the week his times were unbeatable but we worked together to complete the one player levels.Now that’s team work!

So for the first time since being out here we had an unusually steady week and enough sleep on QRF, the weather was even in our favour. All we have to do is hand over responsibility of QRF to the next group and return to Price. Until next time that’s all for now.

Driving The Situation Forward

Captain Jeremy Hann, The Royal Dragoon Guards writes about the international community in Kandahar and the inauguration of Gen David Petraeus.

When away from home, there are certain triggers that induce the longing to be in England in these summer months, and over the last few weeks these have been manifold; catching the sun-soaked snippets of Wimbledon, Not losing money backing French Raiders at Ascot, being sent photographs by friends. Apart from inducing the desire to be away from here, it also creates a fond reminiscence and a supplicant hopefulness that the days will soon pass ‘fore one’s return.

It has started to get really quite hot recently, about fifty degrees centigrade. The result of which is that the pounds are starting to slip off like an ill-fitting negligee on a Parisian woman of negotiable virtue when her rent is late.

We have had a busy couple of weeks in Kandahar city, both in terms of continuing to provide protection, security and freedom of movement for those members of the international community that need to move around the battle-space to help drive the situation forward, and also to a few different dramatis personae, we have had journalists from the BBC, ITV, The Sun, The Evening Standard et al. We have also had members of the US Treasury Department, and Department of Defence who have been meeting with Afghan Government officials in what appears to have been a very productive and promising set of engagements. Speaking to the American contingent during and afterwards, I am always struck by their optimistic and can-do attitude and their willingness to solve or overcome/overwhelm any problem that they encounter. As Evelyn Waugh said; ‘instead of this absurd division into sexes, they ought to class people as static and dynamic.’ The Americans, regardless of the wisdom of stereotype, fall into the latter class, and this, very definitely is, a good thing.

This weekend in Kabul there was the Inauguration of the New Commander ISAF, Gen David Petraeus. A man of whom there is enormous confidence in. I noticed whilst in Baghdad a couple of summers ago that he is an inspirational man and the following he had amongst the Americans there was borderline fanatical. I think that in this age of apathy and gutter-celebrity it is refreshing that there can be someone who is professional, motivated, and fiercely intelligent held as an idol, as opposed to a lacklustre footballer, or third-rate actor whom continually fails to deliver, yet seldom fails to be worshipped, and never fails to be over-remunerated.

Elsewhere it has been a saddening time for our regiment, the Royal Dragoon Guards, as two Troopers have lost their lives in fairly quick succession. It is the inescapable reality that whilst engaged in a counter-insurgency that lives will be lost, but no amount of trite phrasing from me will make it any easier for family and loved-ones of those departed. Their ultimate sacrifices will not be in vain, and I am sure that the loss will strengthen the resolve of comrades in order to complete the task in hand. Quis Separabit.

The Little Things in Life

Trooper Jonny Ritchie of The Royal Dragoon Guards writes about a busy week in PB2. They’ve not had much sleep but did find time for a little hairdressing!

A very busy week indeed for the Troop Leader’s group of Mastiffs working out of PB2.  The Troop Sergeant’s group is still based in MOB Price.  Well from the beginning we have been on the go with very little sleep working for sometimes up to 20 hours. But being professionals we have carried out all our tasks on time and still with a smile on our faces (most of time!)

The PB3 incident was sad news indeed but we will not let that affect the links we have with the ANA and ANP and move forward from this with our tasks leading to an eventual handover of control to the Afghan forces.

On a lighter note Cpl Stead has been posted out some wonderful Irish biscuits which all the lads enjoyed so thank you to his fiancé for the lovely treat.  Funniest moment of the week probably goes to our group in which during a brief we heard a loud bang, assuming it was incoming from the Taliban we made like jumping salmon for our body armour and cover to see two Gurkhas walking past telling us it was outgoing fire from our own guns!  Thanks to the artillery!

My skills from before my Army career were called for as well this week as I cut the Troop Leader’s hair, I like to name his new look a Toni and Guy special!  All the lads and myself look forward to handing over responsibility in PB2 and heading back to Price again to the luxury of aircon, cold water and fresh food, the little things in life eh?  Well that’s all from me for now, until next time.

“Irritating, upsetting and infuriating”

Captain Jeremy Hann of the Royal Dragoon Guards blogs about a couple of newspaper articles he’s read recently.

A wonderful conversational reprieve arrived this week in the form of a flying visit from my RDG brethren, Capt ‘Spike’ Lee. He is a great bear of man-shaped bonhomie. Always dry and amusing, the following Bon-Mot was uttered over a coffee whilst talking about Spitfires, and no doubt would have had me in stitches if I had the faintest idea what it meant:

‘The elliptical wing plan-form is the mathematically optimized shape to minimize reduced drag!’

Who says Fluid Dynamicists don’t know how to have a laugh? A career of after-dinner-speaking beckons…..

I thought I would draw upon two articles I have seen in the global press as platforms for observations. In a document ‘leaked’ (odd euphemism describing the act of breaking confidence entrusted in return for remuneration) to the New York Times, it has been reported that a geological survey team from the Pentagon have discovered vast mineral wealth in Afghanistan. As well as pleasing deposits of gold, copper and iron ore, there are huge amounts of natural gas, a world-beating amount of lithium, prompting one observer to state that ‘Afghanistan could become the Saudi Arabia of lithium’, and also something called niobium. I have not the first inkling as to what this is, and if it is important, I am not sure how I have survived this long without it in my life. It is believed that the mineral deposits are worth $1 trillion.

These finds are, if handled correctly, fantastic news for the region. Over the course of the next decade it could generate such revenue, employment and wealth that there is genuine cause to assume that this war-ravaged and poverty-addled society could well see a stable and nebulously flourishing society in its place.

Flying in the face of this optimism, and in the hope of many, was an article written by Mary Riddell. She penned the article for The Telegraph, and claimed that there was no point in continuing the battle against insurgency, that the effort in Afghanistan was futile and that the country’s welfare and infrastructure was deteriorating as the campaign continues. A much easier sentiment to convey when one is engaged in rhetoric, not in the daily grind of reality. It is very easy to pass judgement from trendy Hoxton, or Esher, or Malvern or wherever it is she resides, when it isn’t your life, or that of your family and friends, or that of the whole community that lives in the face of constant and lethal threat.

I found the article irritating, upsetting and infuriating for several reasons, but it does give us a hypothetical benchmark by which we can gauge the progress that is being, and is to be, made. I am not sure if she knows how many of the Afghan National Police are losing their lives everyday fighting alongside us, but it is a terrifying statistic.

The statistics that she cited, mostly from her source (an aid-worker in Kabul) were inaccurate. She claimed 70% of schools in Kandahar were now closed. Well I live here, and I am on the ground every day, and I can tell you without fear of contradiction that this simply is not true. More children are in schools than ever before, in fact over six times more than prior to 2001 and most pleasingly this includes an ever increasing number of girls. Mrs. Riddell in her erroneous omniscience also stated that the health care was ‘failing’ and not reaching the population. I feel this is a harsh viewpoint as, although technically correct, in as much as, in no way does every Afghan receive healthcare, but a vast improvement has been made in this area by the international community, specifically NATO. Since the deposing of the Taliban regime, Healthcare now reaches 85% of the population, compared with just 9% then. The rise in child immunisation alone has led to the decrease in child mortality by approximately 35,000 per annum. Is that ‘failing’? It may not be perfect, but it is unarguably a great stride forward.

What is upsetting, but a necessary product of freedom of speech, is that opinion, in this instance; Delphic pessimism and myopic clairvoyance, can be portrayed as an inexorable truth. There is much to occur between now and the point at which this campaign to deny indiscriminate violence can be assessed, in retrospect, as either success or failure; and even then it is unlikely to be a cut and dry conclusion in the eyes of many.

I wish I had the ability to see so assiduously and accurately into the future, I would break my bookmaker at Cheltenham next year.

Big Love and Downtime

Trooper Jonny Ritchie from The Royal Dragoon Guards writes about another busy week in Afghanistan, but finds time for gaming and movie reviews!

Welcome back to another week – it’s been a mixture again of being very busy with a few breaks in between and some very bad news. I’m now driving ‘Big Love’ (Mastiff) for Cpl Chris Stead as Tpr Laryea is on R&R. Gunning is Cpl Raja – this must be a first for ‘Big Love’ having a Gurkha behind the gun. The Troop Leader’s group is still based in Camp Price with the Troop Sergeant’s group in PB2.

Well what was the bad news? Another dark day amongst the sunshine as we found out earlier in the week from the RSM that Tpr James Leverett was killed. My thoughts and prayers and from rest of the lads in 3rd Troop go to his family and friends back home, fare thee well James…

Mastiffs on patrol

Mastiffs on patrol

We had the RSM staying with us earlier in the week for a couple of days, great to have him with us as we were able to get information about all the lads in the other Squadrons and what they’re up to (not that we’re nosey). On down time this week I have been unable to change my Mario Kart race times so LCpl Lawton and Tpr Edwards are looking unbeatable!

Midweek we had a really long day indeed. We started at 0400 hrs and travelled round the AO (area of operation) and didn’t get finished til midnight. Beds were definitely the first point of contact for some of the more ‘mature’ members of the troop (definitely not old; mature will suffice). Some of the younger members of the Troop like Tpr Hirst and Tpr Foote hit the internet on our return – I don’t know how they do it, I like my bed too much! On our downtime lads have been sorting admin, playing games and exchanging movies. From the ones that I’ve watched I most definitely recommend Sherlock Holmes, Daybreakers and Ninja Assassin. Ones to avoid though are Year One, Gamer and Shooter. Who would have thought you would be getting film reviews, I really outdo myself sometimes!