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!

Long days at Camp Price

Trooper Jonny Ritchie from the Royal Dragoon Guards writes about long days at Camp Price, and of trying to get better at Mario Kart!

Another week has passed and quickly too! Although through the past week we have had time to relax, it has been mixed with some very long days indeed.  At the start of this week we handed over responsibility of QRF at PB2 to the Gurkha Mastiff group and made our way back to Camp Price for this week’s activities. Not a good start to being back at Price; caught the end of England’s 4-1 defeat to Germany. Oh well, there’s always the Euros…

Found out that I’m the HMG gunner for Cpl Stead so that helped bring back some smiles after the football results as I get to be on his Mastiff named ‘Big Love’. I’ve known Chris – aka “Steady” – since I joined the Army back in Germany in 2006 and ever since Iraq his vehicles have been named ‘Big Love’. Well if he ever reads this he owes me a drink, for mentioning his beloved wagon.

The day after this we had a no move day to sort out admin, including washing and maintenance on the Mastiffs. There was also time to catch up on some sleep.  Then it was back to the job at hand; we rose the next day at 0430, did a CLP and arrived back at Price just in time for evening scoff (meal). Then we were back out at 2200 to move infantry from one of the PBs to another location for an Operation. A very long day and night indeed – got back again to Price at 0100 and as I’m sure you can imagine bed was not long after our return.

After about six hours sleep I was up again with my driver Tpr John Laryea to take our Mastiff to the REME for our monthly inspection. After that was complete, it was back to bed until lunch. The rest of the day was ours to do as we pleased; I used my time wisely trying to beat some lap times on my Nintendo that Tpr “Eddie” Edwards and LCpl “LB” Lawton had set during our stint as QRF. Although many kids would state otherwise, Mario Kart is harder than it looks!

The next day arose for a CLP to Bastion, got there for lunch and, as we had a couple of free hours while the RLC loaded their trucks, we went to the American PX (like our NAAFI). My driver John bought a new laptop which he now looks at as if it was a new baby. On returning to Price later in the day we had to sort out a noise that we had coming from under our Mastiff with the REME.

I look forward to what the next week may bring and to beating lap times. So it’s bye for now…

Back To Work

Trooper Jonny Ritchie of the Royal Dragoon Guards is back in Afghanistan after R&R at home in Northern Ireland. Here he reflects on getting back to work.

Hello again! Back from R&R; brilliant time at home in Northern Ireland, great to see family and friends, get out for some drinks (just one or two mind…) and unwind for a short period.  On returning to duty and while collecting my kit in Camp Bastion, ready to get back out with our Mastiffs and still on a high from R&R, the reality of being back out in Afghanistan started with news from the RSM that no serving soldier wants to hear.  The sad news being Trooper Ashley Smith had been killed. My feelings from R&R disappeared instantly and they turned to the utmost sadness. I would like to say on my behalf and from the rest of the lads in 3rd Troop, B squadron: our thoughts and prayers go to his family and friends back home. Fare thee well Tpr Ashley Smith, rest easy.

Later, I was picked up from Bastion and taken down to Camp Price, to carry on my role out here.  Spent the first 2 days catching my feet again, getting rid of jet lag and doing maintenance on the Mastiffs.  Then I joined the Troop Leader’s group of Mastiffs as the gunner for Cpl Stead, heading down to PB2 to take over from the Troop Sergeant’s group as QRF. So what has QRF in PB2 involved?  Being very busy is definitely a start!  We’ve been called out to recover one Mastiff from PB4 that had lost a wheel in a IED incident. We have also been taking a lot of mail to the PBs and CPs or, as some call it, delivering morale. Early in the week we also joined D Squadron in PB2 to hold a vigil for Ashley Smith.

Most of our days while on QRF have started at sunrise and ended in the dark of night. All I look forward to at the end of each day is a cold shower and bed. Why a cold shower I hear you cry? Well the temperature out here is unbelievable, holding in the high 40s. Being in a PB there is no air-con which means no escape from the heat. We also took the CO of 1 RGR to a shura and to see the work on a new school being built in our AO. As the changes become visible and you see improvements, it really keeps you going in our job to stabilise, rebuild and pass over control. Until next time, bye for now.

Sad news from Kandahar

Captain Jeremy Hann, an Armoured Vehicle Commander with the Royal Dragoon Guards, is based in Kandahar for Operation HERRICK 12. In this posts he writes about recent events in Kandahar.

Without wishing to erode the gossamer-thin veneer of machismo and testosterone afforded me by current situation… I would like to thank my mother publicly for her recent aid-package, and specifically for the chargrilled artichoke hearts in extra virgin olive oil. Delish. The enjoyment of the second half of the contents was slightly marred by the light garnish of sand, compliments of the ‘120 days of winds’ and the unique, fetid and rank aromas provided by the open sewers. Dining Al Fresco is not perhaps what it is on the Cote D’Azur.

The last few weeks in Kandahar Province have been rather grim. I have mentioned previously the low price upon life by certain organisations operating in this country, and if there had been any doubt, the explosive attack at a wedding ceremony this week, which killed 40 and seriously injured a further eighty-odd surely provides indelible evidence of this sick and saddening perspective. As the temperature has risen so have the number of incidents and attacks. Whilst I have no immediate involvement with everything that falls in this category, where I have it has been a positive sign that the Afghan Security presence is both eager and increasingly capable of dealing with the threat at the tactical level on the streets.

The attack, like many others, has been featured on CNN, and the coverage is extensive. They appear to have a much greater handle on events in this province than either the Beeb or Sky, which is hardly surprising as the majority of the British are to be found west of here in Helmand. The instantaneous nature of the reportage is staggering, and is sponsored and propelled by technology unimaginable during the great conflicts of the twentieth century. If greater media coverage descends on this city over the summer months, as it surely will, the truth may get lost in the throng of multiple-source reporting. Within thirty minutes of our main base coming under attack at the end of last month ‘news’ of it was already being conveyed to the global audience. The efficiency is awesome, (I mean that in the truest sense, not in the way Americans use the word to describe a new pair of sports socks), and equally frightening. Public opinion can be formed in ‘real-time’ before those embroiled in the violence have literally had a chance to pause and reflect on what they have just gone through. This is all a far cry from the weekly cable from Africa that the likes of Lord Deedes would have been sending to his Fleet Street editor, all immortalised as William Boot by Evelyn Waugh in ‘Scoop’.

I suppose the dangerous element is that public feeling can be influenced so readily and easily by media groups which can call upon instant global exposure. I am not saying there is an agenda, just an ability to apply a filter.

Dave from Notting Hill has been in Afghanistan this week and he seems to be much more in tune with the needs of the Armed Forces than his predecessor, which can only be a good thing.

A corpulent Afghan Police Officer has taken a shnning to a few of my soldiers over the last couple of weeks. We often see him at the Governor’s Palace. He has a build often ably demonstrated by the regular perched upon the far right hand side bar stool at any number of Public Houses the length and breadth of England. He has the aspect of one who has benefited from decades of the steady influx of pint after pint of Bishop’s Finger or Old Thumper, is no stranger to a stilton ploughman’s, and has on occasion been caught with his hand in the jar of pickled eggs. Exercise is an infrequent companion and can only be spotted between the armchair and the sofa. This stalwart member of the Gendarme is a jovial chap, who likes nothing more than rubbing his protruding stomach up and down which ever of my men happen to be still long enough, before suddenly thrusting with tremendous force. It is all in a playful manner, and I have encouraged those ‘bumped’ to respond in a like for like manner. I would hate for us to be thought of as not observing the niceties of local customs.

Namaste – a general greeting in Nepalese

Trooper Jonny Ritchie is from 3rd Troop, B Squadron, of the Royal Dragoon Guards, which is currently the Mastiff Group for the 1st Battalion, Royal Gurkha Rifles battle group. Here he writes about a week on the move in Afghanistan.

Riding shotgun in Afghanistan

Riding shotgun in Afghanistan

So what has happened since we were assigned to the Gurkhas two weeks ago?  We left Camp Price to go to Patrol Base 2, taking over as the Quick Reaction Force from the Troop Leader and his merry men. I say merry because as they left I could definitely see their happiness at returning to Camp Price and its extra facilities! Once they had left it was straight to work for our call signs. I had only just started to unpack my kit and unravel my sleeping bag when we were called out on a Combat Logistic Patrol to Patrol Base 4 and CP (checkpoint) Elliot.

On returning to PB 2 and sorting out my admin (sleeping bag, bed etc) we were tasked to run guard command through the night making sure the guard sangers had communications, that there were people on guard, and passing on information from the guard tent to other locations throughout the PB.  After guard duties finished at about 7am on Tuesday morning we had a rest period until lunch time. After lunch we had a briefing about a two day exercise that we were to be part of. We left camp around 2pm on Tuesday to set up snap VCPs (vehicle check points) and once nightfall came we went into all round defence.  In-between guard duties the lads played cards, slept or ate. Personally, as a driver I caught up on sleep as in my job it is important not to be tired.

On returning to PB 2, and excited about fresh food, we were informed that we were still on ration packs!

The next day we took the Commanding Officer of the Gurkas to PB1 to take part in a shura with locals. While the meeting was going on I showed the Gurkhas correct hand movements at night using cylumes (neon glow sticks) or torches, as during the two day operation there seemed to be some confusion as to how to guide vehicles at night. Trooper Ritchie and his ‘bread and butter’ skills to the forefront!

So it has been a week of long hours, a lot of movement and a little more knowledge of Nepalese. When the Quick Reaction Force week is over I look forward to going back to FOB Price for all the little things we often take for granted like fresh food, proper showers, cold cans of pop and sweets. If there’s one thing being in Afghanistan does, it makes you appreciate things back home.