Bittersweet return: Helmand to home, soldier to student

Capt Mau Gris. Sgt Barry Pope RLC (Phot)

Capt Mau Gris. Sgt Barry Pope RLC (Phot)

Captain Mau Gris is team leader for the British Army’s Combat Camera Team (CCT) based in Afghanistan throughout the summer 2013 as part of 1 Mechanized Brigade. Op Herrick 18′s CCT also includes Sergeant Barry Lloyd – video cameraman – and Sergeant Barry Pope – photographer.

For us it is the end of the end

For me it really is. Our new team had arrived, our kit was handed over and the requisite briefs were completed. Our job here was over. For me it is the last post I will hold as  a British Army officer. It’s weird even writing it. Believe it or not I have even delayed writing this, because it feels that once I do it is real.

We were some of the first to leave as 1 Mech slowly transforms into 7 Armoured. It happens in parts. A new fresh face untouched by six months in the Afghan desert here; a new tactical recognition flash there. There is always a bit of teasing as soldiers hand over. You see the guys on their reception briefings in their fresh kit, and mutter ‘crowbags’, and they just tell you to ‘get the hell out of my seat.’ This time there is a bit more sympathy – nine months is a long old time.

Then before you know it with the regulation RAF faff, you are on the plane home. A pit-stop in Cyprus is the only thing between you and the rest of your life. From my previous experience it’s at this point you have a peak inside that mental box, into which you put all that stuff you said you’d deal with later. This tour has thankfully left that box empty as far as I can tell. But there are those initial fingers of worry poking me about what the hell I am going to do when I leave the Army. As the C-17 rumbled on I looked around the plane and wondered what the rest were thinking.

The journey home begins

The journey home begins

Decompression, beer and a show

Fifty tired soldiers got blinking off the plane, and were told to get into ‘civvies’ ready for the organised fun, something the Army loves. It was odd seeing the boys out of camouflage. His Holiness (Sgt Pope) had gone for a glaring yellow tee shirt, Lloydie for some functional sports gear. Then it was down to the beach, a bit like any at a moderately successful holiday resort, except quieter. No one is trying to sell you some moody ‘Ray-Bans’, and there is a priest cutting around trying to ‘chat’ to you. Me and the boys steered clear, opting for some competitive inflatable wrestling instead.

Cyprus stop-over

Cyprus stop-over

Here is where the proper decompression starts, on the oversized inflatables in the sea. But not before your annoying mandatory swim test which everyone gets a little bit competitive about. Then after a few hours, it’s on to the equally isolated Bloodhound Camp for mandatory briefs, followed by strictly four beers and a CSE entertainment show.

This bit was very different from my first experience of decompression. First time round the ‘4 can’ rule was more like guidance, so we all got drunk. This time, however, we were a small group, compared to the 200 that normally go through. So we consumed our first beers in a large draughty hall, playing pool whilst the friendly mental health nurse and the padre wandered around chatting to people.

It was at this point that I got a subtle hint at how padres go about taking a peek in that mental box to see if their help is required. I had just been crowned Pool champion of the CCT, much to Lloydie’s and His Holinesses’s annoyance. When I got challenged by the Padre, he kicked my arse with a bit of divine intervention. In the process we got to chatting about the tour. Naturally he wanted to know what I had found tough. So I told him and slowly I realised he was probing to see if I would hold anything back.

Pretty clever,  generally nothing clams someone in the armed forces up quicker than being asked what scared / disturbed them. But what was tough? I would say that 99 per cent of all Army stories are based on toughness or tough situations. We can chat about those forever. It was only a small thing, but I think it is symptomatic of a growing awareness of the mental health side within the Army and how to deal with it. It gives me hope one day all those who suffer will be treated in time.

Sgt Barry Pope and Sgt Barry Lloyd

Sgt Barry Pope and Sgt Barry Lloyd

Goodbye boys

For me, this tour will leave only good memories, unlike others. Be it at the sharp end with the boys from the Brigade Reconnaissance Force or sitting quietly on the HLS with the boys, telling some ‘dits’ and killing some time, it’s been incredible. There was a little anxiousness there because of the imminent career change, and really I guess I am slightly nervous that once you leave that extend family of the Army, who understand what you’ve done / seen etc, then the issues arise. I have seen it in some of my friends.

These worries chattered away in the back of my head, but didn’t affect what turned out to be a really entertaining evening provide by the CSE guys. All the officers were singled out for derision by the comedian (standard) and the music was excellent. The four beers were consumed without any drunkenness ensuing. Everyone went to bed in that kind of cloud of happy tipsiness that was no doubt intentional by the staff of Decompression.

We woke up with just a hilly bus ride and an aeroplane journey standing between us, our loved ones and the rest of our lives. We arrived at 3 o’clock on a Friday, and I was then ‘in my own time.’ I collected my bags and with more than a little sadness, said goodbye to the boys. For the past six months had never been more than three metres away from them. And, I am proud to have serve alongside them.

I am now officially ‘resettling.’ To compound the strangeness I am starting a Masters course in TV journalism. So that I can keep doing what I am doing at the moment. I am going to keep writing about it but it is going to be weird jump. I hope you stay with me. Soldier to student…. hmmm.

Decompression starts here

Decompression starts here

Read Mau’s other blogs here: Capt Mau Gris

Follow Mau on Twitter: @mau_gris

Filming a gun fight at night in 3D

Herrick 18 Stories

Capt Mau Gris. Sgt Barry Pope RLC (Phot)

Capt Mau Gris. Sgt Barry Pope RLC (Phot)

Captain Mau Gris is team leader for the British Army’s Combat Camera Team (CCT) based in Afghanistan throughout the summer 2013 as part of 1st Mechanized Brigade. Op Herrick 18′s CCT also includes Sergeant Barry Lloyd – video cameraman – and Sergeant Barry Pope – photographer.

A night time helicopter raid into a place of symbolic importance to the enemy, filming it in 3D. It doesn’t get more challenging than that.
 

First time ever

One of the more mixed times for us was the visit by the Prime Minister to Bastion. It was all super hush hush in the build up. It was interesting to see the media circus that follows him around, I would find it very claustrophobic to have 26 reporters following me round.

David Cameron, Prime Minister (PM) Visit.

David Cameron, Prime Minister (PM) visit.  Images by Sgt Barry Pope RLC (Phot)

More annoyingly though the team and I were due to fly out to Kabul on a meaty job, but got put on stand by “just in case.” Now I don’t know whether it’s that mid-tour tiredness but no one seemed to want to do anything.

As anyone on tour will tell you, time slows down to a snail’s pace when you have nothing to do. We tried to keep ourselves busy with little jobs and housekeeping but when you’ve had a pukka job pulled from under your nose, nothing seems quite as good.

That said what I didn’t know, was that on the horizon was something that I have been trying to achieve for a while: a full team deployment filming in 3D, alongside the BRF on a helicopter mission into Yakchal, the area I talked about in my last blog.

Helping out a local man.

Helping out a local man.

 4 Troop of the Brigade Reconnaissance Force on Operation DAAS NAIZAH L121

4 Troop of the Brigade Reconnaissance Force on operations.

The mission was to gather intelligence on the effect of one of the biggest operations the Afghan Forces had launched unaided, which had cleared through the area earlier in the month. In plain terms we wanted to see if there had been large re-infiltration of insurgents into the area.

What’s more – we were going to film this in 3D. The first mission of its kind to be recorded like this. Easier said than done! – we would be inserting at night so would have to take a separate camera for the night filming, and we would have to carry the large 3D camera with us the whole way.

Night filming

Night filming

The night came. I was carrying the big 3D camera initially as Lloydie was running about filming with the night vision camera. Unsurprisingly It’s flipping hard to get through irrigation ditches, waist high crops with a massive camera in one hand and rifle in the other, and with your depth perception shot to bits because you only have night vision on one eye!

Still, there are times when you just have to pinch yourself, how is it that I got this job? I was covering a helicopter operation at night, in Afghanistan, in 3D for the first time ever. You can’t help but smile through the sweat and suspicious smelling ditch water.

Military cat and mouse

The helicopter was cramped, as you would expect with two whole sections of Afghan and British soldiers. We landed, and rapidly debus-ed into a protective formation, in case the enemy were waiting. All was still, and the humid air settled over us as the helicopter left.

Operation DAAS NAIZAH L121

The silence was only punctuated with barking dogs and the sound of Sgt Pope’s Infra Red flash going off, which would be producing ghostly images of the troops in action. We moved off. Across fields and ditches, the night vision goggles turning the crops a ghostly green as we moved through them. Men scanning their arcs out into the inky darkness.

We were heading towards our objective known as ‘old school house.’ A place of symbolic importance to the enemy before the operation, we wanted to see what they would think of us taking up residence for the morning. Turns out they weren’t too keen on the idea.

They waited for a beautiful dawn to break before delivering a flurry of accurate rounds small arms fire, just over the tops of the heads of the sentries posted on the roof. This was some of the most professionally applied suppressing fire I had seen in a while.

The men of the Brigade Reconnaissance Force were more than up to challenge. What followed was military cat and mouse. Lloydie and his holiness got amongst the guys magnificently, producing what I believe will be the best media we have create this tour so far.

Troops on ops in an insurgent stronghold.

Troops on ops in an insurgent stronghold.

Troops on ops in an insurgent stronghold.

Troops on ops in an insurgent stronghold.

Troops on ops in an insurgent stronghold.

Troops on ops in an insurgent stronghold.

In amongst the action

In amongst the action

The 3D camera

The 3D camera

This harassing fire continued throughout the tasking, but the Afghan troops, the BRF and CCT continued business as usual. As we finished and withdrew the shooting died down, we were not followed. Some insurgents had returned but their appetite to take us on following the operation was not there.

Read Mau’s other blogs here: Capt Mau Gris

Follow Mau on Twitter: @mau_gris