An Artist Abroad: Home Sweet Home

Captain Sophie Whitaker, 39 Regt RA. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Captain Sophie Whitaker, 39 Regt RA. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Captain Sophie Whitaker is a serving war artist whose main job is to provide Joint Fires Targeting support to Task Force Helmand on OP HERRICK 18. As a member of 74 Battery (The Battleaxe Company) 39 Regiment Royal Artillery – attached to 1 Royal Horse Artillery, Sophie works in the Brigade Headquarters, Lashkar Gah, where she finds time between an often hectic schedule to put pencil to paper.

I am drafting this blog late at night sitting in a dark tent, with six other bodies sleeping, using the glare of the laptop to light up the keys as I type!  I have been quiet on the blogging front for a couple of weeks due to the move of the Headquarters and I have also been enjoying a break back at home on my R&R (rest and recuperation).  However, now I am fully back in the swing of things it seems that was all a distant memory.

Harry

Harry

In this blog I shall attempt to describe the past few weeks of events from the Headquarters move, to the journey home, and then a brief insight into what I got up to on R&R.  Running throughout the script I shall post pictures of the work in progress (WIP) of a pencil drawing that I completed whilst on R&R – the model is my future mother-in-law’s favourite horse, Harry.  If none of this is of interest you then please don’t read on, for the rest there is a lot to report so do bear with me!

The Move

This blog starts in the hot and dusty climes of Lashkar Gah where I have spent the last four and a half months working in the Headquarters.  The Headquarters has been based in Lashkar Gah since May 2006 and has co-ordinated UK operations across Helmand Province for over seven years.  I was a part of what can possibly be described as the most complex headquarters move on operations ever undertaken by the British Army.

We were down to minimal manning, with the other half of the Fires cell having already established the Bastion set-up.  I had come on shift at 0400hrs to enable to night shift to get away on their early morning flight, as I held the fort with one detachment commander (DC) for the Change of Command (CHOC) and the close down of the TFH headquarters in Lashkar Gah.

Harry work in progress

Harry work in progress

It was a long morning and it seemed like an absolute age that we were waiting for the CHOC.  With only a skeleton staffing, large screens on the walls showed locals going about their daily routine, as muted pictures of BFPS flickered in the background  – time passed very slowly.  My R&R wasn’t too far around the corner either, but we were all itching to get on and join the rest of the team in Bastion.

When the time came for the CHOC, it was a very surreal and memorable moment.  The DCOS (Deputy Chief of Staff) entered the JOC at around 1015hrs on 9th August 2013 to establish communications with the Bastion headquarters.  Any current operational issues were swiftly dealt with and at precisely 1020hrs the DCOS spoke over the net (radio) to Bastion headquarters and clearly stated that the command of Taskforce Helmand had now been assumed by the Headquarters in Bastion.  As those words fell from his mouth, it was quite an unbelievable experience as I witnessed history in the making.

Although words can barely describe that feeling, it was as if I were watching an old war film where the news of war was being broken over the radio.  This marked the end of an era, as we swiftly switched off laptops that had been diligently manned 24 hours every day for the last seven years.  We switched them off, pulled out the cables and packed them in boxes.  Cables were ripped off the walls where makeshift black nasty (tape) and cable ties had affixed them, and radios were disconnected to be placed away.  Within minutes the Lashkar Gah headquarters ceased to exist and the remaining staff headed back to their rooms to finish packing for their onward journey to Bastion.

Waiting at the LKG HLS

Waiting at the LKG HLS

As we waited at the helicopter landing site (HLS), we chatted about the prospects of what lay ahead, but most importantly – what our respective R&R plans were and for some even end of tour plans! It wasn’t long before we were given notice that the helicopters had left Bastion on their way to collect us, and we swiftly put on our PPE (personal protective equipment) before being led out to the HLS.

I video recorded the two chalks (groups) of staff with my digital Olympus camera crouching alongside the compound walls as the two Chinooks flew in to transport us.  It is said there are two types of people who look towards the Chinook as dust and stones are thrown towards us… one of them is a photographer!  As we lifted up in a cloud of dust, I strained my neck peering through the scratched window, as I looked down at the wall of the HLS, symbolically painted with all the crests of other Brigade Headquarters that went before us, as I watched them fade in the distance.

Wall of former Brigade emblems

Wall of former Brigade emblems

New Digs

With so much nostalgia being left behind, there was nothing for it but to embrace the change and look forward to the new set-up in Bastion.  In no time at all, we found ourselves hot, tired and sweaty being orientated around our new accommodation and listening in to the security and welfare briefs.  We were then walked immediately to our new offices where we took up our respective seats and started work, as if we had never been moved.  The orientation and layout was different, and although we had access to all the same programmes, information and systems as before, we had more modern versions which took us all a while to navigate!

The tempo of operations was still relatively quiet and after lunch I managed to shower and change and feel a little more human.  Our new accommodation is a small camp within Bastion, protected by its own HESCO wall and rows of razor wire…’home sweet home’! I must admit, I have never been to prison but if this is anything to go by I’d rather not! We are bound by various rules and regulations to ensure that whilst there are still troops ‘roughing it’ out in the FOBs, we do not succumb to ‘Bastionitus’ – a fond term used to describe the condition of complacency and comfort.  Not that a 12-hour shift enables me much time for comfort; nor did I have time to fully settle in as I began to write my handover notes for my R&R cover.

Harry work in progress

Harry work in progress

Within a couple of days of the move, I had to re-pack my bags to get ready to go home.  The days, hours and minutes prior to R&R can be excruciatingly long at times, knowing I would be with my fiancé, family and friends in a matter of days and wishing away hours so that I would be closer to being home.  Four and a half months is an incredibly long time to be away from home, and phone calls and internet can only maintain morale for so long.  It was a great morale boost to find out that 24 hours ahead of my scheduled departure date, I had been ‘Space A’d’ that is, that our whole flight was fortunate enough to travel on spaces available on an earlier flight.  I handed over my role and headed back to our Bastion echelon group to start the process in going home.

We handed in our operational equipment and stored our weapons in the armoury.  I felt somewhat naked without my pistol attached firmly to my side and was constantly aware that I may have forgotten it somewhere! My OSPREY was also considerably lighter to travel back with.  After our mandatory briefs, we collected our passports and mobile phones and headed on the bus for our first check-in.  Here we labelled our baggage, checked in and loaded our hold baggage.  The remainder of that day I sat in the ops room and caught up with some Bastion friends.  The second check-in wasn’t until the late afternoon, and having handed in our weapons we now had to be escorted everywhere.  Thus it started – the long journey home, waiting for flights whilst fighting tiredness, impatience and excitement to see my fiancé, family and friends.

Harry work in progress

Harry work in progress

The journey home

We travelled out of Bastion to Cyprus on a Tristar, which isn’t too dissimilar in style internally to a budget airline.  We were on our way home at last! I sat next to a female Lieutenant Colonel with whom I chatted to about her role in Afghanistan, and what we were both particularly looking forward to back at home; including lush green grass and rain.  As we were busy chatting away about chickens, horses and ducks, the flight crew invited us to sit in the cockpit (perhaps because we were the only two to still be awake at that time of morning.) It was a brilliant experience as we were shown the controls, listened on the headsets and admired the views over Egypt (some fires could still be seen smouldering in the Capital).

Harry work in progress

Harry work in progress

We admired the sun rise and it wasn’t long before we spotted the Cypriot shores among the haze of the sea mist.  We belted up for landing and with our headsets on we experienced a very smooth landing in Cyprus.  We disembarked for an hour to refuel and stayed in the very familiar departure lounge of RAF Akrotiri.  I rang my fiancé (at about 0400hrs UK time, just 3 hours after he had eventually gone to bed after a long day harvesting…) to let him know that my flight was on time, only to ring him again ten minutes later to announce that I would be arriving an hour earlier than expected!

Home sweet home

Finally the green, yellow and brown patchwork of the fields of Britain came into view and shortly afterwards we were waiting for our baggage at the carousel.  Black bags, gorilla boxes and camouflaged bags of all shapes and sizes were spat out and rapidly collected.  When I walked through the doors of the arrivals lounge I joined the crowd of soldiers waiting to be collected.

It was wonderful to be met at Brize by my fiancé as I walked over to the car park, placed down my baggage and hurried over to give him a huge hug!  I was still wearing my cheap temporary brass/copper engagement ring that I had bought at the local shop, when he suggested I take it off as he revealed from his pocket my engagement ring in its box.  The ring is an heirloom, his late grandmother’s engagement ring, whom unfortunately I never had the opportunity nor pleasure to meet.

The engagement ring

The engagement ring

 

I desperately tried not to fall asleep in the car on the way home but I didn’t survive contact.  Having spent a few hours reacquainting myself with the M25 I was relieved to finally complete the journey and arrive home.  Thankfully I didn’t make my usual faux pas of ‘talking’ to the dog first rather than my fiancé (principally because the dog did not accompany him to the airport!).  Lola (the lab) and Boots (the cocker) were both excited to see me, and Lola couldn’t contain herself but kept bouncing and jumping up! She didn’t leave my side for the rest of that day, nor for a few after.  It was so good to be home, but I must admit I was exhausted, jet lagged and a little disorientated – all I wanted to do was crash out on my bed.

Boots and Lola at work and at play

Boots and Lola at work and at play

It is a very surreal experience to find that within the space of 48 hrs you have been working at a high tempo, living by strict routine for four months and occupying your thoughts with little other than work matters; to waking up in your own bed and wondering what you have to do that day.  It is almost as if I were living two different lives, and whilst the body adapts quickly, the mind takes a little longer.  For the first few days I didn’t do an awful lot really, the dogs enjoyed some long walks and I didn’t even mind if it were raining! I enjoyed doing some training with them, as they are both working gun dogs (in progress), and it was a nice change for them after having spent many a day accompanying My fiancé  in the tractor and listening to his rendition of the Kings of Leon!

Lola at work in the tractor

Lola at work in the tractor

‘Wedmin’

One night neither of us was sleeping particularly well, I was still jet lagged and My fiancé  was worrying about the weather, so we ended up talking at 3am about wedding plans.  It was so nice to be able to talk face to face and get inspired and excited about our wedding together.  We were engaged a few days after Christmas, after which I had been thrust back in to pre-deployment training and then deployed.  The first couple of days of my R&R were relatively quiet as I rang round friends to catch up, arranging to meet up with some and inviting others over.  My fiancé was busy with the harvest during the sunny days and thankfully we had a couple of rainy days to spend time together.  This was the perfect opportunity to crack the wedding guest list!! You wouldn’t have thought that either being in the military or part of the farming fraternity would incur so many friends and family – not that we could do an awful lot about the latter. After a rather hefty cull we fashioned a list of 150.

My Mum came to stay the first weekend, and I managed to book an appointment to try on some wedding dresses, one of my sisters and future mother-in-law joined us.  It was a very emotional experience for my poor Mum, who in less than a minute of me trying on my first dress was in tears! I tried on about six dresses which were all gorgeous and surprisingly even the ‘meringues’ were flattering, however, I am still intent in making it myself (with a little help and guidance).  The following day, Mum and I had a look at some fabrics, and she helped me make a skirt from the silk I bought from Afghanistan.

Skirt template

Skirt template

Daily routine

It didn’t take me long to get back into the routine at home; early rises, dogs, horses, chickens and lambs to be fed, along with runner beans, tomatoes and cucumbers to be picked.  It wasn’t long before My fiancé roped me into helping shift a few bales and dropping off his various work colleagues back to their farm machinery! It wasn’t all work and no play, as my friends stopped by for tea, lunch and dinner and I frequented a few pubs too! However, my alcohol tolerance had significantly reduced from its level prior to deployment.  Nevertheless a glass of chilled white wine at dinner was a welcome pleasure.

Mid-week I had the pleasure of Hannah and Dan (from Ditto), and Graeme Lothian and his partner for company at dinner.  I prepared home-made quiche, salad and new potatoes – something I had missed whilst out in Afghanistan.  We had a pleasant evening and Graeme surprised me by giving me a copy of his book ‘ An Artist in London with a signed message to say ‘thank you’.

My fiancé  and me

My fiancé and me

The following evening My fiancé and I attended a dinner dance where I managed to catch up with a few more friends.  That bank holiday weekend was a local agricultural show.  My Dad came to visit and joined My fiancé , the dogs and I for the day.  Unfortunately this indicated that only too quickly was my R&R coming to an end.  That afternoon we left the showground and I said goodbye to Dad.  I packed the remnants of my kit, grabbed a quick dinner, changed into my uniform and jumped in the car ready to go back to Brize Norton.  Even the dogs knew I was off as they recognised me wearing the uniform and saw the bags being moved to the car, wearing that worried and forlorn expression that only dogs can.

Dad and me

Dad and me

Time to go…

I said goodbye to my fiancé at the airport car park, knowing that I would be home again in just a matter of weeks.  In some ways you strangely look forward to getting back to Afghanistan, if only to see everyone again.  Once resigned to the fact that I was going back, there is nothing to do but look forward to it and enjoy it, for that way time goes faster at least.  With less than six weeks to go on my return, the worst was over and there will be plenty to keep me busy! I shall save my first week back at work for my next blog, by now I am sure you are as exhausted of reading this as I was when I got home!

Final portrait of Harry

Final portrait of Harry

Look at Sophie’s page

Unwilling volunteers of the woolly variety

Captain Joanna Lowe of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps is currently deployed to Afghanistan, working as a vet on the ground with the Provincial Reconstruction Team. Here she writes about a Veterinary Teaching Initiative which has been trialling the education of  farmers in a rural part of Lashkar Gah with unexpected success.

Lesson in progress

Lesson in progress

Veterinary Engagement clinics have been the backbone of my tour in Afghanistan thus far – clinics where farmers can bring their livestock for check-ups, advice and preventative treatment, and also the vehicle through which we have been trying to educate locals to improve their animal husbandry techniques. However, with newly trained paraveterinarians (local nationals who have received a six-month veterinary training package) due to complete their training within the next few months, it was imperative  that the ISAF-led clinics worked to support these fledgling businesses, rather than provide unhealthy competition for them.

The Veterinary Teaching Initiative is a project I have been working on for some time, and last week saw the first trial in an area of rural Lashkar Gah known as Qal’eh Bost. The idea was that farmers would receive training in basic animal husbandry techniques (which I have found out through running the clinics are surprisingly lacking in many areas) so as to enable them to improve the productivity and mortality of their livestock for themselves. A small veterinary section of the package would explain the benefits of preventative veterinary medicine (mainly vaccination and worming) and help them to identify situations where prompt veterinary attention would be advisable. This information would not only help the farmers to maintain healthy herds, but would also benefit the new paraveterinarians by promoting effective use of their services.

I had broached the concept of providing teaching for farmers before at Veterinary Engagement clinics, but had been given a multitude of reasons (from the local farmers themselves) as to why it wouldn’t work, ranging from the notion that the Taliban would try to stop it to ‘We are uneducated people so we can’t learn’. As a result it was with some apprehension that I approached the trial.

I had hoped that between 10 and 15 farmers would turn up to each of three teaching sessions run over the 48-hour period – an adequate number from which I could ascertain primarily whether the project was viable, and from whom I could obtain useful feedback to improve and refine the package. To say I was surprised when a total of 220 working age farmers (accompanied by herds of children, as is typical) turned up would be an understatement. Offered no incentive other than education, these men had taken time out of their working days because they wanted to learn more about looking after their livestock. Among the crowd were a teacher from a derelict school and an ageing man from the Afghan National Police, both of whom had come because they owned small flocks of sheep.

What I found more amazing was that people, many of whom had had no formal education in their lives, sat and gave me their undivided attention for ninety minutes despite my being female and younger than most of them. Due to the fact that many people could not read or write, all of the teaching was verbal, brought to life with a variety of pictures, simple diagrams, somewhat unwilling volunteers of the woolly variety and practical demonstrations. Subjects covered included housing and nutrition, care of newborn animals and treatment of simple wounds. Teaching Afghan farmers is an unusual experience, and very different from teaching soldiers. They are proud people and will not tell you if they don’t understand something, they take offence at you ‘testing’ their knowledge so confirmatory questions are not an option; this makes assessing the effectiveness of your teaching challenging, though not impossible.

And the future? Well the Veterinary Teaching Initiative concept has a lot of potential, and the results of this initial trial suggest it is something that Afghan farmers are extremely keen on. Hopefully a return trip to Qal’eh Bost will show that people have employed the techniques I taught them, thus demonstrating that anybody has the capacity to learn, regardless of whether they consider themselves to be ‘educated’ or not.

Bemused chickens, lazy goats and a dizzy sheep

In her latest blog, Captain Joanna Lowe of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps writes about a busy veterinary engagement clinic and the events immediately following it.

Treating a sheep!

Treating a sheep!

The most recent veterinary engagement clinic was run from Check Point (CP) Yellow 14 in the Combined Force Lashkar Gah Area of Operations. Having seen approximately 700 livestock in the morning – including two very bemused chickens, a herd of goats that had been brought in because they were ‘lazy’ and a sheep that was reported to be ‘dizzy’ – we settled down for a well deserved cup of tea.

A while later, I was approached by a member of the Afghan National Police (ANP) from the front gate as a farmer from that morning had returned to the CP with a dead sheep, reporting that I had killed it with medicine. He had come seeking compensation for his loss from the Military Stabilisation and Support Team (MSST) representative (worth up to $150 for a sheep). However, on examining the sheep’s carcass, which had been carried in on the back of a very patient donkey, the diagnosis was clear. Rather than suffering a fatal reaction (of which there was no evidence on the body) to the extremely safe worming product that had been administered, the more probable cause of death was loss of blood as a result of a deep incision to the throat. After suggesting this alternative hypothesis to the farmer he thought carefully for a moment before countering that he had killed it pre-emptively as he could tell that the medicine was going to kill it. By this time the interpreter, the crowd of ANP who had come over to investigate the commotion and the farmer’s friend who had accompanied him into the CP were laughing openly as the story about the sheep’s sorry demise was looking more and more far-fetched. In a last ditch attempt to salvage something from the situation the farmer asked once more whether he could have compensation, although the sheepish look on his face said he already knew the answer…

Compensation is awarded to farmers who have lost livestock as a direct result of ISAF action – for example if they are caught in an artillery strike or involved in a road collision. This incident illustrates that the farmers are aware of the scheme, but also highlights the negative effects that inappropriately awarded compensation could have. Had this farmer successfully gained the lucrative payout, I have no doubt that a dozen more sheep would have met their maker prematurely that day!

What does PRT stand for again?

This is the first blog from Captain Joanna Lowe of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. She is working as a vet on the ground in Afghanistan with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT).

Waiting customers

Waiting customers

I joined the Royal Army Veterinary Corps a little over eighteen months ago with my eyes open – the main roles in which I could expect to be employed were as a Veterinary Officer in a Military Working Dog Squadron, at one of the mounted units or at the Defence Animal Centre in Melton Mowbray. On tour I was likely to be confined to Camp Bastion catering for the day-to-day needs of the military working dogs and constantly prepared to respond to K9-liners (reports on injured working dogs, based on the normal ‘9-liners’ which report the status of injured troops.)

What actually happened is that I have been detached from my unit and attached to the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) as the Civil Military Cooperation (CIMIC) Vet Liaison Officer (LO) for Operation HERRICK 13 – a different ball game altogether. My role is hearts and minds-based, and ultimately aims to support the development of the Afghan veterinary system. But simply providing treatment for the livestock held by local national farmers (mainly sheep, goats and cattle with the odd donkey or camel thrown in for good measure) is just the tip of the iceberg. I have found myself collaborating with a whole host of civilian-run departments within the PRT and investigating the reach of various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in the veterinary field. Over the past few weeks I have really had my eyes opened to a whole world whose existence I had previously barely acknowledged.

In a conflict such as this, where the key terrain is undisputedly the population, it is hard to understate the importance of the role played by the PRT.