London shoot for Salisbury Plain military wives

Sergeant Steve Blake RLC

Sergeant Steve Blake RLC

Sergeant Steve Blake is a professional Army Photographer with the Royal Logistic Corps. A trained soldier, Steve has recently returned from a six-month tour of Afghanistan as part of the three-man Combat Camera Team (comprising a trained journalist, photographer and video cameraman).

The most glamorous spectators

It has been a varied first week back at work in the Army Headquarters. Monday and Tuesday were relatively slow days, doing vital admin, and catching up on 100 or so emails, on my work terminal, that arrived during my time away. Despite having an ‘Out of Office’ reply set, the emails still kept piling up.

As most of you know, I have been doing a lot of work in my leave with the Salisbury Plain Military Wives Choir. Now I was back to work, it was about time they got some official coverage from us at the Army News Team. With their schedule firmly imprinted in my diary, I set about going to London with them as they performed at the House of Commons and Portcullis House.

The choir had been invited by the MP for Devizes, Claire Perry. Claire covers Bulford, Tidworth and Larkhill within her constituency, and wanted to show her appreciation by inviting them to this special event. After a tour of The House of Commons, the choir got to sit in the gallery and watch a debate. Claire told us later on, that Mr Speaker commented on how they were the most glamorous spectators he has ever had in his gallery.

Once the tour was over, and a group shot was taken on the staircase in the Grand Hall, the ladies had some time to change and warm up for their performance.

Salisbury Plain Military Wives Choir inside The Grand Hall

Salisbury Plain Military Wives Choir inside The Grand Hall

The choir absolutely loved the day, and their performance was absolutely amazing. Despite hearing them sing quite a lot, the songs never bore me. In fact, I hear them get better every time they perform.

With ‘Wherever You Are’ being the most well known wives choir song, two of the ladies sung their hearts out for the crowd on the solo part, with the rest of the choir doing a great job behind them.

Luckily, several of the Armed Forces Ministers were able to attend. Sir Andrew Robotham and Philip Hammond, The Secretary of State for Defence to name but a few. They were all totally in awe of these women, and spent time talking to them, and giving them praise for their hard work. They also commented on the vital support they give their husbands in such a career. I am proud to say that my wife is part of this amazing choir, and is she the most supportive person I know.

With a few speeches done, there were just a few songs left. By this point, the crowd had grown somewhat, as more politicians finished work.

Philip Hammond watches the choir

Philip Hammond watches the choir

Performing to the masses

Performing to the masses

Philip Hammond sings God Save the Queen

Philip Hammond sings God Save the Queen

Philip Hammond then got invited by Claire Perry to say a few words.

With the performance coming to an end, it just left the National Anthem to sing before heading home. Philip Hammond and Andrew Robotham were then invited to sing with the choir. With Andrew Robotham firmly within the choir ranks, and Philip Hammond stood with Claire Perry, it was quite an impressive rendition. The whole of Portcullis House were on their feet, singing along too. Spectacular.

After that it was time to pack up, interview all the people I needed for my story and catch the coach home. The day had been great. Very hot, but great. We were all sweating lots, but it was worth it.

Outside the House of Commons

Outside the House of Commons

It was the next morning I got the story finished and published on the British Army website, along with a picture gallery on the Army Facebook page. Claire Perry has used the story in her constituency leaflet and the Salisbury Journal have published it too. Hopefully more people have used it by now, as it helps raise awareness of the choir and their good work.Then it was all change! I had to quickly get my kit, drive to Longmore and photograph Number 1 Company, Irish Guards conduct riot training. This was in preparation for a future contingency role, in EU-led peacekeeping missions and the Olympic security. Quite a variation for my first week back eh?

Military Wives to Riots! Brilliant!

More from me soon.

Steve (@CombatPhot)

Post-op tour leave (POTL)

Sergeant Steve Blake RLC

Sergeant Steve Blake RLC

Sergeant Steve Blake is a professional Army Photographer with the Royal Logistic Corps. A trained soldier, Steve has recently returned from a six-month tour of Afghanistan as part of the three-man Combat Camera Team (comprising a trained journalist, photographer and video cameraman).

21st Century Conflicts

Sorry I have been so quiet over the last month or so, it’s been manic here! I left Afghan around the 19th of March, did the usual stop off in Cyprus, which was actually quite enjoyable, despite just wanting to get home, then landed around the 21st in the UK.

As most of you would have seen my end-of-tour slideshow by now, all I can say is, what a relief! That was such hard work to get off the ground, I am just glad it all worked out. I checked the other night and have over 8,000 hits on YouTube now, and the feedback I have got from my official Twitter (@CombatPhot) has been amazing!

So what have I been up to? Well… three days after landing back in the UK, I was in London giving a talk at the Imperial War Museum on Photography and 21st Century Conflicts. The talk was very well attended, with an audience of over 50, and went down a storm. Making the most of being in London, Mrs Blake, some friends and I made a weekend of it. We checked into an amazing apartment for the night, visited the Ice Bar and went to see Shrek the musical, which was brilliant!

So this is what i’ve missed out on for six months eh?

Venice

After the initial rush to get ready for London was over, it was back to reality, living at home with my family all over again. Six months is a long time to be separated, and everyone has to get used to being around each other again. Sounds weird I know – they are your loved ones and you have all missed each other dearly – but, in a roundabout way, got used to being apart. Using china plates, metal cutlery and being able to wear clothes other than MTP were novel changes for me!

So after a week or so back at home, readjusting, and doing menial tasks that I haven’t missed, like food shopping, I was off on another adventure. This time I was Italy bound. Taking advantage of the school half term, we took the boys away for a week’s holiday. My lovely wife had booked us an apartment about 40 minutes from Venice, giving us plenty of scope to admire the sites in the location we stayed but also travel into Venice for the day.

A local artist

A local artist

Venice is very picturesque in my eyes, although many say its old, decaying and smelly. Well, what do you expect from a city built on water, believed to have been discovered back in 421 AD? The place is still brimming with culture, colour, life and soul of a true Italian city. I just loved it, soaking up the atmosphere was great.

Read about Steve’s Italy experience and see his photographs on his own blog page here

Marny Miles with the Gondolier

Marny Miles with the Gondolier

Marny Miles

My wife had applied to the Marny Miles Facebook page to take him on holiday with us, and we were successful on getting him on the dates of our holiday. Marny Miles is a bear, created by a Military family, who raise money for the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA). The idea is to get Marny to travel as much as possible, with as many families as possible, collecting memorabilia on the way. This, along with Marny will eventually be auctioned off for the charity.

My son Joseph, 9, was really excited and took him everywhere with us, and we even persuaded our Gondolier to have his picture taken with him too. The least he could do for emptying my wallet! haha. We hope that Marny is successful in raising as much money for the charity as possible. To read more just search ‘Marny Miles’ on Facebook.

Well, that was Venice over. Time to pack and head home. What a cracking break with the family.

I now have lots more leave to take, and intend to spend most of it relaxing, but also busying myself on occasion with various projects I am doing, which I will share more about in the not so distant future I hope.

Merry Christmas from Afghanistan

Sergeant Steve Blake RLC

Sergeant Steve Blake RLC

Sergeant Steve Blake is a professional Army Photographer with the Royal Logistic Corps. A trained soldier, Steve is currently serving a six-month tour of Afghanistan as part of the three-man Combat Camera Team (comprising a trained journalist, photographer and video cameraman).

Steve and the team are based at Camp Bastion in Helmand province but will spend most of their time out on the ground, capturing life on the front line.

 

Thank you
 
Well, it’s that time of the year again. The festive silly season is no doubt in full swing back in the UK, but here in Afghanistan, it’s a totally different story.
 
As the UK prepare to get obscenely drunk and eat masses of food and chocolates, the troops here in Afghanistan prepare for just another day!  
 
Some will spend the day relaxing and playing games. 
Some will spend the day patrolling through the bazaar. 
 
Some will have the luxury of a cooked turkey dinner. 
Some will be eating yet another ration pack. 

Some will spend time on Skype to there families. 
Some won’t even get the chance to ring home.

Some will go to bed full of Christmas cheer and food.
Some won’t sleep because they will be on duty.
 
Whatever happens here tomorrow, wherever they are, everyone will be thankful of one thing. The fact they are a day closer to getting home to their loved ones.
 
Whatever you do this Christmas, please, spare a thought for our Troops on Operations who won’t get to see their loved ones this Christmas. Be grateful for whatever ‘Santa’ brings you, but most of all, please be grateful, and raise a glass, to the people sacrificing there lives for your peaceful and terrorist-free Christmas. A lot of people won’t have the opportunity to see their loved ones ever again, and many more now have to face life-changing injuries.
 
I would like to thank everyone who has supported me and my blog over the past few months, the feedback on my imagery has been amazing. But most of all, I want to thank my beautiful wife Michelle, who has been my absolute rock since I departed the UK in September. Big hugs to my kids too, who I am missing terribly. Also not forgetting my gorgeous spaniels, Willow, Monty and Tia.
 
I wish my family, and everyone, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
 
All the best
 
Steve

Being polite or learning a few phrases of Dari and Pashtu goes along way

Signaller Mike Leonidas

Signaller Mike Leonidas

Signaller Mike Leonidas is a Communications Systems Operator (CS Op) currently stationed with 20 Armoured Brigade HQ and Signal Squadron (200), based in Sennelager, Germany. He is deployed on Op HERRICK 15 and is working with A Company Estonian Ops Team.

In Mike’s second blog he tells us about learning multiple languages, keeping communications open, and bonding with his Afghan and Estonian camp mates.

‘Alright mate?’

It’s now my second week and I’m settling into life in my Patrol Base, or PB.  It’s basic living here and everyone has to muck in, from officers to junior ranks. At this level it’s all about working to together and sharing out tasks such as cooking and cleaning. There are no fast food joints or takeaways like on Camp Bastion. You basically eat what you are given, along with whatever treats the chef will let you get away with. I’m glad that I’ve had the chance to live like this.  

We are sharing our PB with the Afghan National Army (ANA). I try to engage them with small talk and they try their best to reply.  I always find it funny when I say ‘Salaam’ and they turn and say ‘alright mate’?  I’ve spent a lot of time speaking to the Afghan interpreters as I want to try and understand the culture and day-to-day life of the normal Afghan.  They are a very proud people with a rich set of beliefs which really varies from village to village.  One of the interpreters has told me that being polite or learning a few phrases of Dari and Pashtu goes along way with the Afghans. Speaking the local language helps the locals to respect and trust you. They are also more likely to offer you important information about their local area.  I’ve started to volunteer for extra duties and I’ve decided to do as much as I can on this tour, as I’m really not here for that long. 

The medic here is teaching me bits of Estonian too. Learning how to say ‘12 months’ is always a funny one. Maybe in a few months I will be able to hold a conversation in two languages. We have had a few quiet periods recently. It’s almost possible to forget that there are insurgents in the area, but we have also had our busy times when the threat has been close at hand.

Mr Cat

I work in the Ops room on a shift pattern now. I get a few hours off a day to have a cold shower or hand wash my kit and relax.  Communications have been relatively stable so far, but when something does go wrong it can be very frustrating.  We have issues with big vehicles ripping out cables, overhead cables.  Some of the antennae we have set up might look a bit rudimentary but they all work really well.  If the Army ever stopped issuing tape and zip ties I dread to think what would happen. 

I’ve also encountered a novel approach to recycling.  Anything that can be used in the PB will be used for something useful.  Chairs and other useful things are made from all manner of different recycled objects.  At the moment we have an ongoing project of making a TV area out of things we can find on camp.

With three nations sharing such a small camp you might think that there would be more problems and personality clashes. But everyone does their best to get on and we are continuously bonding over shared experiences. Our mascot, a cat, imaginatively named Mr Cat, has also become the subject of much shared affection.   

I’m really looking forward to getting to know people more and I think it’s going to be one of the highlights of my tour.

The lights from each compound glowed beneath as we flew towards our destination

Sig Leonidas is a Communications Systems Operator (CS Op) currently stationed with 20th Armoured Brigade HQ and Signal Squadron (200), based in Sennelager, Germany. He has recently deployed on Op HERRICK 15 where he is employed as Rear Link Detachment (RLD) Signaller responsible for providing communications from a small Patrol Base in Northern Nad-E Ali District.
Signaller Mike Leonidas

Signaller Mike Leonidas

The start…

After packing and repacking my bag back at Talbot Barracks in Sennelager, then repacking them again so that all my kit would fit, I was almost ready to deploy Op HERRICK 15. For many of my friends and I, it would be our first operational tour and the nerves were easy to see. The last 9 months or so have passed by in a series of field exercises and comms training which have all been designed to get us prepped for tour correctly.

A classic Army early start meant I didn’t have much time for sleep the night before departure and before I knew it I was on the coach to HannoverAirport for the flight to CampBastion. A few hours later we touched down in the scorching hot dust bowl that is CampBastion.

I can’t say that Mission Specific Training (MST) has flown by or that all the training to get here has been easy, but I was finally here. The last 9 months have been dominated byAfghanistanand I had seen and read countless books, TV news reports and BBC documentaries so it was a great feeling to actually be in the country at last.

On our arrival at Camp Bastionwe were put into transit accommodation before starting our 5 day RSOI package. This is essentially a series of detailed briefs as well as a short field exercise so that you are well versed in the current situation inAfghanistan. The package is designed to remind you of some key skills and drills on arrival and ensure that everyone is up to the basic standard for deployment. The package also contains orientation briefs and lectures on loads of different subjects as well as firing our weapons on the local ranges.

Luckily it wasn’t all lectures and it proved a lot more practical than I first imagined.  During the package we covered many areas with a lot of focus on Counter-IED training.  We had practised these drills a lot during our build up training so we were very familiar with the procedures for helping us to keep safe out on the ground. We were told that Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are the biggest problem out here and, as our Squadron OC put it, the next time you will be confirming if it is a IED or not will be for real. 

I really believe the facts hit home but we all felt a lot more confident after a refresher on the subject. The RSOI package consisted of really long days but we still had time to grab a coffee and relax in the evenings at one of the coffee shops on camp. At the end of this training we said our goodbyes as most of us separated to our respected Check Points and Patrol Bases.

To the unknown …

Waiting at ‘Little Heathrow’, Camp Bastion’s helicopter air transportation hub, I couldn’t help but find it funny that even in Afghanistan I was getting delayed at Heathrow.  It was a Saturday night and a few of us lay on our kit and wondered what our friends were doing at home. After much debating we concluded that this was the best way to spend it – about to fly out on a helicopter to somewhere we have never been to before. We were all nervous but excited and keen to get going. Once on the flight the view was amazing; the lights from each compound glowed beneath us as we flew over towards our final destination. I found myself trying to imagine everyday life for the normal Afghan families living below. 

Touch down …

The flight seemed to go really fast and before I knew it I had arrived at my basic Patrol Base (PB) in Nad-E Ali District.  It felt quite amazing that for the next few months I would eat, sleep and celebrate Christmas here. I’m currently working with the Estonians and Royal Marines until the 20 Armoured Brigade units start to arrive. The Estonians have been very welcoming and they seem professional but relaxed.

Life is petty basic here, there is no running water and the accommodation is pretty minimalistic. For entertainment we can read books and watch DVDs. A lot of the Estonians and Royal Marines have been spending a lot of time at gym so I’ll be joining them during my downtime.

So now it’s time to settle in and familiarise myself with all the comms systems in the PB. I will be responsible for ensuring that they work effectively so I have a big role to play in making sure things run smoothly. I’m sure it’ll be a great tour though.

Everyone looks to arrive at interview brimming with knowledge

Officer Cadet Todd Ledwith writes from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst with a look back at Exercise NORMANDY SCHOLAR in northern France, and a look forward to upcoming Regimental Selection Boards.

Officer Cadet Ledwith

Officer Cadet Ledwith

The historical backdrop of Exercise NORMANDY SCHOLAR set an engaging environment to conduct the sometimes dry estimate and orders process.

Assuming the roles of a young Platoon, Company or Battalion Commander leading on D-Day gave us an appreciation for the enduring effectiveness of the tactical decision-making process, as well as a greater understanding of the history of the events in Northern France post D-Day.

The relevance to current operations was also illustrated, particularly in the urban scenarios. The personnel-intensive nature of urban warfare and the principles of surprise, maintenance of momentum, security, concentration of fire and simplicity were as relevant then as they are now. After our final scenario on Hill 112, planning the defence of the sparse woodblocks and orchard which were subsequently overrun by an aggressive German counter-attack, we attended a moving memorial service at the St Manvieux-Norrey cemetery before departing France and returning to Sandhurst.

Back in camp, the week has focussed upon preparation for the upcoming log-race and Annual Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) and on practising our drill with a view to victory in the drill competition.

Personal attentions are trained upon the Regimental Selection Boards which take place next week. The volume of copies of periodicals sold in the NAAFI has undoubtedly spiked as everyone looks to arrive at interview brimming with knowledge of current affairs as well as the history and dispositions of their two choices of arm. A nerve-wracking week lies ahead for those in the intermediate term.