Life changing experiences in Malawi, Botswana and South Africa

Corps of Army Music

Corporal Simon Lindley, Corps of Army Music Short Term training team member

Corporal Simon Lindley is a trombonist and singer in the Corps of Army Music. His current role is Force Development Assistant at the HQ of Army Music.  He and a number of other members of the Corps of Army Music recently went to Malawi, Botswana and South Africa as part of a short term training team to help develop the musical capabilities of  the Armed Forces in those countries.

Army Music training team visits Malawi, Botswana and South Africa

Malawi

The Corps of Army Music Short Term Training Team (STTT) led by Warrant Officer Class One Shane O’Neill arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi after a 14-hour flight via Johannesburg. With lots of queuing in airports in between, we finally arrived at the Sunbird Hotel, where the team relaxed and prepared for a rewarding 2 days work with The Malawi Defence Force Band (MDF Band). The team arrived at the 2nd Battalion Malawi Defence Force camp in Lilongwe, home of the MDF band and were introduced by their Director of Music, Captain Levison Chisambi, himself a graduate of the Royal Military School of Music Bandmasters course.

The team quickly became acquainted with members of the Band and sat down to join in with their full band rehearsal. Part way through the morning the OCs of both our team and the MDF Band left to go on a recce for a joint engagement for a charity golf event for the Malawi War Veterans charity. Rehearsals for the engagement continued under the direction of Sergeant John Storey and myself.  After lunch we each took sectional rehearsals of the MDF Band working on music for the engagement, as well as covering some basic musicianship skills, and answering questions on a variety of subjects. After a hard day’s work we returned to the hotel for a well-earned rest.

With part of the day free before the engagement at the British High Commissioner’s residence the we took the opportunity to visit Lake Malawi, which was an amazing site and also visited a local village community market and saw first-hand the talented people had carved wooden gifts to sell for their community. After returning to Lilongwe the team headed to work where both the brass quintet and the wind quartet provided musical entertainment to all the guests as well as performing the all important national anthems of Malawi and Great Britain. We were then invited to enjoy some fish and chips and chatted with various guests before retiring to the hotel. A second day of training with the MDF band went ahead, with final preparations for Saturday’s joint engagement being the focus. After a full band rehearsal the team again took sectional rehearsals continuing to work with the MDF Band on music as well as covering instrumental maintenance. At the end of the day the team all had photos with our new friends in the MDF Band.

The War Veterans Commemoration Event at Lilongwe golf club, which was attended by many senior MDF officers as well as the British High Commissioner and the newly elected Vice President of Malawi, was a great success. The band provided musical entertainment all morning on the 18th green and then further music was provided during dinner by the wind quartet. At the end of this joint engagement with the MDF Band, the team said fond farewells to our new friends in the MDF band and returned to the hotel to pack for the drive to Blantyre in southern Malawi. Next day we  packed up and headed off in our two trusty vehicles fully loaded with bags and instruments on the six-hour drive to Blantyre… After some excellent navigation, we arrived 9 hours later with 4 tired drivers who had to show their off road skills on multiple occasions and good use of the emergency stop to avoid goats that appeared to have suicidal tendencies as we travelled through the country. After checking in to our second hotel, the team settled for the evening. On the 9th June we went to Blantyre hospital to work with the Sound Seekers Charity providing music for the event and working with hearing impaired people helping them to have fun and express themselves with various musical instruments, a very worthwhile cause and a satisfying day was had by all.

Corps of Army Music training team

Training by the Corps of Army Music short term training team

Johannesburg

Arriving safely in Johannesburg after flying from Blantyre, the wind quartet were straight out on an engagement, at the British High Commissioner’s residence in Pretoria whilst the rest of the team enjoyed their new surroundings. The team met with the South African National Defence Force Ceremonial Guards Band based in Pretoria for a day of training. After watching the Band perform a marching display and small ensemble performance we and the SANDF CG Band joined up for full band rehearsal under the direction of our Bandmaster and enjoyed another successful day. There is a high degree of satisfaction when both the training and rehearsals go so well.

On 12th June  the brass quintet performed at the British High Commission in Pretoria over lunch before the whole team headed to the Soweto Theatre to spend the afternoon working with local musicians. Next day, with part of the day free, the team took the opportunity to take in some of the recent history of South Africa visiting the Constitution Hill Museum and Court  and learning much about the country’s transition from apartheid to democracy. Later that evening we supported another Dinner Night before retiring for the evening.

The next day we began the drive north towards Botswana stopping en route to spend part of the day with Modderspruit Sunrise Hospice who work with children and families living with HIV and Aids. This was without doubt the most harrowing and moving part of the whole trip, but it was a privilege to be able to provide a little entertainment and ‘musical therapy’ for the children and families living with this disease.  The end of the visit culminated in the performance of the British and South African National Anthems, the children gathered together and sang their anthem as we played. Having performed anthems at both Wembley and Twickenham, I can guarantee that these pale in comparison to the passion and energy for life that the children sang with. Very moving.

Community engagement by the Corps of Army Music

Modderspruit Sunrise Hospice

Before continuing on to Botswana, the team took the chance to go on an early-morning game drive taking in some of the wildlife of South Africa in their own environment. After enjoying the spectacular sights and sounds, the team continued the journey to Garbarone in Botswana, arriving at the hotel late in the afternoon.

On the 16th June the team spent the day with the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) Band Garbarone, after introductions the team assisted with an Officer Commissioning Parade rehearsal and provided feedback to the band afterwards. In the afternoon the bandmaster took a full band rehearsal of the parade music, then later in the evening the team joined with the BDF Band performing a concert for the Officer Cadets.

Next day it was the turn of  the brass quintet who performed at a Queen’s Birthday Party at the British High Commission enjoying some traditional British food and providing background music. Our final day of training with the BDF Band proved to be an interesting one, despite major issues with a power cut the team still managed to provide some tuition to the various sections of the band. The team were later taken on a tour of the BDF zoo where they keep animals for the purposes of training and educating their soldiers about wildlife they may encounter in the field.

The team with a statue of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg

The team with a statue of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg

After leaving presentations and photos with the BDF Band the team headed back to the hotel for a final meal and to pack for the journey home. The team packed up the vehicles and drove from Botswana back to Johannesburg for the flight back to the UK. The team arrived home full of amazing memories, life-changing events and feeling thoroughly satisfied that we had completed the trip and leaving the musicians we trained with plenty of new skills and things to think about over the coming months.

 

Read more CAMUS blogs

Find out more about the Corps of Army Music

Returning to civilian life: Back in basic

Captain Mau Gris began this blog when he was team leader for the British Army’s Combat Camera Team (CCT) based in Afghanistan throughout the summer 2013 as part of 1st Mechanized Brigade on Op Herrick 18. 

Captain Mau Gris on the road to civilian life

Captain Mau Gris on the road to civilian life

Mau returned to the UK at the end of September 2013. The rest of his blog will focus on leaving the Army and going back to the life of a civilian. For Mau, this includes going back to university – trading his helmet and combats for a mortar board and gown.

Transition angst

I can only imagine the kind of angst and worry those with a family to support must experience as they go through the transition to civilian life.  For me with no dependents or mortgage there is a low level buzz of anxiety, drawn from looming unemployment and being out of my Army comfort blanket.

Also being back at school on the wrong side of 30 was never something I planned. In reality my TV Journalism MA is more like being back in basic training. Which isn’t a pleasant idea, I didn’t make a great start in training. I turned up with long hair on the first day, which was a massive error.

A lot of people resettling won’t have to do what I am doing. For most, the CTP package which I also did, should be good enough to launch them into a job provided they do the leg work. Failing that, there are loads of people who can help. The key is knowing what you want to do.

Know the area you want to be in

I know the area I want to be in, which has lead me to where I am now.

Fortunately like most Forces personnel resettling, I am not quite at square one. My job as a Combat Camera Team leader has given me practical understanding, experience and transferable skills. The problem is knowing how valuable they are, where to apply them and how much they are worth. If anyone knows please tweet me!

For now, the course gives me purpose, and I am in the right place. The shared interest and passion makes journalists more like the soldiers then either would like to admit; once you get past the stubble and dress state. These would have any RSM howling at the moon and lashing out with pace stick in hand.

Army vs civilian life

Never having worked in the real world, unless you count a summer as an Punter in Cambridge, I increasingly find myself using the Army to make sense of the new civilian environment. In my MA, my lecturers are the DS (Directing Staff). Experienced practitioners in the industry who will teach me the ways of the job. The only differences are physical and environmental.

My first Army DS was a 6ft 4 Yorkshire man with a shorn head, who’d deliver ‘instructions’ and ‘encouragement’ like enemy machine gun fire and with similar effect. Often peppering the platoon with wisdom when we were up to our webbing in water in some godforsaken Welsh ditch.

My Masters Directing Staff is a 5ft something and a former BBC journalist. From a cosy lecture theatre, she delivers her wisdom couched in amongst anecdotes. They are different, but they are teaching you what to expect in the job. And like basic, this is the start of the job as I see it.

Jack Nicholson.

Jack Nicholson. ‘You can’t handle the truth’!

The difference is in the principles

For all the similarities the two jobs are very different at their core. The core of any profession is in the principles and doctrine they teach. Army principles are different from journalistic principles. It is here that the problem lies for service leavers as they resettle.

Army leavers often feel themselves to be the only ones in the workplace applying principles to their work, other than the ‘look after number one’ principle. For me it hasn’t reached this yet – my problem is one of ‘openness’ versus ‘need to know.’ That classic argument summed up by Jack Nicholson – ‘You can’t handle the truth.’ An issue that has gotten me in a little bit of trouble before.

In truth I am still trying to resolved this as I want to hold on to some of the stuff the Army instils; but not at all costs. Just because there is truth in the saying ‘you can take the boy out of the Army but not the Army out of the boy,’ I think you can choose what part stays.

Next time… Out into the real world -understanding BBC Newsnight through the Army.

The BBC Newsnight studio

The BBC Newsnight studio

Read Mau’s other blogs here: Capt Mau Gris

Follow Mau on Twitter: @mau_gris

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

An artist abroad: Back into the swing of things

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.

How quickly time is still flying by, I have now been back at work for just over two weeks and my handover will be here in another two. Now fully re-charged and re-energised I will endeavour not to succumb to what is most commonly known as the R&R blues – a condition that affects 99.9 per cent of personnel returning from the joys of a restful R&R to the high tempo and routine of OP HERRICK. Determined not to allow this to creep in, I hit the ground running and I felt as if I had never left. It was actually a pleasure to see the familiar faces that I have been working alongside for the past five months and listening to their experiences on R&R with reinvigorated spirits and renewed enthusiasm… although this rapidly faded into the general routine hubbub of the working headquarters.

Bold and bright painting

My $3 Afghan engagement ring

My $3 Afghan engagement ring

Time certainly wasn’t going to drag during my first week back as my Battery Commander (BC) was due on his R&R and therefore I would have to cover some of his tasks and staff work. With a comprehensive set of handover notes – all rigidly hyperlinked and absolutely foolproof.  My  BC has now returned and I managed to accomplish the tasks I was set and await the next drafting for various pieces of staff work to include; the Relief in Place (RiP) , handover and normalisation FRAGOs  (Fragmentation Orders) , a Post Operational Report, and a Mission Exploitation presentation. All of these are essential to ensure that our handover to the next brigade is professional and informative to provide a seamless transition from one to the other. The Post Operational Report and Mission Exploitation are key documents to enable all the lessons learnt from our tour to be collated and discussed to improve our capability and deployment for the future.

But enough about staff work…

This blog’s painting is referenced from a photograph of two Afghan Uniformed Police (AUP) women on the ranges conducting pistol training. I wanted to create a bold and bright painting by laying a brilliant orange background in contrast with the blue of the AUP uniform and the dark blue/ coal shades of their head scarves. These women are in training at the Lashkar Gah Training Centre (LTC) which is the centre of excellence for police training in Helmand Province – where over 2,000 Afghan Nationals are trained each year  to become policemen and women. Their skill and courage is highly commendable, and their will is strong as they persist to be able to provide their own security – an Afghan solution to an Afghan problem, as is the running theme of OP HERRICK 18.

Paint was drying far too quickly

Painting outside with photo reference

Painting outside with photo reference

The painting starts life out the back of my tent but with temperatures still reaching 37 degrees Celsius during the day, I couldn’t spend much longer than 20 minutes outside – particularly as the paint was drying far too quickly! Here you can see I managed to get a quick wash of colour on the background before I turned into the shade. I am struggling to find the time to paint as my shift doesn’t allow time during the day, and at night; now sharing a tent often means the lights are out by the time I get back off shift. However, a fellow artist in the headquarters – the Brigade Movements Warrant Officer (BMWO) has regularly booked out one of the small conference rooms in the evening after 2100hrs, and so after hours we both sit down for an hour to paint. Although this does compete heavily with my gym time!

Tented accommodation

Tented accommodation

Times of change are noticeably prevalent as I am one of two OP HERRICK 18 females remaining in our tent, whilst the others have all moved to the transit as they start their handovers with their replacements now occupying their former bed spaces. The ratio of red rats (7 Bde )  to green triangles (1 Mech Bde ) is rapidly increasing as they filter through their RSOI and start to find their way around the headquarters. I admire their enthusiasm, for some this is their first tour and for others they are seasoned veterans already. But I don’t envy them, nine months is a long time, and I’m glad my six are coming to an end now.

Selecting artwork for the coffee table book

AUP women WIP

AUP women WIP

AUP women WIP

AUP women WIP

 

In addition to routine staff work I am in the process of selecting all the artworks from across Helmand; from paintings, pencil drawings, photographs and poems, for the production of the OP HERRICK 18 Operational Art coffee table book.  A number of professional artists have deployed with various members of the Brigade during Op HERRICK 18 including; Graeme Lothian, Matt Cook, Hugh Beattie and Michael Alford to name a few.  I have had a fantastic response from the soldiers of the Brigade and certainly have my work cut out with over 500 submissions to filter through. They will all be presented to the Brigade commander and his panel in the coming week. Throughout this sorting process, I have also managed to design a poster to be distributed amongst the Brigade and soldiers are already signing up for their memento. Copies of the book will also be available to the general public – so look out for information on the British Army social media pages if you want one!

Op HERRICK 18 Art Book Poster

Op HERRICK 18 Art Book Poster

With only three weeks remaining I am incredibly excited already about the prospect of going home and enjoying my post operational tour leave! I also have a new job to look forward to on my return …more details on that in my next blog. And to finish this blog, here is the finished painting of the AUP women.

AUP women finished painting

AUP women finished painting

Look at Sophie’s page

Find out more about Army Arts Society

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

50 Shades of Green

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.

You can’t put a price on R&R

‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’. Now whilst I don’t believe this in general, an absence of several months does make you appreciate things you might otherwise take for granted.

You cannot beat the first time you lay eyes on the UK countryside after a prolonged time in the desert. Everything is so green and lush; the smells so familiar and comforting. The taste of that first beer. Underlying that, and most often taken for granted, is that sense of order and safety that is often missing on operations.

Green, green grass (and trees) of home.

Green, green grass (and trees) of home.

Under UK skies again.

Under UK skies again.

Picking your rest and recuperation (R&R) date is a luxury I have not had on previous tours. Being part of a small team has it’s benefits. The question is then is when to go? If you get it wrong your work and relationship with those around you can be affected.

Too early and you come back with more than you have done, left to do. A morale sapping situation, in which you watch everyone else get excited before they go off knowing you still have to push through to the end.  You become a bit of a misery guts.

Too late and you end up climbing the walls and generally getting a bit ratty because working longer than 3 months straight is a long haul. I have experienced both, having gone way too early on my first and way too late on my second tour. So I was ready to make an informed choice.

Ditching the Army regulation footwear for a couple of weeks.

Ditching the Army regulation footwear for a couple of weeks.

Then I got told I had an important wedding ‘that I could not miss; not even for Queen and country.’ So ‘too late,’ it was again. If you’’ve read this blog before you’ll know that the boys (Sgt Pope and Sgt Lloyd) had taken their R&R and were back by the time I was due to go and I was going back solo.

I was ready for mine by the time five months had rolled by. After the obligatory delays, stop overs and reshuffles, I made it back. There is something about seeing British soil for the first time after a long time in Afghanistan. A large weight that you weren’t aware you were carrying, lifts. A blissful moment of stepping off the aircraft into a damp Wednesday morning, entirely mundane.

There is that rush you get in every airport over the world, collecting baggage, clearing customs and the heart-warming scenes of long-separated loved ones reunited. I met my parents, as is tradition, and then met my brother, who came up from London for a meal. The sense of being home reinforced by the quintessentially British streets of Oxford and poor restaurant service.

Beer tastes so good when you've not had any for months.

Beer tastes so good when you’ve not had any for months.

Following that I caught the train home with my bro. Some would advocate going straight out to see friends for a bit of a party, but I find big crowds sketch me out a little when I first get back. Plus, nothing good ever came combining five months booze free with over excitement in London.

So I had my beer in the garden. I had a Sol, as it was the only thing I could find in the fridge. No drink matches the first one back, and there were many over R&R.

Most of R&R passed in a blur. I vaguely remember being dressed as a Spice Girl, and had a lovely relaxed stay in Zurich (not at the same time!)

Too soon it was time to dig out the combats again for the trip back to Helmand. There was the standard antisocial check-in at 0400. I had the nice surprise of finding out that Si Longworth, a fellow Army blogger would be sharing the journey back.

Regardless of how well you planned for your return, there is that feeling in the pit of your stomach of walking into the unknown. A distilled version of that was experienced at the start of tour. As it happened, his Holiness (Sgt Pope) and Lloydie, were all over it.

A couple of days later and it’s like you were never away, although there is a renewed energy that was not quite there when you left. There is a slight debate in some circles about the value of R&R, it is a constant drain of manpower and a logistical strain on the ‘air bridge’. But, then, how do you put a price on R&R?

An Artist Abroad: People make places

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 finished my last post suggesting that I would have a go at some caricatures and so I did…

Whilst travelling back to Lashkar Gah from Price, I transited through Bastion for a day and spent some time with the ‘Bastion Ops’ team, whom I talk to daily over the Polycom in my daily update brief. I had my camera out when the MTWO (Motor Transport Warrant Officer) grabbed me and suggested that I take a photograph of her team there and then, sitting on the bench in the ops room. In fact, she demanded that I produce something memorable for them! Now the MTWO isn’t the kind of person you say no to, and so I hurriedly snapped away at the somewhat reluctant faces either side of her. She suggested that it didn’t matter what style I managed to produce, so long as it was fun … and that she wouldn’t mind a caricature…so that set my thoughts going!

A local face.

A local face.

I have never drawn caricatures, and on reflection of this project, I probably ought not to attempt them again! I googled a few ‘how to draw caricatures’ guides on the internet and printed off some examples to have a practice and see how I got on. This was certainly easier said than done! I managed to copy the examples with no problems, but I found it hard to steer away from drawing what I saw realistically, instead ‘seeing’ a caricature and highlighting obvious features of recognition. Nevertheless I had set myself this aim of creating a caricature of the Bastion Ops team, and would persist to see what I could come up with.

Ten years younger!

Bastion Ops team

Bastion Ops team

Here is the final drawing – I purposely tried to keep the faces as the main focus with only rough, sketchy lines to indicate their bodies in order not to detract away from their faces. As a first attempt at a recognisable individual, it wasn’t too bad – the team certainly recognised themselves, but a little more work is needed on this style of drawing! I ‘revealed’ the finished drawing to them during one of our daily conferences, as it appeared as the final slide to the powerpoint presentation entitled ‘Any Other Business’. It was a little light humour over a weekend, as the weeks so often merge into one. Thankfully, it was very well received and the individuals in question shared the humour. The RSM was particularly happy as he appeared around ten years younger, whilst the BSM now has an idea of what he will look like in ten years time! The BK also noted the size of his biceps whilst the MTWO appeared younger!

Free flowing nature

However, in the aftermath I thought I would stick to what I knew and decided to produce a watercolour painting of a little girl who caught my eye as she fleetingly stared up at the sangar as she walked past with her classmate. I wondered what she could possibly have been thinking as she wore such a suspicious and perturbed expression whilst clutching her book. The perceptions of ISAF troops vary considerably from children who rush from their houses to wave the troops past, to those that are only too happy to pick up the biggest stone and take their best shot.

Colourful passers by.

Colourful passers by.

I thoroughly enjoyed working on this piece as it was painted on nice grainy watercolour paper, and I had forgotten what a difference good quality paper makes! The Movements Warrant Officer in the headquarters (another keen artist) had returned from a visit to the UK bringing with her a large pad of the paper, and very kindly gave me a few sheets. I love the way the paint is absorbed into the paper, and the subtle shades but deep colour it enables.

Yellow fusion.

Yellow fusion.

The dress takes shape.

The dress takes shape.

Well I must admit that I find acrylic encourages me to paint in layers and blocks of colour whereas watercolour is a lot more fluid. I particularly enjoy the free flowing nature of watercolour paints as I use flow of water to place the paint on the paper in a loose and carefree manner. I started this week’s painting with a background wash of yellows and brown infused to create a mottled and patchy backdrop.Once this had dried, I started to work on building up the cloth and texture of the girl’s dress and headscarf. A suggestion of the pattern on the dress, and the shadows of her headscarf start to take shape before I hint at shading her face. You may notice in this picture that I have also used some watercolour pencils to mark out the dress pattern and the detail in her hands prior to painting them.

Detailing her headscarf.

Detailing her headscarf.

It wasn’t long until I had completed a very simplified suggestion of a pattern on her dress, and had built up the layers and shading of her headscarf. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to take any pictures in between these stages as I was too busy concentrating on working up the shades and texture. Once I had completed her clothing, I focused on her hands and troubled expression. Skin colour is often hard to gauge but I always start with a rough mix of yellow, brown and red, using white and blue to vary the lightness and darkness. The more red and white I add, the more pink the tone, whereas adding brown and a smidgen of blue will darken the tone considerably. In extremis, I also use a black, but tend not to make a habit of it.

Test sheet.

Test sheet.

 

I prefer to paint the face light to dark, starting with a light base layer and building up darker layers working from the edges of her headscarf and fading towards the centre of her face. I particularly wanted to make her frown stand out, and focus on her eyes. So here is the finished piece for this week!

The Observer.

The Observer.

This next week will be very busy as my room is packed up and my work space limited to a ruggedized laptop and monitor, two phones and a handful of stationary. The rest of the office should be making its way to Bastion where, at the end of this week, I too shall soon find myself! I am incredibly excited at the prospect of my R&R which is now only a week away! I can’t wait to see my fiancé, the dogs, the rest of my family and friends! Not long now.

Look at Sophie’s page