Culinary delights and Warthogs

Cpl Georgina Coupe

Cpl Georgina Coupe

Corporal Georgina Coupe is the video camerawoman for the British Army’s Combat Camera Team (CCT) based in Afghanistan throughout summer 2012 as part of 12th Mechanized Brigade

Since we left Bastion just over week ago the CCT have covered a lot of miles both in vehicle and by foot.

We flew into Main Operating Base Price in good time for us to sample the culinary delights of “MOB Nice” as it’s commonly known and also to meet up with the Warthog Group formed by The Kings Royal Hussars. It was an eventful few days spent in some sweltering temperatures in the back of the heavily armoured tracked vehicles whose task, whilst we were there, was to provide a security screen for the largest Afghan operation of the year so far.

Variety adds spice

On the first evening I had a chance to put my night vision capabilities through its paces with the 26 Engineer Regiment whilst they reinforced a steel girder bridge in anticipation of the heavy access that would be required over the coming days.

The Afghan ground troops were inserted by helicopter in the early hours of the following morning and began clearing the heavily contested area. Because the area was heavily seeded with Improvised Explosive Devices (IED)s it was a slow and deliberate process.

During our time spent with the Warthogs we saw the impressive manoeuvrability of the vehicles, and saw firsthand their ability to cover a variety of terrain, with the help of the Engineers bridging the gaps over canals and wadis.

Warthog Crossing

Warthog Crossing

I think the most memorable part that will stay with me was filming with Andy out of the top hatch as we crossed through the Helmand River. A few minutes later we were filming the Warthogs mid- recovery of a vehicle from along its banks when they came under fire. Although the contact was fairly short lived and no one was injured, the recovery and the subsequent maintenance took the guys’ hours of physical and mental work, but the sense of humour and camaraderie never failed them.

The Green Zone

After leaving them we have spent the rest of the time between Patrol Bases Rahim and Clifton, both in the Upper Gereshk Valley, in the Green Zone.

During this period we spent some time out with the Grenadier Guards and the Afghan Local Police. Due to a dose of luck and good timing we also happened to be there at the same time as the 12 Mechanized Brigade Commander Brigadier Doug Chalmers, so we were able to move out on a foot patrol with him along with various heads of the Afghan security forces.

Turning up the heat

Patrol Base (PB) Clifton has been a really nice place to spend time at. Although facilities would be deemed as basic back home, out here it’s a well set up with a really good atmosphere. Andy and I got stuck into documenting life at Clifton pretty much straight away, with my first stop being the kitchen, eating being one of my favourite pastimes. Rob and Martin, the chefs here, serve up some pretty impressive meals with a lovely roast dinner one day, and cake and steak, another. Depending on the deliveries, they serve a mix of fresh and frozen food, and also a mix of composite rations. The temperatures that they have to work in far exceed the ones outside, hitting the 70s for them on a regular basis. The kitchen and the food is an important source of morale for everyone at Clifton, and there is always lots of banter and laughter going on in the cookhouse.

Chef turns up the heat

Chef turns up the heat

'Dhobi' - Washing Machine

‘Dhobi’ – Washing Machine

The washing facilities (known as ‘dhobi’) consisted of a washing machine cunningly disguised as a cement mixer and a welfare room which had a ping pong table, internet access and a TV and DVD player, and a makeshift outdoor gym.

Just in case people back home think that the guys and girls out here have got it easy though, you only have to watch the patrols coming back in, with some of them going out 2 or three times a day, and some for two or three days at a time. You can hear the gunfire and explosions going off in the surrounding areas, so it’s never too far from anyone’s mind here that we’re still in Afghanistan. Culinary delights and Warthogs – Cpl Coupe Blogg – British Army

School Curriculum

Captain Harriet Church, a Veterinary liaison Officer for the Provincial Reconstruction Team happened to be here whilst I was at PB Clifton, so I jumped at the opportunity to get out with her and her Afghan counterpart, a civilian who is known as a ‘Paravet’. Their role is to move around Helmand Province setting up short lessons for the local communities teaching them basic farming hygiene and feeding skills.

Watch Video here

Because many of the children here are the primary carers for the herds of cattle Capt Church is in the process of trying to implement this into the local curriculum, following the success of a similar process for IED awareness for the youngsters.

Being out in the Kalays (villages) with all the children is always quite uplifting but it also makes me think about my nephews as well and how glad I am that they are lucky enough to be able to go to school, and not have to have lessons on how to recognise pressure plates and bombs. It definitely makes you appreciate what you would take for granted back home.

Whilst you’re out here living in such close quarters to others, the heat and the physical exertion can take its toll. Some days you would just like a day off and it can be hard to muster enthusiasm for work, but then you come across stories like this and you see how little things like this can make such a massive difference to the next generations of Afghanistan, and it re-inspires and motivates you.

A real mix of experience

We have only got a few more weeks here until our R and R (Rest and Recuperation) which we are all looking forward to. Before then we are in the process of trying to plan and fit in several jobs ahead of our R and R, including;  Afghans training their Heavy Weapons, Counter IED Training as well as some electrical and driver training. I think it’s going to be a real mix of stuff going on and will certainly keep us busy before we get a chance for some much needed down time.

…and thank the chefs

Padre Robin Richardson blogs from Afghanistan about helping out with Christmas lunches, and being inspired to find out more about the life of an Army chef.

Padre Robin Richardson

Padre Robin Richardson

On Christmas Day, I got up much earlier than usual to go and help out in the kitchen. My early is, of course, normal for our chefs – and it was cold. I was put on the large flat grill, with bacon for the whole camp. There is no alcohol in theatre and so ‘gunfire’ for everyone at Shahzad was a bacon roll and a cup of tea. One of the young chefs, Jade, cooked bacon on the grill next to me. She was, as you would expect, faster and better, and when after half an hour of putting it on, turning it, popping it in a container to be kept warm in the oven and my back was feeling just a bit sore, Jade was just getting into her stride. Another packet deftly cut open and so it continued. After an hour and a quarter we were finished and the bacon roll I’d been waiting for since before six was just what was needed. Utter perfection – though I say so myself.

The Parachute Regiment Band flew six members into Shahzad later on in the morning, and so at midday we all got together at the front of the bullet-spattered building that we use as a headquarters and we sang Christmas Carols and heard the Christmas story right back from Isaiah’s prophecy through to Luke’s detailed account. Amongst the berets and issued warm kit there was the occasional Santa hat, and even one or two hand-knitted Christmas jumpers; a kind of sartorial rebellion that just added to the high spirits of the day. I spoke for a couple of minutes, and prayed for the injured and bereaved as well as for our families whom we were missing so much. But then my mind went back to the kitchen. All I did was cook some bacon – why did it seem like such big a deal? I had volunteered to help serve the Christmas lunch too, and so maybe I would get more of an idea of what was starting to nag at me a bit as I got stuck into that.

Lunch was on for two hours. I started serving soup and then carved some turkey. Two hours is a long time to be filling peoples’ plates; though having a bit of a chat with folks as they moved through was great and the cheerful and thankful comments I heard the blokes making to the chefs really warmed my heart. At the end of my stint, having had a couple of hours standing more or less stationary whilst serving, my aching feet gave me slightly more idea of what Arturo and his team in the kitchen have to do day in and day out. But I wanted to know more. How long is a chef’s day? How much time do they get off during it? There was only one thing for it – dive into the life of the kitchen for more than just one meal!

Sean, one of best men you could ever wish to meet, has been in the Army for 25 years and now as an officer, has overall control of what we call G4 for Shahzad. Where we live, what we eat, fuel, kit and the kitchen all fall under his watchful eye. He often goes and helps out behind the scenes in the cook tent, and the chefs really do appreciate his way of getting to know the folks who are working for him and the job they have to do, by doing it too. Sean and one of our Colour Sergeants, Stu, had breakfast covered on the day I was going to help, but I still needed to be in the kitchen for 9. Three willing volunteers meant that Jade, Collin, John and Kirk could have a well earned day off, with just Arturo, ever-watchful, guiding Sean, Stu and my time working with and for him. Sean’s spaghetti carbonara and Stu’s soup were already well under way when I started on the bread. I hadn’t kneaded bread for a long time, and I had forgotten what hard work it is and everything is bigger when you’re catering for hundreds and not just your family. Collin usually makes it and in a batch twice the size I was working with, and yet after ten minutes I was really feeling it! This cooking business was hard work and I was only an hour in.

Arturo was in control of everything, timing, ingredients, technique and seemed to effortlessly work round the two hot and several cold options that were slowly coming together. There was time for a quick cup of tea after an hour or so before the bread went into and then out of the oven and everything was put together for lunch. After lunch Arturo explained what was to be done for dinner; the soup made in the morning was also to be the base for a pasta bake and so forth. An hour to catch up on admin and then back into the tent to start work on four hot choices for dinner. I had barely had time to think before this next round of preparation started; garlic bread was needed – and was kneaded, and so another culinary workout began. We found out once we had started serving that about thirty of the lads were in the middle of a battle just a kilometre or so away. Arturo quietly told us that ‘whatever time they get back in, they’ll have their dinner.’ Plenty of each option was then carefully put aside with a level of care and concern well beyond the actual process and when the final dinners of those on camp had gone through, we waited. No one would leave the kitchen until everyone had been fed. I walked over to the ops room to find out how things were progressing. ‘They’ll be in in half an hour,’ was the answer I got, ‘and thank the chefs.’

Exhausted, and yet beaming the lads, still muddy from a tough afternoon washed their hands and had their plates filled with any combination of the food they wanted. Every one of them thanked us, and then went to tuck into their well-deserved dinner. We had managed to get most things tidied whilst we waited and so it didn’t take us long to finish up. Sean made sure that Arturo got the next day off, and I slept very well that night.

There is something quite wonderful in the relationship between the British soldier and our military chefs. Such care in preparation, presentation and understanding of what the lads have been going through on the part of the chefs, and from the soldiers, a real gratitude for the service and the mountains of food they receive three times a day, every day where there is a kitchen up and running. If we were able to get a kitchen and a chef into every location it would be brilliant because the difference men and women like Arturo, Kirk, Jade, Collin and John make to the morale and wellbeing of a group of people is astonishing. And one last thing; I’ve always appreciated the work of our chefs, but didn’t really understand how hard they work until I had a go, and even though it was for just one day, it made me think of just how many people I’ve met over the years who have had strong opinions, loudly expressed but have not had the opportunity to appreciate, even for just a short time, the lives the efforts, and the gifts of those they judge so readily.