The Halfway Point

Lt Claire Jackson, OC CCT Herrick 19

Lt Claire Jackson, OC CCT Herrick 19

Lieutenant Claire Jackson is team leader for the British Army’s combat camera team for Herrick 19. She works alongside Sgt Dan Bardsley (photographer) and Sgt Paul Shaw (video cameraman). They are based in Afghanistan and will be covering the work of the Armed forces, in particular 7th Armoured Brigade – the Desert Rats, throughout the winter.  They capture moving and still imagery from events out on the ground that national broadcasters don’t have access to.

Like a scene out of Top Gun

12 weeks in and we’ve reached the halfway point of our H19 tour. It only seems like yesterday when we arrived a bit dazed and tired in the middle of the night into Camp Bastion. I still have to keep reminding myself at times of how lucky we are to be doing this job, with such a diverse range of taskings. And for me being a Reservist, and this my first tour, it’s a real privilege.

As I’m writing this I’m sat in front of a Tornado GR4 watching pilots and crewmen doing their various pre-flight checks, the huge ‘Three Mile Mountain’ in the background towering over Kandahar airfield. A bit different to the view outside the office window in the UK that I’m used, and more like a scene from Top Gun. We’re here to capture some footage with 617 Sqn, part of 904 Expeditionary Air Wing (EAW), known as the ‘Dambusters’.

Three Mile Mountain towers over Kandahar Airfield as we carry out the filming

Three Mile Mountain towers over Kandahar Airfield as we carry out the filming

“Take my breath away…” Just like a scene out of Top Gun!

“Take my breath away…” Just like a scene out of Top Gun!

This is our second trip to Kandahar. We were here only a few weeks ago to capture HRH, the Duke of York at a Remembrance Service. I got very excited as I was told that there might be an opportunity for us to interview him. So with questions already prepped and signed off, we waited patiently at the flight line for him to arrive only to be told that he wasn’t doing any more interviews as he’d already done a fair few in Bastion earlier that day. Oh well, next time I might be more lucky to get a VIP interview.

HRH, the Duke of York visits Kandahar for a Remembrance Service

HRH, the Duke of York visits Kandahar for a Remembrance Service

Could it be magic?

The Duke of York isn’t the first VIP visit that we have covered on this tour. We were very lucky to be involved in an ITV production, which was hosted by Take That’s Gary Barlow. For two weeks we had a large TV crew living with us. A great bunch of people from the world of tv production and one that I’m very familiar with, so great for a bit of networking. I’m going to need to start looking for a job once this tour is over! And, another VIP visit last month when Katherine Jenkins came out to sing to the troops.

A photogenic Katherine Jenkins puts a smile on troops faces

A photogenic Katherine Jenkins puts a smile on troops faces

An unforgettable trip to Kajaki

One memory that I will definitely be taking back with me from this tour is a recent trip to Kajaki, a tasking for the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). Not only is the place breathtaking, but we arrived in a V-22 Osprey. For those of you who haven’t heard of this aircraft, it’s a tilt-rotor aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter but once airborne its engines rotate to convert the aircraft into a turboprop plane capable of high-speed, high altitude flight. It looks just like an aircraft from the set of Avatar!

This wouldn’t look out of place in the Avatar movie

This wouldn’t look out of place in the Avatar movie

We took off in the pitch black early hours of the morning with the rear ramp open just like in a Chinook. A very strange feeling once the aircraft has taken off vertically like a helicopter only to then switch into plane mode and shoot up into the sky at an angle, with the rear ramp still open, and the gunner sitting very comfortably on the back. All I’ll say is just hold on to your bags!

Just another average view for this gunner on the back ramp of an Osprey

Just another average view for this gunner on the back ramp of an Osprey

The picturesque sights of Kajaki

The picturesque sights of Kajaki

The PRT has been responsible for a number of development projects in Helmand Province. Afghan contractors have carried out construction work on Route 611 which has been routinely monitored by a team of Royal Engineers from the PRT. We were out filming with the Engineers on the ground, which prompted interest from the local Helmandi population. We were greeted by loads of happy and curious children and adults eager to see what we were doing.

Three Mile Mountain towers over Kandahar Airfield as we carry out the filming

The CCT at work

The curious locals eager to see what we were doing

The curious locals eager to see what we were doing

Locals continue on with their daily chores as the engineers carry out their work

Locals continue on with their daily chores as the engineers carry out their work

An amazing few days in Kajaki. Just seeing how the work on this route has improved the lives of the locals is such a great feeling. The smiles on the kids’ faces say it all. This is one trip that will stay with me for a very long time.

Images were taken by Sgt Dan Bardsley and Sgt Paul Shaw

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Getting into the swing of things pt2

Lt Claire Jackson, OC CCT Herrick 19

Lt Claire Jackson, OC CCT Herrick 19

Lieutenant Claire Jackson is team leader for the British Army’s combat camera team for Herrick 19. She works alongside Sgt Dan Bardsley (photographer) and Sgt Paul Shaw (video cameraman). They are based in Afghanistan and will be covering the work of the Armed forces, in particular 7th Armoured Brigade – the Desert Rats, throughout the winter.  They capture moving and still imagery from events out on the ground that national broadcasters don’t have access to.

From one dust storm to another

Back in Bastion, media edited and released for public consumption, it was time to set to work on clearing up a backlog of articles and stories, and set up the next jobs, one of them being a footage request from the BBC for a future TV programme. They required a shot of a Chinook carrying an under-slung load (a large net used to transport cargo). So having tracked down the relevant contact and found a day suitable for all parties, we headed down to the JAG (which is another MOD abbreviation and nothing to do with the car – Joint Aviation Group) to capture the required footage.

We were given an initial briefing, told where to stand and how close we could get to the helicopter as the load was being lifted.  Then it was time to head out to the HLS (helicopter landing site) to await it’s arrival, kitted out in full PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) which consists of body armour, helmet, gloves, ear protection (ballistic knickers and a nappy type contraption if you are going out on the ground).  The body armour alone weighs approx 35lb so for a petite lady like myself it has been a bit gruelling at times carrying all the kit and I’ve had to learn to man up!

The power and energy from this aircraft is immense!

The power and energy from this aircraft is immense!

Within minutes the beast was flying above our heads. The sheer noise and power from its rotor blades is immense. The main issue though is the amount of dust it kicks up and the sheer force it generates, it can literally blow you right over.  Paul and Dan got into action pretty quickly and captured the required footage and images from various angles. Job done!

A few days later we experienced our own natural dust storm which swept through Bastion at some speed creating devastation in camps where doors and windows had been left opened. Normally we are given prior warnings but on this occasion there was none and within minutes the sky had turned a dusty orange colour.  It was just like something out of the movies, with a dirty orange cloud of dust all around us.  The safety glasses came in very useful for once.  And I’m sure the layer of dust worked well as a substitute exfoliator in the absence of the usual beauty products!

A dust storm sweeps through Bastion

A dust storm sweeps through Bastion

The photographers are in their element amidst the storm

The photographers are in their element amidst the storm

Paul and Dan took this as a perfect opportunity to put their photographic skills to the test.

The taskings continue to flow in. They may not be as ‘war-focussed’ as the team would like but as the Afghan National Army (ANA) takes the lead in Helmand, British and ISAF troops are stepping back into a more of mentoring and training role which opens up opportunities of a different nature, and a variety of internal stories from the remaining patrol bases and within Bastion as troops draw back.

FOB Price at night

FOB Price at night

A soldier takes cover during RSOI training

A soldier takes cover during RSOI training

Animal withdrawal symptoms

Being out here away from all the usual creature comforts, as well as missing family and friends, I’ve been missing my pets and any sort of interaction with fluffy animals being very much a cat and dog lover.  The wildlife in Bastion consists of the odd fox or rodent, a breed of enormous ants that can be found swarming around the camp, and in the smaller patrol bases you get the occasional stray cat or dog.  My parents will be glad to know that I haven’t adopted any of the fluffy variety yet using my tour bonus to fly them back to the UK!

So when the lads stumbled across an injured bird (or deformed, not quite sure if it was born this way), my maternal instincts kicked in.  Unfortunately there wasn’t much to be done for this creature and rescuing the local wildlife doesn’t fit into our job spec.  The bird seemed happy enough though and has found a temporary home outside the Media compound. So my quest to rescue a stray animal continues….!

Not sure if he is injured or born this way?

Not sure if he is injured or born this way?

Have you ever seen ants this size before?

Have you ever seen ants this size before?

Images were taken by Sgt Dan Bardsley and Sgt Paul Shaw

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Getting into the swing of things pt1

Lt Claire Jackson, OC CCT Herrick 19

Lt Claire Jackson, OC CCT Herrick 19

Lieutenant Claire Jackson is team leader for the British Army’s combat camera team for H19. She works alongside Sgt Dan Bardsley (photographer) and Sgt Paul Shaw (video cameraman). They are based in Afghanistan and will be covering the work of the Armed forces, in particular 7th Armoured Brigade – the Desert Rats, throughout the winter.  They capture moving and still imagery from events out on the ground that national broadcasters don’t have access to.

Just go with the flow

I’m currently sitting in Forward Operating Base (FOB) Lashkar Gah waiting for a flight back to Bastion. We came out here for a tasking near Kajaki but unfortunately it’s been put on hold for the day and we are required back at base for another job.  We’ve been out here two months now and have had a reasonably busy tour so far with lots of taskings and last-minute changes which send all plans into disarray.

Those of you who know me, know that I am ‘Little Miss Organised’ to the degree of putting Excel spreadsheets together for past holidays (something my boyfriend and family will agree proved very useful in terms of being able to fit in as much as possible into our trips!!) Therefore it’s been quite hard for me at times to adapt and just go with the flow when plans do get changed.  It’s doing me good though.

CCT at work filming 4 SCOTS during RSOI

CCT at work filming 4 SCOTS during RSOI

Paul makes the most of his artistic skills during some downtime

Paul makes the most of his artistic skills during some downtime

Living and learning Army jargon

Before I go any further I must apologise for the use of military acronyms or jargon throughout this blog.  When I first enlisted I was completely shell shocked by the amount of TLAs (they even have a name for them – Three Letter Abbreviations!!) the MOD uses in its everyday language and thought I would never understand what people were talking about.

I can just about get by on most days now without having to use Google or the Army Arrse (Army Rumour Service) website to find out what certain abbreviations mean.  My parents have insisted though that on my return to the UK, I’m only allowed to visit on the condition that I revert back to using the full English language and stop using military jargon!  But for the rest of this tour, I’m sorry but I can’t avoid the use of it.

A salute marks the start of the ceremony

A salute marks the start of the ceremony

Lots of firsts

Our first tasking was a low key government video project that was cancelled at the last minute. Feeling very sorry for ourselves and with all our kit packed and ready to go for the first trip out, we jumped for joy when we heard that we were being re-routed to Patrol Base (PB) Ouellette to cover the base handover to the Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP). So having been in Theatre for only six days, suddenly we find ourselves outside the wire and at the flight line about to catch a Chinook out to Ouellette.

I don’t have the best of ‘sea/air’ legs so was slightly apprehensive as we boarded the aircraft and didn’t really know what to expect.  I just prayed I didn’t feel too sick as I didn’t want to look like a feeble woman out here on her first tasking with the team.  But I had nothing to fear, the flight was awesome with some amazing views looking out of the back ramp, and I felt great! The ramp stays slightly open for the gunner to provide protection if necessary. We have been using the Chinooks regularly to fly in and out of bases, so much so that to me it’s almost like hailing a cab now.  I feel right at home.

View of the back ramp of the Chinook and beyond

View of the back ramp of the Chinook and beyond

Our stay at Ouellette continued to be a string of new experiences for me – the first one being told what a ‘desert rose’ is…..and it’s not a flower.  Let’s just say this sort of rose was designed with male soldiers in mind. But with the invention of a female ‘She Wee’ (for those of you that don’t know what that is, it’s basically a funnel and a tube and I’ll leave the rest to your imagination) and me having been issued a nato green one prior to deploying (I had a test run in the shower before using it for real!), I could now also use the desert rose if I so wished.  But with the lack of a corrugated metal sheet which normally provides a small amount of privacy, I declined during daylight hours and opted for a wooden cubicle and a ‘john bag’ and then waited until darkness fell to put the plastic pipe to the test!

Making use of a ‘desert rose’

Making use of a ‘desert rose’

PB Ouellette was a fascinating experience seeing how the soldiers outside the wire live, and inside this particular patrol base, how they provide security over Route 611 – a route I became fairly familiar with that first night when asked if we would help out on stag duty by keeping watch on a sentry post (sangar) for any activity beyond the base.  The last time I did something similar was at Sandhurst during my Officer training when the only real threat was being attacked by the instructors.  And now it was for real!

Waiting for dinner to cook

Waiting for dinner to cook

Sangar duty at PB Ouellette

Sangar duty at PB Ouellette

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New tour, new team

Lt Claire Jackson, OC CCT Herrick 19

Lt Claire Jackson, OC CCT Herrick 19

Lieutenant Claire Jackson is team leader for the British Army’s combat camera team for H19. She works alongside Sgt Dan Bardsley (photographer) and Sgt Paul Shaw (video cameraman). They are based in Afghanistan and will be covering the work of the Armed forces, in particular 7th Armoured Brigade – the Desert Rats, throughout the winter.  They capture moving and still imagery from events out on the ground that national broadcasters don’t have access to.

From a different viewpoint

Well, four weeks in and I finally feel like I’m getting the hang of things out here in the desert. I’ve taken over from Capt Mau Gris who was the team leader for the H18 combat camera team (CCT).  Mau had gathered a large fan base through his blog, and I’m hoping to continue the story, but this time telling the story through the eyes of a female, a relative newcomer to the Army, a first tour, and a Reservist.

The beginning

My journey started in May 2013 when I worked my last day in the office of my civilian job and the following day rocked up to the Reinforcements Training Mobilisation Centre (RTMC), Chilwell, to sign on the dotted line. What was I doing?  Second thoughts rushing through my mind.  Was I mad?  Did I realise what I was giving up – the warmth and cleanliness of an office in Warwickshire in exchange for a portacabin and tent in the middle of the desert?

Our workplace – the Media Operations portacabin

Our workplace – the Media Operations portacabin

Home sweet home – my tented bedroom

Home sweet home – my tented bedroom

I have worked as a TV Production Manager for a small independent company in Barford, Warwickshire, called X2 Productions Ltd for the last four years, having finished a short-term contract at the BBC in Birmingham.  It’s down to X2 that I joined the Territorial Army (TA / the Army Reserves as they are now called) because of the first TV series that I worked on where we sent a crew to Afghanistan and embedded them for six weeks with the Army.  There wasn’t a budget to send me along so I manned the phones from the UK and organised the trip for them, wishing I was out there with them.

My first real experience of Army life – passing out as a Private soldier

My first real experience of Army life – passing out as a Private soldier

From Private to Combat Camera Team Leader

I joined the TA in 2009, went through basic training as a private soldier, then went down the Officer path and commissioned in October 2011 into the RLC.  After a stint of troop commanding with 243 HQ Squadron, 159 Supply Regiment, Canley, I made the decision to transfer into the Media Operations Group (MOG), mainly because of work commitments and not being able to dedicate enough time to my supply troop.

A year and a half on and a commissioned officer – Sandhurst Commissioning Parade

A year and a half on and a commissioned officer – Sandhurst Commissioning Parade

The MOG is a national unit for personnel with specialist media skills and has a lower level of commitment which suited me.  Having passed the selection day with the group, I soon discovered the role of the CCT having listened to a presentation from a team who had just returned from a six-month tour.  It had me hooked and I immediately decided that was going to be my goal. And here I am now a year-and-a-half later, sitting in Helmand Province leading a combat camera team.

The team

Sgt Shaw and Sgt Bardsley hard at work

Sgt Shaw and Sgt Bardsley hard at work

The team consists of Sgt Paul Shaw and Sgt Dan Bardsley. Both originally trained as photographers with Paul branching off into the role of Electronic News Gatherer (ENG) / video operator for this tour, whilst Dan is responsible for taking the photos.  My job is to pull the team together, organise and set up the jobs, direct and produce, and write up the stories.  I ensure that all jobs are completed and pushed out to various media outlets where possible.

All three of us play very different roles within the team.  Myself and Paul work closely together as I have to act as his force protection when out on the ground when he’s got his head behind the camera (it’s a good job I had that bit of extra training before I deployed).  Whereas Dan works a bit more independently and can be tasked on jobs by himself if needs be.

I met Paul and Dan for the first time in July when we did a two week CCT course. We’re going to be spending the next six months together working and living in a very close-knit environment, and one that is very different from my life back in the UK.  No make-up, no jewellery, no civilian clothes, a military green wardrobe and a whole new world in the desert.

There’s no going back now……

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