Helmand: Reflecting on the past six months

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.

I feel very privileged

It seems like only yesterday when I was packing my bags, trying to force a kit list as long as my arm into two military bags, saying goodbye to friends and family, and boarding a plane laden with body armour and helmet with mixed feelings about the next six months.  They were mainly feelings of excitement, nervousness and slight panic. What had I done? I had given up a perfectly good job and left my boyfriend (now fiancée) and creature comforts to go and live in the desert in a tent working alongside different ranks from all three services, entering into a whole new world.  So six months on….was it what I had expected?

The Afghan Media Operations Centre (AMOC), my office for the last six months

The Afghan Media Operations Centre (AMOC), my office for the last six months

I guess the military side of things in terms of day to day living was pretty much what I had imagined. I got used to not wearing make up and jewellery quite easily and not having to choose what to wear each day was one thing less to worry about each morning.  I soon made myself at home in my little ‘pod’ (corner of the tent that we sleep in) – it was actually very cosy and had a feminine touch to it.  It’s amazing what you can do with a few fairy lights and a bit of tinsel in terms of livening up a living area.

The job itself – Officer Commanding of the Combat Camera Team (OC CCT) has been a real challenge but then that’s what I wanted when I signed up for this tour.  I wanted to play my part with the troops, I wanted to see a new country and experience other cultures, but mostly I wanted to put all my training into practice to prove that I had earned the right to an Officer commission.

The scenery in Kabul was amazing. One place I won’t forget.

The scenery in Kabul was amazing. One place I won’t forget. Sgt Paul Shaw RLC

The biggest challenge I‘ve found being a reservist and having only been in a few years, was the military jargon that is used on a daily basis – the number of different acronyms, unit names, and regiments, flashes (badges) and their roles within the battlegroup that everyone seems to know off by heart. By working on a number of stories with the CCT each week though gave me the opportunity to start remembering a vast majority of them through meeting people in different roles across the whole of Op HERRICK from Camp Bastion to Kabul, Khandahar and Lashkar Gah.  This has given me a real insight into the day to day running of operations and how everyone plays a part no matter how large or small.  From the soldiers who provide force protection on the perimeter fence to the ATLOs (Air Transport Liaison Officer) who check in the passengers and their baggage at the flight line, to the engineers who are helping with the base closures, to the officers who are providing education to the troops in their downtime. Everyone has a part to play and I feel very privileged to have been given an insight into this operational world.

The CCT out on an op with the Warthog group. Lt Claire Jackson.

The CCT out on an op with the Warthog group. Lt Claire Jackson.

Key highlights and memories

The first thing that strikes you as you arrive in Camp Bastion is the dust.  No matter what time of year it is, there is always a certain level of dust.  For the first few months when we got out here most people avoided running in the day, preferring to stick to the early morning runs before the traffic  around the camp starts to build up.

I don’t think I will experience many runs like the ones around Camp Bastion again! Lt Claire Jackson

I don’t think I will experience many runs like the ones around Camp Bastion again! Lt Claire Jackson

Then in complete contrast to the heat and dust that consumes Helmand Province for most of the year, the temperature drops a fair bit in the winter. In preparation I had packed my cold weather gear and have made full use of it, especially when we got caught off guard with several inches of snow a few weeks ago. Not once did I think I would be building a snowman on my tour!

Myself and Sqn Ldr Smithson made the headlines in many of the national papers with this image. Sgt Dan Bardsley

Myself and Sqn Ldr Smithson made the headlines in many of the national papers with this image. Sgt Dan Bardsley

Covering VVIP events has been a key part of our role, but I must admit I didn’t think we would get the chance to work with so many.  Our tour started off with Teresa May, Home Secretary, followed by HRH Duke of York who came out for Remembrance, then the very memorable ITV production which saw Gary Barlow ‘singing to the troops’.

Gary goes for an early morning run with the troops. Sgt Dan Bardsley

Gary goes for an early morning run with the troops. Sgt Dan Bardsley

The tour continued on with a visit from the Prime Minister, David Cameron who came out with the England football player, Michael Owen to announce a bid to launch a new UK-Afghan football partnership to boost the sport by developing the existing league system.  There was also a visit from the lovely welsh opera singer, Katherine Jenkins who flew out to Camp Bastion to make a last appearance to the troops before they leave Afghanistan.  A very petite and stunning lady with such an incredible and powerful voice.

Turkey, stuffing, crackers and party hats

 I meet the stunning Katherine Jenkins. Lt Cdr Ian King, RN

I meet the stunning Katherine Jenkins. Lt Cdr Ian King, RN

I must admit I wasn’t looking forward to spending Christmas in Afghanistan, but one thing for sure is that it will definitely be one to remember.  The day started off with a fancy dress half marathon around Camp Bastion and Leatherneck which was great fun and a bit different from the usual Christmas morning stroll across Dartmoor. Then back to the office to upload imagery to the various broadcasters before heading off to interview the troops enjoying their Christmas lunches in the canteen which was the full works (but sadly still served on paper plates) – Turkey, stuffing, crackers and party hats, and non alcoholic fizz! Then finally time for our Christmas dinner before one final bout of work uploading the last few bits of footage and imagery back to the UK in time for the morning broadcasts.  And all our hard work paid off with mentions in most of the big national papers, Sky News, BBC and ITV.

Making room for Christmas dinner! Sgt Dan Bardsley

Making room for Christmas dinner! Sgt Dan Bardsley

In terms of places and people who have left a lasting impression with me, at the top of the list has to be the Afghans themselves followed by the capital city, Kabul where we spent a week filming them for an internal video for the Afghan National Army Officer Academy (ANAOA).

Our first encounter with any Afghans was at Shorabak when we saw them proudly marching across the parade square at the opening ceremony for their new battle school (RCBS).

Standing proud. Sgt Dan Bardsley

Standing proud. Sgt Dan Bardsley

We then spent some more time later on during the tour at Shorabak with the Brigade Advisory Team (BAT) who were training the ANA on their weapon systems. On all occasions they have struck me as being very receptive and wanting to learn. They have come on in leaps and bounds and are improving every day now that they have been given the opportunity to take the lead on operations with the ISAF troops in a mentoring and liaison role.

The ANA are currently being trained on various weapon systems. Sgt Dan Bardsley

The ANA are currently being trained on various weapon systems. Sgt Dan Bardsley

Another highlight has been the encounters we have had with local Afghans.  The locals generally tend to be very friendly and curious and love having their photos taken. We take it for granted that we can capture photos so easily but for some of them they have never even seen a photograph of themselves or a camera.

The locals are so curious. Sgt Dan Bardsley

The locals are so curious. Sgt Dan Bardsley

A new found confidence

I will be taking back many memories from this tour, with plenty of ‘war’ type stories to tell the kids in years to come.  I can’t believe it was only a few years ago that I passed through Sandhurst and talked amongst the other newly commissioned officers about going on operations at some point.  I honestly didn’t think I would have the opportunity to get onto Op HERRICK but here I am having successfully completed a six-month tour in Afghanistan.

By the time you read this blog I will hopefully be back in the UK starting my leave.  With a well earned holiday in Mexico lined up, followed by some time with the folks in Devon and some wedding planning, and not forgetting some job hunting at some point I think my leave will go fairly quickly.  I’m not sure what the next chapter will be, nor where this tour is going to take me, but I know for sure that it has filled me with a new-found confidence that will hopefully stand me in good stead…

View Claire’s page

‘Bottled in Afghanistan’ – water, weather and women at war

‘Bottled in Afghanistan’ – water, weather and women at war

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.

Diamonds are forever

Goodbye 2013 and hello 2014!  My last blog ended with Christmas festivities around Camp Bastion and highlighted the last few weeks prior to our RnR which we were very fortunate to get over New Years Eve. So not only did I get a Christmas Day in Afghanistan, I got to eat Turkey and stuffing all over again, drink mulled wine, and open more presents when I got back to the UK thanks to my parents.

It was so nice also to remind myself that there is still a bit of femininity lurking beneath the Army greens having worn no make-up and had my hair scraped back for the last 4 months.  So time to get out the little black dress and dancing shoes, and welcome in the New Year.

And what a great start to 2014! My boyfriend, or as I should be referring to him these days, my fiancée…. popped the question on New Year’s Eve.  So now I am the very proud owner of a beautiful diamond ring which is safely locked up in the UK ready for my return in March.

Transformation. It’s amazing what a bit of make-up and a black dress can do to ones image and self confidence!

Transformation. It’s amazing what a bit of make-up and a black dress can do to ones image and self confidence!

So back to the desert on a high, head buzzing with lots of wedding ideas (the real planning will have to wait until the tour finishes) and 8 weeks left until the end of tour.  I wonder what stories are waiting to be discovered upon our return.

International Women’s Day

The first tasking we are given is in preparation for International Women’s Day on 8 March which celebrates the role that women have played and continue to play in conflict resolution and peace building.  We’ve been asked to collate a list of women in the military involved in such roles and collect supporting imagery and footage.

Having spoken to a number of units around camp we have a list of potential candidates all lined up ready to be interviewed and talk about their roles in theatre and civilian roles if they are Reservists.  After several trips out the data and images are recorded and a short list is compiled with an array of interesting stories ranging from a Movement Controller from Hong Kong who has a Masters in Crime Science but enjoys the military life and is thinking of becoming a Regular soldier, to a Senior Insurance Underwriter who is out here as a Troop Commander with 2 Close Support Logistic Regiment and is responsible for planning and implementing the Combat Logistic Patrols to and from the remaining bases.  Both have very different roles but at the same time they are both contributing to the withdrawal of all British troops by the end of 2014.

Airtrooper Lauren Morgan is an ‘Apache Gunwoman’ responsible for re-fueling and  re-arming the aircraft. Photo credit – Sgt Dan Bardsley, RLC

Airtrooper Lauren Morgan is an ‘Apache Gunwoman’ responsible for re-fueling and
re-arming the aircraft. Photo credit – Sgt Dan Bardsley, RLC

 

Private Chelsea Herberts is helping with the redeployment by preparing vehicles for their return to the UK. Photo credit – Sgt Dan Bardsley, RLC

Private Chelsea Herberts is helping with the redeployment by preparing vehicles for their return to the UK. Photo credit – Sgt Dan Bardsley, RLC

Change in weather

We have been very lucky with the weather during this tour having been told that the winter is pretty wet and miserable in Afghanistan.  Most days we have been waking up to a clear blue sky with just a slight nip in the air, and some amazing sunsets.

Sunset over Lashkar Gah. Photo credit – Lt Claire Jackson, RLC

Sunset over Lashkar Gah. Photo credit – Lt Claire Jackson, RLC

 The good weather seems to running out though and over the last week there has been a couple of storms with snow forecast over the next few days. A great opportunity for both Dan and Paul though, and some stunning images I’m sure.

A storm is brewing. Photo credit – Sgt Paul Shaw, RLC

A storm is brewing. Photo credit – Sgt Paul Shaw, RLC

Ten green bottles

Not many people know that the water we drink in theatre comes from Afghanistan.  Everyday approx 48,000 litres of water are pumped to the surface to quench the thirst of the troops in Camp Bastion and the remaining bases.  Not all of it is treated and used as drinking water though, some of it is used to supply the toilets and bathrooms with running water, or as a dust suppressant around camp.

When we were initially asked to capture footage of the Camp Bastion water bottling plant I wasn’t too interested in the tasking, especially once we arrived and were told we were going to be given the full tour of the plant.  I felt like we were going back to our school days with the random trips out that were supposed to be educational.

But having donned a hairnet, boot covers and a white lab coat, Paul and I headed off with video camera in hand to find out how the tiny plastic test-tube shaped containers that arrive in Bastion end up bottle shaped and filled with drinking water with their own ‘Bastion Drinking Water’ labels.

CCT at work capturing footage of the bottling process. Photo credit – Lt Claire Jackson, RLC

CCT at work capturing footage of the bottling process. Photo credit – Lt Claire Jackson, RLC

 

By having this water bottling facility in Bastion it has meant that money can be saved by not having to send truck loads of water across the desert. The plastic used to produce the bottles is a lot tougher than commercially produced bottles and gives them a longer shelf life (2 years rather than 12 months). They are also more robust to allow them to be air-dropped when supplying the forward operating bases.

Made in Camp Bastion! Photo credit – Lt Claire Jackson, RLC

Made in Camp Bastion! Photo credit – Lt Claire Jackson, RLC

Success for British-mentored Afghan soldiers

The focus over the past year has been for the Afghans to take the lead in operations in preparation for the withdrawal of ISAF troops. As part of this process British troops have been mentoring and training the Afghan National Army (ANA) in a number of ways.

The Kandak Liaison Team (KLT) made up of soldiers from 3rd Battalion, the Mercian Regiment and a number of attached Reservists from the 6th Battalion, the Rifles deployed alongside the ANA on an op to drive insurgents away from populated areas.

The CCT were offered at short notice a couple of seats on the op to capture the ANA at work.  Sadly there were only two seats so I had to stay behind whilst Dan and Paul headed off in anticipation of a few days out on the ground.

Kandak Liaison Team enroute to an ANA lead op. Photo credit – Sgt Dan Bardsley, RLC

Kandak Liaison Team enroute to an ANA lead op. Photo credit – Sgt Dan Bardsley, RLC

 

The op was a great success all around with the ANA seizing and destroying a vast quantity of illegal fertilizer which is used for making explosives, and with them requiring minimal support from the KLT having taken advantage of the ISAF training they have received to lead the operation from start to finish.

Afghan Sunset in Nahr E Saraj. Photo credit – Sgt Dan Bardsley, RLC

Afghan Sunset in Nahr E Saraj. Photo credit – Sgt Dan Bardsley, RLC

As we draw nearer to the end of OP HERRICK it’s very rewarding to see how much we have helped the Afghans in terms of winning the fight over the Taliban.  The ANA have improved in leaps and bounds from the memories that soldiers have recalled from previous tours.

View Claire’s page

A busy end to the year

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.

The Afghans take the lead

It’s that time of year when everyone reflects on the past twelve months in terms of what they have or haven’t achieved, and what their goals and aims for the following year are going to be. Looking back on my year, or even the last few months since beginning this tour, I would struggle to list all the memorable experiences we have been so fortunate to have witnessed on this tour.

I knew when I volunteered for Herrick 19 that the sort of taskings we were going to get would be very different from the previous Combat Camera Team (CCT) tours, and to be honest I was worried that we might get bored and be struggling to find work. But how wrong was I. We may not be out fighting on the front line any more, but we are still contributing in a training and advisory role, with the Afghan National Army taking the lead.

A few months ago we were asked to cover the opening of the Afghan National Army Officer Academy in Qargha, Kabul. Over 200 officer cadets arrived dressed in their chemises and flip flops with long hair and beards. Within a couple of hours they had been issued kit, had their hair cut, and were dressed in military uniform, standing very proud on the parade square. It was an incredible transformation.

Officer cadets getting their hair cut upon arrival at the ANAOA

Officer cadets getting their hair cut upon arrival at the ANAOA

Officer cadets standing proudly on the parade square, having been issued their kit

Officer cadets standing proudly on the parade square, having been issued their kit

One month later, we were invited to go back to the ANAOA to capture the cadets on their first field exercise. This brought back several memories from my officer training weekends and time at Sandhurst – leopard-crawling through the grass, and being told to get down lower! They also went through a variety of other field exercises, including patrolling and crossing obstacles. It was great to see them working together and with a real sense of professionalism.

Officer cadets standing proudly on the parade square, having been issued their kit

Officer cadets standing proudly on the parade square, having been issued their kit

A Christmas like no other

I had no idea what to expect when I found out that I would be spending Christmas Day in Afghanistan. All I knew was that it would be very different from the usual home rituals – waking up and opening a stocking, a morning walk across the moors, a bit of mulled wine and nibbles, present opening, then a late lunch followed by several hours of gorging on chocolates, watching movies. Well the gorging on chocolates was there this year (and still is – detox starts in the new year), but the walk was replaced by running a half marathon (two laps around Camp Bastion) whilst wearing a festive jumper with 500 other mad festive characters.

Santa warms up the troops for the Camp Bastion Half Marathon

Santa warms up the troops for the Camp Bastion Half Marathon

500 runners took part in the Christmas morning half marathon

500 runners took part in the Christmas morning half marathon

Having survived the run, after a bit of editing we headed out to Christmas lunch in the cookhouse. The meal consisted of the typical festive food that you would expect on Christmas Day, but was eaten with plastic cutlery and paper plates and accompanied with the usual array of non-alcoholic squash and water. The afternoon was spent pushing out press releases and uploading footage and stills that we had captured over the past few days, ensuring that the British media got what they needed for the daily news bulletins. And what a lot of coverage we got across TV and newspapers over the next few days. Good job all round, AMOC (the Afghanistan Media Operations Cell)!

Santa delivers parcels to the troops in the 3rd Regiment, the Royal Horse Artillery

Santa delivers parcels to the troops in the 3rd Regiment, the Royal Horse Artillery

Lots of coverage in the newspapers on Boxing Day

Lots of coverage in the newspapers on Boxing Day

Another year almost over, and time for the CCT to head back to the UK for a well earned bit of Rest and Recuperation (R&R) and battery recharge, ready for the final few months of the tour in 2014. Things are definitely winding down in Camp Bastion, but there is always a story to be told, whether it’s the closing down of a forward operating base (FOB) or a new character in town. That’s the great thing about this job – you never know what the next tasking will be.

Images were taken by Sgt Dan Bardsley

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Wahid and Breknal: Life through a lens

Sergeant Steve Blake RLC

Sergeant Steve Blake RLC

Sergeant Steve Blake is an Army Photographer with the RLC. He is currently serving a six-month tour of Afghanistan as part of the Combat Camera Team (a trio of soldiers trained in journalism, photography and videography who capture life on the front-line like no other news team can).

Patrol Base Wahid

Since my last blog post, the Combat Camera Team have been on our travels again. We had a one-day turnaround from our last job, just in time to start editing our material before heading out with the Estonian Army, of Estonian Company 12 (Est Coy 12), based at Patrol Base (PB) Wahid.

We headed to the HLS, this time with the full hour to spare, instead of our last rush of 10 minutes notice, and relaxed in the ISO containers prior to the flight, where we could take full advantage of a bit of shade. Our flight was jam packed. We had more freight than men, and it was very cosy indeed. We had two stop-offs prior to our destination, one at Shahzad, and then Nahidullah. For both of these we were the aircraft providing overwatch, so we were in the air for over an hour before arriving at Wahid.

The ever watchful door gunner on the Chinook

The ever watchful door gunner on the Chinook

On arrival at Wahid, which was an overnight stop-gap to our final destination, we were met by a huge contingent of freight movers, both British and Estonian. The Chinook was soon offloaded, and we were  raring to go. As per normal we only had a couple of hours of daylight, so after a quick tour of camp, we went off to shoot some PB life.

The Estonian internet facility

The Estonian internet facility

The facilities were great. The Estonians had made all sorts of contraptions out of next to nothing, and the place felt cosy. The gym was mainly self constructed, apart from a couple of the apparatus, but this makes for great images. 

PB Wahid's rat catcher

PB Wahid's rat catcher

Joint operation

We had got a bed for the night, so all was good. The PB itself was very small, but I have been in smaller too. Wahid, along with a couple of check points, is the Estonians’ Area of Operations (AO). They had very few British working with them. But the journey out to Check Point (CP) Breknal, would show just how well the two forces work together.

A section commander checks on the lads' work

A section commander checks on the lads' work

Check Point Breknal

The next morning we were taken to CP Breknal in the Royal Engineers’ Mastiff vehicles. The operation was to repair a culvert that had been damaged nearby. This was to aid in the traffic flow to the nearby villages, but to also ensure the water flow continued. It was a joint operation, whereby the Estonian Army would provide force protection for the Royal Engineers to carry out their work safely.

The Estonian Platoon Commander keeps in constant comms

The Estonian Platoon Commander keeps in constant comms

We then, shortly after arriving at Breknal, foot patrolled out to the area, in order to secure it, prior to the engineers arriving. The patrol was quiet. Several of the compounds we passed were empty, and the place had a slightly eerie feel to it. About 100 metres into the patrol, the Estonians kindly pointed out a big hole in the ground, where one of their soldiers discovered an IED a few weeks back. Not a great thing to know actually.

We arrived at our location, and in what seemed like minutes, the area had been secured with men carrying a varying range of weapons, and even an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC). Despite their kit looking somewhat pre-historic, it worked perfectly, and effectively. Soon after the Royal Engineers arrived. They assessed the situation and set out to repair the culvert.

The area we were operating in was a slightly hostile one. We were surrounded by compounds, three of which are well known as having sharpshooters or snipers firing from them – slightly unnerving.

So, with all the protection in place, and the Engineers happy with the job ahead, a whole dust cloud appeared in the shape of combat tractors and tipper trucks full of aggregate and tools.

Happy locals cross the new piece of road

Happy locals cross the new piece of road

During the six hours on the ground, we had to turn several locals away, as there was no way of them crossing, while it was being worked on. Needless to say, after waiting that long, the locals were very pleased with the results.

After our long day, it was back to Breknal for the night, and some long awaited food.

The Estonian vehicles ready to leave Breknal

The Estonian vehicles ready to leave Breknal

Atmospheric

Within minutes of arriving, it sounded like the whole of Afghan was firing at each other. Machine gun fire, mortars, artillery and even an Apache attack helicopter was engaging a target a couple of Kilometres away from us. Flares were lighting up the sky, something was really kicking off. After a few minutes, and the realisation that it wasn’t that close, we set about having a proper nosey around the check point.

Breknal was awesome. The place was so atmospheric, even more so than Wahid. This was the ‘real’ Afghanistan! The guys from the patrol showed us around and introduced us to the rest of the platoon. They were an extremely welcoming bunch. Two of them had been nominated as the CP Chefs, which must have been a tough job with limited fresh food, and several ten-man ration packs. They pulled out all the stops. We had gammon, with rice, boiled eggs, veg and white sauce, topped of with some sort of pineapple, chunky syrup concoction. Superb! Just what the doctor ordered after a long day’s work.

One of the Estonian's shirts hanging out to dry

One of the Estonian's shirts hanging out to dry

The lads here are in the middle of nowhere. Their resources are limited. They have to find ways of amusing themselves for the long nights on a six-month tour. They do this quite well with the aid of ‘The Call of Duty’ game. So they are real life soldiers by day, and cyber soldiers battling against each other by night! Brilliant! What a way to release some frustration.

Cyber wars in full swing

Cyber wars in full swing

After dinner we just sat and chatted to the Estonian Press Officer about our plans for the next day, before enjoying a superb night’s sleep under the stars.

A soldier looking pleased after his final patrol

A soldier looking pleased after his final patrol

The next morning, the OC CCT hadn’t enjoyed his sleep as much as me. Apparently the Apaches were flying over all night, gunfire was heard in the distance, plus he had to listen to me snoring. For me, it was the best night’s sleep I’d had in my two-or-so months here!

The morning was a quiet one. Mark had a few TV interviews to conduct, then we were to head back to Wahid for our flight back to Bastion. For me, portrait time!

Bags packed, off we went. Another job done. Time to edit.