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?

The all-seeing eye

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 1st Mechanized Brigade. Op Herrick 18′s CCT also includes Sergeant Barry Lloyd – video cameraman – and Sergeant Barry Pope – photographer.

Captain Gris and Longshanks explore the secret world of ‘drones’

Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS), or ‘drones’ as they are sometimes incorrectly referred to, are a constant source of controversy and suspicion. For some they define 21st century warfare – and myself and Longshanks (photographer Si Longworth) were going to get to talk to the crews behind them. I’ll tell you why they shouldn’t be called drones in a bit.

Initially, I was a little dubious about going down. Although we can talk about them, there is still actually quite a bit of secret kit on these things so it is awkward to cover stories which involve them as you are met with a wall of ‘you can’t take that picture’ or ‘I can’t answer that’. I was pleasantly surprised by how candid the whole group were.

Bombardier Edward of the Royal Artillery was one of the pilots I got to speak to. A veteran of multiple tours with over 2000 hours clocked up at the helm, she spoke a little about what it was like to be directly involved with operations, having a direct effect but not being out on the ground with the soldiers experiencing what she was seeing.

It is now a thing of the past that the Hermes would be constantly supporting troops in fire fights but having done a little work with RPAS myself in the past, I could relate to what she was saying about previous tours. You could hear the pressure of the situation in the voice of the person on the other end of the radio, hear the background noise, which fills the quiet composed room you are controlling in, giving life and urgency to what would initially look like bland, aerial images.

Bombardier Edward went on to talk about the differences between a drone and a RPAS. The most important being that ‘drone’ implies some autonomous machine cruising around with no human control or oversight, whereas RPAS is as it is on the tin – remotely piloted and overseen.

Bristling with missiles

Now whilst it is interesting to talk about, the Hermes 450 is not what fans of action films like the Bourne Trilogy would call a proper drone. It isn’t bristling with missiles and a camera that can read a newspaper from space. It isn’t a silent killer delivering unexpected death. Basically, what I am saying is it ain’t that sexy to look at. So I was interested to see what Longshanks would come up with.

Si Longworth’s Hermes 450 image.

The Longshanks Hermes 450.

The answer was written all over his face when he walked into the hanger, his little eyes lit up like all his leave had been granted at once. The lighting was completely in his control and the set up did look a little like something out of the movies. So I left him to it, happy that he was in his element. I think you’ll agree the picture is pretty good.

In addition to our Hermes trip, the Combat Camera Team also went to Sparta to visit the guys from 4 Rifles in the Kandak Advisory Team (KAT).  We had been at the camp for a few hours and I was relaxing in the shade when Si came running up to me saying he had found something.

Me relaxing in the shade. Another Si image.

Me relaxing in the shade.

He brought me round to a couple of soldiers sat in the Afghan dust. One had a guitar and was just messing around with it. It amazed me first how clean he kept his guitar but also how the music in that setting was that much more powerful as there were no distractions. Si knew exactly what he wanted to do. This would form the first combat camera team multimedia piece using Si’s photos and the music I recorded, click here for a look.

Read Mau’s other blogs here: Capt Mau Gris

Follow Mau on Twitter: @mau_gris