Leaving home behind … welcome to the war zone

Lance Corporal Joshua Crook

Lance Corporal Joshua Crook

Lance Corporal Joshua Crook, of Y Company 1st Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (1RRF), joined the Army in January 2011 and attended the Infantry Training Centre Catterick for the six-month Combat Infantryman Course. He joined 1RRF in September 2011 and since then has completed countless exercises. Joshua attended and passed the Fire Team Commander’s Course in January this year and was promoted in Afghanistan in April.

I just want to start by saying how impressed and grateful I am at the response and feedback from the first blog. Thank you!

Seeing as this is my first operational tour, I thought I’d try and describe how it felt coming out here: What I expected, what I was met with and challenges I’ve faced so far – leaving family, girlfriend and friends at home; the atmosphere in a battalion that hasn’t been on tour in five years; and a bit on the feelings I had on arriving out here in Afghanistan.

Both my family and I knew that a deployment to Afghanistan was almost inevitable when I joined the Army and, as is to be expected, the thought of it left concerns with everyone. It felt like it took forever to get here and as far as I was concerned, it couldn’t have come quick enough. After all, this is what a lot of my training was to lead up to: an operational deployment.

The weeks leading up to deployment was leave for me; I spent the best part of the first two months of this year away on a promotional course so couldn’t spend as much time as I would have liked back home, but pre-deployment leave of nearly three weeks was enough (as well as the knowledge of a pay rise for promotion out here) and when I arrived back at Battalion, 1RRF, I only had eight days to push before my flight out here.

‘See you in a few months’

Everyone back home took it well; I guess they had it planned out for a while, me leaving for tour and all. A ‘see you in a few months’ meal was in order with the family, and everyone wished me luck for the tour. I’d say it was emotional, but it wasn’t really like that. Some members of my family expressed their nervousness to me, and I reassured them of how I’d be fine – but ultimately, you never know. Anything could happen on tour; after all, this is a conflict zone.

Those thoughts don’t enter your mind though. I’ve found that throughout my time in the army the only thing you think about is the job in hand and what effect that will have – not on you, but the men and women around you and on the mission itself.

I’ve been out here for two months now and of course, because of the environment you are living and working in there are always dangers that come with the territory. However it helps to remember and reassure those back home that you are part of the best army in the world, and rock solid in situations like those that arise in Afghanistan. This seems to keep family and friends back home content, and although the “best army in the world” line is cheesy as hell – you say what works!

The same situation goes for my girlfriend; she knows what is going on out here and is more than aware of the dangers, but like family, she is extremely supportive and no doubt puts on the “brave” façade to keep me thinking everyone at home is fine. There are bound to be, and have been moments where people back home find it difficult and it is down to you, thousands of miles away, to bring them back around. I think it’s the not knowing that is often the most difficult. For me over here I know what I’m doing, more often than not on a day to basis, but it might take a few days for me to relay that information back home.

One great thing off the back of this is the bond it brings back home between the family. As you can imagine, there are times when all you can fit in is a quick phone call to one person in the family, and a great system in place back home is if one knows; everyone knows. It keeps everyone in the loop and they gain reassurance just from that.

So, I’ve done my best to try and put into words what I ‘imagine’ people back home are thinking… I could be completely wrong, but that’s the overall impression I get (ha!). Now, I’ll try and put into perspective what it’s like being over here. For some, this will be the first time they have spent more than a few weeks away from their family and friends. I like to think of myself as quite a strong person mentally, but still I find I have days where all I want to do is go home, and I think it’s because of how unfamiliar this place is. Yes, we’ve seen it all before in training but in that case, it’s only a few weeks. You begin to miss the small things, and they can get to you easily.

I miss carpet. And porcelain.

It’s those kinds of things you take for granted, strangely. Obviously, not being able to wake up to your girlfriend in the mornings is a killer, but you cherish the lack of knees in the back after a while (she’ll kill me for this). In all seriousness, the worst times out here are the quiet times, when all you have to do is think. There have been many Friday/Saturday nights where I haven’t realised what day it is, only to log onto Facebook or call a friend to find out that everyone back home is out on the “lash” having a whale of a time. That burns! But, again, this is my job, and everyone else who’s out here and it’s something we grow accustomed to, and proud of.

Mail days are morale days, as I’m sure most of you know. You can send ‘shoebox’ parcels out here with a maximum weight of 2kg for free, and thanks to my family, girlfriend and friends, I’ve not been left wanting nor needing anything. In fact, I have about ten boxes by the side of my bed space with enough sweets, toiletries and coffee to last me a year! But along with the boxes come letters and photographs and walking around the block you see a multitude of ‘home-made morale boards’; boards with photographs of people’s children and families on them. Pictures and paintings children have drawn their dads. It’s great to see and mail days definitely bring morale to all!

Troops outside the wire patrolling in the heat of Helmand.

Troops outside the wire patrolling in the heat of Helmand.

Is Afghanistan what I expected though? The answer is simple. Yes. It’s hot, covered in sand and occasionally smells awful. Inside the wire, unless the threat of an attack looms, it’s just like being back in the UK only, depending on where you are, the conditions are worse and you’re walking around everywhere with a weapon system, not to mention the heat. Outside the wire is different. Of course, over here the culture is so different from ours and they have grown up and lived in times almost unimaginable to us in the UK. I have crossed paths with many children out here, eager to ask for pens, sweets and water and it is hard to comprehend that all these kids know is war. Nothing else. You can see in adults’ eyes the hardship of continuous labour, especially here in Helmand, the agricultural hot-spot of Afghanistan. Out here the people rely on the land and farm for their living. It looks absolutely back-breaking, not to mention exhausting in this heat.

I have done a lot of work on developing an understanding of the ‘human terrain’ as part of my role in the Company Headquarters and what local nationals out here have to endure. It is clear that for some there is a daily struggle for clean water and money and of course the continued threat of attack from the Taliban.

An Afghan local looks after cattle. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

An Afghan local looks after cattle. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Always somebody to listen

1RRF last went on tour as a battalion in 2009, Operation Telic 12 (Iraq) and this is its first of Afghanistan. Yes, there are members of the battalion that have been out here before, but it’s a first for the battalion as a whole.

There were mixed feelings about coming out here for those of us whose first deployment this is – but it’s fair to say we were excited overall. After all, this is what we train to do. But there was nervousness and anxiety, especially in the younger soldiers. Nothing that isn’t to be expected – Afghanistan is a dangerous place and I would question anyone who said they weren’t nervous. For some of us, the next six months mean a lot, the amount you miss back home – the birth of children, anniversaries, friends’ weddings, Christenings, birthdays – the list goes on. Everyone deals with it in different ways, some keep themselves to themselves on a bad day, which everyone has, and others are quite keen to express it and get it off their chest – rest assured, there’s always somebody to listen and more often than not, you find that when one person starts talking about home, it’s not long before a full platoon are sat around a bench all talking about it together!

R&R (Rest & Recuperation, two weeks leave allocated) has started to kick in now and there are quite a few lads from Y Coy enjoying themselves back in the UK with their family and friends. It’s a much needed break, not just from work, but from the sun! I’m counting down the days to mine and there are ‘chuff charts’ as we like to call them, all over PRICE. Charts of how many days are left until R&R and end of tour. I look forward to writing about mine when I’m back, but there’s a short while before that yet!

Well, on that note, and the fact that Y Coy have just been tasked with a Force Protection operation, I’ll leave you be! Again, I hope you have enjoyed it and any feedback is much appreciated. I’ll have a brand new op to tell you all about when I’m back.

Catch you next week,

Crooky

Reflection - Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Reflection – Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Read Josh’s other blogs here

 

Military policeman, pilot, photographer…

Corporal Si Longworth in Afghanistan

Corporal Si Longworth @Si_Army_Phot

Corporal Si Longworth is one of only 38 trained British Army Photographers.  He left a career in aviation to pursue his passion for photography; capturing everything that military life has to offer. He is currently in Afghanistan as the Task Force Helmand Photographer, on Op HERRICK 18.

Those who follow me on Twitter will already know that I have been in Afghanistan for just over a month, and in that month I have managed to get out and about, visiting many of the locations where British troops are stationed. I have suffered at the evil hands of diarrhoea and vomiting and produced a handful of home-town stories – not to mention my first multimedia piece, which featured on the British Army Facebook page. I am going to take the time to write about my first month very soon, but it would be unfair of me not to give you a little insight into my career thus far. So please sit back, and try to stay awake…

The journey to Afghanistan was not unfamiliar to me, having done it twice before, but the job I have taken over was.

I wasn’t always an Army photographer. No Sir. I have been tinkering with cameras for years, but it is only recently that I decided to finish up my Army career as a ‘phot’. (‘Finish up’ as in the last few years – not commit career suicide.)

“How do you know there is a pilot in the room?”
“Don’t worry, he’ll tell you!”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, that’s what I was; an Army pilot. I have to get it out early, as no doubt I will be making reference to aviation in future posts (because I can’t help it, and because this blog series isn’t just about my life as a photographer; it’s a story of how I got here). In early 2012, after seven years as a qualified Lynx helicopter pilot, I decided that I wanted a change of pace, and I wanted to concentrate more of my efforts on the hobby I was passionate about: photography.

One amazing career; three different jobs

Throughout my Army career, I have made some great friends in the photography trade. Throughout every contact, meeting and occasional coffee (for ‘coffee’, read ‘beer’) with one of these mysterious men and women, I would always sit back and turn a little green with envy at their stories and experiences. To some people out there, the thought of demotion from Sergeant and the loss of flying pay may seem a little strange, and maybe it is. But the beauty of the British Army is exactly that: the ability to change jobs. Why get out when you can try something different? As an employee for over 17 years, starting out in the Royal Military Police (RMP), specialising in Close Protection duties, then applying for Army Pilot Selection, and now finally a photographer for the Army, I can see no greater incentive to stay in – or indeed join up. One amazing career, and three different jobs. Yes, of course I have suffered promotional setbacks at the hands of transferring, and will continue to as I reach the end of my career. But the balance to that scale is I have been kept enthusiastic and have loved – and I mean genuinely loved – every part of my diverse military career. Who else can say that?

Author during Royal Military Police Training in Northern Ireland

Author during RMP Training in Northern Ireland. By WO1 Mike Harvey, RLC.

Here is an image taken (on film, of course) ‘back in the day’, during an RMP Close Protection training exercise at Ballykilner, Northern Ireland. What you may find interesting is that in Northern Ireland I lived and worked next to the Central Photographic Cell, and had invited a new-found friend, Corporal Mike Harvey (who used to process my ‘work-related’ (honestly) film from my Nikon F90x) to join us for the day and capture the action. He was, of course a Royal Logistics Corps Photographer. Today, WO1 Mike Harvey is the Command Master Photographer in the Army Photographic Trade.

So, where was I…? Oh yes, my friends who I have seen join the trade over the years. I had watched my best friend and successful Army shooter, Staff Sergeant Dan Harmer, travel to amazing places and capture fantastic images, just as the rest of our trade has done, and I wanted to become a part of that. One of the things I have noticed about photography is my reaction to it and how it makes me feel to look at a striking image. I could look at it and become more immersed in the story than I could with any video clip. That was what I wanted to do. I dreamed of people opening up papers and being stunned over an image I had managed to take. (I still live in hope…)

The seed, planted

It wasn’t until my first tour of Afghanistan that I bumped into a now friend and great photographer Corporal Steve Blake, who had sauntered into the Lynx detachment and asked me for a favour. He needed a flight and, as it happened, I wanted a picture. The mutual agreement and friendship was thus formed. He won’t mind me letting everyone know that I took him flying a few times, and convinced him that the angle of bank which made him scream like a little girl was required to allow him to get his pictures. (Sorry, Steve.) He took these pictures for me, and single-handedly – without knowing it, and just like the film ‘Inception’ – he planted the seed in my mind to transfer.

Author and his Lynx

Author and his Lynx. By Sgt Steve Blake, RLC.

Author in his Lynx

Author in his Lynx. By Sgt Steve Blake, RLC.

I had a few professional commitments to fulfill with my aviation role, including a second tour in Afghanistan. But under a year later, after a successful Army Photographic Selection course, I had started training at the Defence School of Photography at RAF Cosford, Wolverhampton, to become my current trade: an Army Photographer.

I still managed to snap a couple of sunrises while out and about, though. The pros of being an early-morning aviator, I guess.

Sunrise over a Helmand Lynx

Sunrise over a Helmand Lynx. By Sgt Si Longworth, AAC.

Flying into dawn – my co-pilot uses Night Vision Goggles to aid in flying before the sun rises over the Helmand Desert

Flying into dawn – my co-pilot uses night vision goggles to aid in flying before the sun rises over the Helmand Desert. By Sgt Si Longworth, AAC.

So there you have it: a little more about me. I am sure you will all get to know me as time goes by; what makes me tick and what ticks me off. As I have said before, this is a journey, and we’ll take it together. Thanks for reading, until the next time…

More tc…

Read Si’s other blogs here: Life Through a Lens…

Follow Si on Twitter: @Si_Army_Phot