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

 

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.