Jakarta: An exercise in disaster management Pt2

Major Paul Lodge and Captain Chris Willett are both reservist members of the Military Stabilisation Support Group (MSSG).  In their civilian jobs, Paul is a Project Manager and Chris is a Police Officer.  For two weeks, they are deployed on Exercise Civil Bridge, an MSSG overseas training exercise which this year is taking place in Jakarta – the first joint exercise of its kind to involve the British and Indonesian Army.

Capt Chris Willett (left), Maj Paul Lodge (right)

Capt Chris Willett (left), Maj Paul Lodge (right)

For those who may not be entirely familiar with our organisation, the MSSG is small group nested in Force Troops Command (FTC) as part of the Security Assistance Group (SAG).  Our role is to provide military support to Stabilisation and Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Recovery (HADR) operations.

We are a hybrid organisation bringing together Regular and Reservist personnel from all three Services.  This broad mix of skills and experience has enabled us to deploy to Indonesia with an incredible depth of capability including world renowned academics, military and civilian practitioners and up-to-date operational experience.

Captain Chris Willett continues the blog:

Meeting the team

Arriving at 1am is never the best way to see a city and as we headed out of our hotel for the British Embassy on the first morning I was looking forward to soaking up all the visual riches Jakarta had to offer. Sadly, for a tortuous mile our car inched along in a sea of mopeds and my view was of suburban garden walls and palm trees. At the Embassy (an oasis of aircon and real tea) we met our Indonesian Army Liaison Officers (LOs) and mingled with mixed results. The range of English varied from the downright chatty to embarrassed shoulder shrugging but as the teams came together we realised we had landed a bunch of capable and affable counterparts and took our places for a welcome speech by the British Ambassador and the Indonesian Brigadier General.

The British Ambassador makes us all feel very welcome

The British Ambassador makes us all feel very welcome

The Ambassador was just how you would expect him to be only quite a bit taller and not as slick – which is a good thing. He gave a nice speech, which made everyone feel good about being there – he’s not a diplomat for nothing. Although I have to admit I did drift off a bit halfway through wondering if I’d tried harder at school and had parents from a higher social class (several classes higher if I’m honest) I could do that job. What does he do with his free time and just how do you stay grounded (and it appears he does) when everyone calls you ‘your excellency?’

After a prep period during which our eager LOs pestered us and clearly thought we were faffing, we ’hit the ground’ not necessarily running, for the Jakarta traffic precludes travel faster than walking pace in a car and even slower if you are walking. Our enthusiastic efforts to establish a good working relationship with our driver didn’t go well either. Every time we asked his name he said “I’m sorry”, “No need to be sorry mate, just tell us your name”, reply “I’m sorry”. Two days of this and we fixed it…his name is Ahmsori!

Ahmsori; our team driver for the next two weeks

Ahmsori; our team driver for the next two weeks

We were off to interview the Mayor of South Jakarta in his modern skyscraper. Setting up in a warm, dim anti room full of soft sofas, it wasn’t long before the combination of jet lag and the soporific voice of our host made me crash. I was fighting sleep like I was in an MMA cage with the Sandman- and he had a hammer! In the nick of time I was rescued by the Mayor’s staff delivering leaking bottles of water and the subsequent effort to stop the drips pooling in my crotch was enough to bring me back into the room. The meeting went well as his officials tag teamed to answer the question set we had designed a month ago in Larkhill-with amazingly credible results. I‘d really love to tell you about the journey back to the Embassy but we all slept soundly through it. An evening of writing up the interview (teething troubles with the tech we are trialing) and it was thankfully bedtime, a cool shower and clean linen never felt so good.

We will be posting regularly throughout the exercise and will look to give you a flavour of all of the elements of our work via this blog.

Jakarta: An exercise in disaster management Pt1

Major Paul Lodge and Captain Chris Willett are both reservist members of the Military Stabilisation Support Group (MSSG).  In their civilian jobs, Paul is a Project Manager and Chris is a Police Officer.  For two weeks, they are deployed on Exercise Civil Bridge, an MSSG overseas training exercise which this year is taking place in Jakarta – the first joint exercise of its kind to involve the British and Indonesian Army.

Capt Chris Willett (left), Maj Paul Lodge (right)

Capt Chris Willett (left), Maj Paul Lodge (right)

By way of introduction, my name is Paul; I am a Major in 5RRF, currently posted to the Military Stabilisation & Support Group (MSSG); and my role is Exercise Chief of Staff (COS).  I am an ex-Regular Army officer now working as a programme manager in UK Central Government and as an SO2 in the MSSG.

For those who may not be entirely familiar with our organisation, the MSSG is small group nested in Force Troops Command (FTC) as part of the Security Assistance Group (SAG).  Our role is to provide military support to Stabilisation and Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Recovery (HADR) operations.

We are a hybrid organisation bringing together Regular and Reservist personnel from all three Services.  This broad mix of skills and experience has enabled us to deploy to Indonesia with an incredible depth of capability including world renowned academics, military and civilian practitioners and up-to-date operational experience.

So, why/how did we end up in Jakarta?

Exercise Civil Bridge

Indonesia is a huge democratic country in South East Asia with a thriving economy.  On that basis it wouldn’t seem like the obvious choice for an exercise in HADR and disaster management.  However, it is, geologically, hugely unstable as it rests on what is known as the Pacific Ring of Fire.  This is where three tectonic plates converge to create a region that is constantly at risk of earthquake, volcanic eruption and/or tidal waves.  Much of the country also sits below Mean Sea Level and is, therefore, prone to regular flooding.  In most cases, the Indonesian Army (TNI-AD) and the Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management (BNPD) are the first responders in these emergencies.  As a result, both TNI-AD and BNPD are very keen to understand how other nations approach HADR in order to learn and they are keen to reciprocate by sharing their learning.

Indonesia is also a major trading partner with the UK, therefore, the British Government is keen to strengthen relationships with Indonesia on all levels.

Exercise Civil Bridge (ExCB14A) is the British Army’s first joint exercise with the Indonesian Army.  It is intended to provide the Indonesians with the current British Military view of Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Recovery (HADR) operations in the form of a comprehensive training programme and to allow an assessment of the Flood Response Plans for Central Jakarta in order to share knowledge on our response to flooding.

We had been warned off that we would be deploying to Indonesia towards the end of 2013, and as our planning shaped up a team of 30 personnel was identified, primarily from the MSSG but also including members from the DCSU, 15POG, 52MI, HQ BGN and 42 Engr Regt (Geographic).  In terms of the civilian skillset we have civil engineers, police officers, health professionals, cultural specialists, local government infrastructure specialists, and a range of other trades.  This mix has ensured that we have the necessary skills and experience to provide and deliver a well-researched and credible product to the Indonesians.

Disaster responses

Since then we have had a small team (mainly of one!) working to set the conditions for a successful deployment.  The pre-deployment phase has included two full weekends of preparation in order that the Regular and Reservist team members had the opportunity to start forming in their teams.  During this period we studied the existing flood plans in detail in order to understand how the response should work in theory and to identify who had responsibility for what at the District, Sub-District and Village level in Central Jakarta.  This allowed us to develop our plan of who we would need to meet with and what facilities we would need to see in order to understand how well the plan would be translated into action on the ground in the event of a major incident.

This information was then passed on to the Embassy Defence Section who worked to facilitate the organisation of the meetings with TNI-AD assistance ahead of our arrival.

An Advance Party deployed to Indonesia on 31 May 14 and established a small presence in the British Embassy in Jakarta in order to begin the training delivery and to conduct a study period on the disaster responses to the Yokyakarta earthquake and tsunami (2006), the Merapi volcano eruption (2010) and Jakarta flooding (this occurs multiple times each year).  Both the training and the study period generated some keen input from the Indonesian team and resulted in some very positive feedback.

The rest of us were very keen to get on the ground to begin the process of meeting the TNI-AD personnel we would be working with and to get on the ground.

Gibralta Barracks to Jakarta

Our journey began at Gibraltar Barracks in Surrey, the current HQ for the MSSG, on Sat 07 Jun 14 when the bulk of the team gathered for the journey to Jakarta.  Two of the team were travelling separately from their work locations in India and Nepal.  After some additional kit issue (followed by frantic weighing of bags in order to avoid a £125 excess baggage charge if we broke the 30kgs limit) and an update briefing we were on our way to Heathrow for a 2215 flight to Dubai and then on from Dubai to Jakarta.

19hrs later, at 2330 local time the following day, we arrived at Jakarta international airport after two long, but uneventful flights and were greeted to enormous queues for passports.  An hour later and we were waiting for our luggage and finally on the last leg of the journey by coach to the accommodation.

We had been warned that traffic jams were a fact of life in Indonesia but I had thought that at 0030 on a Monday morning we might have a clear run, however, this was not the case and the three lane motorway from airport to the city was solid traffic and seemingly without a Highway Code.  Having negotiated the traffic we were greeted by the Advance Party and issued with our accommodation.  We finally got our heads down at 0200 for an 0745 departure for work.

A group photo at the British Embassy, Jakarta, before Exercise Civil Bridge gets underway

A group photo at the British Embassy, Jakarta, before Exercise Civil Bridge gets underway

Later that morning we were all present at the British Embassy in Jakarta for a joint UK/TNI-AD welcome briefing by the British Ambassador, HE Mr Mark Canning CMG, and Brigadier General TNI George Elnadus Supit, the Deputy Assistant of Operations for the Indonesian Army.  This set the scene for the high level of cooperation and integration between our team and the 40 TNI-AD personnel that would be undergoing training and joining our teams conducting the assessments on the ground.

Following the opening addresses the teams got to mingle and meet each other before deploying into the city for the first round of meetings.  Our plan for Day 1 was to conduct initial meetings in South/Central Jakarta with key personalities responsible for managing the flood responses at District, Sub-District and Village level.  These meetings had been pre-arranged by the TNI-AD personnel and occupied the majority of the day with travelling time (i.e. Jakarta traffic time) factored in.

The reason we have a dedicated IT rep in the team is because we are using a new suite of tools from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) that allows us to operate effectively when undertaking HADR operations.  We have used this on previous exercises in Kenya and it enables teams on the ground to post reports with imagery in realtime on a Google maps based interface.  Alongside an instant messaging application this allows the Ops Room to see the locations of all the teams plus the imagery and data that they are collecting.  The teams on the ground can access the platforms via tablets (or any other mobile device) that connect via the local 3G network or by WiFi.  The use of the tool in a predominantly urban environment for the first time will allow us to further refine and develop it for future use.

We will be posting regularly throughout the exercise and will look to give you a flavour of all of the elements of our work via this blog.

Being Works Director, Afghan-style

WO2 Marc Lovatt, part of the Military Stabilisation Support Group, blogs for the last time from central Helmand province.

The operation to improve the standard of the road along the Patrol Base Line, known as Operation LMARIZ TUFAAN, has changed the topography of the landscape. Gone is the little copse of woodland 300m from our south wall. The abandoned mill has been turned into an abandoned brick pile, the little bubbling stream was…  hell, where has that stream gone?

Now, may I explain… if a bunch of guys with heavy plant equipment are told that an area is in need of being cleared and they have a limited time to undertake this task, but if necessary may use explosives – well, what is the likely outcome?

Anyway, the Commander seemed happy with our new observational fields of vision and, after all, it would make sneaking up on us a lot harder for the insurgents; something they had been particularly astute at up until then!

The road progressed rapidly and was being used effectively on a daily basis. However, with all this ‘construction’ local farmers had eagerly been piling into our PB seeking compensation. This kept me very busy most of the time which, when you are on a six month tour living in a dusty sun-bleached compound, helps to pass the time quicker. The negotiations about land, crops, felled trees, irrigation ditches and so on were often pretty mundane. Farmers! I mean even, thinking about it, though we were discussing points through an interpreter, I could quite as easily have been me talking to any group of farmers anywhere in the world. They were just concerned about the land, crops and the welfare of their families.  Some of the locals did make me smile though. One old chap, claiming for trees cut down by ISAF along a river bank some 30 metres long, claimed that we had destroyed 1000 trees! I asked him which section of the Amazon rainforest he  owned? It turned out that his trees were willows and he was counting the branches. I paid him for six trees.

As the road took shape it was found that the engineers (good old lads) had blocked, albeit inadvertently, several irrigation ditches. Farmers arrived from further downstream with tales of drought-like conditions affecting their lands. I put the word out to the local villagers that I needed some able-bodied guys for some good old-fashioned manual labour.

At first, a group of six men arrived, discussion ensued and we had a deal. They would work for five days to clear a length of ditch. I met them every morning at 6am to call the roll. Well, my interpreter called the roll. I was there in a managerial capacity you understand. Then I paid them each evening and away they went home.

Word must have got out, as a few days into this routine a chargehand with some 15 men arrived at the gate. Off we went. I found work for these chaps. Then another gang arrived, so naturally I was able to occupy them. At the height of my industrial empire I had around 45 men working for me on one endeavour or another. Ditches were being cleared, fallen trees dispatched and culverts dug. Then, disaster!  One sunny morning a volley of shots rang out over the area, AK47 type shots! My workers dived for cover but one was hit twice in the leg… The nearest Sangar (watch tower) returned fire but the culprits managed to flee.

Fortunately my guy was all right and after some medical assistance from the ISAF guys on the ground the injured man was taken to hospital. I am happy to report that he made a full recovery.

Alas this had a detrimental effect upon my workforce. The group who had been in the direct line of fire never returned as a group, though individuals did later. Other workers stayed home for a day or so but miraculously, and bravely, most of the men from the other groups returned and began working again. We discussed the incident at morning roll call and I must admit they all had a pretty sanguine view of the affair. The ability of the people here to simply get on with life and brush calamity aside is amazing. The more I work with the grassroots, community inhabitants the more respect and admiration I have for them. These are simply rural villagers caught up in a wider conflict, grubbing the land for a living and getting on with life despite it all…

As I close, we have a dust storm blowing around us. Luckily for us the burn pit where the camp rubbish, including our excrement, is smouldering away is upwind so I am getting healthy lungfulls of desert dust and burn pit smoke… nice!

This will probably be my last entry for now as I will leave the PB in a week or so and indeed the country at the end of the month. I must admit to have enjoyed the tour. It may sound strange to some readers but this has been an enjoyable and exciting place to be. It makes you feel alive, and hey it is 100% better than the 9-5 I have to go back to. That said,  plans are afoot for me to visit the country next year (another tour) all being well. Keeps me young! Well OK, not exactly young,  but hey,  you know what I mean.

I would like to end with some unadulterated heartfelt goodbyes and thank yous.

For all the people on HERRICK 12, importantly the ones I’ve shared the Patrol Base with, stood in sangars with or at the wall shoulder-to-shoulder with, thank you for your determination,  your humour, for sharing your tea and most of all, for your comradeship…

This poem caught my eye.

The Critic

It is not the critic who counts
Nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbles…
Or where the doer of deeds could have done better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,
Whose face is marred by dust, sweat and blood,
Who knows great enthusiasm, great devotion and the triumph of achievement.
And who at worst, if he fails, at least fails greatly…
so that his place shall never be with those timid souls who know
neither victory or defeat

You’ve never lived until you’ve nearly died.
For those who have had to fight for it,
life has truly a flavour the protected shall
never know…

An alternative Afghanistan: The MSSG path to progress

WO2 Marc Lovatt is working as part of the Military Stabilisation Support Group (MSSG) in central Helmand Province. Here he writes about implementing a subsidised seed scheme which has seen Afghan farmers growing new crops of vegetables.

WO2 Marc Lovatt

WO2 Marc Lovatt

Not too far from the beginning of our tour we identified that the farmers around Forward Operating Base (FOB) Khar Nikar (KNK), might be open to the idea of growing alternative vegetables, rather than just corn or maize.

The team at MSST NES (N) heard the call and made enquiries in an attempt to provide a solution. It was soon discovered that within the headquarters building in MOB Price, was an office of a member of the NGO AVIPA+, with a storage and distribution facility on the outskirts of Gereshk District Centre DC.

Afghanistan Vouchers for Increased Productive Agriculture Plus (AVIPA+) is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by International Relief and Development (IRD) in twenty provinces in Afghanistan. The original AVIPA+ program was launched in September 2008 in response to the prolonged drought conditions of recent years. Working closely with the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL), in 2008-2009 AVIPA distributed more than 10,300 tons of high quality wheat seed and some 33,000 tons of fertilizer at a reduced cost to nearly 297,000 vulnerable farmers, who also received training in best wheat production practices.

Having spoken to the AVIPA+ rep, it was found that they could provide alternative seeds, along with fertilizer and tools all for around 1200 Afghanis per farmer. Each farmer would receive 4 x bags of fertilizer, a selection of spring vegetable seeds, (large tins or foil bags of: tomatoes, radish, cucumber, lettuce, spring onions, spinach and so forth). A member of MSST was then dispatched to KNK in order to gauge if there was any uptake from local Nationals (LNs) and to list those interested.

On arrival at the FOB work began. The word was put out via the local Security Council regarding the seed, MSST accompanied patrols around the area engaging with locals and spreading the message of what was available, costs etc.

A shura spreads the word about the seed scheme

A shura spreads the word about the seed scheme

A shura had also been arranged which did a lot to spread the word about the seed scheme. By the end of the next day over sixty interested farmers had registered themselves, or in some cases representatives had given names of villagers wanting to sign-up; within three days the list contained some 130 individuals. The MSST rep returned to MOB Price. However, the interest was such that locals continued to give their names at FOB KNK which the Coy passed onto MSST. The count reached 180, a quick calculation resulted in a total weight exceeding 35 tonnes and a halt was called. Undoubtedly there were those locals who would have been disappointed, but it was felt that any more would have been simply too much to transport in one lift.

The AVIPA+ rep in NES (N), was given the details and duly delivered the merchandise; well he hired local workers who made the job of unloading 50kg bags look exceedingly easy! MSST, had had to ‘borrow’ three containers from within MOB Price in order to transport the 35-tonne load.These were placed outside the main gate for ease of access for the contractors. Once filled the consignment was loaded onto the next combat replenishment patrol (CLP) heading out to KNK, accompanied by the MSST consignee.

Once on the ground a plan for distribution was discussed and next morning distribution began. To ensure smooth running a team of able volunteers was put together, this included a Captain from The Mercian Regiment with some of his guys, the ANA Commander of FOB KNK and some of his men, an interpreter and the MSST representative. Twenty bundles were made up; four sacks of fertilizer, packages of seeds, a rake and a shovel per bundle. This proved to be ideal as each farmer could see immediately what he was to receive for his cash. He also knew he was paying a subsidised price.

Over the next four days a queue was outside the FOB from 0700hrs until 1700hrs. The team worked steadily and the farmers and villages were happy with what they got.

It can be said that as far as AVIPA, the loading and transportation, this was largely a matter of logistical balancing, timing and coordination. The containers are plentiful in theatre but getting one on an ‘official’ basis proved very difficult. Prior to distribution Tashkera (local identity cards), were used to identify farmers, thus cutting down on fraud. The sacks are heavy, a reliable workforce was essential.

The locals were very keen on this project and wanted more.

Moving house and meeting the locals.

WO2 Marc Lovatt of the Royal Logistic Corps is working as part of the Military Stabilisation Support Group (MSSG) in central Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Here he writes about getting involved with an operation on the Patrol Base Line.

Entering the village

Entering the village

Having been in Gereshk for around three and a half months, being into the ebb and flow of the daily grind, along with having my head around several endeavours, I was generally in a comfortable position. A lot of my recent time had involved working on agricultural matters.  Afghanistan is a largely agrarian society so much of my work had been alongside the Stabilisation Advisor (STABAD) for Agriculture, but that will be another blog entry. Needless to say, the work has been enjoyable and got me out and about a lot including meeting a plethora of local government officials and other fascinating individuals.

It was at this point that an opening became vacant at a distant location known as the Patrol Base Line or PBL. A large security operation had been planned for the PBL. I was to be the MSSG footprint on the ground, sorting out compensation and other concerns which the local inhabitants would undoubtedly soon be having.

The Patrol Base Line is located in the Upper Gereshk valley on the edge of the green zone and consists of four small patrol bases which are located loosely on a South to North line, along a distance of around 2km.

The views from many areas around Afghanistan are spectacular, and one can often see mile upon mile of cultivated lush fields within the green zone in one direction, and a panorama of desert in the other. These views can be even more impressive at various periods of the day, dawn and dusk in particular, and during the many varying weather conditions prevalent here in Afghanistan.

A little background to the Patrol Baseline which may be relevant at this point. Around a year ago the bases along the line, which is intended to restrict insurgent movement into the wider Gereshk area, were manned by the Afghan National Police (ANP), however after many attacks these were withdrawn. ISAF forces then took over the manning (mainly Danish Battle Group troops bolstered by UK Forces and Afghan National Army (ANA) troops), however, freedom of movement was restricted due to the poor maintenance of the road and IEDs. There was also a constant threat from attack, with many actual assaults being undertaken upon all the patrol bases. ISAF troops planned to remedy this.

The ‘Plan’ outline was to remove all IEDs and improve the overall standard of the road,  thus improving security and allowing dialogue and interaction to proceed more smoothly between local nationals, and ISAF Forces. This involved the deployment of many resources, and a large manpower commitment was diverted onto the site. A major concern was damage to the surrounding area and the MSSG, ie me, was there to meet local nationals, discuss what was happening, how we could minimise disruption and keep the populace on-side.

The Operation began. 300 troops moved in, along with the headquarters element headed by a Danish Colonel. The pace was intense. The whole area was transformed into something akin to a building site. Looking out from PB Bridzar many of the fields were soon engineer parks piled with aggregate or stones and as for the new road, that was looking very impressive.

In order to engage with the local nationals I asked if a patrol to nearby villages could be undertaken. So along with the ANA, and a number of their UK advisors, a patrol went out to the village of Sorani. It was like a ghost town. The patrol quietly walked around the tree-lined pathways between the houses and myself, with a few Afghan soldiers, wandered into an open area. After a few moments one local man came out to speak to us, then a couple more, then some children and fairly soon we had around twenty individuals gathered around us. After some formalities I found myself sat among a group of villagers as we discussed the road project unfolding on their doorstep. Naturally they were all very concerned about the impact upon their fields, crops, village and surrounding area.  I did my best to field the array of questions and worries that these people had, who it must be said rely largely upon the contents of the fields for their very existence. We discussed the possibilities that ISAF could bring to the area in the form of wells with hand-pumps, solar panel street lights, bridges for better access to fields along with something nearly all of them had mentioned… improved security for the area.

Due to those security concerns, the patrol Commander ordered that we move on for now. So with the message that if they had any concerns regarding their lands, or indeed if the villagers thought they could benefit from some aid from ISAF they should come to the nearby base, we moved on. As we left I thought about how impressed I was that these men had come out to talk to us.

As we passed through the village the patrol stopped to rest and drink. Suddenly a door behind me opened and a man passed out to my interpreter two large flatbreads. We sat drinking our water and sharing the bread in the shade. Afghan generosity is legendary.

The next morning I was called to the main gate of PB Bridzar… early! Some locals had come asking for MSSG Marc to talk…

From teacher to infantryman for Afghanistan

I was sitting in my office back in October 2009. My civilian job as a secondary school teacher in a busy inner-city district was wearing me down and it was, I thought, time for a change! Taking the plunge, and having contacted the Regimental second-in-command, I emailed a short note of my wish to be mobilised and my civilian CV to Manning and Records in Glasgow. Only days later I received a call from our Training Major outlining a job in Afghanistan. The details were sparse but it sounded interesting. It also meant beginning training at Chilwell on 2 November, around three weeks away. But in for a penny, I thought.

The two weeks at Chilwell were both interesting and challenging. The standard training we had done helped, along with the enthusiasm and empathy of the instructors keeping us on track where needed. After completing the fortnight, passing all training and now in possession of a car full of new clothing and equipment courtesy of the QM I was off to the town of Shorncliffe and Operational Training and Advisory Group, (OPTAG) training. OPTAG involved a week of various stands and briefings pertaining to life and operation in Afghanistan. That was an interesting eye opener! Thus, once the preliminaries had been undertaken I could begin specific training for the job.

The Military Stabilisation Support Group (MSSG) is an organisation involved in the rebuilding, construction and development of the many war-torn areas of Afghanistan. Members of the unit are embedded within routine patrols with the aim of making contact with and talking to local people, with a view to understanding local issues and the needs of communities. This information is then used, along with that gained from formal meetings with community leaders, in order to understand what towns and villages need first and foremost to rebuild or make life better. The actual work will, where possible, be undertaken by locals themselves thus creating work, civic pride and an ethos of sustainability.

The 40-strong group of newly-introduced associates from all three services, male, female, many cap badges and trades came together at Corunna Barracks, Ludgershall and our twelve-week training course began in earnest. It was however a small surprise that on only the third day a Rifles Sergeant Major introduced us to the fact that, as we were going to be out on the ground, we had to be at “Infantry standard”; thus began four days of an intensive range package, one of three others to follow! As you can imagine most of us ‘Corps’ guys, Navy and RAF personnel had not used the SA80 A2 with drop down forward grip, let alone fired wearing Osprey body armour, laser sights and goggles. Luckily too, one of the weeks was booked whilst the snow was at its worst. Just love those planners…

A large section of the course so far had involved lectures and indoor exercises. Guest speakers came from a wide sphere, including individuals newly returned from theatre, Sandhurst lecturers and subject matter experts. It has also been necessary to ‘improve’ our fitness; the average age of the students is……erm…..early forties. One of the most interesting weeks was when we were trained as Team Medics by RAMC personnel. This I feel did bring home some of the realities to many of us but also has given a vital tool to all of us should these skills be required.

The training we received was intense but interesting and as a wider group of strangers only a short time ago, we are now a forty strong conglomerate of working teams.

Me leading a shura with locals near PB Bridzar

Me leading a shura with locals near PB Bridzar

I was headed for Gereshk in Helmand Province, and a patrol base run by Danish soldiers, working as part of Task Force Helmand, which has proved to be one of the most “active”. The living is hard. There are no luxuries, not even the food which is all rations, although we can alternate between British and Danish fare. We live in a small room with only one electricity point, which has at times been like a furnace as the temperature hit the high forties. I have a campbed and a mosquito net – and an absolutely essential fan.

We share our PB with the ANA and when we patrol we patrol with them.

It has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. In the next blog I will start to give you a taster of the “real” Afghanistan.