An Artist Abroad: Life in the JOC

Captain Sophie Whitaker, 39 Regt RA. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Captain Sophie Whitaker, 39 Regt RA. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Captain Sophie Whitaker is a serving war artist whose main job is to provide Joint Fires Targeting support to Task Force Helmand on OP HERRICK 18. As a member of 74 Battery (The Battleaxe Company) 39 Regiment Royal Artillery – attached to 1 Royal Horse Artillery, Sophie works in the Brigade Headquarters, Lashkar Gah, where she finds time between an often hectic schedule to put pencil to paper.

Since my trip to Main Operating Base (MOB) Price my feet have barely touched the ground – well, in the metaphorical sense at least.  They have, in fact, been firmly rooted to the ground underneath my desk, for near on 12 hours a day…

On return to the Headquarters in Lashkar Gar, I have found myself sitting at a new desk, but with a new team. My old team is now back from R&R which means that I am next! However, due to the ongoing requirement to reduce our footprint in Afghanistan, I have been gradually handing over my role to WO2 Gardiner, who is now singlehandedly running that particular target development desk.  I now sit centrally in the Joint Operations Centre (JOC).  So let me tell you a little bit about the JOC.

Reality is often not as exciting

It sits within the main TFH headquarters, in a small room in the very far corner of the floor plan. The door is always closed, and a little red light outside indicates when visitors ought to keep clear! The JOC is a hubbub of activity as it is the nucleus of all current operational activity and is run by a Battle Captain, to include a team of between 15-20 people at any one time. ‘Deskheads’ are rank ranged from sergeant through to captain and comprise a variety of cap badges, services, reservists, and sometimes other nationalities. During an operation, communications, requests for fires, and air space de-confliction are all decided upon here. At the height of activity, ops officers run in and out to brief their superiors, in addition to superiors coming in to watch a situation develop and issue their directions.

All mine

All mine

Maybe over here?

Maybe over here?

However, reality is often not as exciting as that, and more often than not the days are quiet (which we are thankful for, as no lives are at risk) but also long. Three daily briefs break up the monotony, and with the mealtimes to look forward to, the days do soon pass. However, there is change afoot, with MFO boxes littering the headquarters, large rolls of parcel tape and black nasty on desktops, and large bags of shredded pink paper waiting to be burned – signs that we are moving! It is strange to think that despite many significant events – Wimbledon, the Lions victory, The Ashes and of course the royal birth (congratulations!), we too are a small part of history as we will be the last headquarters and staff to be based here during this campaign.

My nightshift counterparts

A little bit higher

A little bit higher

It is for these very reasons that the Operational Art book I have mentioned is being produced – to record Helmand Province from those soldiers who have set foot on it, lived in it, and worked alongside the local people here. Perhaps one day, others will get to experience the beauty of this country in a less turbulent era. In addition to my day job, I have now been given more direction to oversee the production and editorial of the art book. So far I have had healthy numbers of entries and there is certainly some talent out here – particularly from my night shift counterparts who, after browsing through my ‘how to draw caricatures’ book, have produced some convincing portraits!

This week I have been working on painting a watercolour of a military working dog (MWD). At first I thought of doing something a bit different, aiming to capture the idea of movement and the character of the dogs at work. Although digital art is somewhat of a taboo subject amongst some, I decided to set myself a few five minute challenges, of seeing what I could produce using a Serif XD6 photo editing programme with the photographs taken during my visit to Price as reference. Did you guess what breeds they were?!

Work In Progress

Using a more traditional method, here is a very brief explanation of the WIP for this week’s painting ‘The Release’.

Starting lines

Starting lines

Having spent some hours observing each of the military working dogs at work, I was keen to paint something that would show their eagerness to work and their enthusiasm for the job – if ever a dog can display this! I was particularly drawn to Senna, a German Shepherd bitch with a signature bob tail which she had lost long before she joined the army. Her purpose is force protection. I was inspired by her movement at covering the ground so quickly and so effortlessly, with her eyes unblinkingly fixed on her target.

Building the HESCO

Building the HESCO

I again used masking fluid to mask out the figures of the dog and handler before overlaying a wash and starting to build up a suggestion of shadow in the distant HESCO wall. This piece is painted on A3 sized paper, and even with the small squirrel brushes, the brush strokes are too wide for real detail. Nevertheless, the focus of this piece is the movement of the dog.

White motion

White motion

The hound takes shape

The hound takes shape

The finished piece

Here the masking fluid has been removed, and a pale blue sky has been added along with the suggestion of the dog’s shadow. Then I started to concentrate on the dog with simple, bold brush strokes to indicate the dark mask of her face and ears, and a bit of depth in her chest and legs. Detail was then added for the harness, and I painted in the impression of the handler. To finish the painting, I decided to create more definition between the subject and the background and so painted a very light white wash over the background to make the subjects stand out that little bit more. And here is the finished piece!

The Release

The Release

For my next project, I shall have a go at caricatures and you’ll have to wait and see how I get on! Any volunteers to be my first (victim) sitter?

Look at Sophie’s page

An Artist Abroad: Price is nice

Captain Sophie Whitaker, 39 Regt RA. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Captain Sophie Whitaker, 39 Regt RA. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Captain Sophie Whitaker is a serving war artist whose main job is to provide Joint Fires Targeting support to Task Force Helmand on OP HERRICK 18. As a member of 74 Battery (The Battleaxe Company) 39 Regiment Royal Artillery – attached to 1 Royal Horse Artillery, Sophie works in the Brigade Headquarters, Lashkar Gah, where she finds time between an often hectic schedule to put pencil to paper.

The day following my last blog, I found myself sitting at the Lashkar Gah HLS (helicopter Landing Site) in the midday sun waiting for a Chinook to arrive to transport me to the Main Operating Base (MOB) Price.

The journey begins

The journey begins

There were no delays and we soon landed in Price where I was pleased to see by one of my Battery’s troop commanders! I was then greeted by my host before following him to sign in to the camp and to find my accommodation. I was placed in the ‘VIP suite’ which was by far nowhere near as glamorous as it might sound! It was a section of a tent opposite the cookhouse, which consisted of a few scattered cot beds and strewn water bottles along with the remnants of hanging shelves, a paracord washing line and makeshift clothing rails. Nevertheless I made myself quite comfortable and was thankful for the air conditioning. After a quick shower and donning a fresh uniform I made my way to the Nahr-e Saraj (NES) headquarters to meet the rest of the team.

My luxury accommodation left behind

My luxury accommodation left behind

The operational art coffee table book

The operational art coffee table book

Here I was introduced to the Drum Sergeant Major, Y Coy of the 1st Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers who had produced a few watercolour paintings with his operational art pack. Although you’ll have to wait for the OP HERRICK art book to be published before you can see those! I had also brought the last HERRICK’s published art book ‘Artists in Afghanistan’ with me to show and inspire people and had a very positive response – so much so that by the following morning I had a few more submissions to make their way into the book! However, it wasn’t long before lunch and we soon made our way over to the cookhouse. The walls of the cookhouse tent were clad with faded photographs and a collection of posters of painted hand prints from the children of serving soldiers stuck to the crinkled sides of the tent clinging on with ‘black nasty’ (duct tape).

Messages from home

Messages from home

I then spent the afternoon walking around MOB Price talking to soldiers and trying to encourage any hidden artists to emerge and get involved in the project. I also spotted a few murals painted on weathered walls around the MOB, each with a story to tell from bygone times.

Mural on a former medical clinic

Mural on a former medical clinic

Gazala Troop charity challenge

Gazala Troop charity challenge

The MOB also encompasses the old walls from Russian occupation in addition to the original Afghan compound walls towards the centre of the MOB. I also managed to climb up the ‘Freedom Tower’ at the heart of the MOB to observe the views.After dinner I visited Gazala troop, 74 Battery (The Battleaxe Company) RA where morale was high and I was persuaded to join in on their charity challenge – rowing, running and cycling the distance from Afghanistan to Albemarle Barracks, Newcastle 5,738km in aid of the Army Benevolent Fund. Their Justgiving site can be found at http://www.virginmoneygiving.com/gazalaherrick18. After catching up with troop I returned to my tent to pack my kit ready for an onward flight back home (well, Lashkar Gah) in the morning.

Dogs at work

I was only scheduled to stay in MOB Price for a 24 hr period but due to a busy flight schedule, with other, higher priority personnel and operational necessity I ended up extending my stay for a further 48 hrs. Thankfully I had taken advice and packed enough kit for a few days in preparation for such an eventuality! My first scheduled flight was too busy and so I returned from the HLS back to the ops room and re-booked a flight for the following morning.

Earlier that morning I had bumped into the military working dog (MWD) section who had invited me over to see their dogs at work that afternoon if I was available – which I now was. With my own re-homed yellow Labrador bitch (Lola) and my fiancé’s liver brown cocker spaniel bitch (Boots), I was pleased to be able to spend time talking about the training and experiences of the handlers and dogs alike. I am also very much looking forward to seeing Lola and Boots on R&R and taking them for some long walks in the green countryside. I shall save talking about them until I get home – only three weeks to go now!

MWD – ‘Is it dinner time?’

MWD – ‘Is it dinner time?’

Here are a couple of photographs of the MWD team and their dogs:

MWD – Time out

MWD – Time out

MWD – ‘Am I there yet?’

MWD – ‘Am I there yet?’

MWD – ‘let me at ‘em’!’

MWD – ‘let me at ‘em’!’

The remainder of the day consisted of a gym session followed by a slushy, before hand washing some of my kit prior to re-packing for my second attempt at an outward trip in the morning. That next morning, as I sat next to the Lashkar Gah Command Sergeant Major and one of the soldiers from the military working dog section waiting for our helicopter to arrive, it was announced that due to operational reasons only one helicopter would be arriving. R&R personnel were a priority and I knew, as a list of names was read out, that I wouldn’t be on that flight. Nevertheless we went back for some lunch and waited…and waited…

Waiting …

Waiting …

Then an announcement came over the tannoy system for all those soldiers who didn’t fly that morning to report to their Buzzard Ops (who manage flight requests and allocations). It turned out that a US Marine Corps flight would be coming in that evening to fly to Bastion, where I would then fly to Lashkar Gah the day after. Eventually I made it back to Lashkar Gah after numerous hours spent waiting at one flight line or another. Despite the delays, flying around Helmand is a quite civilised affair rather than the ‘go, go, go’ of training and the US HLS is well established with air conditioning and wifi! No sooner had I landed, showered and changed, I was sat back at my desk back to the routine.

Waiting in style at the US Marine Corps HLS

Waiting in style at the US Marine Corps HLS

The long and short of it was a successful trip to MOB Price where I met lots of interesting people and even managed to encourage some of them to submit their work. Alas, I haven’t managed to produce a piece of my own art this week … I have just started a 12 hour shift rotation. However, I shall still post a piece of art – and here’s one I prepared earlier! This was a picture drawn for a very good friend of mine, Hannah – a fellow member of my platoon at Sandhurst who is deployed out here with me in the headquarters of Taskforce Helmand!

Here’s one I made earlier

Here’s one I made earlier

Look at Sophie’s page

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