Sergeant Mal Dick is a Combat Nurse from the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, based in FOB Inkerman in Sangin for the duration of Operation HERRICK 12.
Bergen packed and goodbyes said, I trundled off towards the airhead and a much trained for trip into the southern part of the green zone of Afghanistan. Having completed the training package the previous day I mulled over all that I had learned and hoped would not have to put to use, such as the soldiering skills of weapons handling, ie using a general purpose machine gun, or the grenade machine gun, and compound clearing (could you imagine!) I had a little chuckle to myself whilst sat in the “departure lounge” waiting to be called forward for the flight out on a Chinook helicopter. To be honest it was more of a nervous laugh as I had watched a program called “Chicks at war” (I think that’s what it was called) along with my wife, the Thursday prior to deploying. The program followed the trials and tribulations of a female Corporal Gunner who was serving at Forward operating base (FOB) Inkerman, which she nicknamed FOB Incoming because of the amount of contacts it was having. I remember my wife looking at me rather wide eyed stating: “You won’t be going there will you?”
“Of course not” I had replied. At that point I believed I was working in Bastion. You can imagine her face when I came home the next day and said: “You’ll never guess where I’m going!”
With reality looming I checked I had all my kit, Bergen and day sack, body armour on, weapon attached, helmet and goggles. Check complete I couldn’t help wonder that despite shedding all the extra kit why I was feeling too heavy. Nothing I could do about it now as I was heading up the ramp of the helicopter. I’ve flown on a Chinook before but this flight made me a little nervous, not because I was flying out to a Forward Operating Base but because there were no seats left and I would be perched on the boxes of cargo which to my mind were too near the open end of the drop doors. I gave a nervous glance to the cargo master and his positive thumbs up did not quell the thought that this journey would be a bit like a roller coaster ride with no safety harness.
My misgivings had been unfounded and I realised that I probably had the best seat, as I watched the desert swiftly pass by a couple of hundred metres below. The vastness of the landscape was remarkable with the contrast of the view of the Green Zone even more so as we circled and landed at the helicopter landing site outside FOB Inkerman. I stumbled down the ramp with bags on back, met by a barrage of shouts instructing me in that age-old squaddy language of profanity to get in behind the wall ASAP! Once through the gates the pace was a lot calmer as I was met by Lance Corporal Jodie Hill who cheerfully stated “Welcome to stinky Inky”. I have to admit being met by this bubbly Welsh blonde was far removed from what I had imagined would greet me in the middle of the desert.
Having booked in at the Ops room I headed off with Jodie to the Medical Centre and met up with the Medical Officer, Major Demontes. As we approached the Medical Centre ‘the Doc’ was outside to greet me with a warning that the medical centre needed ‘a little work ‘as it had been recently moved from its original ‘building’ into a more central location. Probably just needs a little squaring away I thought, as I pushed through the vinyl curtain door into the Hesco building. To say I was off the mark would be a bit of an understatement. I don’t mind telling you I had a bit of a moment, with more than a hint of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, seeing boxes of medication, team medic packs, etc etc etc, strewn around. The container being used as the med store didn’t look any better and I am sure I wailed that it would take me weeks to sort it all out. In the end it took a couple of days of concerted effort and it is, I am pleased to say, a fully functioning medical centre complete with a reception area, a primary health care bay and 2 bedded trauma bay with all the kit and equipment laid out neatly.
Drama out of the way it was time settle into camp routine. The day starts at 0700-ish when I get up from my mosquito net covered cot bed and try not to bump into anything in my 1 metre x 3 metre ‘room’. I don my shorts and t-shirt and head off around camp on my morning run, 10 laps is about 7 kilometres so this tells you how big it is. Despite its size the camp holds a fair amount of buildings, equipment and soldiers, including contingents of marines, engineers, gunners and various other attached personnel. Run finished, I head to the showers, or should I say to a cold hosing, for my early morning wake-up call (ablution containers are not plumbed in yet). There’s nothing like cold water to make you have a ship (read fast) shower and conserve water, whether you want to or not. Off to breakfast in the cookhouse and as with all meals thus far they have been generally excellent. We’ve not had ration packs too often and have a pudding of some sort most evenings (of course I save these for Sundays as a treat).
Work day then starts at 0800 when we have sick parade and start all the administration for the day (equipment care checks, mopping to keep the dust down etc). Sick parade is meant to finish at 1000 however it tends to run all day as people come in off the ground. As with any medical centre we see a range of common ailments, ie athletes foot, dodgy tummies, aches and pains, however we have had the out-of-the-ordinary that have required treatment at the field hospital in Bastion. I hadn’t given this a moment’s thought that these wouldn’t always be for battlefield injuries. All of this may sound almost mundane. However the environment (sandstorms, high temperature) the austere conditions (Hesco buildings, temperamental electricity supply) and of course the occasional incoming small arms fire and the odd explosion (a war story for another day) ensures that it is anything but.
My role as front line nurse does not see me confined to FOB Inkerman alone. It also includes other duties such as trips down the 611 Highway to provide medical cover and to touch base with the patrol bases (the Mastiff really is a great piece of kit); a 3 day stint at the most forward PB in the Inkerman area of operations, providing medical cover whilst other assets were re-assigned. A taste of PB life put into perspective the relative luxury of FOB life: no electricity, no fresh food, and Sanger (watchtower) guards 3 times daily (thank goodness for the weapon familiarisation). This is where I learned what ground signs are really like and eyeballed copious ‘murder holes’ from which the insurgents operated.
As you can see the role of the nurse within a FOB is a multi-faceted one that daily provides challenges on many different levels. It gives an opportunity to see a side of military life not often visited by the ‘Grey Mafia’ and a chance to utilise the skills learned. It is a rewarding role that despite some of the perceived hardships I continue to look forward to fulfilling and developing for the remainder of this tour.