Afghanistan… preparing to deploy

Lieutenant Tom Shorland-Ball, Second-in-Command of B Squadron, Royal Dragoon Guards (RDG), is preparing to deploy to Afghanistan on operation HERRICK 17. The Royal Dragoon Guards will have two, quite separate roles during their tour. One Squadron will be working as the Warthog Group (a brigade-level asset) with the remainder working alongside Afghan police forces as part of the Police Mentoring Advisory Group (PMAG). Over the course of this tour, soldiers and officers will be describing their varied experiences in this blog.

Here, Lt Tom Shorland-Ball describes the build-up to deployment.

Afghanistan… here we go! As I’ve watched Alma Lines slowly emptying over the last month or so, the anticipation of what is coming has been mounting, not only amongst my call sign, but the whole of B (The Black Horse) Squadron and indeed the Royal Dragoon Guards. Needless to say, we have been hearing back from the troops who have deployed early, but nothing will match one’s own boots hitting the desert. For some, myself included, this is a first tour and so anxious excitement has been mounting throughout the whole of the Mission Specific Training (MST) package which has run from January but for the old hands, who have the legacy of Op HERRICK 12 and one or even two Op TELICs before that, it is the familiar rotation of preparation, reassurance to the tour first timers, and goodbyes.

A Squadron, Royal Dragoon Guards, carry out casualty evacuation training during the final exercise..

A Squadron, Royal Dragoon Guards, carry out casualty evacuation training during the final exercise.

Morale is good – I never thought I would see the day where I listened to young soldiers with wives and families tell me that they just wanted to go, but then I suppose the sooner you leave, the sooner you get back. I joined the Regiment in September 2010, at the beginning of Hybrid Foundation Training, having finished at Sandhurst the previous month and so I have been fortunate to have been put through the full two year training rotation, which includes nine long months of MST.

One of my soldiers arrived from basic training last week, yet he too will soon be qualified to deploy and will be doing so with myself and the main body. MST, the long tailed beast that it is, has entailed everything from exercises in Thetford and Salisbury plain to obtaining too numerous to count weapon and vehicle qualifications and driving around the countryside of North Yorkshire on patrol with the NYPD (North Yorkshire Police Department!).

Families and friends get up close and personal with a Challenger II main battle tank on the Dettingen weekend in June.

Families and friends get up close and personal with a Challenger II main battle tank on the Dettingen weekend in June.

Basic survival in Afghanistan

One of the memorable occasions that sticks in my mind during this training was the celebration at Families Day on the Dettingen weekend in June. Not only was this a chance to celebrate the British-German allied victory against France in 1743, in which our antecedent regiments were instrumental, but it was also an opportunity for families of members of the Regiment to gather in a casual environment and enjoy themselves on the various stands, looking at vehicles, weapons and enjoying a few drinks, games and rides. It was a rare opportunity to meet the soldiers’ families and friends, and was as important to me as any of the MST exercises, as it put into context all of the soldiers that I have the pleasure of working with on a daily basis.

These training events have given us the chance not only to hone the necessary skills and drills for basic survival in Afghanistan, but allow one to build relationships with the other units which will be on the ground with us. As a Police Advisory Team (PAT) you are required to visit multiple Afghan police checkpoints daily and spend a lot of time moving from one to the next, and it is only with a good relationship with the other troops on the ground that this can safely be achieved. I can confidently say that I am looking forward to working closely with 40 Commando Royal Marines and Delhi Company, 1 Royal Gurkha Rifles.

Finally, am I nervous? Naturally the answer is ‘yes’, but this is heavily outweighed by the fact that I am about to deploy on a trip that I have been wanting to go on ever since I started craving to wear green in about 2000. I am excited and I feel ready. I am sure it will be good. Let’s just see.

Police mentoring in Nahr e-Saraj

Lt Matt Galante

Lt Matt Galante

Lt Matt Galante is an officer in The 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment.  He commands a Police Advisory Team (PAT) in Southern Nahr-e-Saraj district, Helmand province. This is Matt’s second tour of Afghanistan.

 

The first three months of Operation Herrick 15 have flown by, and life remains both hectic and enjoyable for us. There is so much to write about and so little space; worse still, the blokes have caught wind that I am writing a blog and are now all bullying me to get their names in cyberspace. Cheers lads. So without further ado I bring you part four of “Police mentoring in Nahr e-Saraj”…

Mountain of rugs

Where to start? It has, in the space of 48 hours, gone from an Indian summer to utterly freezing in Helmand: the rains have kept their distance, but the temperatures have dipped below zero at an alarming rate. Patrolling the soggy fields and dusty tracks of our new home town in 100lbs of equipment keeps us fairly toasty, but the same cannot be said for our Afghan partners who are enduring the cold nights with only a blanket, Chai and the kind of robust nature that typifies the Helmandi people. We are providing them with heaters to complement their new Afghan-issue police overcoats, but I can’t help feeling sorry for the patrolmen we meet on our morning checkpoint visits as they huddle around their communal Chai flask under a mountain of rugs.

Police checkpoint in Paind Kalay

Police checkpoint in Paind Kalay

Pot Noodles

As for our own checkpoint, we are living by the mantra that “any idiot can be uncomfortable” by carving out our own little palace in the middle of Helmand. The darts league between Colour Sergeant Richie Swain and Sergeant Dave Whitfield is becoming ruthlessly competitive, with more than just a round of brews at stake for the loser but the shame of coming second in the Paind Kalay championships. Captain Giles Walsh has somehow ‘acquired’ the classiest Christmas tree outside of Harrods to decorate our ops room, and Colour Sergeant Richard ‘Eddie’ Edwards has a steady stream of ridiculously expensive food parcels from young officers he used to instruct at Sandhurst (yes young Lieutenants, if you haven’t sent him anything yet then get cracking). Meanwhile, Lance Corporal ‘Paddy’ Korovou (one quarter of our resident ‘TeamFiji’) is pushing for either an MBE or a place on Masterchef by continually creating works of genius out of a clay oven and some tinned meat. Lance Corporal Matt Little is busy beasting Craftsman Rob Lambdon in our fully-stocked gym in his quest to finally get Rob some shoulders, while Lance Corporal James Alldread is slowly eating his way through the hundred or so Pot Noodles his Grandfather keeps sending him.

Lt Matt Galante having chai with the AUP

Lt Matt Galante having chai with the AUP

As for our police counterparts, I am pleased to say that they are stepping up to the mark in all respects. Lieutenant Mohammad Wali has been equally industrious in his quest to spruce up his side of our shared checkpoint, by creating an enormous furnace in his ‘shura room’ to keep his many local visitors warm. Built from spare vehicle parts and running from old engine oil, it sounds like a jet engine and looks moments from exploding every time it gets fired up but has become a focal point for the AUP and locals alike. When the room is in full swing, the only noise that drowns out the ridiculous din of the furnace is Wali’s Frank Bruno-style laugh.

More police patrols

The police are achieving more than just good central heating though. In terms of successes on the ground, a particular highlight recently has been a patrol we undertook into the former insurgent stronghold of Kakaran. A platoon from B Company 1 PWRR, led by Captain Chris Gardiner, had recently been engaged in weeks of fierce fighting in Kakaran, a small village near the Helmand river. Every time they entered the village, locals would hurriedly drop their farming tools and flee – leaving Chris and his team alone in the eerily empty fields, waiting for the first crack of machine gun fire to zip overhead. After many excursions into Kakaran, B Company finally had the insurgents on the run. However, the village was still a mystery to the outside world: who lived there? Were they friendly villagers caught in the crossfire, or hard-line Taliban supporters? Enter the police – local faces with the best interests of the people at heart. Within two hours, the Kakaran village elders were pleading for more police patrols to keep insurgents at bay and restore peace, and the AUP returned to their checkpoint rightly proud of having made a difference to an entire community in a single day.

Lt Matt Galante discusses local issues with the AUP

Lt Matt Galante discusses local issues with the AUP

Heartfelt condolences

There is a great deal of success that has come from our first three months out here, and I am looking forward to more of the same in 2012. However, as Christmas approaches we all remember the families who are missing loved ones this festive season and offer our heartfelt condolences. On a personal front, I would like to mention two men in particular whose loss has been felt deeply by myself and my team: Private Tom Lake of B Company 1 PWRR – the Battalion’s first loss on this tour; and Lieutenant David Boyce of the Queen’s Dragoon Guards – a colleague and friend from eight months in Bovington and Brecon. My thoughts are with the loved ones of both these great men at this time.

Moving forward, the team and I have a busy week lined up so I look forward to updating you on life inHelmand in the New Year. Merry Christmas

The Afghan experience

Lt Matt Galante at Paind Kalay police station with Husky vehicle in background

Lt Matt Galante at Paind Kalay police station with Husky vehicle in background

Lt Matt Galante is an officer in The 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment.  He commands a Police Advisory Team (PAT) in Southern Nahr-e-Saraj district, Helmand province. This is Matt’s second tour of Afghanistan.

 

Oblivious to unique situations 

This may be a ridiculous statement, but sometimes it can be very easy to completely overlook the fact you are actually inAfghanistan. I’ve often wondered why this is, why soldiers seem oblivious to some of the unique situations we find ourselves in. How can an operational tour just feel like another day at the office and not some big adventure? The only explanation I can offer is that, when your entire working life leads up to six months in Afghanistan, all the training and preparation dulls you to the reality of actually being out here – the exceptional becomes pretty mundane, and all of a sudden you find yourself completely nonplussed about sharing your bedspace with rats and being occasionally woken by gunfire.

Sometimes, however, you are faced with those unmistakable moments that remind you this is actuallyAfghanistanand not just another exercise on Salisbury Plain. Take for example today, where I found myself sat in a traffic jam of camels – all completely oblivious to my tight schedule, and all wearing that smug grin that camels always seem to have.

Another sight that never becomes tiring for me is the Afghan tendency to wring every last inch of useable space out of every mode of transport they own. A two-seater motorbike? Definitely capable of seating four. Battered old saloon car? Why wouldn’t you fit four adults in the front seats and two donkeys in the back? (I never did work out how the driver changed gears…) An average-sized tractor trailer? Best fill it with 25ft of wheat, and put your son on top of it all to weigh it down. These are the little sights that separate my tour from all the training leading up to this point, and they never fail to make me smile.

Goods piled high on the roads of Nahr-e-Saraj

Goods piled high on the roads of Nahr-e-Saraj

The realisation that ‘actually, this is a little bit fun’ can strike at some odd times. Any soldier who has lived or worked in the Green Zone will attest to the fact that half of every foot patrol is spent climbing in and out of flooded irrigation ditches. Normally, wading through waist-high, dubious-smelling water with seven stone of kit on your back can only be described as horrific, but once the first man starts laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation the giggles become pretty difficult to contain. I have often wondered what the local farmers think of the numerous groups of half-laughing, half-broken men slogging through their irrigation ditches every day, but am usually too exhausted to ask.

Lt Matt Galante patrolling through an irrigation ditch
Lt Matt Galante patrolling through an irrigation ditch

On a slightly less horrific note, one of the more pleasant experiences – and one that sums up the whole ‘Afghan experience’ for me – is the shura, or meeting. In my line of work, impromptu informal shuras tend to be a daily occurrence as my team and I patrol from police checkpoint to checkpoint, visiting the patrolmen and discussing key issues with the commanders at each location. I am pretty certain that foreigners arriving unannounced (and soaked in foul-smelling water) at our place of work back in theUK would be given a frosty reception at best, but the welcome we receive at each checkpoint is quite the opposite.

Donkey and cart

Donkey and cart

Pashtunwali, the code of conduct for the Pashtun people who make up the majority of Helmand Province, calls for all strangers seeking refuge to be treated impeccably. I can confirm that this is the case: my team and I usually arrive at a checkpoint to hugs and handshakes, before being ushered to take a seat on the Afghan equivalent of our sofa – the trusty rug. Before long the Chai appears (green tea in small glass cups), along with the obligatory boiled sweets, which are usually politely declined on the basis that they are covered in swarms of enormous wasps. The patrolmen are incredibly slim – as are all Afghans – and have a habit of crouching rather than sitting, which is difficult to mimic even without 20kg of body armour. Every effort is made to feed guests, and no request is declined. Goodbyes are an equally drawn-out process, and the whole experience gives a real insight into the Afghan culture – which, I have to say, is very enjoyable.

Yes there is hardship in being on an operational tour, and yes we all miss our family and friends – but each day brings unique experiences that we are unlikely to forget in a hurry. And the Afghan weather is far nicer than on Salisbury Plain, which is always a bonus.

Returning to Afghanistan

Lt Matt Galante

Lt Matt Galante

Lt Matt Galante is an officer in 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment.  He commands a Police Advisory Team (PAT) in Southern Nahr-e-Saraj district Helmand province.

Returning to Afghanistan has been the focus of my life for the past five years.

I realise that, for most people, Helmand Province is hardly the holiday venue of choice, but since I first came here in 2006 I have been desperate to return. I was a Territorial Army soldier back in those days, juggling my work commitments with a degree at Leeds University (with somewhat questionable results at times). Having finally graduated, and on realising that I am more at home in a wet Welsh field than a cozy dry office, I joined the army ‘full-time’ to endure the joys of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. I emerged 44 weeks later as an officer in the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, and swiftly found myself preparing to head back to the country that captured my imagination some five years ago.

Beast of Bastion

On arrival at Camp Bastion in late September, I was astounded at how much can change in a relatively short time span – and how much can stay the same. The fine dust that coats your nostrils and destroys your electrical goods had unfortunately remained, as had the oppressive heat. But the beast that is Bastion had grown to unimaginable proportions, with fast food chains and air-conditioned shops aplenty. Despite the relative comfort I quickly became restless to deploy forward, and within a week found myself on a daringly low and fast Chinook ride to my new home of Nahr-e-Saraj, nestled along the banks of the river Helmand.

Lt Matt Galante talking to children in Paind Kalay

Lt Matt Galante talking to children in Paind Kalay

I was finally back to the landscape that had so captured my imagination five years ago, and was pleasantly surprised at what greeted me. Thankfully, the landscape remained unchanged: characteristic mud compounds thoughtfully decorated with items from the land, unnaturally blue streams meandering through irrigated fields crammed with six-foot maize, and the ever-present river Helmand cutting jagged rocky cliffs into the desert landscape. The cliffs are a beautiful foreground to an impressive sunrise, which is accompanied by the haunting sounds of morning prayers dancing through the still morning air. I instantly felt privileged to be back here.

Cheeky smiles

What was more of a surprise was what had actually changed since my last visit. To place the following observations into perspective, let me remind you of the scenes in Sangin five years ago: in all my time, I only saw one civilian family – fleeing their home village in terror. Everybody else – every single soul – was hostile towards me. Every moment on patrol was a fraught affair, as we moved through a landscape all but destroyed by months of fighting.

Yet here I was on my opening patrol of 2011 utterly gobsmacked: by the pristine tarmac under my feet, the sheer number of children running around me with cheeky smiles asking for a ‘Kalam’ (pen), the farmers waving and laughing as my team stumble across an adjacent ploughed field like Bambi after eight pints… This change is incredible, and after five weeks of patrolling I am still delighted to see the progress made. Even if it means that I have to contend with screaming kids every time I go static on patrol.

Lt Matt Galante on patrol in Paind Kalay with Afghan Uniformed Police

Lt Matt Galante on patrol in Paind Kalay with Afghan Uniformed Police

My job on this tour is as a multiple commander with the Police Mentoring  and Advisory Group, 1 PWRR. Essentially this means that I am in command of 16 soldiers whose key task is to mentor and assist the Afghan National Police in their efforts to bring security to Nahr-e-Saraj and the wider Helmand region. I will go into a little more detail as to our daily routine and the more memorable characters we meet (of which there are many!) in a later blog, but in the meantime it’s about time I signed off as I’m on patrol in an hour…

I look forward to keeping you updated!

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