“Perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.”

Sgt Steve Blake

Sgt Steve Blake

Sergeant Steve Blake is a trained Soldier and professional Army Photographer with the Royal Logistic Corps.  Having returned from Afghanistan as part of the three-man Combat Camera Team, Steve continues his role, focusing his lens on the UK.

Sorry for not blogging sooner, but so much has been happening, I don’t know where the time has gone! Over the last few weeks I have had some really good jobs and travelled about a fair bit in the process.

All work and no play

The one I have been looking forward too for some time, was the Defence Animal Centre (DAC) in Melton Mowbray. As a Spaniel owner, and lover of dogs, this trip was right up my street. All I had to do was remember I was there for work and not to play with all the dogs! Easier said than done!With the alarm set nice and early and all my kit waiting to go, I headed up north with Tammy, Media Ninja. Tammy looks after all media coverage for the Army Medical Services; this includes the Royal Army Veterinary Corps (RAVC) that look after all of our working animals.

The DAC is the home of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps (RAVC) and trains hundreds of animals, from Springer Spaniels, through to Shire horses, it is the main military training centre for anything animal related, including farriery, rider training for the Household Cavalry and all things relating to animal husbandry. This centre of excellence trains all variants within the RAVC. This includes dog handlers, veterinary technicians, dog trainers and equine instructors.

The DAC, from the word go, were amazing hosts. We were introduced to the Adjutant of the DAC before heading out to capture imagery. We were given free reign of the centre, something I am not normally used to. No chaperones, no ‘out of bounds’ areas, nothing! So, like excited children in a sweet shop, we were off before anyone could change their minds! We visited every department the DAC had to offer, finding out what they had scheduled for the next two days, so we could plan out our time to maximise our photo opportunities.

It’s a dog’s life

Agility Training

Agility Training

We were welcomed by the Section OC and Training Warrant Officer before heading out around the kennels in the capable hands of one of the Section Corporals. The DAC is now the proud owner of some state of the art, temperature controlled kennels. They are just superb. Each kennel block houses approx. 20 dogs and they have several blocks of these to house the hundreds of dogs they care for.

With so much to see and do, we had to be careful not to miss anything. Puppy agility was a ‘definite’ must see; a photo opportunity not to be missed.  One year old Labradors running about the place all excited, who doesn’t love a puppy? Enough said. As well as this, the canine section were running agility for protection dogs, as well as some ‘bite training’ for the Belgian Malinois.

'All Bite and no Bark'

‘All Bite and no Bark’

We were fortunate enough to see a pre-arranged demonstration; it was to show the British Transport Police the capabilities of various dogs. This was a prime opportunity for me to move about and capture the demo without disruption. The demo then continued onto other forms of protection dog and what they could do. These dogs are trained to such a high standard, sadly I can’t talk much about what our dogs do, or how they do it, but I’m sure you get the idea. ‘ 

Aggression Training

Aggression Training

Wanting to capture the aggression the dog can show when in ‘work mode’ I arranged a few shots with the help of the trainers. As I lay on the floor with a very wide angle lens, one of the lads stood over me, baiting the dog by means of the ‘bite sleeve’. This is normal practice and part of their training. It helps the dog to identify aggressive behaviour, but also identify the ‘bite sleeve’ as a reward at the early stages. Once the pictures were in the bag, the dog was allowed a bite on the sleeve. Something that was clearly enjoyable.

Although I could have spent my whole time with the dogs, it was time to move on, heading off to see Equestrian Section. The team look after everything equestrian from the smallest foal to the largest shire, along with all their saddles and kit.

Horsing around

'New Shoes'

‘New Shoes’

As with the dogs section the equestrian area can house hundreds of horses at any one time. Out of ceremonial season, all of the horses from London District go to the DAC for some R and R and to just quietly plod about the many fields. Whilst there we met a drum horse from London called ‘Digger’, currently having some time off in a grass field at the DAC. He is the largest horse in the UK.

Sadly, no rider courses were running during my time, but that’s something for another day. Watching that would be quite good. Most people that join the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiments (HCMR) have never even sat on a horse. Yet by the time they finish at the DAC, they are fully accomplished riders of several disciplines, including jumping and dressage. Training to ride in full ceremonial dress is also something that takes some practice!

Turning up the heat

Working hand in hand with the horses are the farriers. These guys do an amazing job, with less than 30 Army farriers currently serving across the whole of the Army. They are responsible for every ceremonial horse in London, as well as those at the DAC in training. Exact numbers I don’t know, but it’s in the hundreds! With more to it than you think, these guys are skilled professionals, once selected, these soldiers do a three or four year apprenticeship before gaining their final award by the Worshipful Company of Farriers.

More than just a blacksmith, that’s for sure. These guys know the intricate details of the horses’ anatomy, below the knee.  They deal in all below-knee ailments, including ‘pus’ foot and other fungal infections and are often the first person to be asked for advice, sometimes even prior to a vet. Oh, they also shoe horses!

'Temperatures Rising'

‘Temperatures Rising’

The Army farrier works in soaring temperatures, being up close for just a minute was enough, yet these guys are in or around the furnace all day, often shoeing or moulding shoes for hours on end. Watching these men work was fascinating, the bright sparks bouncing off the hot metal sparked my camera into action. Action shots taken and with their surroundings being a perfect backdrop I thought I’d grab a few portraits.

All in all, a massively successful trip! Thanks to everyone at the DAC for your hospitality!


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.

Unwilling volunteers of the woolly variety

Captain Joanna Lowe of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps is currently deployed to Afghanistan, working as a vet on the ground with the Provincial Reconstruction Team. Here she writes about a Veterinary Teaching Initiative which has been trialling the education of  farmers in a rural part of Lashkar Gah with unexpected success.

Lesson in progress

Lesson in progress

Veterinary Engagement clinics have been the backbone of my tour in Afghanistan thus far – clinics where farmers can bring their livestock for check-ups, advice and preventative treatment, and also the vehicle through which we have been trying to educate locals to improve their animal husbandry techniques. However, with newly trained paraveterinarians (local nationals who have received a six-month veterinary training package) due to complete their training within the next few months, it was imperative  that the ISAF-led clinics worked to support these fledgling businesses, rather than provide unhealthy competition for them.

The Veterinary Teaching Initiative is a project I have been working on for some time, and last week saw the first trial in an area of rural Lashkar Gah known as Qal’eh Bost. The idea was that farmers would receive training in basic animal husbandry techniques (which I have found out through running the clinics are surprisingly lacking in many areas) so as to enable them to improve the productivity and mortality of their livestock for themselves. A small veterinary section of the package would explain the benefits of preventative veterinary medicine (mainly vaccination and worming) and help them to identify situations where prompt veterinary attention would be advisable. This information would not only help the farmers to maintain healthy herds, but would also benefit the new paraveterinarians by promoting effective use of their services.

I had broached the concept of providing teaching for farmers before at Veterinary Engagement clinics, but had been given a multitude of reasons (from the local farmers themselves) as to why it wouldn’t work, ranging from the notion that the Taliban would try to stop it to ‘We are uneducated people so we can’t learn’. As a result it was with some apprehension that I approached the trial.

I had hoped that between 10 and 15 farmers would turn up to each of three teaching sessions run over the 48-hour period – an adequate number from which I could ascertain primarily whether the project was viable, and from whom I could obtain useful feedback to improve and refine the package. To say I was surprised when a total of 220 working age farmers (accompanied by herds of children, as is typical) turned up would be an understatement. Offered no incentive other than education, these men had taken time out of their working days because they wanted to learn more about looking after their livestock. Among the crowd were a teacher from a derelict school and an ageing man from the Afghan National Police, both of whom had come because they owned small flocks of sheep.

What I found more amazing was that people, many of whom had had no formal education in their lives, sat and gave me their undivided attention for ninety minutes despite my being female and younger than most of them. Due to the fact that many people could not read or write, all of the teaching was verbal, brought to life with a variety of pictures, simple diagrams, somewhat unwilling volunteers of the woolly variety and practical demonstrations. Subjects covered included housing and nutrition, care of newborn animals and treatment of simple wounds. Teaching Afghan farmers is an unusual experience, and very different from teaching soldiers. They are proud people and will not tell you if they don’t understand something, they take offence at you ‘testing’ their knowledge so confirmatory questions are not an option; this makes assessing the effectiveness of your teaching challenging, though not impossible.

And the future? Well the Veterinary Teaching Initiative concept has a lot of potential, and the results of this initial trial suggest it is something that Afghan farmers are extremely keen on. Hopefully a return trip to Qal’eh Bost will show that people have employed the techniques I taught them, thus demonstrating that anybody has the capacity to learn, regardless of whether they consider themselves to be ‘educated’ or not.

Bemused chickens, lazy goats and a dizzy sheep

In her latest blog, Captain Joanna Lowe of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps writes about a busy veterinary engagement clinic and the events immediately following it.

Treating a sheep!

Treating a sheep!

The most recent veterinary engagement clinic was run from Check Point (CP) Yellow 14 in the Combined Force Lashkar Gah Area of Operations. Having seen approximately 700 livestock in the morning – including two very bemused chickens, a herd of goats that had been brought in because they were ‘lazy’ and a sheep that was reported to be ‘dizzy’ – we settled down for a well deserved cup of tea.

A while later, I was approached by a member of the Afghan National Police (ANP) from the front gate as a farmer from that morning had returned to the CP with a dead sheep, reporting that I had killed it with medicine. He had come seeking compensation for his loss from the Military Stabilisation and Support Team (MSST) representative (worth up to $150 for a sheep). However, on examining the sheep’s carcass, which had been carried in on the back of a very patient donkey, the diagnosis was clear. Rather than suffering a fatal reaction (of which there was no evidence on the body) to the extremely safe worming product that had been administered, the more probable cause of death was loss of blood as a result of a deep incision to the throat. After suggesting this alternative hypothesis to the farmer he thought carefully for a moment before countering that he had killed it pre-emptively as he could tell that the medicine was going to kill it. By this time the interpreter, the crowd of ANP who had come over to investigate the commotion and the farmer’s friend who had accompanied him into the CP were laughing openly as the story about the sheep’s sorry demise was looking more and more far-fetched. In a last ditch attempt to salvage something from the situation the farmer asked once more whether he could have compensation, although the sheepish look on his face said he already knew the answer…

Compensation is awarded to farmers who have lost livestock as a direct result of ISAF action – for example if they are caught in an artillery strike or involved in a road collision. This incident illustrates that the farmers are aware of the scheme, but also highlights the negative effects that inappropriately awarded compensation could have. Had this farmer successfully gained the lucrative payout, I have no doubt that a dozen more sheep would have met their maker prematurely that day!

What does PRT stand for again?

This is the first blog from Captain Joanna Lowe of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. She is working as a vet on the ground in Afghanistan with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT).

Waiting customers

Waiting customers

I joined the Royal Army Veterinary Corps a little over eighteen months ago with my eyes open – the main roles in which I could expect to be employed were as a Veterinary Officer in a Military Working Dog Squadron, at one of the mounted units or at the Defence Animal Centre in Melton Mowbray. On tour I was likely to be confined to Camp Bastion catering for the day-to-day needs of the military working dogs and constantly prepared to respond to K9-liners (reports on injured working dogs, based on the normal ‘9-liners’ which report the status of injured troops.)

What actually happened is that I have been detached from my unit and attached to the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) as the Civil Military Cooperation (CIMIC) Vet Liaison Officer (LO) for Operation HERRICK 13 – a different ball game altogether. My role is hearts and minds-based, and ultimately aims to support the development of the Afghan veterinary system. But simply providing treatment for the livestock held by local national farmers (mainly sheep, goats and cattle with the odd donkey or camel thrown in for good measure) is just the tip of the iceberg. I have found myself collaborating with a whole host of civilian-run departments within the PRT and investigating the reach of various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in the veterinary field. Over the past few weeks I have really had my eyes opened to a whole world whose existence I had previously barely acknowledged.

In a conflict such as this, where the key terrain is undisputedly the population, it is hard to understate the importance of the role played by the PRT.