Captain Lisa Irwin is a Territorial Army Officer, currently deployed to Afghanistan as a Female Engagement Team Commander. She’s been keeping a diary, the first three months of which are presented here, covering October to December 2010.
Back in May I received a call from my unit, 102 Battalion REME (V), asking if I would be interested in a post in Afghanistan as a Female Engagement Team Commander. I had previously expressed an interest in another Afghan tour as my last (in 2008/2009) had been successful – I’d learned a lot and tested myself against my regular peers and not been found wanting. I had also been commissioned since my last tour so I knew I would be facing a very different challenge – whatever role I was given. I was not sure what “female engagement” entailed but expressed my interest immediately – and then Googled it! I discovered that the US Forces had been directed by General McChrystal (since succeeded by General Patraeus) to set up female engagement teams in order to communicate directly with Afghan women. The future of Afghanistan lies in engagement with the local population (gaining their support and trust) and working with them so that it can become a self-sufficient country. If we aren’t communicating with Afghan women we are not communicating with 50 % of the population, and male soldiers are unable to communicate with local women due to Afghan culture. The Americans seemed to be having some success and I was excited at the opportunity to be part of the British implementation of these teams. The opportunity also arose at an opportune moment, as my civilian contract as a paediatric nurse was not going to be renewed due to NHS budget constraints. Having made sure that my family were supportive of my intent (my three children, aged 17, 15 and 9, would once again need to be cared for by my parents whilst I was away), I asked for my name to be put forward. So eventually, after several training courses and much to-ing and fro-ing, I was mobilised, passed all my military assessments (such as fitness, medical and shooting), and became a regular soldier once again!
Thursday 21 October 2010
Day 1 in theatre after a long trip! I was supposed to fly on Tuesday but on arrival at RAF Brize Norton I was told we were delayed until Friday. I was upset as I could have had more time at home with my children had I known, but not really surprised as I’m aware that the air bridge is under immense strain coping with all the flights to and from Afghanistan. However, a few days stuck in Gateway House (the RAF ‘hotel’ at Brize Norton) were my immediate future. As it transpired another flight was put on and we flew on Wednesday morning. The flight was via Minhad (Dubai) and although I slept for most of the early part of the flight when I woke I was looking out onto amazing terrain. The desert was both beautiful and harsh and made me think of Afghanistan; despite serving there in 2008/2009 I saw so little of the country- was Afghanistan as forbiddingly beautiful? Was my role for this tour really going to help the people of Afghanistan and ISAF? I was starting out with so much hope, but also much trepidation. I was unsure of exactly how I could accomplish the task I’d been given but I desperately wanted it to be successful. I knew there were detractors who doubted the worth of female engagement but to me it seemed to be an obvious area that had not yet been fully addressed and that, if approached in a sensitive manner, could further security and success in Afghanistan. At Camp Bastion I met some of 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment (1 R IRISH – the Battle Group I’m attached to for the tour) and was soon ensconced in their accommodation in Bastion 2 – across the road from a lovely coffee shop! The rest of the day was about catching up on sleep, orientating to Camp Bastion ( it has changed a lot in 18 months), doing a small amount of phys and ‘squaring myself away’ for the next day. And I managed to phone home!
25 October 2010
It’s cooling down a lot here, in fact it is now pretty cold at night and doesn’t really warm up until 10 in the morning. It will get a lot colder though, my last tour was a winter tour and we had some extremely cold nights. It makes you think twice about getting up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet as it can be a bit of a trek and you need to wrap up to venture out to the toilets! The contrast in temperatures can be quite extreme but I am thankful I’m not on a summer tour. When I get out on patrol with the guys to go and engage with Afghan women at least the temperature will be bearable so having to carry kit weighing in excess of 70 lbs will be more manageable. I have now completed most of my RSOI training. The training is interesting and relevant with guys coming in from the ground to update us on some of the best drills to carry out and tips to manage risks. Yesterday was a full day on counter IED (Improvised Explosive Device) as obviously it is a prevalent threat out here. It is comforting to know that our drills can save lives and there are ways to counter the threat. I can assure you the lecturers and directing staff had my full attention! I admit the threat is something that has concerned me but the skills of the soldiers on the ground reassure me. Although I’m sure that the first time I step out of the FOB I will be incredibly apprehensive, I know that our soldiers are incredibly well trained and have been assured that the guys will look after me.
28 October 2010
Day 8. Once I’d completed RSOI (Reception, Staging and Onward Integration) training I could have had a couple of days off prior to flying out to the FOB (Forward Operating Base). However, although Camp Bastion has probably trebled in size since my last tour it is still not a metropolis and entertainment was not really available! I therefore went to the hospital to see if my paediatric nursing skills could be of any use for the two days. The hospital had two local children in, so they were happy for me to work a couple of shifts and it was useful to them and beneficial to me – it helps me to keep my skills up and as 99% of Army nurses are adult nurses (after all, their primary role is to care for our injured soldiers) my paediatric skills were useful to them. I really enjoyed the two days. It was an eye-opener for me, as I had certainly never nursed a child who has had a gunshot wound before. It is unfortunate that children are sometimes caught up in the fighting – a sad consequence of what is happening out on the ground. I know that our soldiers do all they can to avoid civilian casualties, especially children, but the insurgents do not have the same values. The children only remain in Bastion Hospital until they are well enough to be transferred to an Afghan hospital but whilst in Bastion they, and their family, are very well cared for. It is difficult, however, to care for a child and family when there is a language barrier. I do have some very limited Pashtun but it brought home to me how little I do know, something that I aim to remedy whilst in the FOB. In the ward I used interpreters when possible, and I will be using an interpreter to engage with Afghan women, but I still feel it is important, and only polite, to try to learn some of the language of the country that I am in. I guess we’ll see how I have progressed by the end of tour!
2 November 2010
Day 14. I was temporarily resident at a CP (check point) near a village called Zarghun Kalay (kalay means village), north of FOB Shawqat, as I was asked to take part in an operation. We travelled from Shawqat in a small convoy of Jackals – open-topped vehicles specifically designed for the terrain and situation out here. The journey was a relatively short one, made longer by it being necessary to check some points along the route for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – a permanent hazard out here. Driving through the countryside it was easy to understand how Afghanistan was a popular holiday destination for the adventurous traveller in the past – around the green zone (where the bulk of the insurgency is in Helmand) it is beautiful countryside with fields, trees and flowers and numerous canals and irrigation ditches. It is such a shame that conflict over the years has torn the country apart, however, there is some hope as our mission is to help it get back on its feet again. On arrival at the CP I was orientated to the facilities. The toilets were ‘thunder boxes’. When using one, you place a special plastic bag over the toilet seat and the bag and contents are burned after use (it’s actually a lot better than it sounds). The shower consisted of a solar shower bag, hung from a gantry in a wooden/hesco shower enclosure with no roof. It was actually lovely showering at night looking up at the stars, as the stars seemed much more intense. Cooking facilities were very basic and in the main it was ration packs, with some ‘all in’ meals where someone in the company cooks for everyone using the 10-man packs. These meals can be quite inventive! The accommodation was a room within the compound which would have been relatively comfortable as the Afghans knew what they were doing with their compound construction, the thick walls ensure the rooms stay cool in the heat of the day and remain warm at night. However, the compound was plagued by mice! All night I could hear them running around and at one point one fell out of the ceiling and bounced off my head! They seemed to be ninja mice too, as they were incredibly adept at taking food from traps without setting them off! I was introduced to the guys as the Female Engagement Team (although most of the time it is just me, so I’m obviously not a team!) and I explained to them my intended role out here. Most people I meet assume I’m out here specifically to conduct female searches, and my role is much more than that. However, as male soldiers should not search females I am viewed as an asset if searches are required (understandably so). Providing the searches are part of a ‘soft knock’ (ie we are not entering the property through force) which will enable me to meet Afghan women and begin to engage with them. Yesterday I took part in my first-ever foot patrol. We patrolled into Zarghun Kalay to conduct a shura (a meeting of village elders). This gave me an opportunity to assess the viability of female engagement in the area, and allowed me to be introduced to key local leaders. Zarghun Kalay seemed to be a relatively benign environment. Most of the locals were pleased to see the patrol as we passed and many interacted with members of the patrol. The children were following us, giggling and laughing, with one of the main sources of amusement being that I was a ‘shadza’ (female). The shura was fairly well-attended and the men were quite receptive to my presence. The major topic was the requirement for the redevelopment of the village school as it was destroyed by Taliban some years ago. It’s an issue that we were well aware of, and which was in hand – but things out here can move frustratingly slowly and it can be hard to make the villagers understand the lack of progress. Historically ISAF had taken on such projects but now these projects are the responsibility of the District Council, and ultimately GIRoA, as the Afghan Government must be seen to take the lead now and in the future. Towards the end of the shura I asked the elders if they would allow me to speak with their women. I had already shown photographs of my children, impressing upon them that I was a mother and not a third gender, which is how Afghans tend to view female soldiers! However, it was evident that under no circumstances would I be able to engage with females in Zarghun Kalay without a female interpreter – a commodity that is in short supply. However, I have been encouraged to continue engaging with the key leaders in the hope that I will gain their trust and they will agree to me meeting women from the area with a female interpreter at a later date.
3 November 2010
I was initially meant to be going out on an operation but my services ended up not being required so I remained in the CP and did radio stag – 4 hours on, 4 hours off. Surprisingly tiring, but very necessary. It was peculiar seeing the guys as they left for the op. I wanted to be with them and found staying behind difficult. I had already formed a bond with some of them and had never experienced watching guys go off on an op before. To them it was just another op but it was an unsettling experience for me. One that I will become used to over time I’m sure.
4 November 2010
I was taken back to Shawqat on Wednesday morning, not quite feeling myself but not sure why. I returned to my tent to find it occupied by US Marines – not an unpleasant surprise for me, but not sure how they felt when I barged in! I had been moved whilst I was away but no-one had managed to tell me. Wednesday afternoon was therefore taken up with me moving all my kit to the new tent. I think I will feel like a traveller for most of my tour anyway as my job will take me here, there and everywhere – I’ll be living out of a day sack most of the time. By Wednesday evening I was in the isolation area of the medical centre with a high temperature, feeling shivery and definitely not well! Diarrhoea and vomiting was suspected but thankfully it was just a random 24-hour virus and I was fine by Thursday afternoon.
5 November 2010
Bit of a drama today, one of the guys was standing in the vehicle park minding his own business when he was shot in the arm. Luckily for him it was a ricochet, not a direct shot, so whilst the bullet lodged in his arm the damage was not too serious. The injury did necessitate a trip to the hospital at Camp Bastion though for removal of the bullet and I believe he has a broken bone. That should be a good war story for him! For me life in BG HQ was back to normal, trying to plan visits to the companies in order to go out on patrol in their area, to attend shuras and to try to gain the trust of locals to further female engagement, and identify opportunities to engage. I sensed that this job may be frustratingly slow, at least in the beginning, but I’ll have to be patient as attempting to force engagement will be counter-productive. Patience will have to be a virtue of mine on this tour.
7 November 2010
Today was mainly Operation TABLE day. The tent I have been moved to has no furniture so I told the girls I share with that I would utilise my ‘skills’ and make us a table. I went over to the LAD (where the vehicle mechanics work) and bits of old packing crates and pallets were screwed and nailed together throughout the afternoon by my own fair hand, with the guys watching dubiously. By dinner time I had made a fairly good table. The girls were impressed anyway! I also used my time today to attend some training in the Medical Centre. The Medical Officer was teaching some of her Medics refresher training on the use of splints and traction devices and going over spinal, pelvic and femur (thigh bone) injuries. She invited me to join in and it was very useful and made me use the old grey matter to remember my anatomy and some of my initial nurse training. I aim to gain as much medical training as I can while I’m here, as not only is it good for me, but furthering my medical knowledge and abilities can be advantageous should there be any casualties whilst I am out on the ground. The more of an asset I can be to a patrol the better.
9 November 2010
Day 21 found me on the move again. I moved to Patrol Base (PB) Samsor, south of the FOB, in the afternoon so that I could meet guys from the company there and identify potential female engagement opportunities. I did my first sentry duty yesterday morning and it wasn’t too bad, at least it was light for most of it so there were things to look at and as the sun rose in the sky it was starting to warm up. It is getting pretty chilly at night now. It felt quite odd just looking out from the sangar watching the locals starting to get up in the morning, coming out of their compounds to go to the toilets in the bushes (sanitation is non-existent for most locals) and begin to open up their shops for business. Often it is young/teenage boys that can be seen opening up the shop, driving the tractors and generally working in the family business. There were numerous dogs roaming around in packs too – dogs are not viewed by the Afghans in the way that we view them and are generally not loved family pets. I did some more medical training yesterday and by virtue of my nursing skills/qualifications and the extra medical training I am to be given extra medical equipment to take with me when on patrol. I will be somewhere in between a team medic (someone with a bit more medical training than the basic first aid skills that all soldiers learn) and a combat medic (the Army’s’ paramedics). I am pleased to be able to learn more and be of more use but obviously I hope that I will not need to use my new found knowledge and skills as needing to use it usually means one of our soldiers has been hurt.
13 November 2010
I returned to Shawqat today from a successful sojourn to PB Samsor. I went on two patrols and took part in a search operation and I actually managed to conduct some female engagement – which I was really pleased about. On my first full day in the PB I went out on two reassurance patrols, one in the morning and one in the evening. These patrols are conducted to reassure locals of security, to ensure we have eyes on what is happening on the ground and are aware any changes in atmospherics in the area, and for information gathering. We vary patrol routes for our security so the patrols necessitated walking through very muddy fields, jumping over ditches, climbing over walls, wading through water-filled irrigation ditches and for me, at one point, almost falling over backwards into one. I was saved from a completely ignominious soaking by the patrol commander who grabbed me by the helmet and unceremoniously hauled me out!! Now I understand why we do all those assault courses when training, and I’m so glad I was only carrying basic kit on patrol (which weighs a minimum of 60lbs). Some of the lads have to carry much more. Again, the patrol was followed by numerous children all clamouring for ‘chocolate’ and ‘kalam’ (pen) and giggling when they realised I was a woman. We do try to give the children small gifts when on patrol so most soldiers do carry some sweets or pens. I intend to purchase sets of felt tips so I can give a pen to each child when I’m patrolling as it gets the children on side and the more we engage with the locals the more chance we have of wining security for this country. Day 2 in the PB saw me going out on an operation with the guys. We had some intelligence that indicated a possible IED factory in the area, so we conducted an operation to search some compounds. I was to be used as a search asset as I can enter rooms where women are and male soldiers cannot. My hope was that I might be able to use the opportunity to engage with some females. We were not entering compounds by force so it was hoped that engagement may have been possible. The operation began with reveille at 0300, an ungodly hour to be getting out of your nice warm sleeping bag, especially as it’s starting to get really cold at night. We then moved to a concentration location where all the troops met up, confirmatory orders were given, and we moved off just after first light. It was expected that we may encounter some Taliban resistance so I was mentally preparing myself for a contact – ie being shot at and maybe having to return fire. We managed to progress fairly quickly and I searched two compounds that had women and children in. The first compound had 3 women and 9 children and the women seemed hostile and suspicious of me, however, I entered their room wearing my helmet which I now realise was probably not a good idea. Nothing suspicious was found and though the male of the household was happy to talk to us he stated that I could not talk to his women unless I had a female interpreter with me – something that will be a recurring theme in this conservative area. The second compound I visited housed 3 women and 6 children and the women were still reluctant to interact but acknowledged my apology (my limited Pashtu). When I searched the room there was a dome of blankets on the room, the elderly lady present lifted the blankets to show me that a baby was sleeping under them. It was a dome constructed of sticks that had been placed over the sleeping baby (who was tightly wrapped in a papoose), the baby had one blanket directly over him and at least 3 blankets laid over the dome. I couldn’t help wondering if this potential overheating of the baby could contribute to the high rate of infant mortality in Afghanistan as overheating is a contributory factor in cot death. Something for me to look into and perhaps we could educate women about the risks. The final compound we entered was inhabited by a poor family and the male of the family was happy for me to talk to his wives using the male interpreter- at last a breakthrough! I talked to the women about their lives, how they felt about ISAF, health care and their children. I had a cuddle with a 6 month old baby, and as I was urinated on I can confirm that they don’t have nappies! I also gave some small toys to some of the children. The eldest wife was 28 but looked much older, however that is usually the case out here. If I’d had 9 children by 28, whilst living in poverty, perhaps I would age prematurely too. She asked me to look at one of her children who was sick, which as paediatric nurse I was happy to do, but on examining the child I told them that she needed to see a Doctor. She had a grossly distended abdomen and I’m not qualified or competent enough to diagnose from the limited examination I was able to do. Unfortunately seeing a Doctor costs money and requires a trip to Lashkar Gah as there is no local health care, it is therefore highly unlikely that the child will receive the care she needs. On leaving their compound we were close to returning to the Check Point from whence we started, but we heard gunfire and a call sign (another patrol) approximately 500m north of us was in a contact. We therefore had to go firm in case we were needed to support them. However, after approximately 30 minutes wait our services were not required, much to the disappointment of the guys in my call sign, so we moved back to the CP and then back to the PB. As a search operation it was successful and for me it was a success as at last I managed to engage with an Afghan woman. Here’s hoping it leads to more. Tomorrow sees me move to Bastion for a 5-day language course so I won’t have much to report for a while, however, I am really looking forward to the course as not being able to converse with the locals at all makes me feel like I’m working with one hand tied behind my back. However, I’m well aware that my knowledge after a 5 day course will still be limited- but it’s got to be better than the little Pashtu I have at the moment.
21 November 2010
Last week saw me attending a week long Pashto basic language course in Bastion. The course was run for all Female Engagement Team and attached personnel and was attended by 10 females. It was well run and I now feel a little more confident about attempting conversations with locals. I have been practising with some of our interpreters and intend to practise every opportunity I get. Whilst on the course we met up with USMC female engagement team personnel to hear how they carry out female engagement and their anecdotes were really interesting and gave me lots of ideas.
The day we left for Bastion we received the sad news that one of our boys had been killed in an IED blast. He was only 22. The vigil was held whilst I was in Bastion and I was also able to attend his repatriation (where the coffin is placed on the plane to go home). Repatriation ceremonies really bring home the harrowing experiences some of the guys have to go through out here and as a mother of a 17 year old boy myself I find it heart wrenching. I couldn’t help but cry.
I’m now back in FOB Shawqat preparing to go on another operation. I have a very full diary this week with several visits planned, including one to a school, a local health initiative and a shura. The days should fly by. I’m due to go on R&R soon (10 days) so I’ll be home with my children before I know it- I can’t wait.
25 November 2010
What a difference a week makes! The small amount of Pashto I was able to learn (and attempt to build on through speaking to our interpreters) last week in Camp Bastion made a big difference to me being able to engage with local women. I have just come in from 3 days out on the ground and managed to talk to 22 women- amazing! I’ll start from the beginning. I was asked to go on an operation conducted in our area so that the guys had a female searcher with them. Taliban were known to operate in the area and full searches often cannot be carried out because males cannot search women. If a soldier attempts to go near to a local female she will try to run away and become very distressed. The operation started in the early hours of Tuesday – I was woken at 0230. We were inserted by helicopter- my first ever air assault. It was a surreal experience sitting in the back of a Chinook in near-total darkness knowing that we were flying into an area where insurgents had been operating very recently, and quite possibly were still operating. Jumping off the back of a helicopter on to a freezing cold field is not the most pleasant experience I’ve ever had, especially as I was carrying sufficient kit to live out for 3 days – approximately 70lbs. I’m not complaining though, as I’m well aware that most of the guys have to carry a lot more. Once off the helicopter the patrols formed up and moved off. We had several compounds that we had to search, with soldiers from the Afghan intelligence forces searching first. As they searched the compound the women and children were placed in a room where I searched them (including the children as weapons and ammunition have been hidden on children in the past), and once the search was complete I was able to attempt conversation with the women. Most were surprisingly happy to talk to me – if it was me and my house which had just been searched I’m not sure I would be communicative! They seemed happy that I was talking to them in their own language. I just wish I knew a lot more as their replies were often long and spoken very quickly so I was only able to grasp some of what they were saying. I showed most women and their children photographs of my own children and they loved to see them. Some women wanted me to stay for ‘chai’ (tea) but I didn’t have time, and some gave me hugs as I left. We carried out several patrols and searches over the three days. Patrolling is, for me, a peculiar entity- as a REME soldier it is not something I am used to, as my role has always been to fix vehicles. Patrolling is essentially several people going for a ‘walk’ around the local area, however, whilst ‘walking’ you are constantly scanning around for anything unusual that may indicate IEDs or insurgents in the area (as we are taught in training ‘absence of the normal, presence of the abnormal’). Your back and shoulders constantly ache from the weight of the kit, and you are always looking for cover (ie a ditch) in case the patrol is contacted. For the guys the prospect of a contact is just a normal part of the job, for me it hasn’t happened yet so I have no idea how I will react. I know the guys will tell me what to do so I just hope I can keep my wits about me and do as I’m told! As we were staying out for three days that meant sleeping out and surviving on rations. The nights are much colder now so sleeping outside is an experience. Thankfully our winter sleeping bags had been brought out to us by vehicle (they are too big to carry, once you have water, rations, ammunition, a change of clothes, warm kit and medical kit in your day sack you can’t fit much else in) so I was able to sleep in relative comfort and in a way it was quite nice sleeping out under the stars. However, getting out of my warm sleeping bag at 0430 to go on patrol was not very nice – it really is literally freezing at that time in the morning but you can’t wear lots of warm kit as you know it is going to get warmer, and if you are contacted and have to move quickly you would soon be far too warm. Rations are not too bad nowadays, they are much improved and are much more palatable. However, I still only ate 3 lots of ration packs (beans and sausages) over the three days as I wasn’t in the mood for much else! I think patrolling for 4-6 hours dulls your appetite, especially when it is warm. The women I spoke to were mainly from poor families and their main concern seemed to be security. They were pleased to see ISAF and felt that our presence was bringing them security. They did not support the Taliban/insurgency as all they wanted was to be able to live their lives in peace. Their children were unable to go to school as the local school had been destroyed by the Taliban, and insurgents in the area use some of their compounds as firing points which inevitably brings trouble to their homes. Another major concern was health; many women said that the health clinic in the local village was not very good which meant that they needed to go to Lashkar Gar to see a doctor – not always feasible as they had little money. One family asked me to look at their baby as they said he had diarrhoea and he was only a couple of weeks old. I examined him as best I could (I’m a children’s nurse, not a paediatrician) but he was not dehydrated and did not appear sick so I was able to advise the mother (with the aid of an interpreter) to carry on breastfeeding but if she was to give him- or any of her small children- water, she should ensure that it was cooled boiled water. Most of the families I visited did not have access to wells so they draw their drinking water from nearby streams, streams that contain animal and human effluent and fertiliser overflow from the fields. Diarrhoea is one of the biggest killers of young children in rural Afghanistan so whenever possible we try to educate people about drinking water. Some women that I visited attempted to supplement the family income by sewing and embroidering and selling their products in the local bazaar, but they struggled to purchase materials and therefore made little money. Part of the remit of female engagement is to encourage and facilitate such activities so I spoke to some women about forming a sewing co-operative if we provided them with start up materials. They were very interested in such a project so I am hoping to take it forward and revisit them in the future. For me the operation was very successful and really made me feel that my job is worthwhile. Even if all I can do is offer verbal support and advice I am still reaching out to local women and nearly all were pleased to see me. I hope this can be replicated in other areas as my tour progresses.
28 November 2010
I have hardly had time to draw breath since returning from the last operation. I woke the morning after with aching legs and shoulders. The numerous patrols and the tab (walk) back into FOB Shawqat from out on the ground had taken its toll. The body armour cannot be described as remotely comfortable but it is obviously very essential. One of the lads survived a contact earlier in the tour because the side plate in his body armour deflected a bullet. Immediately I went into work I had numerous reports to write and then started planning my next engagement. I was assisting the Regimental Medical Officer (RMO) with the implementation of a Health Initiative which would involve us teaching local health professionals a Health Education program, covering topics such as hygiene, pregnancy and birth, diet and disease prevention. Most of Friday was spent going through the publications we would use to teach the programme, roughly translating it from Pashto and Dari into English (with the aid of a skilled interpreter), so that we were familiar with the text and would know what to teach. As is usual when in Shawqat the working day did not finish until after 9, and I was due to be on stag (sanger duty) at 0200, so I crawled into my sleeping bag as soon as I could hoping to get some decent sleep before stag. In the evening your sleeping bag is the best place to be anyway as it is getting really cold at night and our accommodation has no heating at all. I’m going to get myself a woolly hat and fingerless gloves when I’m home on R&R so that I can be warm when reading in bed! When my alarm went off at 0135 I really did not want to climb out of my warm, cosy sleeping bag. It felt so cold when I got up. However, I was quickly dressed (in a full softy suit which, whilst being warm, makes me look like the Michelin man!) and ready for duty. I spent most of the time alternating between looking around the area of the sanger using the night vision equipment and moving around trying to keep warm. There was not a soul to be seen, so thankfully my stag was uneventful. Later that morning (after a couple more hours sleep and almost oversleeping) I met up with the RMO and our Cultural Advisor (a British Army Officer who speaks Pashto and advises the Commanding Officer (CO) on cultural matters) and we were taken to the local Health Centre. There we met their health professionals, which included two local midwives who seemed to be strong, well educated women. The aim of the project is that these health professionals will then educate health care workers throughout the district, who can then disseminate the information to local men, women and children in their area. We talked them through the booklets that detailed the program, with me covering the sections on antenatal care, care during delivery, and postnatal care. There was much mirth from all present when the booklet showed a picture of a man hanging out laundry so that his pregnant wife could get some rest, in this patriarchal society such a thing is unlikely to happen! The section on contraception also met with some mirth, but the midwives said that some women in the more permissive areas do use contraception – in some circumstances their husbands have even asked about it. However, in the more rural areas it is unlikely that contraception will be used, rural families still tend to have a large number of children, 10-14 is not uncommon. On Sunday the Education Officer, Lt Claire Westerman, and I conducted a visit to a local school. I had been told that the school had female teachers and female pupils so would be ideal for female engagement. As is always the case out here such visits need to be planned as security is required for the move to the location, and a security cordon is needed for the duration of the visit. The school was in A Coy 5 SCOTS’ area, so I planned the visit with them so that we could patrol out with them and they could provide the cordon. Claire was looking forward to the visit as not only was it interesting from her perspective as an Education Officer, but it was also to be her first patrol, plus it gave her a chance to practise the Dari she had learned on 3 month course pre-deployment. We were taken to a Patrol Base (PB) in Ridgebacks (heavily protected wheeled vehicles) to meet up with A Coy 5 SCOTS, given a patrol brief and then we were off. Fortunately it was a short patrol to the school (again through fields and across irrigation ditches – I’m going to be pretty good at obstacle crossing by the end of the tour), especially as I was carrying a day sack weighed down with pens, pencils, notebooks and skipping ropes to give to the school, in addition to my usual patrol kit. We were greeted by the school Principal who was keen to impress on us how well the school was doing but also how much better it could be with more support. There were 6 female teachers, which was good to see, and many female pupils, which in this conservative area is unusual. Many schools educate only boys and families do not expect their daughters to be educated. The Afghan government are trying to encourage families to send girls to school but it I think it will be a slow process, change will not happen overnight. The Principal was concerned about security (as are most people that I speak to), especially as the Taliban do not want girls to be educated and so intimidate pupils, teachers and their families. It is very much to their credit that the teachers continue to provide education and seem to be very committed. The school has a roll of approximately 400 pupils but only 3 small classrooms with no desks or chairs; the children sit on a carpet for their lessons. Due to the lack of space the school had 2 satellite schools but these do not have carpets or windows, the pupils will freeze as winter progresses. I have reported this to partners attached to the Battle Group who may have the resources to help. The pupils were bright and alert, the school seemed well organised and all were very happy to see us and keen to engage. Most of the children questioned said they would like a professional career when they grow up, with the girls saying they wanted to be doctors and the boys engineers. Photographs of my family were once again very popular, I even showed them a short film clip (on my camera) of my 15 year old daughter singing Fields of Gold (she is a good singer- and I can assure you has not inherited her ability from me!), which they found fascinating. I have shown it to locals to date and they all love to see it- perhaps I ought to warn my daughter that she may be famous out here!! Despite my lack of singing ability Claire and I asked if we could teach the children an English action song and before long all the children joined us singing ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’. They thoroughly enjoyed it and to me it was a lovely sight. The engagement finished with us taking chai (tea) with the male teachers and presenting the Prinicipal with some gifts of pencils, notebooks and skipping ropes for the children. Many children are from poor tenant farming families who are unable to even purchase a pen or pencil for their children. I also discussed the teachers taking part in the Health Initiative that we had initiated in Nad Ali Health Centre as they are the ideal people to get health messages to children and their families. The Principal was keen to engage so the RMO is now liaising with relevant personnel to try to make it happen. It is always better to strike while the iron’s hot! The Military Stabilisation Support Team (MSST- a team of personnel that work on projects to improve conditions and facilities for locals) representative with us had radios to present to school staff so Claire presented the radios to the female teachers who were smiling and grateful. Unfortunately I was unable to record the presentation in any way as it rare for Afghan women to be allowed to be photographed. The school visit was fascinating and heart warming and made me feel that there is real hope for the future of Afghanistan. Once the visit was concluded we patrolled back into the FOB. Claire and I celebrated a successful visit by having a film night in our tent in the evening; we watched Four Christmases on my laptop which reminded us that it is almost the season. It’s easy to forget that out here. It was cold though, I was wearing my full softy suit (much to Claire’s amusement!).We are trying to make our tent more homely so I think I need to have another furniture construction session – however, R&R is now very near (I fly to Camp Bastion tomorrow ready for onward flight(s) home) so it will have to wait until I return. I have constructed a rough bench and I have put up some Christmas decorations sent by my wonderful Mum so it is starting to look better. We do our best to make our tent look like a home from home, family photos are up and the table I made is still very sturdy and well-used. Claire uses it more than I do as she is a very competent artist and has been doing some painting in the evenings. She tends to paint images of locals as they often have interesting, craggy features and to me the paintings would not be out of place in a gallery. That’s the interesting thing about coming out here and meeting and working with new people, everyone has different skills and abilities and it is often amazing the attributes that people have. So I’m off to Bastion tomorrow. I’m so looking forward to going home and seeing the kids. It’s only been 6 weeks since I’ve seen them (after R&R I’ll have a 14 week stretch to do before I see them again) so they shouldn’t have changed too much. However, my eldest seems to gain an inch in height every time I don’t see him for a couple of months- he’s now 6’ 2” and still going. It is hard for some of the guys as many of them have very young children (some of them born shortly before we came on tour) so I feel for them; and for their wives getting on with things back home. I suppose I’m lucky as my children are older and will not change too much in my time away, plus they understand what I’m doing out here. However, the flip side is that they are also old enough to watch the news and understand the risks and although I tell my children that there is little risk to me I am going out on the ground, so there is some risk there. However, I trust the guys I’m with and they know their drills so I do not worry and nor should my family. I understand though that it is always much harder for those left behind than those out here, families are unable to fully envisage what our lives are like out here and whilst we just get on with the job they must always have a nagging worry about the risks. I really believe though that the role I have out here is a worthwhile one and can make a difference, my contribution may not be earth shattering but little by little, bit by bit, I believe this country can get itself on its feet again.
Captain Lisa Irwin pictured with local Afghan boys
2 December 2010
I’m now in Camp Bastion anxiously keeping an eye on the news, as I’m due to fly home tomorrow for my R&R and am meant to be flying into Edinburgh airport. At the moment it’s still closed so I keep checking the news and the internet to see if there’s any change. I will be OK if I have a bit of a delay but I’m not sure if the kids will be as understanding, but there is nothing I can do to change the situation. Mad how the UK seems to fall apart in adverse weather conditions. The kids are happy though as they’ve not been to school for over a week- however, I’m not sure my parents feel the same!!
As I type this the girls I’m sharing my temporary accommodation (temporary for me but not for them) with in Bastion are putting up their Christmas decorations which consist of a white 2-foot Christmas tree, bits of tinsel and some balloons. Most of us will have some form of daft head dress to wear on Christmas day too, I’m sure I can buy something particularly garish whilst I’m home for me to wear. I had hoped that I might get R&R over Christmas this tour as I was out here Christmas 2008, but it was not to be. We will just have an early Christmas when I’m home.
I was flown back to Bastion from the FOB on Tuesday, everyone is flown back in plenty of time to ensure there is no way we’ll miss our R&R flight, but it means a lot of hanging about. I contacted the hospital again and offered my services and so I worked a shift in the Intensive Care ward. I was helping to nurse a young boy who’d been in a vehicle that had hit an IED; both he and his younger brother were seriously injured. I’m not an ITU specialist and so I felt I was well out of my comfort zone but I was still able to give a lot of assistance to other nurses and it was a good learning experience for me. The little Pashto I now have meant I was able to communicate a little with the boys’ father and with the boy I was caring for, until his condition deteriorated and he had to be reintubated. It is such a shame that civilians, particularly children, are caught up in the conflict out here. IEDs are non-specific weapons and insurgents that lay them are well aware that they may kill or maim their own people but evidently don’t care. The locals are lucky that they can be treated at the hospital in Camp Bastion, it is an excellent facility with well trained and incredibly dedicated staff.
14 December 2010
That’s my R&R almost over. It goes by so quickly, and is absolutely hectic. Rest and recuperation it really isn’t, not for most soldiers I think, as everyone hopes you will catch up with them in the little time you have. I seem to have spent most of my time driving here, there and everywhere. Still, I was home to see my daughter perform in pantomime, and to organise and host (and act as a bouncer at) her 16th birthday party. We also took advantage of the early snow and I took the kids skiing today at Glanshee, great fun and lovely to spend the day with all three of them (luckily Connor had no lectures at uni). One advantage of living in Scotland is skiing practically on your doorstep. I’ve also had my Christmas dinner, my parents cooked an early one for the whole family, and I feel like I’ve done nothing but eat!! I need to get back to Afghan to lose weight!
Whilst home I spoke to my local paper about my job in theatre and explained about the children not being able to go to school and constantly asking for pens. The paper has asked people to donate pens to be sent to me that I can pass on to the children I see out in theatre so I may be inundated with parcels in the New Year! I was asked to give a presentation on my role to some of the local primary schools and the children seemed very interested. I think I got the message across about how little most of the children in Afghanistan have and how we are trying to help them and their families. However, they were probably more excited to see pictures of helicopters and weapons – typical kids! The teachers said they enjoyed hearing about Afghan and everyone, teachers included, learned a lot about life out there. I must have made an impression as one of the mums told me that when her son was asked by a relative what he wanted for Christmas he said ‘Peace in Afghanistan’!
20 December 2010
I should be back in Afghan now but the weather has stopped me getting back. I went to Edinburgh airport Friday to fly to Heathrow and that couldn’t happen due to the ice and snow. I spent the night in a hotel and returned home on Saturday as it was obvious I wasn’t going to fly then either. Since then I’ve been almost constantly on the phone trying to call British Airways and RAF Brize Norton but can’t get through. My friends and family think I should be happy to be stuck here but perhaps surprisingly I’m not, I can’t relax knowing I should be back out there doing my job. I have, therefore, given up on flying and have booked a train ticket for tomorrow- not as convenient (if flying had been feasible) but hopefully I’ll get to Brize and manage to get on a flight to Afghan.
23 December 2010
The train journey didn’t get me to Brize either! The first train broke down on the way to Edinburgh and the second train wasn’t arriving due to problems on the East Coast main line. After 5 hours gibbering in the cold at Edinburgh station I gave up and came back home, especially as it was still not definite that if I made it to Brize I would have a flight to Afghan before the Christmas break. I have now had official confirmation that I am not going anywhere until 27th December earliest so I can now relax and enjoy my extra time with my family. My children are over the moon – but the extra time here is costing me a fortune as I’ve now gone a bit daft and bought them extra stuff for their Christmas stockings. I still feel torn though as I bought things for the guys back in Shawqat to make their Christmas better and many of them I would now count as friends and so miss them. My tent mate, Claire, is doing a marathon round Shawqat on Christmas Eve (97 laps of the FOB- she puts me to shame!) and I would have loved to be there to support her and run a couple of laps with her. However, I am definitely not complaining and shall make the most of the bonus time with my family – BUT I am also itching to get back and get on with my job!
Lisa’s Diary continues here.