Archive for April, 2012

Stardust

Posted: April 14, 2012 in Uncategorized
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There is a film named Stardust that I have watched a few times – a modern day fairy tale with a couple of big names in it, a few laughs and a feel good ending. In this film there is an old man that has the job of guarding a portal into another land, a ‘gate keeper’ of sorts I guess. If you’ve seen the film you will know the character that I am talking about. You get the impression that he has been there forever, sat by that portal on his little stool, proudly controlling who comes and goes from this world to the other and visa verse and even if the portal were to close he would probably carry on turning up every day just to sit there and watch the world go by.

There is an Afghan who for some reason reminds me of this character. Every-time that I take my client on a task to the local Police Commanders family compound he is sat there at the entrance of the place sat on a small wooden stool wearing his tatty undersized Police uniform with his rusty rifle leaning up against the wall. More often than not he has a glass of chai placed on the ground beside him and a cigarette in hand. Whenever we see him he is full of smiles and always shakes our hands warmly while saying hello to us and asking if we are well and how are our families in his own language. He is old for someone from this country and his eyes, which are a startling blue, although kind are the eyes of someone who has had a long and hard life. He always struggles to stand up and move to the gate to open it but is quick to give you a warning look if you move to do it yourself. Probably he shouldn’t be doing this job anymore and should instead be sat at home with his family taking care of him while his grandchildren sit around listening as he tells them stories from his youth. He is a proud man though and even if the Police Commander did tell him that he didn’t have a job anymore he would probably turn up every morning anyway to sit on his stool, watch the world go by and wait for someone to come along that he can open the gate for. When we leave he always give us a cheerful wave before settling himself back down and carrying on with his glass of chai.

The three suicide bombers were dropped of 50 metres down the road from him. They were all dressed as local police men and even though he wouldn’t of recognised them he would not have been suspicious as there were always officers that he didn’t know coming and going for meetings with the commander. All three of them were armed with automatic weapons which is the norm for over here in the security forces. As they got closer to him no doubt he would of been getting up to say hello to them and readying himself to open the gate. One of them tossed a grenade at him before diving into cover with the other two. As soon as the blast went off they were moving. As all three moved up to the gate one of them emptied the best part of a magazine into him just to make sure that he was definitely not going to get up and open the door for them. As soon as that was done they opened the gate themselves and moved on into the Police Commanders family compound to finish what they had gone there to do.

The fairy tale was over.

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People have a pretty vivid picture in their heads of what they would expect a man or woman in my profession to be like in person. A kind of  stereotypical Hollywood version of a hired gun would be my best guess of what would come into the average persons mind if you asked them to describe a mercenary. You probably know the kind I’m talking about: The hard-drinking grizzled looking guy stood at the bar of the toughest drinking house in town with a huge cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth. He is covered in ink, drives a muscle car of some description and has a reputation as a womaniser. His favourite reading material is from the top shelve or maybe a muscle car magazine and he listens to rock music. He drinks Tequila for breakfast, cracks shelled peanuts open with his biceps and probably has some kind of attack dog as a pet that he feeds rare T-bone steaks to whenever he makes it back to his bolt hole after the Tequila has run out and he’s dealt with all of the bad guys.

That is near enough how the movies would have you believe that we all are. And if I am being honest with you there probably are a few knocking about somewhere who are pretty much like that and there are definitely more than a few who wish that they were like that. But I’m not like that and neither are the majority of us. I will admit to having some tattoo’s and liking a drink (although not Tequila as that has a peculiar effect on me) but that is about as far as it goes when it comes to the Hollywood version. I’ll now put you straight and give you a more down to earth version for you to stick away in that mind of yours ready to pull out and dazzle them with should someone ever ask you to describe a mercenary. I should point out that the following will be a few facts based on myself and that any similarities between them and any other contractors life is totally coincidental.

Here we go:

  • I do like a drink and when home do have a favourite pub that I like to go to for a drink. But it is nowhere near being the toughest drinking house in town by a long shot. It’s actually a local family pub that has a good mixture of age groups in it, runs a quiz night once a week and on the odd occasion books in a live band. I do stand at the bar but you wont find me stood there with a huge cigar stuck in the corner of my mouth – it’s against the law to smoke in UK pubs and also I find it hard to talk if my mouth has a huge cigar stuck in it. So it’s pointless. And I have never been referred to as being grizzled.
  • I do have some tattoo’s but I don’t drive a muscle car. I drive a popular family saloon, it’s safe and good on the mileage and gets me from A to B. I’m a dedicated family man with a stunning wife and two beautiful daughters and the only woman who I want to be a ‘womaniser’ with is my wife which probably means that in fact, by definition, I am not a womaniser.
  • I have plenty of reading material but none of the top shelve kind. You’ll more than likely find me curled up with the latest Terry Pratchett novel or maybe something by Stephen King. And when the mood take me I’ll read something to do with military history. I also love comic books, mainly 2000 AD but am just as happy with anything that involves super heroes.
  • I am a huge rock fan but at the same time am just as at home with listening to my classical collection or some power ballads. I also have a secret passion for Abba and The Carpenters.
  • I’ve never started the day with a Tequila although once, when a lot younger, me and some friends all cracked open a can of lager first thing in the morning. We probably thought it made us seem cooler when in fact all I remember it actually did was give me a headache. I much prefer a decent coffee and an orange juice first thing followed by a bowel of muesli and a piece of fruit. Once in a while I like to treat myself to a good old-fashioned British fry-up as a treat with extra mushrooms and bread and butter on the side instead of toast.
  • We have dogs. A Pugalier and a Shih Tzu. They are, as you can probably tell from the names, not attack dogs. The only thing that they are likely to attack you with are their tongues as they go nuts trying to say hello to you. And they probably wouldn’t have a clue as to what to do with a rare T-bone steak even if I ever did throw one at them. More than likely the Shih Tzu would just drag it off to a quiet corner and then sit there and stare at it in a slightly confused way and the Pugalier would probably just jump around it excitedly looking at us with her cute bug eyes for some direction as to what to do. So no, they don’t get steaks. The have for dinner instead a slightly over priced dog food that comes in a small white packet and gets mashed up into their colour coordinated dog bowels which they find much easier to deal with. I do eat steak though – blue not rare.
  • The only time that I have ever tried to crack something open with one of my arm muscles I managed to hurt myself.
  • And when I do head home after a few  pints and a couple of rums it’s not a bolt hole that I head back to. It’s my family home.

I guess I  could also tell you about my fascination with fantasy gaming – like Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer or that I believe in super heroes or even that I wanted a Star Wars themed wedding which my wife, totally unjustly I think, said no too. It would have been awesome. I would have been dressed as Han Solo, my wife as Leia, the daughters as Ewoks, her family as the Dark Side and mine as the Good Side. What could have been better?

So that’s the stereotype blown out of the water.

I guess that if an action movie was to have a ’normal’ person in it as the hero then it just wouldn’t sell. It doesn’t really work if I try to envision Stallone or Arnie driving around in a family saloon singing along to Abba’s greatest hits with a bug-eyed Pugalier waggling it’s tail excitedly in the passenger seat. So I think that from that perspective Hollywood may have got it just right with their version of us.

People seem to think that my job must be all excitement, adventure and glamour. I have no problem with them thinking this but in reality they couldn’t be further from the truth. There are jobs in my industry that have all of the above or a combination of them but at the moment that is not my role. I’m a bodyguard in a war zone and my sole task is to keep my client out of harms way which isn’t as hard as it seems. He works with local government officials which means that most of his work is meeting based, in an office, in a compound, away from all the nitty-gritty things that make a war. In turn that means that I spend a lot of my time sat outside of this office that he is having a meeting in stood waiting around for however long it takes his little powwow to finish. Often I am joined by my counterpart from the local police force who is the designated bodyguard for the government official. For thirteen months now we have both stood outside the same office, in the same compound, looking after the same clients carrying out this mundane task. And it was as I was heading back to my compound at the end of one of these jobs that I got to thinking about languages and how not being able to speak one foreign to yourself isn’t always going to mean that you can’t communicate and have a conversation with that person stood beside you who seems to be talking in ‘tongue’ every time he opens his mouth.

Like I have already said, I have known my counterpart for over a year now and if there is one thing that I have come to realise about both of us, it is that we are both absolutely unless at learning a foreign language. We know the basics of each others lingo – we can say ‘hello’, ‘how are you’, ‘thankyou’, ‘goodbye’ and most importantly ‘it’s your turn to get the smokes out’. But that’s about it. And yet we know as much about each other as two colleagues who have become friends that have worked the same shift for months can know about each other if they are speaking the same language. For example – I know that he is single but would like to get married, to a wife that he picks himself, and have lots of children who grow up with an education and have the opportunities in life that he has missed out on. He knows that I am married with two daughters who are both in college. I know that he doesn’t like animals and that dogs scare the life out of him. He knows that we have pet dogs, cats and fish. I know that he is in this job because he is proud of his country and wants to be part of helping it to change for the better. He knows that I am in this job for the money. He would like to see foreign forces leave the country so that they could start to stand on their own two feet but understands that at the moment his country needs our support and he fears that if we leave to early the old government will take control again and then his country would go back to how it was under strict Islamic control and fall into a civil war. I agree. He hates alcohol. I love it. I like American cigarettes. He likes any cigarettes as long as he doesn’t have to pay for them. He would like to me to give him my work boots and buy myself another pair. I think that he should part with some of his wages and buy his own boots. His jokes are bad and mine are good. We both think that our clients meetings go on too long. And it goes on and on like that. The point is that without being able to speak each others language we have still managed to learn enough about each other to become good friends. We have found away to communicate. Language doesn’t have to be a barrier.

It wasn’t always like this though. When we first met each other at the start of these meetings we both gave each other a wide berth. He was a local with a gun, I was a white man with a gun. We would both stand at opposite sides of the compound and eye each other warily, hands hovering over our side arms ready to re-enact a shoot out straight from the days of the wild west if either of us so much as coughed in an aggressive manner. As time went on we progressed to nodding in a manly manner at each other as we both took up our posts. And from there we progressed onto sharing cigarettes – we would meet in the centre of the compound, exchange the smokes, nod and then retreat to our respective sides. After that we moved onto trying to talk to each other. It wasn’t easy. We mastered the basic ‘hello’ and that was it for a while. Anything else was above and beyond us. We would both talk in our respective languages, both getting louder as we tried to talk over each other, more often or not we would end up storming of back to our old sides mumbling under our breaths, me saying something like ‘fucking un-educated idiots, how hard can it be to speak English’ and him probably saying ‘stupid infidels, how hard can it be to learn my language’. At some point though we both got fed up with storming off and sulking in our corners and some kind of agreement was reached where we would try to teach each other one word of our own language at every meeting. This worked for about two meetings until we both gave in and after some genuine laughter acknowledged that we are both up there with the worlds worst linguists. From there we developed our own way of communicating which mainly involves lots of hand gesturing, pointing at various objects in the compound, finger counting and for him, drawing pictures in the dust. And that is how we communicate and know all that we know about each other and how we became good friends.

We still don’t understand everything each of us is trying to say but are a lot politer about it than we used to be. He will sit there and nod politely while smoking my cigarettes as I tell him everything that is going on in my life and I will sit there and mumble under my breath as I notice the empty packet while he chats away in his own language. And when our clients come out of their meeting we both give each other that nod which is our way of saying stay safe, it’s been good chatting and see you next time.

It was just over the half way point of my first tour of this country as a young Rifleman in the British Army that an event happened that would not only change me as a person but it would also change my life and that of everyone else that was there forever. I am not writing this account of my version of the events that followed to gain any kind of sympathy for myself or any of my brothers that were there, or for the loved ones at home that were left behind. I think that I am writing this so that people who read it can get some kind of insight into what drives men like me to become who we are and also that you may gain some kind of understanding of the war that we are in and the effects that it has on the young men and women that fight in it.

In the early days of the war the British Army was mainly based in the north of the country committed to peace keeping operations, stabilisation projects and some anti-insurgency operations. We arrived in country about a year after the initial invasion that had seen the hard line Islamic Government removed from power, with most of their forces fleeing to the south of the country. The city was a bustling hive of activity, a new government was in power and despite the obvious signs or poverty and decades of war it appeared that the place was slowly starting to get itself back on it’s feet and attempt to begin at living again. We were there in a peace keeping capacity, tasked with providing security for our area of the city, support for the local forces and and as reassurance for the local population. Our tour was expected to run smoothly, the main threat was from Improvised Explosive Devices and the Suicide Bomber of which there had been a few incidents with over the past few months but nothing regular as the previous governments forces were still, at that stage, on the back foot and staying put down south. We adopted and non-aggressive posture, we patrolled with berets on as opposed to helmets and when in vehicles we used stripped down Land Rovers with little or no armor. The next few months passed relatively peacefully as we got to know our area of operations. The locals, although wary at times, seemed to appreciate our presence and we soon got to know the local faces and business owners. We would get mobbed by children on patrols, trying to get us to part with sweets or pens while asking us our names and trying to impress us with any English that they had learnt so that we would give them an extra chocolate or two. In some areas of our part of the city people would come up to us and give us small glasses of Chai or a pieces of their home made bread. And I remember being invited into countless homes by people to sit and drink Chai and meet their families. People would shake our hands and say in broken English ‘thank you for coming’. We were made to feel welcome. It felt like we were part of something good that had happened and we were proud to be there.

Just over half way through the tour and things were going good, everyone was still in one piece and we were accomplishing our mission. Morale was high and the platoon that I was in had become close, we had become a family. The winter was coming to an end, the snow was now turning to slush and we were starting to get bouts of sunshine through the snow clouds. This for us was a good sign as the winter had been exceptionally bad that year, snow was deep and everything became iced up. Patrolling in vehicles had become a nightmare because of the fact that they were stripped down and the crew were open to the elements. It wasn’t unusual for patrols to come back with kit frozen solid to the wagons and the crew with thin pieces of ice formed on them. Throughout this jobs carried on as normal, so when things started to clear late in the first month of the year we all breathed a sigh of relief. The only downside to the snow melting and the winter ending that we could see was that it would put an end to snowball fights that had become the norm when on our downtime. But I guess that we couldn’t have it all. Patrols were conducted daily, either on foot or by vehicle. Every time, before heading out we would have a brief which would include an updated intelligence report. Sometimes we would just head out and conduct a reassurance patrol to maintain a presence on the ground, other times we would be given a task by the ops room or by the intelligence cell. These tasks could be anything from; going to get the grid of a specific building, maybe finding out the name of a local mullah or even going to check on some reports of disturbances in certain neighbourhoods. One thing that was always certain to come out in these briefs was a threat warning of some kind. It could be anything from a report of armed men been seen in our area to a possible IED being placed on one of the route that we used. But nine times out of ten it would be a report of a possible suicide bomber driving around in a car looking for a military call sign to hit. We heard these reports everyday, they were two to a dozen and even though we took them all seriously nothing ever came of it. It was enemy propaganda to keep us on our toes, to let us know that they were still out there. Somewhere.

Then our day of days came.

That morning as we were finishing our brews at the end of the briefing and waiting for the patrol commander to tell us to get our arses down to the vehicles and mount up the intelligence officer raced back into out communal room. He said that they had just received a verified report from a trusted source that there was a suicide bomber in our area driving around looking for a British call sign to hit. The source had even gone one better, he knew which road the attack was planned for, what vehicle the bomber was in and what colour it was. The problem with his info was this: the road was the main route through the city, so it was the busiest road and used by military call signs day in and day out. The vehicle was a Toyota and for some un-known reason to me, eight out of ten cars (even to this day) in this country are Toyota. Last of all he had told us that the car was painted yellow and white to look like a taxi. Every car in this city at that time, if owned by a local, was painted yellow and white to look like a taxi due to the previous government banning anyone from owning a car unless it was a taxi. After passing this law the rulers of that time woke up the next morning to find the streets filled with hastily painted yellow and white cars with taxi signs stuck to them. These people aren’t stupid. So, with that information being passed onto us our tasking was changed and we were told to drive out to this particular road and set up a vehicle check point and just wait to see what happens. The intelligence officer had come up with the genius idea of us acting as bait and if his plan worked out, we would see the suicide bomber before he got to us and be able to take him out before he said his finale prayers and took us into the after life with him. Easy for him to say, once we were outside of the base he would head back to his comfy office with a hot drink and the latest copy of FHM and wait out to hear what happens. The Boss thanked him for the update, we finished our brews and headed out into the now overcast day as the first bits of sleet started to fall from the sky.

A Vehicle Check Point was something that we could set up by positioning our vehicles on a road so that we created a ‘bay’ that we could direct a civilian vehicle into to be searched and their occupants questioned. The purpose for these VCPs’, for us, was to try and keep the enemy on their toes. With any luck we would hidden weapons in the vehicle, maybe narcotics or even components used to make the IED’s. The reason that we didn’t have permanent check points and used our vehicles instead was to give us a slight edge in these taskings – because we were mobile no-one knew where we would be setting up and therefor couldn’t plan in advance to take a different route around us. The other important thing about the VCP’s was timings. We never stayed in a spot for longer than 10 minutes. This is a golden rule. One reason is that there is no point in being there any longer as no doubt if anyone was heading your way they would of received a phone call by then letting them know that the Infidels were conducting vehicle stops on that route and that they should find another way round. The other reason, the main reason for us, was that if there was a young brainwashed man out there driving around in a giant explosive device on four wheels he would of had a call telling him about us and unlike the other guy that gets a phone call he will be heading our way on a mission from God. So we move every ten minutes to be on the safe side. On this particular day we were told to stay in the same spot until we were given permission by the ops room to wrap it up and head back.

We hit the road and set up our check point. It was the busiest part of the day for this road – try to imagine the M25 on a bad day and then add some. Everywhere we looked there were vehicles, and a majority of them were Toyota’s and most of them were painted in the colours of taxi’s. We put ourselves into our positions and set to work. Any vehicles that had more than one persons in them we would allow to pass and any vehicle with one person in, depending on various factors, we would direct into our improvised bay and start a very cautious search. It’s nerve racking work for all those involved. Some of us watch the traffic, trying to spot that one person that could give of a signal that says he has a date with 40 virgins in a few minutes time if he is lucky. Others watch the guys searching the vehicle and passenger. The guys searching the vehicle watch nothing but the vehicle and its passenger. The passenger watches us. Everyone watches someone or something. The vehicles get searched, the id of the driver checked and as long as he hasn’t gone bang and killed the searchers and probably injured everyone else he is sent on his way. The we start the process again. Ten minutes comes and goes and we swap around roles to give the searchers a break. We keep this up for 45 minutes. The Golden rule has conveniently gone out of the window for the guys back in their cosy offices. The weather is cold and the sleet is now coming down hard. Despite this we are all hot and sweaty and tempers are starting to fray. This is fucking stupid, even if the intelligence was wrong we have been here too long now. If there wasn’t a suicide bomber there will be one now. Fuck it, there probably an army of the bastards on the way. We need to move. Now. The patrol commander gets hold of the ops room and says that we need to move. They say wait out. We’re not even searching vehicles now, we have just taken up defensive positions and are waiting. Cars drive past us, everyone now looking like a suicide bomber, the passengers staring out at us as they go by wondering what the infidels are doing stood out in this weather just staring at vehicles. We get the call. The intelligence is wrong and we are to return to base. We all curse under our breaths about the shit int and what we would like to do to the officer that tasked us and his informer and then mount up. We move of quickly and head back.

We rock up to the vehicle bays in our base to find another section from our platoon waiting to head out on task. They are heading out on an escort tasking and are going to use our vehicles as they are warmed up. That suits us as we don’t have to close them down and clean them out. They start mounting up almost straight away. They have a medic with them, not one of ours, a Navy guy from the med centre. His Boss has told him that he has to go out on at least one patrol before his tour ends and as he is due to go home in a couple of weeks he is to go on this one. He actually doesn’t want to go out, his job isn’t to be out on the ground and even though he knows not much has happened he doesn’t want to temp fate. He Boss doesn’t give him a choice and makes him go. It will be good for him apparently and give him something to tell the folks back home. One of the drivers heading out is moaning about the fact that he has been up all night ill with a bad stomach and can’t believe that they can’t find another driver. He says that if he shits himself while driving no-one better take the piss. He is a well liked individual, a bear of a man with a heart of gold and a passion for engines. He isn’t one to moan and as such we know that if he has actually spoke up about being ill then he must be feeling fairly bad. One of our drivers, a young guy who I have known since training steps up and offers to take his place. The gesture is half heartily refused and it takes another offer before he gives in and heads of at a quick pace for the nearest toilet block. His replacement is well liked by everyone in our platoon and joined the Army during break from university as he wanted a challenge and to gain some kind of life experience that he didn’t feel that he’d get from the civilian side of life. He wasn’t a career soldier, this was something that he felt he would gain from before he went back to finish his education, once his time was done that would be him. I remember he once said that he was looking forward to this tour, not for the same reasons as the rest of us which was to carry out our peace keeping task with the hope that we would get to test ourselves and all that we learnt throughout training against the enemy at some point , but because he wanted to experience another culture, meet new people and hopefully be able to play a small part in helping the people of this country get back on their feet. He didn’t want to kill the enemy, he wanted to help the people of this land. This is something that he was proud off. He was a quiet man, who in the evenings would lay on his bed reading a book while the rest of us shot the shit, watched films and smoked cigarettes. He always had a smile on his face, talked fondly of his family and would give you the clothes of his back if you needed them. That’s why that morning he offered, despite how tired and weary he was from the previous task, to take over as driver for the other guy. Five minutes later they were in the vehicles and out the gate. The rest of us heading up to our rooms to sort our kit our before getting the brews on.

The patrol was out for about 30 minutes or so before we heard the blast. It was close enough to shake our doors and windows. They had gone to another location to pick up a truck that needed an escort and when they were hit they were passing the base about 500 metres away. The car was a yellow and white Toyota taxi and was been driven by a young man with a British passport. He drove straight into the drivers side of my friends wagon before detonating. The medic who didn’t want to join them lost the best part of an arm and suffered shrapnel wounds. He got to go back to the UK early and had that story to tell folks that his Boss had wanted for him. Another friend of ours had his eardrums burst and is now permanently deaf. The other soldier in the back suffered shrapnel wounds to the head, lost the use of one arm and was in a coma for a while. The vehicle commander lost an eye. My friend, one of my best friends, that I had trained with for months, drunk with, laughed with, a soldier that the entire platoon loved took the brunt of the blast on his exposed upper body. His wounds were traumatic and even though the medic from the Quick Reaction Force that arrived on scene tried to keep him with us it was hopeless. He was gone.

The intelligence had been right.

The aftermath of this involved a huge clean up operation. Body parts had to be collected, bagged and tagged, as well as our guys some civilians (including children) had been caught in the blast. One of my friends tells me that he walked over to what he thought was some kind of animal laying on the floor and moved it with is foot. It turned out to be the top of the suicide bombers head. Another fella had to pick teeth out of the soles of his boots that had got stuck there as he walked the scene. The wagon had to be bought back to base and once looked over washed clean of blood and anything else our friends had left in there. The medic that tried to keep our friend alive came to us and just kept apologising for not keeping our man alive. The original driver with the bad stomach was in bits. Myself and two others were, the following day, given the task of cleaning three weapons that had been recovered and were apparently still serviceable. I was given my dead friends weapon and spent the next few hours trying to make it sparkle by cleaning out what my friend had left all over it for me.

A couple of days after that we said our goodbyes to him as he lay in his coffin waiting to go home. The day after that he was repatriated to the sounds of bagpipes as units from a score of different countries formed up to see him off. The day was beautiful, the sun was out and it was clear blue skies. Everyone there saw the Eagle that appeared to glide over the procession of coffin bearers until he was carried onto the ramp of the plane and into the darkness. A month or so after getting home we all went as a unit to his grave to pay our finale respects. And then we all went back to our lives.

That day changed every single one of us and affected us all in different ways. I have completed a number of tours and now work as a contractor over here. Other people from that platoon got out of the Army after that. Others stayed in and still serve. And a few do what I do. The injured get by the best they can. We all come together for a few drinks every now and then to toast, shoot the shit and remember the friend that we left behind. Since that day I have lost another good friend and seen many others lost or injured. And I am sure that there will be more. They say that the scars that people can not see are sometimes the worst ones.  Some of the lads that I know drink too much to deal with whatever demons that they have, some fight, some give up and some carry on. Me, I keep on coming over here and can only hope that one day I find the strength to come away and go back to my family.

Apparently only the dead have seen the end of the war. This may be true.

What constitutes a good friendship?  I started thinking about this late last night while I was waiting for sleep to come and find me after a colleague had told me that he had in excess of 2000 friends. This statement kind of threw me, I didn’t actually realise that it was possible to know that many people all at once and then it made me feel inadequate and maybe even a little un-liked. As he was explaining to me how popular he was and how hard it was keeping in touch with everyone I was contemplating what I had done wrong in my life. I mean, I know maybe 200 people – a fraction of his number of friends – and out of that couple of hundred people that I know only a fraction of them I would class as friends. The rest would be acquaintances which to me is a totally different thing. And now I’m thinking that maybe it isn’t.

I think that we are all different and that the word ‘friendship’ has different meaning for us. My colleague for instance, those 2000 odd friends of his are mainly social networking site contacts – Facebook ,Myspace etc. So he doesn’t know these people personally and I would hazard a guess that he will never meet 95% of these people and probably most of them he will never have any kind of communication with other than to accept their friend request and maybe send them a ‘happy birthday’ message once a year. But for him that is the important thing. He feels that he knows them. He looks through photos, sends them birthday and Christmas messages, ‘like’ their comments and competes with them in managing the best on-line ‘farm’. It makes him happy and shows the world how popular he is.

To me though, looking from the outside in, this is a shallow kind of friendship and makes me think that somewhere along the line the meaning of the word has been lost with the invention of the social networking sites. Emphasis seems to be, especially for the younger generation, not on quality but on quantity. Your status in life is almost judged on how many people that you know – ‘He/she must be a great person because they have 1000 followers on Twitter’. I’ve seen people get physically upset if they don’t get enough ‘likes’ on a status or if they notice that one of their few thousand contacts has deleted them they start to doubt themselves and wonder what it is that they have done wrong. It honestly pains me and makes me wonder what their lives were like before the onslaught of Bebo and other networking sites.

Don’t get me wrong though. I am not anti Facebook or anything like that. It is a great thing. Being able to stay in touch with loved ones on the other side of the world has never been easier, getting in touch with old school and work colleagues and having a nosey at how each other lives have panned out is no bad thing. It makes us more culturally aware and keeps us up to date on what is happening in the world. And it every now and then it can help re-ignite a friendship that you thought you had lost a long time ago. So it is a good thing all in all. I just think that it is a shame that for some people, the influence of social networking has made them forget the true meaning of friendship and what it is to really ‘connect’ with people. They have replaced real friends with a number on a screen.

A real friend isn’t a number, or a face that you only know through a photo. A real friend for me is someone that I have actually shared real life experiences with. Someone that I have laughed with, cried with and even got into trouble with at times. They don’t judge you and you don’t need them to ‘like’ every thing that you do. They accept you for who you are. They are the people that during the worst of times will lift you up with just a smile or a couple of words. You can go without seeing each other or speaking to each other for months or even years and when you finally do get in touch again, once you have filled in a couple of gaps,  it is like it has only been a day or two since you last saw each other. A friend is someone that you know, no matter what, will always be there for you. They wont delete you just because you didn’t like their status.

I think I’ll take my 200 over his 2000 any day of the week.

Nine years. Nine long years. That’s how long I have been coming to this country. That’s how long I have been involved in this war.

This place has changed me beyond recognition from the man who I used to be before 2003. It’s opened up my eyes to a world that many of us will never know outside of a tv show or a book. It’s damaged me more than I care to admit and in other ways it has made me stronger than I could have ever have been in my old life. I look at things differently now and realise how fragile our lives are. For men and women like myself Death is our constant companion and we can only hope that at the end of it all, when our time is done, that it was all worth it.

The patrol base that we had to visit today was only five kilometers north of our location. On a really clear day, if you stand on top of the compound roof you can just make out the radio mast located in the centre of the small base. The ground leading up to it is a mixture of fertile farming land broken up by mud compounds that have stood for generations and copses of blossoming trees. The mountain range in the far distance adds to the picture and you can not help but think what a beautiful country that this is. Another time and another place and this would be somewhere that I would come to get lost in, to just wander around and soak up the history, the people and the culture. But this isn’t another time or another place. It’s right here and right now and if I did let go to that feeling and decide to lose myself and go for a wander it would be a death sentence and no matter how beautiful that I think this place is I am not ready to join my Brothers at the finale RV just yet. That is going to have to wait. The task, on paper, looks simple enough. We are to escort our client to this patrol base five kilometers away so that he may observe a shura being run by the local Government figure-head. The shura is a chance for the representative to showcase the benefits of supporting his government to the local population by talking to them about the importance of education, a working infrastructure, health care and most important of all how they should not support the enemy and what (this is implied) will happen to them if they do.

So the task is no problem. We have the vehicles, we have the kit and we have the manpower. We also have ample supplies of Gator Aid, Pop Tarts and cigarets.

This isn’t the real world though and there is a reason that as we all meet at the vehicle park waiting to mount up in our designated vehicle of the four vehicle move we are chain-smoking, re-checking our weapon systems over and over, making sure that our kit is tight and that we have all of the correct protective gear on (one thing that you do not want to happen out here is to get blown up, lose both your legs and maybe an arm for good measure only for the insurance company to find out that you didn’t have your issue boots or the issue eyewear on. Payout, what payout?). One of my personal things is to make sure that the guys that I am with know where all of my personal med-kit is located. They all have to look in as I systematically point out where my first field dressings and tourniquets are located about my body. It doesn’t occur to me as they patiently stand there and watch me that I have done this so many times with them by now that they probably know where all of my kit is located better than I do. They don’t say a thing and let me get on with it. We all have our OCD side. Time for another couple of smokes and a couple of dirty jokes and then we get the shout to mount up and move out.

The journey takes us approximately 45 minutes from start to finish. The heat is unbearable and the air-con unit is non-functional. There are four of us crammed into the back of this wagon with all of our kit, wedged in between communications kit and ammunition crates like sardines packed into a tin. The driver and commander have the best deal, there was only two sardines in their tin. The route takes us along a dirt track that winds through the compound and cuts across the fields kicking up plume of dust as we move. It only takes us a couple of minutes until we pass the location of the first Improvised Explosive Device that I found in this area on a patrol – a school that has long since closed after the enemy opened fire on a class of children to let them know of their displeasure at the education system coming to their part of the world. We found the IED placed within the school itself – left as a little surprise for anyone who decided to come back and try to carry on with their education. Just about a 100 meters later and the vehicle commander calls back to us to let us know that we are about to pass the location where a vehicle of theirs was taken out of action by a IED the week before and just after that is the spot that the enemy keep on planting anti-tank mines in the hope of hitting a vehicle one of these days and sending a Marine or two back home to their families before their tour is up. If they succeed the Marine gets a fancy medal so it’s not all bad. We sit there and lose ourselves in our own thoughts while waiting for the sudden hot blast of pure violence to hit us. I sip on some water from my now hot bottle. The blast doesn’t come and we carry on with our road trip. We hit the next set of compounds and  immediately we hear the strikes of small arms fire pinging off the side of our vehicle. Everybody tenses inside the vehicle, for us this is the worst situation, stuck inside this mobile tin can unable to see outside and unable to react. There is nothing we can do, we are just passengers on this ride and have to trust in and let the crew do their job. My adrenaline starts to pump through my body, my lips go dry and my stomach goes into knots. I prepare myself mentally for what needs to be done in a dozen scenarios. If the vehicle is immobilized I need to get my client out quick and into cover or another vehicle. He is my priority and he is counting on me to look after him. That’s all I am worried about in that situation. The Marines know that if I become a casualty that they are to leave me get my client to safety and then come back and help me.  If the vehicle gunner gets taken out I have already cleared it with the vehicle commander that I will jump up and take his place on the .50 cal machine gun. If I become a casualty the Marines in the vehicle will get my client through. As long as we get him to his task location in one piece that is all that matters. I wonder if he realises how much we are all putting ourselves all on the line for him, what we are willing to risk on his behalf. These feeling and thoughts are over in milliseconds. And then it clicks in – the gunner is not returning fire and the vic commander is shouting back at us. It’s not gun fire. It is kids, lots of them, throwing rocks and stones at us as we go by. This should be amusing and is I guess except for the fact that the stone throwing, in this magnitude, means that we are not welcome around here. The convoy carries on rolling through this storm of rocks and stones to its finale destination.

After 45 long minutes we arrive at the patrol base. We disembark, saturated in sweat and covered in dust and leave our ‘road warriors’ to look for our shura area while they moan about broken mirrors, smoke and discuss the pro’s and con’s of lighting up the stone throwers – the theory being that if you shoot a couple of them then the rest will get the point. I don’t think that they will get the point myself and if anything the stone throwing will turn to gunfire.

We find the shura area after a short walk. There are about 200 males all sitting down in the middle of a sun-scorched compound. They have no water, no shade and can not leave. The only thing that they have to look forward to is a two-hour lecture from someone who they have never met before and probably will never see again. And just to make them feel more comfortable they are being watched from all sides by a score of armed men in uniform. At the front of the compound, sitting under a sunshade with a crate of bottled water at his feet is the government rep for this area. He reminds me of dictator or emperor of old, fat and over fed, sitting upon his throne looking down at his subjects. He starts his speech while I stand at the back with my client, he watches the man give his speech while I watch the crowd for any kind of sign that may tell me that someone is about to jump up and push a button so that he can finally go and meet his 40 virgins in heaven while sending some of us the opposite direction. I’ll be lucky if I spot him before he goes bang….but it’s always worth looking. The speech goes on and on and on. No-one but the man in the chair talks. This isn’t because he doesn’t give the now slightly dehydrated crowd a chance. It’s because none of them seem to want to talk. They all sit there in silence, every now and then casting nervous glances at the armed men stood around them and at un-seen foes sat amongst them. The problem is that we are stood at a spot on the very edge of the baddest of the badlands. We are at the frontier. This is the modern-day wild west. The O.K. Corral. This base is surrounded on three sides by land controlled by the bad guys. When we leave it will still be controlled by the bad guys. This is not a place where anyone wants to be seen to be talking to a government rep. None of these people would have come to this shura if it was not for the armed government men who walked into their villages and rounded them up like cattle and told them that they had to attend. The future of their country depends on them attending. Their children’s futures depend on them attending. So with a gun at your back you are going to attend. Inshallah. The un-seen foe amongst them is our enemy. They are there, dressed the same as everyone else and un-armed so that the Marines can not do anything about them, in force watching the proceedings and ready to take note of anyone who appears to show any interest in what is being said – if anyone does they can expect a visit from a different group of armed men during the night. The meeting ends and everyone is allowed to leave, on the way out smiling Marines hand out free prayer mats and copies of the Holy Koran as a way of making up for the lack of water. The enemy never give out free prayer mats. Maybe this government isn’t so bad after all.

I stand beside my vehicle grabbing a last smoke before I mount up. As I do so I contemplate the 45 minute journey back and hope that this has all been worth it.