Posts Tagged ‘military’

So I was just reading a friends Blog that they sent me a link to and I found that I had an account and had already posted two Blogs some time back, something that I had totally forgotten about. So with the aid of the good old copy and paste here they are:

‘First Timer’

‘Well..this should be interesting….a bored British soldier stuck in Afghanistan(actually in the UK at the moment coming to the end of my leave…..another two days and then I will be that bored British soldier stuck in Afghanistan again!!)……writing a blog for whoever to read.I’ve never done this before but don’t hold that against me and I’m not even sure if anyone out there would be interested in hearing about the day to day life of a British squaddie on tour…but fuck it….I’m writing this so that I’ve got a way to take my mind of the horrors of war(which at the moment mainly comes in the form of marauding bands of killer flies,camel shit and the food in our cookhouse!!)….anyway,that will do as a brief intro to my blog…I’ve got to go and help a friend to drink some Guiness now…until the next time,bye.’

‘Welcome to Crap Air’

‘I’m supposed to be in Afghanistan…….I’m stuck at a RAF base because of fucking delays…..I got here yesterday and right up to the minute that I arrived here I was on the phone confirming that my flight would be on time…everytime I rang they said ‘yup,your leaving on time’…I get here only to be told the flight is delayed untill further notice….!!!!!!!If they had told me that before I got here I could of gone back home and spent more time with my family and then just rang up on a daily basis till they said I was flying…..now I’m here I’m not allowed to leave…..It sucks,we don’t get enough time with our familys as it is,I lost three days of my leave due to delays……fuck it,if I’m still here tomorrow I’ll drop another blog……’

I have no idea why I didn’t carry on with writing these Blogs and can only guess that it was due to having more important things to worry about while on tour or even just a lack of Internet access. However, I have found them and they are here now. Short and not that interesting but they are my first ever entries into the world of Blogging.

And as a side note the term ‘Crap Air’ is a phrase used by the Army to describe our sister service, the RAF.

That’s all for now folks.

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While lazing about in our compound today catching some sun we could hear some music being played in our interpreters room to which he was singing along to. When the song had finished we called him out to us to find out where the music originated from as the vocalist in it was a female and it’s unusual for a woman of this country to have her voice recorded for people to hear outside of her family. Most music that includes a female singing comes from outside of this place from one of the neighbouring countries. Our interpreter told us that she was in fact from this country and that she had a large following and was his favourite singer and is an inspiration to all of his fellow countrymen that listen to her songs. He then proceeded to tell us the following story of how she came to be a singer:

Apparently during that last Civil War that rocked this country the young woman was living as a housewife with her new husband in the second biggest city outside of the capital while her husband tried to earn a wage. It was during a trip to the local Bazaar that she somehow caught the eye of the local military commander of that district. The commander seeing this young beautiful woman and full of the bravado that a War seems to install in all young fighting men approached her and made some advances that would be considered inappropriate anywhere but more so in this extremely religious country. The commander had about one hundred men under his command and had earnt himself a reputation as being a ruthless and hard man. When she refused his advances, not least because she was married, he had her arrested by some of his men for embarrassing him in public and also for not showing him the due amount of respect that his rank and role demands from the people under him. That evening at his barracks he decided to show her the error of her ways by allowing all of his off duty soldiers to share her for the entire night. The following morning the young girl was told she was being released and that in future she should think before she refuses a man such as he. The distraught singer collapsed to the floor pulling at her hair and scratching her face while sobbing. Despite all that had happened to her over the previous hours she was now worried about her husband and the ‘shame’ that this would bring upon him when the community found out what had happened to his new wife. At the very least she would end up out on the streets and live the rest of her live as a beggar and at the very worst she would be stoned to death for her ‘adultery’. The commander said that he sympathised and understood her concerns and that because he was a caring and lenient man he would do something to try and make things better for her. With that he sent some of his men out to collect the wife’s husband and bring him back to the barracks. Sometime later the confused husband was escorted into the barracks by a group of armed men and led to the commanders office. It was explained to him exactly what had happened the day before and how it was that his wife had ended up ‘entertaining’ all of the off duty soldiers that were stationed there. The husband was distraught and could not believe the shame that his new wife had bought upon him and their family, he was besides himself and disgusted with her. How could she have done this to them. The whore. The commander though, good to his word, explained to the husband that this was not her fault – she was young and naive and easily led astray and also because of her in-experience how was she to have known where her insulting behaviour from the day before in the Bazaar could have led to. He promised to make things right and said that before they left the barracks that day that the husband would no longer feel that his wife had shamed him. In fact he would by the end of the day be closer to his wife than he ever had been and have a much better understanding of what had happened. The soldiers present were then given orders to take the young newly weds back to their quarters and that the wife was to be tied to a chair and forced to watch as her young husband ‘entertained’ all of the off duty soldiers. Now they were shamed together and the only people that they would be able to rely on after this would be each other just as it should be for married couples. Once the husband was finished servicing the soldiers they were both to be released and sent on their way. That night the couple left the barracks and headed back to their compound. Shortly after that the husband took his own life and the wife was forced out onto the streets to fend for herself because of the shame that she had bought upon her family by not being a good enough wife for her husband which must of surly led to him killing himself. For years she moved from place to place begging for a living and suffering more and more abuses. During this time she would compose songs in her head and sing them to herself to try and take away some of the misery. Eventually she found her way into a fledgling refuge for woman such as herself that had been set up by an Non-Government Organization that had recently arrived in country. Through this organization she met many other women like herself and together they gave each other the support that they needed to learn to cope with their abuses and to help each other start again. Together they learnt new life skills and with the support of the Organization they started to make lives for themselves. The Newly Wed found that she had a talent in song writing and singing and with a lot of help and support started to pen songs which have gradually found their way onto the newly formed music market of this country and that apparently is where the real story starts.

The singer has released and number of songs now and has gained quite a substantial following. She says that during her years on the streets it was the music that she created in her head that kept her alive and now it is the music that she is creating for other people to listen to that keeps her going and gives her faith. With her music she hopes to educate people on the rights of women and young people and to also promote peace in this War torn country.

“I think people who truly can live a life in music are telling the world, ‘You can have my love, you can have my smiles. Forget the bad parts, you don’t need them. Just take the music, the goodness, because it’s the very best, and it’s the part I give most willingly'”

George Harrison.

‘The Real World’. It’s a phrase that you can hear in almost any modern day war movie and see written down in some books that is in general spoken by a soldier in reference to anywhere outside of the warzone that is perceived as being a civilised place. The context in which it is used could be as follows: “When I get back to the real world…” or “I bet back in the real world they don’t have to put up with this shit…” I use the phrase myself as does just about everyone that I work with out here who is military or comes from a military background. It’s part of our language.

The thing is that despite using this word when in conversation with certain people to refer to my life back home in the UK I have come to realise with some certainty that somewhere along the line the ‘real world’ and this world have become confused for me and have traded places. When I am away from this place and back in your world I find myself feeling apprehensive, nervous, scared, on edge, hyper vigilant, un-able to relax and generally stressed. I am wound up tight, my spring is coiled and I am ready to launch and explode at any given moment. I accept that this is not how I should be feeling and that when back in this strange and foreign land that I no longer understand or fit into that if anything I should be feeling mainly the opposite. I am back there with my family and friends, people who love me and that I love back with more than equal measures and yet no matter how much I want to feel like I belong there I don’t. When my time comes close for me to be starting my journey back home for one of my leave slots I find myself becoming agitated, irate and start to struggle with my emotions. It’s almost like I am fearful of being back in the civilised world. The place has almost become alien to me and I wonder at times if this is because there is no real place for men like myself in your world and that somewhere on a subconscious level I realize this or maybe it is just because I am too damaged to feel anything but the above in the place where in reality I should feel at the very least my safest and most relaxed.

When I am back here, in this war, I still feel a lot of the before mentioned feelings but no-where near on the same scale. When here in my world they are just a quiet noise in the background of my life that are easy to control and stay on that manageable level unless I have need for them. They are natural feelings in this place and have their place in it. For reasons that are beyond me I feel relaxed here and even when in the most dangerous of situations I feel safe. I understand this place and it’s rules and it’s people better than I understand the ‘real world’. I can breathe when here and feel like I am in control of my own body and can function normally. I fit in in here and the thought of not being somewhere like this terrifies me. I will admit that it isn’t all plain sailing though when back in this home away from home and I think the reason for that is that I know that my ‘feelings’ are not how they should be and have become muddled along the line somewhere. Sometimes I will lock myself away in my room and only emerge for work or the gym as my head hurts and my thoughts cloud at the realization of what is or what has happened to me. I’ll sit here at my desk, upset and with feelings of despair for hours at a time as I try and think of ways to turn this around and to get myself back into your world. I may not be the most intelligent of men but I’m not stupid either and I know that this is not the way that things should be and I recognise the effect that this is having on myself and my life in general but I can’t see a way back. This is who I have become.

My wife told me the other day that she thought that I had become acclimatised to this lifestyle and this place and that I enjoyed being here more than I do at home. For certain I’m acclimatised to it but do I enjoy being here more than I enjoy being at home? I enjoy my job and have worked hard to get here but that doesn’t mean that I enjoy the route that it has taken me down. Of course I’d rather be at home with my wife and the rest of my family – I miss her and them. I want to be able to lead a normal life with her or at the very least be able to function like a normal human being when back there. I want to make her happy again. I want to be happy again. But I just don’t know how to be at the moment and need to find myself a compass that can get me back on track again before I become lost forever and can never get back there.

“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its stupidity.”

General Eisenhower

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.

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.