Posts Tagged ‘travel’

So as another year ends and a fresh one begins I got to thinking about this Blog and decided to start sharing some pictures from my time away to break up the writing side of things.

Afghanistan is a huge part of my life and has been for the best part of a decade now, I have spent so long over there and also in Iraq that I feel more at home in these places than I do in my birth country. Despite all of the bad bad things that have happened while away, the good memories vastly out weigh the bad ones. It is hard to explain Afghanistan to someone that has not been there and actually stood among its people and breathed in its culture: the country is so full of history, life and rich in colour that it’s easy to loose yourself for a time and forget that it is a harsh country, that has been plagued by War for so long now that a lot of Afghani’s can’t even remember a way of life before the one that is now filled with violence and uncertainty. The place is a mixture of landscapes; from the mountains in the North to the Deserts in the South, the rolling plains, fertile farming lands and wooded valleys. You can immerse yourself in the history of a country that was once known as the Orient of the West and was a regular stopping point on the ‘Hippy Trail’, I have stood in the remains of fortifications built by the Khan’s, walked in the footsteps of my forefathers from the British Army, been privileged to have visited the Kings Tomb and have literally walked in History. The people are a hard, versatile people that have lived through the harshest of times, who have a deep rooted pride in the country, their culture and their ties to their ancestors. During times of trouble they are the hardest and most resilient of Warriors who will fight against all of the odds to the last man to protect what is theirs and their way of life, while on the other hand they can be the most hospitable, humblest people that will give you their last bit of food and the shirt of their backs should you need it.

In short I think what I am trying to say is that Afghanistan is a stunning, beautiful looking country with a rich history and an amazing vibrant people and culture which I am hoping that I will be able to portray to you in some photographs that have been taken over the years. Enjoy.

A ‘Tut-Tut’ on the outskirts of Kabul in 2003, a common vehicle to see as they are cheap and easy to maintain.

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Musaqala, Helmand Provence. The location of some of the fiercest fighting in the most recent conflict but also a place of stunning
scenery and the home to a huge bustling bazaar.

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This was taken in Helmand Provence where the Education system is almost non-existent and children are largely left to their own devices during the day while the fathers work and the mothers cook.

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A father protectively hold onto his child while listening to a local Governance speech about health care and Education.

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A British patrol being over taken by a local boy racer back in 2003. In the background you can see the remains of a British Fort that used to overlook the city of Kabul.

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A young lad taking a cheeky peak over the wall to see what goes on inside of a Forward Operating Base and also hoping to scrounge some chocolates from us on the inside.

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So that’s all for now but I will add more photo’s as time goes on and may even throw some shots of Iraq in as well. Enjoy everyone and Happy New Year.

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So it has been a while since I have been here to leave a Blog and during that time a lot has happened. Old friendships have been rekindled, a new job started, a couple of life’s realities faced and accepted and more importantly a ‘new’ me has immerged from my time out. There is too much to talk about in one session on here so I think for now that I am going to concentrate on what has led me to use ‘A Restoration Of Faith’ as the title of this entry.

My time in Afghanistan, although not continuous, spanned almost a decade of my life. During that time it became my life defining who I was and becoming an obsession that took over everything in my life. I lived and breathed it day and night whether I was there or back in the real world. I dreamed about the place and during waking hours could see it in my mind. Smells, noises, a word spoken or a song heard could take me back there in an instant. It wasn’t just me that became affected by this place and my experiences. My family and close friends became affected by it, albeit in a different kind of way, as over the years they saw the effect my time away and experiences had were affecting me as a person. Through highs and lows they watched me, supported me and most importantly I think – kept on loving me. During my highest moments when the darkness receded and I could think about better times, remember the good things that had come out of my time there, appreciate what I have and push the bad times to one side for a short period they were there laughing and enjoying life with me. During my other periods when I was so full of rage, hate, anger and sadness that all I could do was cause pain they were still there, stood beside me, supporting me and helping me find my way back into the light. Without the love of family and friends, someone’s comfy arm chair, some witty and ‘intellectual’ conversation, a very understanding couple who patiently and without complaint listened to me during the early hours of the morning when I was so lost that I thought there was no turning back and a wife who through everything stays with me and is often my voice of reason I have no idea where I would be now. But what I do know is that where I am is better than there. It’s not perfect, nothing ever is, and I have a long way to go still but I am at least now tabbing in the right direction and the road looks good from where I stand. 

You see, what I am getting at I think is this: I lost faith in myself and to an extent everything else in my life. I couldn’t see a way out and was almost consumed by what was happening to me. I knew what was going on or at the very least I had a good idea of what was happening to me and it scared me. In fact for a long time I was terrified. I didn’t have faith in my own ability to deal with what was happening to me or feel that I had the strength to fight the battle that was being fought inside my head. Only a few months back, less than that even, I thought I had lost the fight but due to the reasons that I mention above I seem to have gained faith in myself again and through that the strength to fight and hopefully win this battle. I am restoring myself and like all decent restorations it will take some time and a lot of patience. No doubt there will be some setbacks as no job like this is ever straight forward and to get ahead I will need to face a few demons, some from a life before the Army, and beat them or at least find a way to lock them in their cage. I am a determined man and can rise to a challenge. And a challenge this is.

It is worth pointing out before I sign off that writing also appears to be helping me. I seem to be able to express how I feel and talk about what is happening in my life a lot easier like this than I do through talking face to face with someone. So it doesn’t bother me if anyone is reading this or not as I think that it is just a case of me finding an outlet through here to ‘verbalise’ everything that is going on inside of me. I need this. But if you are reading then thank-you for taking an interest.

And that is it – the reason behind the title.

‘It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. It’s a new life For me’

Nina Simone.

Pipedreams. Everyone has them. Some of them are more wild than others, some of them practical and some not. Some are achievable and some are most definitely not achievable. But I guess that is kind of the point of a Pipedream – it is something that is personnel to all of us, a dream of who we want to be and where we want to be. Our very own personnel vision of the future where everything turns out just how we planned. Your very own ‘happily ever after…’.

One of my favourite Pipedreams is probably one of my more achievable ones. It’s one that involves my very own little corner of the world where I can forget about everything and just be at peace with myself and my family. I’m not really sure where this dream came from as the location is somewhere that I have maybe only been to twice and one of them times was just me passing through on my way somewhere else. Most of my knowledge of this vision of tranquillity comes from photographs, publications and television programs and I am guessing that between my brief visits and these other sources of information that something has appealed to my subconscious self and caught my imagination. The Lake District is that Pipedream. When I need to relax or I just need to get away from this place for a while I can sit myself down in my pod, close my eyes and imagine everything. It’s perfect for me and I wouldn’t change a thing. We live in a stone built cottage with a thatched roof that dates back a few hundred years that is set in acres of it’s own land. Surrounded by rolling green hills that are broken up by small copses of woodland and with the shores of a lake only a short walk from the front door it is everything that I have dreamed of owning. We have more dogs than what we once had now that we have the space and land for them that roam freely. Alongside them we have chickens and geese and more than likely have a cat lurking around somewhere. Our days are spent wandering and exploring the surrounding areas and in the evenings we sit back on the decking that I have built and share a bottle of wine while listening to some music and watching the lake shimmer in the moonlight. At weekends we are joined by family and friends who I cook for on the BBQ and as dusk comes we all sit around on the forever expanding decking drinking and chatting until the early hours. Our daughters visit with their families and we spend the days wandering around and just enjoying time together. In the evening we all sit around the open fire with me supping on a good whiskey enjoying listening to all the talk and laughter coming from my girls and their little families. Even though the cottage is secluded enough that we can feel like we are the only people in the world at times if ever I feel the need I can just put a pack on and disappear into the hills to wander to my hearts content safe in the knowledge that this is my own little corner of the world and that no-one can hurt me or mine here. My perfect Pipedream.

Of course I’m not naive and I know that nothing is ever perfect in reality. The Geese would always be chasing the dogs. The cat would probably eat the chickens. I have no idea how to build decking and even if I did the good old British weather would probably put a stop to us using it too often. A thatched cottage of that age would be so expensive to maintain that instead of spending my days wandering and exploring I would spend them working to keep up with the bills and no matter how secluded you are there would always be some tourist, with their map held upside down, turning up at your door lost. But what’s the point in having a dream if it can’t be perfect at least in your head. And like I said at the beginning this is my more achievable and practical one. The one that involves me being the first human to step foot onto the surface of Mars and promptly bump into little green men or the one where I find an ancient artefact that gives me super human powers can wait until another day.

“Pipe dreams are good, they don’t have to be practical and they often change. Its just nice to have some distant dream to think about when things get tough.”

A Wise Old Friend

 

Spending as long as I have in this country serving alongside it’s local nationals there is one thing that I have come to learn about them and that is that they love a good story.

Here are a couple of my favourites:

The Invisible Man

One of our interpreters once told us about his uncle that had the amazing ability of being able to turn himself invisible at will. This wasn’t just some cheap party trick used to entertain kids or some un-proven claim – it was an amazing and un-explainable feat that no doctor, scientist or even religious scholar would be able to explain. It was a superhuman power, the next step in our species evolution, that all of the family had witnessed including our interpreter. Intrigued by his claims and more than a little excited at the prospect of our very own X-Files story un-folding before us we made some brews, pulled up some chairs and encouraged our man to tell us everything about this now almost God like person to us that we had never met.

He explained that whenever the whole family gets together for some event and the festivities start to slow down a bit or the meetings start to drag that they  can rely on his uncle to perk everyone up with a display of his powers. Apparently the man will sit everyone in a room on some rows of chairs facing towards the end of the room where there is a closed door that leads to his sleeping quarters. Once everyone is settled down in their seats the music starts to play and the magic begins. The uncle performs a series of dance moves that are essential to him being able to get his mind onto the correct level of enlightenment that will allow him to fade into nothing. The excitement and tension in the room grows at the thought of what is about to happen – it doesn’t matter how many times that they have seen this miracle they will always be amazed by it and feel like they did the first time that they saw it. As the music begins to fade and his intricate dance moves come to an end the crowd holds it breathe in anticipation of what they know is about to happen. With a clap of his hands and a smile at the audience the uncle twirls his way through the door to his sleeping quarters and shuts the door behind him. They all sit there in silence waiting for it. All of a sudden they hear his voice from behind the closed door and he tells them that he has done it again, that he is invisible and that no-one can see him. The crowd goes wild, cheering and clapping as once again they realise that they have been present for a modern day miracle.

Our interpreter, part of the young breed of men and women that will hopefully be integral in leading this country forward when we finally pull out, finishes his story with a slight fanatical look over his face and sheen of sweat on his forehead. After a moments silence where we all sit there and contemplate the amazing story that we have just been told and the privilege that we should all be feeling at being allowed to know about it our section commander speaks to the story teller. He asks if our man genuinely believes that his uncle turns invisible behind that closed door and suggests that maybe this is some kind of party trick – and not the best one at that. The terp smiles and says that he is often asked this after telling this story especially by Westerners. What is so hard to believe about it? His uncle is a respected man in the community and has no reason to lie. He turns himself invisible behind a closed door because the finale process of making himself disappear would be too much for their minds to handle if they saw it. Our commander asks then why once his uncle is invisible does he not come out of the room so that they can all see that he is not there? Our man sighs and looking at our commander talks slowly and patiently as if talking to a child and says that this is because of the same reason that we do not see him turn invisible. Should he come out of his room and talk to us our minds would not be able to cope with hearing his voice but not being able to see him. He stays in his room to protect us until he become whole again.

We all finish our brews, put our chairs back and carry on with our previous task of getting ready for a patrol – all thoughts of super hero’s gone from our minds.

 

It’s a Wind Problem

Breaking wind. We all do it. You, me, everyone. Even those  that say they don’t do it. It’s natural thing for our bodies to do and we shouldn’t be embarrassed by it – we should embrace it and it’s humorous powers. Toilet humour (excuse the pun) has it’s merits and a well timed fart at the most inappropriate of times has caused huge amounts of laughs throughout time. And it was a well timed breaking of wind moment by one of my men that led to the next story and bit of insight into the culture of the people of this country.

At the end of a rather long and arduous patrol one of our interpreters approached myself and another commander to ask for a private chat with the two of us. It turned out that during the patrol, where the terp spends most of his time stuck in the back of a vehicle, he had come under repeated gas attack from one of the soldiers stuck in the back of the wagon with him who was suffering from a slight wind problem. Time and time again throughout the journey his sense of smell had been exposed to some of the worst smells known to man which had caused him some distress and a lot of offence to say the least and now he wanted to make a complaint and also to explain to us why he was so offended by the actions of this man.

The action of breaking wind in this country is not just offensive but it is almost sinful. It is accepted that people do break wind but it is something that must be done discreetly and far away from anyone else and is never talked about or done in jest. The worst things imaginable can and have happened to people who have made the unfortunate mistake of letting one slip in the presence of other people. When asked to elaborate in that claim he went on to explain about the recorded (no-one can verify where this is recorded) case of the son and father who both suffered because of one moment of craziness where one of them forgot themselves for a minute and accidently let a silent but deadly one slip. It happened in a village in the south of the country some years back during a shura that was taking place. Apparently toward the end of the proceedings the young son of the man, without thinking, let slip a small explosion of gas that he has been trying to hold in for the most of the meeting. The uproar that was caused from the resulting smell is the kind of thing that has been known to start wars and destroy communities. A second shura was called for the next day where the offence would be discussed and a suitable punishment decided upon. The father in his shame and embarrassment at what his young son had done sat himself down on the ground and immediately turned to stone adding fuel to the already burning feeling of anger that was rolling through the village. The boy was in trouble now. Not only had he shamed himself and his father in front of everyone but his father had turned to stone from that very same shame. There was no need for a second shura now and the son was banished from the village on the spot and told never to return. To give you an idea of how deep the fear of trapped gas goes over here the boy apparently returned to the village some year later, knowing that the Elders that banished him would of passed on by now and hoping that all would be forgiven and he would be allowed back into the community. He was met at the boundary of the village and stones were thrown at him until he left again and until his dying days he will be left to wander the desert by himself with the knowledge that his one little slip of wind caused this. If only he could of held on for a little bit longer.

With the story finished the other commander apologised as he broke wind and left the tent to go and talk to the lads about cultural awareness and the dangers of dropping one in the presence of locals which left me to sit there and contemplate what lessons could be learnt from this tale.

And that’s it in regards to the stories. There are many more and at some point I will write about them for you to read.

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.

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.