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Friday, 25 November 2011

Spaghetti and Morale

Since my last post, work has been reasonably quiet. Without wanting to focus on the doom and gloom that you have probably read in the news, I thought i'd focus on something a little different.

Work in Afghanistan as a photographer, as with all jobs, has it's ups and downs. We sometimes have jobs that aren't as glamorous as others, but still need to be covered. But regardless of the subject, they all need the same amount of effort, and post production time. 

I started out photographing the Hermes 450, an Unmanned Airborne Vehicle (UAV) down at the flight line, before an early start to catch it taking off. For me, I like people pictures, static objects don't excite me. But nevertheless, if a job needs doing, it gets done.

A couple of days later, I was tasked to cover a visit by some Members of Parliament. The aim of their visit was to gain a greater understanding of the Military effort in Afghanistan, in order to take a bigger role in Ministerial debates on Defence subjects.

Lunch is served

After an initial 'meet and greet' of several different military personnel, lunch was served in the Afghan Training Village within Camp Bastion.

Small talk over a plate of Spag Bol

The lunch break provided several soldiers the chance to speak to MP's from their constituency about any issues they have, but also for the MP's to ask them about their role in theatre.

A day or so later, we had news that a Combined Services Entertainment (CSE) show was due into Bastion, prior to heading out to the Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). They always perform as many shows as possible, in as many locations as feasible within their time in Afghan. There first show, a kind of warm up act, was for the Joint Helicopter Force. These are the people that are responsible for ensuring the CSE shows gets airlifted to all the locations on their program with ease. So this was a kind of thankyou to them in advance.

A comedian gets the show rolling

This was the first CSE show I had managed to see during my trips to Afghan over the past two years, and it was a complete laugh. Having been stuck editing in the office for a few days, this was just the break I needed. The comedians were brilliant, and had me in stitches for most of the night, even while trying to take pictures. The aircraft hangar in which they performed was packed, and everyone was having a good time. 

As with most CSE shows, they had two dancing girls, much to the delight of a good percentage of the men. They danced, men cheered (while drinking coke), I got some good pictures, what more can you ask for in Afghan??!!??

The opening dance

After the opening dance, it was back to the comedian to entertain us for half an hour. I can't even start to remember the jokes he said, there were too many, but it was brilliant. Thats one trouble with being zoned into the viewfinder, you sometimes miss the good bits.

Morale Boost

The dancers then came out for a second performance in their 'Morale Boost' T-shirts. By this point, they had the undivided attention of around 150 men, all sat gazing at them in their hot pants and skimpy tops. Trying to get pictures in such low light levels as they were dancing around was quite a challenge, my camera was being pushed, almost to its limits.

Once the girls had finished, the comedian was back, to the disappointment of some. He felt it only fair to provide some entertainment for the women now. So, he stripped off, attempted some pole dancing, before shaking his stomach at the crowd. Not quite sure if any of the women were grateful, but he did make the whole hangar erupt with laughter.

Do these jeans make me look fat?

The last act of the night, was by far the funniest. A middle aged man, with a guitar. Doesn't sound great, but he was actually hilarious. A very dry sense of humour, lots of swearing and an occasional note on the guitar, with rude vocals to some very popular songs.

After all that excitement, I had time to do a quick edit before bed.

The last two images on this post are not exactly rare, but it's also not very often you see skies like this as the sun sets. What a great sight. The sunset seems to go very fast here, so when I saw this from the office door, I quickly rushed to get my camera so I didn't miss the opportunity.

Thats about it from me for now. 

My next blog post will be about my time with the Danish Battlegroup, who are doing some bridge engineering with the British in Nad-e-Ali North.

Monday, 14 November 2011

We Will Remember Them

It has been a very sombre week in Helmand since my last post. 

We had the Vigil Ceremony for Private Matthew James Sean Haseldin, 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment, among many other tasks.

The occasion, as per normal, brings 90% of Camp Bastion to a stand still. The 21 year old from Yorkshire, was tragically killed in action after suffering a fatal gunshot wound whilst out on patrol.

Private Haseldin had only completed his Combat Infantryman's course in August 2011, before deploying to Helmand in the September. Such a tragic loss for his family, loved ones and comrades of 2 Mercian.

 The cross his family will receive in remembrance of their loved one.

The ceremony was performed on the newly refurbished Vigil Square, where as usual, thousands of troops from the UK, US, Estonia and Denmark gather to pay their final respects.

2 Mercian's Motto 'Stand FIRM, Strike HARD'

For many of 2 Mercian, this was an extremely emotional occasion. Many of the young lads there, trained together, and deployed at the same time. They are a well bonded group of men, several of which were on the patrol in which Pte Haseldin was killed. They were the first point of medical cover and responsible for extracting him to the medical helicopter, for onward movement to Camp Bastion.

The Artillery gun signifies the minutes silence

The ramp ceremony was the last leg of Pte Haseldin's journey home, in which his closest friends carried his Union Flag draped coffin onto an RAF C-17, where hours later, he would be reunited with his family and loved ones at the Repatriation Ceremony in Brize Norton.

A day or so later, the new Secretary of State for Defence, the Rt Hon Philip Hammond arrived in Helmand to pay his respects to the fallen at the Remembrance Parade in Camp Bastion. After a whistle-stop tour of Task Force Helmand, in Lashkar Gah, the Defence Secretary was on route to Bastion to meet the troops.

Breakfast in Camp Bastion

During the build up to the Remembrance Parade, the Defence Secretary took time to talk to the troops, enjoy a spot of breakfast, and visit several places around the camp.

Enjoying a fry up

The Remembrance Parade was to be a significant one. It was going to fall on the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, of the 11th year. A once in a lifetime occasion, something we will never see in our lifetimes again.

The parade ground was full, but surprisingly quiet. It's not often you can get that many squaddies in one place, without it being horrendously noisy. You could have heard a pin drop.

Looking around the parade, from the youngest Private, to the most senior Brigadier, you could tell this parade would be something that touched everyone's heart. Not only were we in Afghanistan, where the realities of war really hit home, but you could tell that quite a lot of people had a personal connection with the day too. Whether it be a relative from the World War days, or someone from a modern conflict, you would be hard pushed to find anyone who hasn't got a personal connection with Remembrance Day.

Hymns are sung before the Wreaths are laid

The parade was good, and went very well. Their was a lot of media coverage for the day. The Combat Camera Team, BFBS, ITN, United States Public Affairs and the Press Association were all in attendance.

The head Padre, Lt Col Maynard, led the service with the assistance of the Garrison Sergeant Major, WO1 Edkins. After the hymns and prayers, the Wreaths were laid, then the bugle played the Last Post.

The Defence Secretary lays his wreath at the memorial

The padre then gave his final blessings before the parade came to a close.

Padre Maynard at the lectern.

The wreath laid by the Defence Minister

The following day, we had a similar job, but with a twist. We were in Camp Shorabak, which is attached to Camp Bastion, covering the first ever joint Afghan/British Remembrance Ceremony.

This has never happened in the past, and took some planning by the Media Officer of the Brigade Advisory Group (BAG), 2 Rifles, Lt Roz Ashworth ETS (Educational Training Services).

There were several difficulties to overcome. Firstly, all Afghan's were technically on leave celebrating the festival of Eid, but also, it had to remain non religious.

An Afghan Soldier finding amusement in photographing the photographer

The parade ground was full. There were a good few hundred Afghan National Army trainees there. Before the members of 2 Rifles arrived, and it all started, I had the chance to get some photos of the soldiers, most of which were wearing poppies. They loved it, and provided me with some great portraits.

Afghan Soldiers proud to wear their Poppies

When the parade started, again, there was utter silence. Every British and Afghan Soldier, along with the interpreters bowed their heads and remembered those that had fallen in conflict. The Rifles padre read several verses, and prayers, while the Afghan Mullah (religious leader) translated it.

An Afghan Soldier wears his poppy amongst his ammunition

The Brigade Commander, Brigadier Sanders then gave his speech, accompanied by the Afghan Commander, Brigadier General Sheren Shah. Yet again, everything was translated for both parties involved in the parade.

Brigadier General Sheren Shah addresses the parade

The final part of the parade was for the two commanders to lay their wreaths. Brigadier Sanders laid his onto the Afghan flag, while Brigadier Sheren Shah laid his onto the Union flag. The Regimental Sergeant Major then read out the role of honour for all British and Afghan soldiers, as well as interpreters, that had died in Afghanistan in the last 12 months. This was followed by the Bugler sounding the last post, and the Artillery gun signify the start of the two minutes silence.

Brigadier Sanders and Brigadier General Sheren Shah pay their respects

The harsh realities of War have been felt by all in Helmand this week, as well as across the globe.

My final words for this post are:-

They shall not grow old, as we are left to grow old,

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn,

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.

"When you go home, tell them of us and say: For your tomorrow we gave our today."

Monday, 7 November 2011

Est Coy 12 - PB Wahid

Since my last blog post, the Combat Camera Team have been on our travels again. We had a one day turnaround from our last job, just in time to start editing our material before heading out with the Estonian Army, of Estonian Company 12 (Est Coy 12), based at Patrol Base (PB) Wahid.

We headed to the HLS, this time with the full hour to spare, instead of our last rush of 10 minutes notice, and relaxed in the ISO containers prior to the flight, where we could take full advantage of a bit of shade. Our flight was jam packed. We had more freight than men, and it was very cosy indeed. We had two stop offs prior to our destination, one at Shahzad, and then Nahidullah. For both of these we were the aircraft providing overwatch, so we were in the air for over an hour before arriving at Wahid.

The ever watchful door gunner on the Chinook

On arrival at Wahid, which was an overnight stop gap to our final destination, we were met by a huge contingent of freight movers, both British and Estonian. The Chinook was soon off loaded, and we were  raring to go. As per normal we only had a couple of hours of daylight, so after a quick tour of camp, we went off to shoot some PB life.

The Estonian internet facility

The TV room

The facilities were great. The Estonians had made all sorts of contraptions out of next to nothing, and the place felt cosy. The gym was mainly self constructed, apart from a couple of the apparatus, but this makes for great images. 

We had got a bed for the night, so all was good. The PB itself was very small, but I have been in smaller too. Wahid, along with a couple of check points, were the Estonians Area of Operations (AO). They had very few british working with them. But the journey out to Check Point (CP) Breknal, would show just how well the two forces work together.

PB Wahid's rat catcher

The next morning we were taken to CP Breknal in the Royal Engineers Mastiff vehicles. The operation was to repair a culvert that had been damaged nearby Breknal. This was to aid in the traffic flow to the nearby villages, but to also ensure there water flow continued. It was a joint operation, whereby the Estonian Army would provide force protection for the Royal Engineers to carry out there work safely.

The Estonian vehicles ready to leave Breknal

We then, shortly after arriving at Breknal, foot patrolled out to the area, in order to secure it, prior to the engineers arriving. The patrol was quiet. Several of the compounds we passed were empty, and the place had a slightly eerie feel to it. About 100 metres into the patrol, the Estonians kindly pointed out a big hole in the ground, where one of their soldiers discovered an IED a few weeks back. Not a great thing to know actually.

We arrived at our location, and in what seemed like minutes, the area had been secured with men carrying a varying range of weapons, and even an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC). Despite their kit looking somewhat pre-historic, it worked perfectly, and effectively.

Soon after the Royal Engineers arrived. They assessed the situation and set out to repair the culvert. 

A Royal Engineers Officer checks the compounds ahead for threats.

The area we were operating in was a slightly hostile one. We were surrounded by compounds, three of which are well known as having sharpshooters or snipers firing from them. Slightly unnerving. 

So, with all the protection in place, and the Engineers happy with the job ahead, a whole dust cloud appeared in the shape of combat tractors and tipper trucks full of aggregate and tools.

The Estonian Platoon Commander keeps in constant comms

The repair of the culvert was a lengthy process. The three hour job we were expecting, turned into six. It was a very long day.

Aggregate going into the new culvert, which also widened the road

A section commander checks on the lads work

During the six hours on the ground, we had to turn several locals away, as there was no way of them crossing, while it was being worked on. Needless to say, after waiting that long, the locals were very pleased with the results.

Happy locals cross the new piece of road

After our long day, it was back to Breknal for the night, and some long awaited food.

Within minutes of arriving, it sounded like the whole of Afghan was firing at each other. Machine gun fire, mortars, artillery and even an Apache attack helicopter was engaging a target a couple of Kilometres away from us. Flares were lighting up the sky, something was really kicking off. After a few minutes, and the realisation that it wasn't that close, we set about having a proper nosey around the CP.

Breknal was awesome. The place was so atmospheric, even more so than Wahid. This was the 'real' Afghanistan! The guys from the patrol showed us around and introduced us to the rest of the platoon. They were an extremely welcoming bunch. Two of them had been nominated as the CP Chef's, which must have been a tough job with limited fresh food, and several 10 man ration packs. They pulled out all the stops. We had gammon, with rice, boiled eggs, veg and white sauce, topped of with some sort of pineapple, chunky syrup concoction. Superb! Just what the doctor ordered after a long days work.

One of the Estonians shirts hanging out to dry

The lads here are in the middle of knowhere. Their resources are limited. They have to find ways of amusing themselves for the long nights on a six month tour. They do this quite well with the aid of 'The Call of Duty' game. So they are real life soldiers by day, and cyber soldiers battling against each other by night! Brilliant! What a way to release some frustration.

Cyber wars in full swing

After dinner, we just sat and chatted to the Estonian Press Officer about our plans for the next day, before enjoying a superb nights sleep under the stars.

The next morning, the OC CCT hadn't enjoyed his sleep as much as me. Apparently the Apache's were flying over all night, gunfire was heard in the distance, plus he had to listen to me snoring. For me, it was the best nights sleep i'd had in my 2 or so months here!

The morning was a quiet one. Mark had a few TV interviews to conduct, then we were to head back to Wahid, for our flight back to bastion. For me, portrait time!

A soldier looking pleased after his final patrol

Soldiers prepare for their final patrols of the tour.

Bags packed, off we went. Another job done, time to edit.