Lieutenant Claire Westerman, aged 24 from Southampton, arrived in Helmand province in October as unit education officer with 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment (1 R IRISH).
Her primary role is to rotate between each of the five company locations within the Battalion’s area of operations in Nad ‘Ali, conducting lessons in literacy, numeracy and command leadership.
As a speaker of the Afghan language Dari, she also teaches basics to the Royal Irish troops so they can greet and communicate with locals when out on patrol.
As an addition to her core duties teaching the Royal Irish soldiers, Lt Westerman started out teaching a group of around 60 Afghan National Army soldiers basic western numbers and letters.
The aim of this was to help them understand British-produced operational maps. But the keen Afghan troops enjoyed the lessons so much that they soon wanted to sit in on those that had been organised for the British lads too.
This, and the fact that commanders have found the improved understanding between British and Afghan soldiers to have great benefits on operations, has led to a much wider education programme now being developed.
While the British troops learn basic Pashtu and Dari, the most common Afghan languages, Lt Westerman is now conducting regular English lessons for the Afghan troops who are progressing so well some now even claim to be able to understand the British troops’ ‘banter’ and unique sense of humour!
There are also plans to expand the training yet further, not just to benefit the Afghans but also to allow the British soldiers to learn from them. Lt Westerman said:
This is a fantastic opportunity to involve the Afghan National Army [ANA] soldiers in our day-to-day operations. They are very interested in the lessons I teach to the Royal Irish soldiers, so we’ve developed some lessons for them too. They are really enthusiastic and, as a result, are very quick to pick up English language skills.
The next phase in the process is to oversee joint lessons, with the soldiers from each nationality teaching each other their languages. There has even been a request by the British troops to learn how to make traditional Afghan bread, which could be a perfect opportunity for the two armies to use their new-found language skills!
The ANA are always keen to host us when we arrive at their checkpoints, always providing fresh ‘chai’ tea and biscuits. These lessons are one small way to demonstrate our appreciation of their hospitality, as well as ensure we can be even more effective when we operate together.
The education initiative is just the latest step in an already very close working and social relationship between the Afghan National Army and the Brits who are partnering and mentoring them in Helmand province. For some time the Afghans and Royal Irish troops have enjoyed games of cricket and barbecues together in their downtime.
Afghan soldier Sergeant Noorzai is one of the most enthusiastic for Lt Westerman’s lessons. He said:
Many of our soldiers speak both Pashtu and Dari but we are keen to learn English too and Lieutenant Westerman’s lessons are great.
We enjoy very much working with the British soldiers and knowing the language helps. These classes have been a good opportunity to receive proper English lessons, helping us to better understand the British soldiers’ jokes!
Major Alastair Harbison, Officer Commanding C Company, 1 R IRISH, said:
The Afghan National Army soldiers live alongside our men. Having Claire present provides another opportunity to help develop our overall capability.
English language lessons really help with the partnered operations; combined with the lessons our soldiers receive in Pashtu and Dari, it has really improved the overall effectiveness of partnered operations on the ground.
Although a teacher, Lt Westerman is a soldier first and foremost. One of her various duties since deploying to Afghanistan has been to form part of a ‘female engagement team’, building relationships with, and getting information from, local Afghan women.
This is a crucial role as, in Afghan culture, it is not acceptable for men, particularly foreigners, to talk to women they do not know.
As a woman herself, Lt Westerman can overcome that barrier, develop friendships and earn trust from local women. Also, if criminal behaviour is suspected, she can conduct body searches of women without causing the offence that a male soldier might.