Jersey reservists swap island life for Helmand

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Two Territorial Army volunteers from Jersey Field Squadron have swapped civilian life on the channel island for the heat and dust of Helmand province, and are now working with the regular Army unit 21 Engineer Regiment.

As Royal Engineers, the soldiers are involved in a variety of tasks, such as building and improving forward operating bases and patrol bases, which includes constructing watchtowers, known as ‘sangars’, for security.

They support the infantry out on patrols by engineering ways to move safely through compounds, whether it is through walls or over them, and also by building bridges to create new routes.

All of these tasks ultimately support the main aim which is to provide stability and security for the local nationals.

21 Engineer Regiment are also working alongside the Provincial Reconstruction Team and Military Stabilisation Support Team to provide longer term assets for the country. This has involved building main roads, creating and repairing culverts and building bridges in order to allow the Afghan nationals to move around their country more quickly and safely.

One of the Jersey-based soldiers is Sapper James Shales, based with 1 Armoured Engineer Squadron.

In 2 Troop, Sapper Shales has been based in Nad ‘Ali, a district in southern Helmand which was the main focal point for Operations PANTHER’S CLAW and MOSHTARAK. Nad ‘Ali has been one of the success stories in terms of engagement with the local nationals through the District Governor.

The troop have recently been part of a subsequent push south where the infantry cleared the route and made it safe before the engineers went into the compounds and upgraded them for temporary accommodation.

Sapper Shales has enjoyed this task the most so far because, despite waiting to be called forward, the troop has been able to put pre-deployment training into practice. Most engineering missions involve working throughout the day and night to complete the task - this was no exception:

We have to get the task completed so that the infantry lads can protect the compounds for the mid- to long-term. There are toilets built in one corner and firing points in another,” Sapper Shales said.

“It is hard work but it is fun and really rewarding when we leave, knowing that we have made the living conditions better for those that are staying there.

“I would definitely mobilise again - the lads are fun and we have a lot of banter which gets us through the boring times when we are sitting around waiting to go out on a job. > > I chose to do it this time because my grandparents and uncles have been in the forces and I wanted to experience it too.

Meanwhile, Captain Leanne Christmas, who is based out of Camp Bastion in Helmand province, is working as the Regimental Media Operations Officer and a Joint Forces Media Officer, which means that she goes where needed to in order to cover a story with her trusty camera.

Primarily covering the engineers, Captain Christmas also looks after external press and VIPs. In civvy street, Captain Christmas is a chartered accountant for Barclays.

Captain Christmas said:

Afghanistan is a unique experience in many ways. One week I am sitting in Camp Bastion interviewing two cyclists who are raising money for charity in the Bastion gym, and the next I am on a walkabout in Nad ‘Ali district centre with the Foreign Secretary, Secretary of State for Defence and local District Governor, Habibullah Khan.

But the weather is always the same - hot. Temperatures reached 56 degrees C a couple of weeks ago and it is increasing all the time.

Even working in Bastion, where there is air-conditioning in a lot of the offices, the few minutes spent outside moving from one tent to another can be an ordeal.

Having said that, the few hours I have spent in body armour out on the ground is more challenging and my respect for the lads who spend long periods patrolling in this weather with the 60kg plus worth of equipment on their backs has gone through the roof. Fitness really is the key to survival.

As on any operational tour there have been ups and down but Captain Christmas said that her best, and worst, experiences so far all happened in one week:

I went to cover an operation which was designed to improve the local communications,” she explained.

The engineers were clearing the route of IEDs so that the locals could begin using it again whilst the infantry call signs provided protection. It meant living out of patrol bases for a week and working on the FLET [forward line of enemy troops].

We were taken to meet one of the infantry sections to get some interviews and to meet some of the locals who were benefiting from this operation. During the patrol in, we came under contact - I was fine as at 5’2” (1.6m) I was the smallest target by far.

“Once we were in the safety of the compound, the females were invited into the living quarters of the family. > > That was an amazing experience and one which males would never get to see. A seven-year-old girl took me by the hand and showed me all the rooms. They prayed in front of us and gave us freshly-made bread and chai [tea]. > > Thankfully we had an interpreter with us, but the hugs and smiles that we received needed no interpretation. That special experience will stay with me forever.

Despite enjoying their experiences on deployment both Sapper Shales and Captain Christmas are looking forward to returning to their civilian lives in Jersey:

I am really looking forward to a pint, and going out with my friends too,” said Sapper Shales.

While for Captain Christmas it is the natural environment of her homeland that she misses most:

I am really looking forward to getting home now for a rest and to walk barefoot on the grass and beaches again,” she said, adding: “I long for rain!