Lance Corporals Jamie Blay and Mark Lees and Trooper Jamie Hardacre are having a laugh. They’ve earned it. Half way through their tour they have kindly interrupted their preparations for a spot of R&R in order to talk to me about what life is like on patrol.
Relaxing in their tented accommodation at Lashkar Gah the soldiers of the King’s Royal Hussars Quick Reaction Force are lounging on their beds.
They are surrounded by inflatable parrots hanging from the tent poles and various calendars display the lads’ appreciation of the beauty of the human form.
Carefully arranged on bedside boxes are an impressive selection of moisturising and grooming products.
They are happy to chat but can’t see what the fuss is about. But then, what they take for granted as all in a day’s work is unimaginable for most of us.
At best we get a glimpse of what their lives might be like when news clips show troops tabbing round carrying loads that would make civilian knees buckle in heat that is as heavy as an anvil.
Lance Corporal Blay gets the ball rolling with a plea:
Can you do one thing for us? Can you tell whoever it is that puts the ration packs together… ‘no more beans’.
When we are living out in compounds, there’s bean pasta, Mexican bean feast - everyone just chucks them to the side - so when you go to the little tent we use as a cookhouse hoping for a quick meal - all there is, is beans.
Someone, maybe it was Trooper Hardacre, mentions dreamily Rat Pack 18, menu B; a chorus of ‘mmm, beef casserole’ echoes round the tent.
I promise to mention it.
A home from home
For the first couple of months of their tour, twenty of them were living away from Main Operating Base Lashkar Gah in a small checkpoint. There they had all they needed but not much more than that. Dealing with the heat was a daily challenge.
Without air-conditioning the temperature in the tents often climbed to 65 degrees Celcius, so to get any sleep they preferred to kip outside on mats.
An eight-hour patrol would understandably leave them yearning for a cold drink, instead they would have to quench their thirsts with bottled water hot enough to make tea.
Although there was a small fridge in the checkpoint, it was reserved for fresh food - no room for chilling bottles of water.
Dreams of freshening up under a cold shower were dispelled by the harsh reality of a shower bag sprinkling them with well water boiled by a day in the desert sun. It sounds intolerable.
But they love it - well to start with:
For me the first sector of the tour went so quick, ‘cause you are having such a laugh,” said Lance Corporal Blay. “You’re with a cracking bunch of lads, they make the place what it is and it’s just fun.
Fun? ‘Yeah!’ they all chorus, but then admit that after a couple of months ‘the fun factor does go out of it’.
But for the first few weeks at least it’s the freedom that they really relish:
At the checkpoints you are left alone. So it’s your own little domain, you can do your job, how you want to do it, and get into a nice routine,” said Lance Corporal Blay.
Because it’s only a small place you never have to go far, say to the cookhouse. In Lash you have to walk further to get anywhere.
While in the checkpoints life for the lads comes in a bag - showering under a bag of water, sleeping in a bag, eating out of a bag, even going to the toilet in a bag:
You’ve got to make sure you get your bag admin in the right order!” someone says.
But even these lads, after a couple of months, have to start to dig deep. Getting back hungry from a day patrol but too tired to sort themselves out:
Sometimes you just can’t be arsed to cook so you go straight to bed and wake up groggy.
At times you are so tired you can’t sleep, though you know you have to because you know you are going to have to do it all again tomorrow,” explained Lance Corporal Blay.
But don’t get the wrong idea, none of this is meant as a whinge - well maybe apart from the bit about the beans. It’s just how it is - a sitrep. Nothing is straight forward.
Take the episode of the wells:
To start with we had two wells. They provided the water to shower in and use to wash our clothes - to finish with we had none,” laughs Lance Corporal Blay.
The first well failed when a routine check showed that it had gone down with E coli:
Something took the easy option and died in it.
Then, being old, the second well eventually failed. The lads managed to rig up a fix - but when the engineers came to repair it they heeded the shout ‘don’t cut that rope!’ moments too late, resulting in the pumping bar falling into the depths, never to be seen again.
After that, all water use had to be bottled - which meant a weekly drop off of 1,000 litres which had to be unloaded from the back of a truck by hand. Hot heavy work, but even this tale provokes a positive reflection:
The good thing is though, because it’s so hot everything dries really quick - you can wash your clothes and have them dry in three hours, that’s not too bad.
Everything is relative of course, and what passes for normality in Helmand province would be unacceptable in the UK. But by Afghan standards the lads say things haven’t been as bad as they had expected:
Because it’s a first tour,” said Trooper Hardacre, “you’ve heard stories of what others have been through and you expect it to be the same.
The first time I went through the gate I was twitching, I thought, here we go, every day there’ll be fighting in the streets - but it’s totally different, it’s been relatively quiet for us.
Then Trooper Hardacre puts it nicely into context with an example of what had happened when they were with Afghan soldiers in a checkpoint:
We’d been told that it was a place where something always happened.
Sure enough, having waited for nearly an hour they came under fire. Instantly they followed their drills assessing the situation:
We were all ready to go and getting psyched up about getting ourselves into a sangar when we noticed the ANA guys were just laughing at us and flapping their arms about.
So we asked the interpreter why they were laughing and he said ‘why are you flapping around like frightened birds? This is an everyday thing!’
So we just laughed too, they were taking the piss; that’s fine, but we’d done our job.
A large part of the job is getting to know the locals and building trust. So what sort of a reception have they had?
The older generation who have seen Afghanistan as a once thriving place just want it to be like that again.
They generally come and chat and offer us some chai (tea), sometimes it’s to get something off us - but that’s fair enough, generally they are just people who want to get on with their lives,” said Lance Corporal Blay.
But the younger generation, those in their twenties and thirties who have known nothing but war see us as uniforms coming to take their place. And the kids, well they come and nick all your pens and some throw stones, but they’re just kids.
Sometimes we stop and kick a football about with them. I tell them I’m from Manchester - and they all know about Man United.
Getting to know the locals also means getting to know some of the customs. Stone-throwing is something the local children have a talent for - skills that are honed in a local game that the squaddies refer to as ‘Flintstone marbles’.
The aim is to pitch stones into a circle made up of other stones. The circle gets smaller as the game progresses.
On one occasion, while driving past a compound in their Jackals, the lads heard chanting and noticed that the locals were gathering up rocks. Their first reaction was that they were in for a stoning, but instead of angry shouts they heard cheering.
Slowing down to see what was going on, rather than being confronted by an intimidating mob, what they saw was a big family gathering all enjoying a game of Flintstone marbles.
As well as sharing a game of football with the locals, footbread is also often on offer. Footbread is a local speciality where the dough is kneaded by the baker’s feet.
It may not sound appetising, especially when garnished by tales of toenails emerging from the mix, but apparently the lads love it.
The first time they tasted it was when they had been invited for dinner by the head of the district police:
We were given rice and footbread and I thought, that’s it, I’m going to have the trots tomorrow morning after this - but I had a nibble, then a nibble turned into a whole piece of bread, it was really nice,” said Lance Corporal Bray.
And, what’s more, it didn’t end up with me in the dungeon.
The dungeon being - well I’m sure you can work that out for yourself.
Getting to know the patch they are patrolling is critical. Going out every day, sometimes twice-a-day, on patrols that can last for just a few hours, or for days, builds up that knowledge, and helps develop a gut instinct:
You might be physically exhausted, but as soon as you go out of the gate you are mentally switched on. You go down a track and you think ‘uh oh, this isn’t how I remember it’.
One of our lads found an IED in a mud bank by a track. He spotted it because the track looked just a bit narrower than he remembered it,” said Lance Corporal Bray.
If you’d never been down that track before, you probably wouldn’t have noticed it.
They also spot ‘farmers’ standing in fields holding rakes but who disappear from time to time clearly to report on the soldiers’ progress.
On one occasion the fake farmer calmly erected a screen on the roof of his compound, then hiding behind it loosed off a few rounds at them, then nonchalantly stood up, stretched, and returned to his field:
We knew the firing had come from his direction, we knew it was him, but couldn’t prove it.
They are really good at watching us and spotting patterns, so he would know that in those circumstances we wouldn’t fire back, so you just think ‘cheeky git’ then report what you have seen at the end of the patrol, so we know who we need to be keeping an eye on,” said Lance Corporal Bray.
You get sniper fire and they’re not bothered about there being kids or shops or stuff like that being about.
The pace of a patrol is sedate, with stops every 300 yards or so to check ground sign or the patrol’s position, or just to sip water, but even the fittest have to dig deep to cope. Walking with heavy weight across freshly ploughed fields is taking you into iron man territory.
When teeth start to grit it’s comedy that keeps them going. The lads relate with relish the time the troop sergeant leapt across a ditch, but being top-heavy with his Bergan, although he landed OK he couldn’t keep his balance and toppled over backwards into the brackish ditch water:
Every time someone falls over, it puts an extra couple of miles in your legs - another four if it’s the boss,” said Lance Corporal Lees.
The lesson that the lads have learned is that when you are feeling your worst, never forget the rejuvenating power of a piss-take:
You’ve got to snap out of it,” says Lance Corporal Lees, “because if you don’t it will only get worse and everyone will just take the mickey out of you. If you are the sort to get wound up, then you shouldn’t be out here.
So, with a well-earned R&R break on the horizon, how easy is it to shake all this off when you go home?
After even just a couple of weeks in Afghanistan, driving away from RAF Brize Norton through the Oxfordshire countryside can feel unreal, like finding yourself suddenly in the landscape of a Thomas the Tank Engine book.
So going home after months of hard living must be fantastic - but strange:
It’s amazing how quickly and how much you forget about everything here,” says Lance Corporal Bray.
I love walking to and from my car with no kit on, not having to wonder where my weapon is. Just wandering around town feeling weightless and knowing no-one is going to attack you is amazing.
But what about that life-saving situational awareness? Does that go too?
Not straight away. It’s going to sound sad, but I notice it most when I go fishing. I notice the little things that are different around the lake.
And I’ll notice if the neighbours have changed their curtains and I think ‘hmmm, why have they done that?’ It gets annoying after a while.
Well, having coped with all that they have had to deal with over the last few months, with home comforts being thin on the ground, maybe getting a bit annoyed is just another luxury that has been wellearned and which the rest of us take for granted.
This article is taken from the August 2012 issue of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.