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MOD civilians bring wealth of capability to Helmand operations

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

Supporting operations is all in a long day's work for MOD civilians who like their desks a little nearer to the action. Report by Ian Carr.

Defence civilians are all doing their bit, one way or another, to support operations. Their uniforms may be pinstripe instead of multi-terrain pattern and they may be handling ration packs in a warehouse rather than tucking into one in a scrape in Helmand, but make no mistake, whether it’s a scientist developing a better bit of body armour, or an accountant scratching her head over a column of numbers, if they are in the MOD, their work is supporting our Armed Forces.

Some Defence civilians, however, choose to move their desks closer to the action by volunteering through the Support to Operations scheme to take their skills, if not straight to the front line, then pretty darned near it.

There may be a military maxim, ‘Never volunteer for anything’, but our Armed Forces are rightly relieved that plenty of civilians ignore this advice, for they bring a wealth of talent and capability to the operational effort.

For non-military personnel though, being in theatre can be an odd experience and one that calls for resilience, a flexible attitude and sound judgement.

Those that choose to deploy may know their stuff inside out, but the environment can be a complete shock to the system, and the context of the work they know so well soon teaches them the real meaning of ‘outside the comfort zone’.

If you are not cut from the right sort of cloth, volunteering for this may seem a mad thing to do. But it is common for Support to Operations civilians to be enthusiastic re-offenders who love the camaraderie and added responsibility that comes with deployment.

Rob Mullen, a claims officer based at Lashkar Gah, loves these deployments but is clear about the demands:

We have to have people who can do the work,” he said. “They may be good at what they do back home, but if this doesn’t suit them it’s a big problem. You don’t come here to develop your functional competences. There’s no breaks and no downtime to speak of, so you’ve got to be sure that it’s for you.

Rob’s boss, Euan Fraser, has also deployed before. As Deputy Civilian Secretary he has all the financial delegations and responsibilities that you would expect of a manager at his level. He has to work within the rules of Joint Service Publications but has the added challenge of applying them in a developing country that has been war-torn for more than 30 years.

Part of his job is to account for money spent settling claims from locals for damage caused by ISAF action. He also has to account for money spent under the cash for work scheme:

We employ labour on small projects that are good for the community, like building wells,” he said, “and which take men of fighting age off the streets.

Funding such projects puts judgement to the test. Not only must he be careful not to create a culture of dependency, but he must safeguard against putting money in the wrong pockets:

We always ask for three tenders and do basic checks to make sure we’re not handing money to the Taliban,” he said. “But with some jobs it can be a struggle to find three companies who can do the work. And some quotes are silly. We were asking for a small wall to be built in Nad ‘Ali and were quoted three-quarters-of-a-million Afghanis - nearly $17,000.

A wall costing that much you should be able to see from space.

Euan’s claims officers, Rob Mullen and Jason A’court, run claims clinics with Aghan locals four times a week:

We investigate claims, matching them against patrol reports and various databases we have and Military Stabilisation Support Team local knowledge. Often it comes down to a probability issue,” said Rob.

They reckon that, having had a careful look, they turn down 30 per cent of claims. When you consider that this involves face-to-face discussions, through an interpreter, where passions, and voices, can easily reach screaming point, being a claims officer takes bottle. But it’s not about being a hard nut:

Most people can’t read or write,” said Jason. “They can’t accurately describe where they live, they can’t show you on a map as that means nothing to them and they don’t have the same concept of time as us.

“You will get a guy saying ‘you killed my camel’. You ask where and they say ‘Babaji’. That’s like saying ‘the West Riding of Yorkshire’. Then you ask them when it happened and they say ‘last year’.”

The claims officers have developed a sixth sense for when they are being spun a line:

It is surprising how many camels being claimed for were either prize-winning stock, or pregnant, or both,” said Jason.

We did have a good one where a cow somehow had managed to get itself shot right between the eyes while still in a compound. If you are a new claims officer they will definitely try you out. You have to be firm. After a while they will laugh and shake your hand. We have a list of repeat offenders.

But every claim is taken seriously. Many of the people coming to the clinics are desperately poor, so getting it right matters. Making decisions about whether compensation should be paid for the deaths of livestock and even of family members would take most people out of their comfort zone. But the work is rewarding:

This is not a job you could get anywhere else,” said Jason. “In a team in Main Building [MOD headquarters in London] you’d have support all the way up to one-star [director-level] on hand. Here we have Euan to bounce things off. But in the end you have to live with your decisions.

This article is taken from the April 2011 issue of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.