An RAF airman's blog about his current deployment in Afghanistan has notched up 80,000 hits, and had an article written about it on the BBC news website.
Sergeant Alex Ford is an avionics technician, usually based at RAF Benson near Oxford. In March 2011, he deployed to Afghanistan as part of the Military Stabilisation Support Team who work with the Task Force Helmand Battle Group to assist the local population with recovery and reconstruction.
He has been updating his blog, which is officially sponsored by the MOD and promoted on its social media pages, every few days since he has been in Helmand, and as well as being read by thousands it has now come to the attention of the BBC, with a story by journalist Andy McFarlane about the blog published today.
Suggesting why Sergeant Ford’s blog has become so popular, Mr McFarlane writes:
The 41-year-old [Sergeant Ford] mines a rich vein of anecdotes through his work as an intermediary between British forces and the Afghan people. The results are often comical, such as his description of a farmer bursting into his office to complain that UK forces had ‘stolen mud’ from a field they were leasing as a place to burn off waste.
But the blog also explains the psychological pressures of war with a brutal honesty that is hard to come by elsewhere.
Mr McFarlane cites this particular entry from the blog as one such example:
On my first patrol I was bricking it. I was filled with the thoughts of IEDs [improvised explosive devices] everywhere and that the bad guys were going to be watching us… lying in a ditch with their fingers on the trigger of a command wire ready to blow us - me - to kingdom come.
Explaining on his blog why he blogs and tweets, Sergeant Ford writes:
I love technology and gadgets, and I love the communication aspects that they bring. And I am a people person. I think we are all looking for connections in life, and the more we have the richer our lives are. I like to learn about people and what they do, and what makes them tick.
I was an avid Twitterer from very early on (when there were very few people tweeting!) and often tweeted what I was doing from there. I decided to close my ‘own’ account and open the ‘RAF’ one simply because people were interested in Service life and I found there were huge gaps in people’s knowledge of what members of the Armed Forces actually do.
There is an idea that we spend all day either doing nothing or else marching up and down all day; our lives are much more varied and richer than that - our jobs are often like what ‘normal’ people do, but in slightly different ways.
I’m also dreadfully proud of being in the RAF. And I enjoy the amazing lifestyle it has given me over the years. I know that people are interested and so I decided to combine all the things I’ve talked about in a Twitter account.
He also explains that while the blog is sponsored by the MOD it is not an official blog:
It is sponsored by the MOD and I get help and assistance as to some of the stories and ideas I have on here, but all the ideas and opinions expressed in this blog (as well as on Twitter) are my own and should not be taken as either RAF or MOD policy.
In every way, this is an unofficial web-page that I intend to post my own thoughts and opinions [on]. But, and there’s always a but, I’ll be doing it in line with the MOD’s Online Engagement Guidelines, which may mean that there are times when I must, and will, say ‘I can’t comment on that’.
Indeed Service personnel are encouraged by the MOD to operate sponsored online presences to communicate their work. These sponsored blogs, Twitter and Facebook accounts are grouped together on the Defence Social Media Hub page. See Related Links.
And as long as the Department’s social media guidance is followed and personnel take care about their online security, the MOD is also encouraging generally of the use of social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter.
At the launch of an online security awareness campaign in June, Major General John Lorimer, the Chief of the Defence Staff’s then Strategic Communications Officer, said:
Social media has enabled our personnel to stay in touch with their families and their friends no matter where they are in the world. We want our men and women to embrace the use of sites like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube, but also want them to be aware of the risks that sharing too much information may pose. You don’t always know who else is watching in cyberspace.
The MOD Headquarters has its own Facebook, YouTube and Twitter feeds and we see no reason to stop our personnel from tweeting or posting on their own walls. But the MOD has a responsibility to warn personnel of the risks they could be exposing themselves to, hence the launch of this new campaign.
Explaining further his own reasons for blogging from the front line in Helmand, Sergeant Ford said:
This war is more than just people coming home dead and injured. It’s about how people carry on living and working in often very harsh conditions.
People at home want to know how their troops are living, what they do on a day-to-day basis. The news media often doesn’t have the time to tell the good stories - so someone has to.