Flight Lieutenant Dave Collins is a communications electronics specialist and since joining the RAF several years ago has mostly been based in Cyprus, working with the Joint Service Signals Unit.
However, last year, the 28-year-old from Bolton decided he wanted to do something a bit different. Having always had an interest in languages, he applied to the Defence Operational Languages Support Unit to do an operational language course and shortly afterwards started a 15-month Pashto course at the Defence School of Languages in Beaconsfield.
Halfway through the course, Flight Lieutenant Collins was told that, upon completion, he would be deploying to Afghanistan to work as an interpreter for the MSSG on Operation HERRICK 14.
This meant that, during the final stages of his language course, Flight Lieutenant Collins also had to take part in intensive pre-deployment training with other elements of 3 Commando Brigade ahead of the start of their tour in April this year.
Flight Lieutenant Collins was assigned to the Military Stabilisation Support Team in the Nad ‘Ali (South) district of Helmand province, attached to 45 Commando Royal Marines.
Almost immediately, he was given a challenging but important job when he was asked to deploy to an area in the Bolan Dashte (desert), which had a history of insurgent activity and very little ISAF or more importantly Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) influence:
The job was daunting,” he said. “Our mission was to try and convince a skeptical farming community, who were scraping a living from an unforgiving desert as they had for decades, that GIRoA, of which they had seen little or no evidence, and not the insurgents, was capable of offering them a better future for them and for Afghanistan.
And we had to do that knowing the enemy was potentially round the next corner.
Flight Lieutenant Collins’ language skills have helped to make the work of troops operating in the area easier:
I have found that my ability to speak Pashto has been a huge advantage as I can directly engage with the people, whether this takes the form of talking to farmers whilst out on patrol, a shura with local elders and waqils [elected leaders from amongst the elders who represent a region at district council level] or partnering with members of the Afghan National Security Forces.
His ability has meant that commanders are able to converse more easily with their Afghan counterparts and problems and issues are dealt with more quickly and satisfactorily.
By communicating with elders and elected representatives, the message about what the GIRoA can offer is being passed down to locals who are beginning to see the benefits.
A lot of the work Flight Lieutenant Collins does involves translating for locals who are seeking compensation for damaged crops or local elders who want to know which department of the GIRoA they need to speak to for help resolving issues.
Flight Lieutenant Collins says being in Afghanistan and speaking the language has helped him to improve markedly, compared to when he finished the course:
Although I initially found the Helmandi dialect somewhat tricky, I am now even picking up local idioms and phrases that are unique to this part of Afghanistan,” he said.
The locals, whether they be farmers, elders or security forces, have all been quite surprised that a British officer can speak their language, but they have all been extremely grateful that we are taking the time to train people to speak Pashto.