Post Afghanistan

May 29, 2011

THE affection of the UK to its armed forces was clearly presented to me this week in the form of 400 bags of post at an outpost near Gereshk.
We visited the MOB Price camp for three days for a veterinary project involving the Afghans and Danish and British battle groups.
On entering the camp you couldn’t help but notice the vast array of grey Royal Mail bags full to the brim with parcels and letters.
We chatted to the postman and he told us this amount of mail was “not unusual” week to week.
I couldn’t help but question that if they get this much mail in the summer, how on earth does the postal system survive at Christmas?
It’s a fine balancing act and a difficult problem to get round.

On one hand the parcel of sweets and accompanying hand-written note from Mrs Miggins of Devon, addressed to ‘A Soldier’, is a lovely gesture.
But if Mrs Miggins’ parcel and hundreds of others sent by the goodwill army of the UK clog up the system, it means that letters and parcels addressed to certain servicemen and women from their family and friends will be massively delayed.
Any serviceman or woman out here will tell you that it’s lovely to receive a parcel or letter from anyone. It makes them feel appreciated, wanted and special.
But if they have the choice of that, or post from their family, I know which one they’ll choose.
The post is flown over to Afghanistan by plane and then taken by helicopter to the outposts whose servicemen then organise it being delivered around the areas.
In itself it is a huge effort. And when you have say, 400 bags of post, it’s a colossal one at that.
Fortunately Stevie, the dedicated postie at Price, has a couple of volunteers who help him with the mountains of deliveries.
But how do you solve the problem? The generosity and goodwill of the nation is sadly a problem.
Last year alone 3,723 tonnes of mail was sent via the BFPO system.
I’m sure even Postman Pat would throw a fit at the thought of delivering that.
So there are now a series of websites, which have been set up to help balance the issue.
If you’re looking to send out post to a serviceman or woman, try visiting: for information and advice.
There are also countless charities – many of which can be found online – who can assist.
Aside from the postal service the last 10 days or so have been busy for us here at BFBS at Camp Bastion.
We’ve had several injuries and tragically more deaths of British servicemen in the last couple of weeks, but the mood is still very much of focus and determination.
Everyone takes a risk just by being here among this madness, however the level of commitment has never been more channelled as it is today.

Twitter: @tristan_nichols

Op Minimise

May 15, 2011 

“OP Minimise" has just been called,” our Warthog commander informed us as we approached our home from home for the next four days in Nahr-e Saraj.

“Not sure what it’s all about, but obviously something quite serious has happened.”

Now for those that don’t know, ‘Op Minimise’ is called when there has been a serious injury or death in-theatre.

It basically results in the blackout of communications across the entire country so information about the incident does not leak out before family members are told.

Hearing the announcement is something, which the servicemen and women dread, because it ultimately means something tragic has happened.

Within minutes of arriving at the Forward Operating Base Khar Nikah, in the upper Gereshk Valley, we find out that a grenade attack on a patrol just a few kilometres from us is the reason Op Minimise has been called.

If we weren’t feeling anxious about the forthcoming ‘insurgent disruption’ operation with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and 3 Mercian, we are now.

No sooner do we arrive we’re informed of how the next few days will unfold.

Day one of the three-day operation (Operation Tufan Alutaka) in the desert is designed to provide a ‘show of force’ and revolves around destroying a Taliban bridge near Zumbelay, which insurgents use to transport weapons to target British forces.

Day two will see the SCOTS DG (in their Warthog vehicles) provide security in the form of Vehicle Check Points in the desert to allow a shura to take place back at FOB Khar Nikah.

And day three sees us go into the “hornet's nest” as one officer puts it, targeting an area known as a Taliban hotspot which, bizarrely, is just 500 metres from the FOB.

So with three days of dangerous events in mind, sleep is impossible – even more so in fact because there is no room on camp for us so we are assigned the plywood and corrugated iron ‘Taliban detention centre’ as our bedroom.

And then we’re told the operation begins at 3am and we need to be up and at ‘em by 2.15am.
 Within what seems like minutes we are standing by for the off and awaiting instructions by the Warthogs.

Despite the fact it is the dead of night, the clear sky with bright moon and shooting stars, provides ample light as we prepare for the unknown.
 Crammed into the back of the Warthog we set off.
We soon realise we could be anywhere given that we have no window to look out of.

There is some comfort in the fact that this is a surprise offensive from the British forces and no one should be expecting our presence.

Some of the lads disembark from the Warthog and radio their positions and views in.

Reports suggest a man is preparing to lay an IED along a route.

Why else would someone be up at this hour carrying a backpack I ponder?

Despite the risk, the threat comes to nothing.

Time seems to fly by and by 4am, peering out of the slightly ajar back door, there is enough light to work out our surroundings.

By sunrise the local Afghan farmers are already harvesting the poppy in their vast fields.

Farmers at work at sunrise in their poppy fields

A field of poppies

They look at us with some confusion, but it still doesn’t deter them from their job.

Several more hours pass and the heat of the sun, even at 8am is quite remarkable.

By 8.15am the charges have been laid on the bridge and the lads are ready to detonate the 36kgs of high explosive.

If the insurgents weren’t aware of our presence they soon would be.

A recorded message in Pashtu is played out across the desert plains on a loud speaker warning of the imminent explosion, and then the detonation takes place, blasting tonnes of sand into the air.

Bridge over troubled waters

No more bridge over troubled waters

The detonation signals a successful mission and, despite concerns over an immediate response from the insurgents, nothing occurs.

We return to the FOB safe in the knowledge we are unscathed.

Later in the day, tired and weary due to the searing heat and lack of sleep, we are sitting chatting with the lads when a warning of an “imminent insurgent attack” circulates the camp.

The warning is of mortar barrels and rockets being brought up to our location to target the camp and the patrol bases around us.

We’re told it is the first ‘dress state red’ (meaning everyone dons full body armour when they are outside buildings – which are few and far between on camp) ordered in months.

Again, sleep will not be easy tonight.
We awake the next morning relieved no attack took place in the night.

The guys were fully expecting a retaliation attack after they blew up the bridge.

Day two of the operation is already well under by 7am and we are in position close to where the bridge once stretched over the Nes canal.

The Warthog Group, which we are accompanying, is carrying out a Vehicle Check Point, which is ultimately providing security for a major shura, which is taking place back at camp with ‘key’ Afghan elders.


A Gereshk petrol station

Keeping an eye out for trouble

The vast majority of those stopped and searched are pleasant and understand the procedure.
 Some ask why the bridge was destroyed, but on explanation, they seem to understand.

Especially as the insurgents will now reportedly have to walk 15 kilometres to gain the same access.

The soldiers greet everyone from motorcyclists, car and van drivers and farmers on tractors.

Some of the scenes make the Wacky Races cartoon seem like real life.
 One van rocks up with no less than 12 people onboard – both inside and on the roof.

Afghan public transport

However atmospherics at the VCP quickly change when one of the interpreters informs the soldiers that a motorcyclist – who was just stopped and searched – told him he had been shot at by the occupants of a white Toyota Corolla the previous day.

Everyone is fairly twitchy. But when the Afghan driver gets out of the car, full of smiles and with his hands in the air, the heightened tensions lift.

By 10.30am further reports suggest we are, in fact, being watched by insurgents who are preparing an attack.
Any relaxed mood disappears and we are shepherded into the back of the Warthog again for safety.

Soon enough though we are on our way back to base – and our detention centre – having successfully completed day two of the op.

Our Warthog vehicle

As far as we are aware day three is relatively peaceful, stable and secure compared to the previous days.
 We spend much of the day in the back of the Warthog for safety.

From the inside looking out
What we are later told is that we were in affect “kicking the hornet’s nest” by placing ourselves in the middle of a suspected Taliban area – bizarrely just 500 metres from our base.
 In retrospect I think some things are just better left unsaid.

With that – the final day – of the operation complete, we make our way back to Camp Bastion safe in the knowledge we understand more about life on the ground and indeed the risks our brave lads (and lasses) take.

I know that elements of this blog may upset and concern people (namely my mum) but I’d rather accurately record the facts so as to paint a real picture of what the guys do here.

They’re the real heroes who are out in the middle of nowhere who rarely get the headlines others get.

Twitter: @tristan_nichols

Highs and lows

May 17, 2011

FIRST things first I must apologise for the lack of updates in the past 10 days or so.
As you may well appreciate atmospherics change in an instant out here and we are either called away to cover something outside, or we’re tasked with something else.
The past 10 days have been busy to say the least, with plenty of highs - and sadly lows.
The low point has of course been the announcement of the death of Marine Nigel Mead of Plymouth’s 42 Commando RMs.
The 19-year-old’s death struck a chord in me as, after deploying on operations with 42 Commando on Herrick 9, the unit made me an ‘honorary Royal Marine’.
In the grand scale of things it may not mean much to most people, but for me it was a pat on the back and a sign of acceptance and trust.
So when news broke of the death of Mne Mead it hit home, quite literally.
I’m a born and bred Plymothian and I know how proud Plymouth is of its Royal Marines.
I maybe out here, where the focus is very much on ‘getting the job done first before grieving’, but I know there will be a great many marines who are truly hurting inside.
That was all too evident reading the full eulogy for Mne Mead.
As I scrolled down I counted no fewer than 21 tributes from his Commanding Officer and members of Lima Company alone.
His death – the first for 42 Commando during this Herrick 14 deployment – obviously hit home to the lads too.
We spent the best part of a week with the unit two weeks ago.
Throughout the foot patrols – and the time spent at the patrol bases with the lads – the recurring theme of conversation was that of the threat of Improvised Explosive Devices.

As I wrote in a piece for The Herald in Plymouth, tragically the lads were expecting something like this to happen.
Sadly it was only a matter of time.
Closer to home the city is grieving too. The Vicar of Bickleigh’s church has paid tribute and countless comments have already been posted on The Herald’s website.
It’s a world away from here but it seems we’re all united in grief.
The full extent of that grief will be perfectly evident when 42 Commando returns home in the autumn.
For now though the work continues.

So once again, I apologise for the lack of updates on here.
Last week we were out and about for five days in the Nahr-e Saraj region of the upper Gereshk valley with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (Warthog Group) and 3rd Battalion the Mercian Regiment.
Rather than blobbing the three-day operation on the end of this blog, I’ll write a more colourful account, which will follow this entry.
Hope you’re all okay.

Twitter: @tristan_nichols