â€œOne Hundred and twenty…one twenty one…one twenty two…one twenty three…two more and that’s 100m, another 9 of those and that’s three km done…Gotta keep counting, take my mind off these bloody clumps of grass. Where’s his cat’s eyes gone?
That’s not the patrol line, that’s a tree. Damn. A bloody gorse bush. Why are we going through here? I can’t see anything. That moon should make things easier, but with it right in front of us, it’s ruining my night vision. Bugger, how many steps did I miss by not concentrating…?â€ I was counting steps. 125 steps â€“ for me â€“ is roughly 100m. So by counting steps it’s possible to get a gauge of how far you go. This is even more important at night.
And we were out at night, leaving the safety of the FOB at 3:30am. Walking â€“ patrolling â€“ across Salisbury Plain. Not taking tracks; that is far too dangerous. The insurgents lay IED’s on the paths and tracks you see, so if you go across country you avoid the IEDs. But then you have to walk over the hideous clumps of grass that grow on the wild country of the Plain. And over, or more rightly, through the grikes and divots caused by the torrents of rain water that flow.
Over, around, through the low level gorse bushes that you can’t see, because they are just too low and then they trip you up, or tear at your trousers. Or else you simply walk into the back of the guy in front, because he’s paused for a second to adjust the rucksack full of radio, batteries or any of the other gear you have to take out on patrol.
And until I was actually doing it, I had never thought about it. I mean I know the infantry yomped and tabbed and whatever across the training areas, and conflict zones of the world, but I didn’t know just how hard it would be to do it at night. Tactically, so head-torches were not allowed, and the batteries on the Helmet Mounted Night Vision Goggles don’t last forever, so they need to be conserved. And anyway, watching the world through a monocle attached to the combat helmet isn’t comfortable, and is slightly confusing, and does nothing forÂ actually giving you any night vision.
I say it was hard; it was, but not particularly physically.
You can’t go at a blistering pace, for all the reasons listed above, it’s just to dangerous and you’d spend more time on your arse than on your feet. No, it was mentally hard. You try and keep up with the Nav, and try to keep an idea of where you are, but that gets difficult when you are just trying to follow the person in front. Well, it was for me. Like everything else I saw and did this past nine days, it left me with a huge admiration for the infantryman. The basic soldier. The Squaddie.
And these that I was working with were Gurkhas. Tough. Hardened by their mountainous homeland of Nepal. Made harder by their training just to become selected to train as a Gurkha. Made even harder by their training to become one of the most feared soldiers in theÂ world. And I was struck by their good humour. Their ability to just get on with it. The fact that one of the ‘Multiples’ had been out for 42 hours over the exercise, came back into the FOB, had a hot meal (a delicious curry, obviously) and then went back out forÂ another emergency patrol to deter the enemy from taking up a fire position over the camp. I saw one, who must only have been 20-21, short and stocky, walking up the hill to the tented area that they called home, with a bergan rucksack that must have been over 40kgs in weight. It was massive. And he just trudged on.
And they just welcomed me into their teams. I went out on Patrols with the various ‘Multiples’ and they made conversation with me; eager to learn about me. Why was an RAF man there? What would I be doing out in Afghan? Would I be going with them? Did I like the food that they made? And I explained that I was part of the Military Stabilisation Support Teams. I would be there to help the Afghans rebuild their own country. I’d be helping the most hardest hit people in the world try and improve their own communities by identifying and facilitating development projects. I’d love to go to the same place as them, but that was out of my hands, and of course, the food was amazing. It was. Simply amazing. Ok the bones took a bit of getting used too, but once you figured out how to deal with them, it took no enjoyment away from the taste of the curries they produced…and I have NO idea how they got the meat, or the rest of the ingredients for the meals the three cooks produced in a ‘kitchen’ that was actually a small room in a barn.
But it made life more liveable. Made it more comfortable to know that when that patrol would be over that I would be going back to hot (in more ways that one!) freshly made food. Little bits of morale like that are all part of getting through the stress and pain of that exercises like this bring. And then… Then there’s the realisation that although I’ll be going out with them onÂ patrols in Afghan, I’ll only be going to the safer areas. Still hot. Still kinetic, far to dangerous for the civilian Provincial Reconstruction Team, but still a lot safer than where they will beÂ going.
They will be doing ‘Strike’ ops. They will be doing ‘Clear’ ops. They will be doing ‘Arrest’ ops. And they will be the ones with metal detectors out there clearing the ways for patrols. And providing security for my meetings and Shuras with the locals. And some of them might not come home. It was a nasty, horrible, sobering thought. And one that I didn’t want to spend time thinking about. But that with everything that I have talked about added onÂ top it only made me think of one thing.
The poor bloody infantry.