Monday, June 1, 2009
Civilians are increasingly being deployed to serve alongside regular soldiers in Afghanistan. But why do ordinary Britons - firefighters, doormen, civil servants - choose to go to war? Here, reservists based in Helmand province talk openly about the gruelling emotional and physical challenges faced by 'civvies' in a combat zone
It was in the dusty town of Gereshk, in southern Afghanistan, that Mark felt the impact of a suicide bomb. He was standing inside an armoured vehicle, the top part of his body exposed and his weapon poised, when a man on a motorcycle sped towards him and detonated an explosive device.
"The force of the blast threw me into the back of the vehicle," said Mark, sitting in the corner of a bustling army canteen at Kandahar air base a few weeks later. "It stunned me. My ears were ringing, I could see blood coming from my hands and face and hear screams and shouts. Nothing can prepare you for the force."
His first thoughts, when he opened his eyes, were for his 20-month-old son back in Belfast; then he remembered the other soldiers.
"I got out the back and noticed two colleagues - Gurkhas. It was hazy, but I think they were helping civilians and asked me to help. Then I remembered that Sergeant Ben Ross and Corporal Kumar Pun had been standing at the front of the vehicle," said Mark, 38.
That was the moment that he realised the magnitude of the explosion. "I discovered them dead. It was indescribable. Truly horrific," he said, staring straight ahead, his eyes glazing over.
"It is still with me when I wake up in the morning, all the way through the day, and long into the night."
Early last year the thought that Mark might have been on patrol in the heart of Helmand province, exposed to suicide bombs and rocket attacks, seemed unthinkable. He was a doorman in Belfast who had joined the Territorial Army and a month after "passing out" was asked to deploy to Afghanistan. He arrived in December and by May was helping to mentor the Afghan police.
Mark, who has asked for his surname not to be published in case of reprisals in Northern Ireland, is not alone. He is a typical example of the changing face of Britain's reserve forces. Once they stood ready to fight in the event of a major attack on Britain: men and women prepared to leave their civilian lives only if the cold war turned ugly. These days reservists make up about 8% of all forces deployed in theatre. Hundreds are in Afghanistan: out on the front line, providing force protection, and working as doctors, nurses, technicians, engineers, drivers, chefs, military police and more.
Now the government has recognised that shift by publishing plans for a comprehensive shake-up of the reserve forces' role. It outlines a future in which reservists will be more integrated with regulars, better trained and ready to be deployed at speed. According to Bob Ainsworth, armed forces minister, the notion of a "weekend warrior" is over.
"Because of the last period in Iraq and Afghanistan, we recognised the need to review the role and future structure of the reserve forces. That is why we commissioned a strategic review," said Group Captain Mike Oldham, who develops Ministry of Defence policy in this area. "During the cold war it was envisaged that the reserve forces would be mobilised in the case of a large-scale war. Today they will sign up with an expectation to mobilise and to take part in current and future operations."
Such a change inevitably affects employers - and for months at a time. But Oldham argued that deployment should be seen in a positive light. "Employers gain an individual who has demonstrated commitment and a sense of duty and who has often experienced new levels of responsibility. The reservist develops leadership skills, authority and confidence that will have a very positive impact in their civilian workplace."
For Mark, life as a doorman is a distant memory. "I knew there would be [enemy] contact, but I didn't think it would be a suicide bomber," he said, lifting a hot drink to his lips. "It was so close. The fact that I am breathing, that I am still alive, it means I can appreciate life a little more." Mark's partner was "overwhelmed" when he told her what had happened. "She feels guilty because she feels relief even though two men died. It was truly horrific," he said quietly, his voice disappearing beneath the familiar sounds of dinner: knives and forks clinking and trays being put down.
It is too early to know for sure, but Mark feels that he is coping psychologically, or at least "functioning OK". What he cannot say yet is whether he will remain in the TA: "I have a baby boy - and this brought home to me how easily something could go wrong."
From Kandahar, regulars and reservists line up to climb aboard the dark, hollow shells of the Hercules aircraft. Decked in body armour with earplugs pressed in, they sit in rows, their legs banging together. From here, the planes travel west before dropping steeply towards Camp Bastion, Britain's main military base in Afghanistan.
Work seems to go on 24 hours a day. Late at night sounds collide: the roar of the Hercules, the hum of a lorry, a buzzing generator, the bleep of a truck reversing. In the morning, flags flying at half-mast in tribute to a recent loss are visible through a cloud of dust. The oppressive heat bears down on hundreds of soldiers gathered for parade. For some the task - to stand in perfect stillness - is too much and their legs buckle in the heat as they fall to the ground. Medics place bottles of water in their hands and lead them out of the burning heat that will only get worse as May rolls into June.
On the dusty plains it is not possible to tell who are the reservists, but they are everywhere. There are teachers, civil servants, firefighters, security guards and nurses: all civilians on the battlefield. One man involved in the security of the Olympics site in London is charged in Helmand with protecting Camp Bastion. His forces disappear into the desert for days at a time to deter would-be suicide bombers, search for mines, reach out to the local population and protect their colleagues inside the base.
Back on "civvy street", another is a football coach working with disabled athletes at Wigan Athletic, another has been training as a physics teacher. At Bastion, even the padre - the Rev Philip Francis, whose voice booms out over the camp during services, is a reservist deployed from Warwickshire for four months.
And then there are the medics. Pushing through the doors of Camp Bastion field hospital, the heat and dust disappear behind a cool blast of air conditioning. The shiny, clean corridors and state-of-the-art equipment inside could belong to a hospital anywhere in the developed world.
Many of the doctors and nurses based here are TA members from the Midlands. Their commanding officer is Lieutenant-Colonel Duncan Phimister from the George Eliot hospital in Nuneaton, Warwickshire.
"A typical day in the Midlands: you may get the odd shooting or stabbing, a road traffic accident; there may be the occasional major incident, perhaps a pile-up, but it is rare," said Phimister. "There is no typical day here. The activity fluctuates wildly. Some days you can have 20 casualties, some days four or five. It could be minor - a heat-related illness - or it could be the fallout of a suicide bomb. The other week we had three [suicide bombers] in one day. To get people with their limbs blown off - double amputees - you don't see that back home. But that is what it is like here, there is severe trauma."
Phimister says that the bulk of casualties he treats are Afghan nationals, among them enemy fighters. When it comes to intensive trauma training, a few months in Bastion are equivalent to years in the NHS, he says. "Last week was extremely bad. We lost six soldiers, four in one day." As Phimister speaks, a bleeper goes off. Then there is another, and another. "We have to go," cuts in a nurse. "Get the ED [emergency department] ready." The patient is already in the air, and on his way to the hospital - an Estonian soldier with gunshot wounds to his abdomen and leg.
As the workers rush off, those left in the ward tend to the patients already there. From time to time they knock on the wall to rouse an interpreter who helps them communicate with the locals. Among them is Major Kathryn Rickers, a 45-year-old with dark hair, warm eyes and a kind smile. Her friends back home in Shrewsbury think she is mad to remain a part of the TA. She has already been deployed to Iraq.
"They think I am too old and I should do something else with my life," she said, laughing. "But to experience something like this puts the rest of your life into perspective. You have to deprive yourself of things to appreciate what you have back home. And it has sent me to places I would never have gone otherwise. I have learnt so much professionally. I have seen a lot of trauma I would never have witnessed in a civvy job."
Asked to describe how life in Bastion compares to life back home, she said: "There is nothing about being here that reminds me of home." Pointing at the dull, dusty ground, beige tents and camouflage uniforms passing by, she smiled and said: "For one thing there is no colour. If a civilian is around and they are wearing a red T-shirt you think, 'look at that'."
Not all the reservists scattered across Afghanistan have found their roles as fulfilling as they hoped. Some say that they were led to believe they would have a more active involvement.
Lance Corporal Nicola Quinn, 22, has taken a year out from her studies at the University of Central Lancashire to undertake a deployment with the Royal Military Police, while Lance Corporal Leroy Eghan, 29, has left behind his civil service job. Both say they were told that they would be involved in mentoring members of the Afghan national police, but instead have been asked to carry out general policing duties at the base in Kandahar. "I thought I was being mobilised to train police. I am stuck here, so I am a bit disappointed," said Eghan, a union activist who had been working part-time in recent years so that he can look after his young daughter. "But if they need people here I accept that."
"I was told I could go out on the ground," said Quinn, arguing that the reserves are sometimes expected to do the "roles left over" once the regular soldiers have been placed. "You are constantly trying to fight to prove yourself - to prove that you are not some student off the street."
Others talk of the banter. "Weekend warriors, part-timers, Swats," said Lance Corporal Don-Karl Hall, laughing as he sits in a rest area, where wooden benches are arranged around circular tables under a makeshift canopy. "That is Some Weekends And Tuesdays."
He is talking to other reservists who are in Kandahar doing force protection. They are sitting in a row wearing body armour despite the sweltering heat. "They calls us Stabs - Stupid TA Bastards - but we have names for them, too," said Captain John King, 51, from Warrington in Cheshire.
But for all the jokes, they do feel much more part of the team than they were before. Others agree. "I have got thousands of soldiers and I don't care if they are reservists or not," said Colonel Rob Peacock, commander of Camp Bastion. "I think the thing that killed off the myth - that they are not as good as regulars - was the Gulf, many years ago. Now we have reservists scattered everywhere - infantry, force protection, hospitals -and several have done two or three tours. There was once a bit of a 'weekend warrior' reputation, but that is gone."
Certainly for Mark, whose partner and baby boy are waiting for him to return home to Belfast, the experience of serving in Afghanistan has been just as real as it has been for any regular soldier.
Britain's reserve forces• Britain's reserve forces comprise 34,000 Territorial Army and 32,000 regularreserve members. Both provide support to the regular army at home and overseas.
• The TA was formed in 1908 following legislation which saw the consolidation of the yeomanry and volunteers into the Territorial Force. Its original purpose was home defence.
• Some 6,900 TA personnel were mobilised for Operation Telic, the invasion of Iraq, and continue to provide around 1,200 troops each year in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans.
• The regular reserve comprises former regular army members liable to be recalled in times of need.
• Around 420 regular reservists were called-up for service in Iraq in 2003, and around 90 are thought to be serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans.