Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Helmand Christmas: turkey, Santa hats and staying focused

Grenadier Guards Captain Patrick Hennessey’s best-selling book The Junior Officers’ Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars was an account of six months in Helmand. Yesterday, he was back with his old regiment to describe a strange Christmas far from home

By Patrick Hennessey for the Times

As a holiday treat at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shawqat, breakfast is served half an hour late and those not on duty can have a lie-in. The perhaps unintended result is that the first thing I hear when I wake is the muezzin calling from the neighbouring Afghan National Army camp. I’m not the only one woken by the lingering call and there’s suddenly some rival singing from the next-door tent as a Guardsman greets the morning by impersonating Slade — “It’s Christmas!”

For the past few weeks the Chinooks supplying the FOBs have been working even harder than usual, groaning with the extra weight of parcels and presents crammed among the food and ammunition that sustains troops across Helmand. The generosity of the British public has been great for morale, although if the number of sweets and chocolates sent out is anything to go by, perhaps not so great for the teeth of the men and women who find themselves so far from home this Christmas.

In Shawqat itself, Lieutenant Colonel Roly Walker, Commanding Officer 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, wishes all a merry Christmas at evening conference before reminding us that it is business as usual. At key times in the Muslim calendar, notably Ramadan and Eid, it is International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) policy to minimise patrolling so that festivals can be observed. The Taleban extend no such courtesy, and there are four or five shootings on Christmas Eve, although I’m later laconically informed by the adjutant, Captain James Fox, that this is significantly quieter than usual.

The day before I arrived, an improvised explosive device killed four civilians and injured nine others going to the increasingly busy market next door. Whether the attack was intended for security forces, or just a graphic and horrifying expression of Taleban frustration at the success the market represents, is moot. With such a potent threat on the doorstep, it is little surprise that the force at Shawqat remains focused whatever the day.

Still, Christmas manifests itself in small ways — cards tucked into the reinforced walls of the Ops Room, a small tree near the memorial to the 28 Isaf soldiers who have died since the Welsh Guards battlegroup moved into the area in April and, yesterday itself, a flurry of Santa hats.

Another Isaf policy during Ramadan and Eid is to issue troops with guidance cards for dealing with their Afghan counterparts — important for those working during Ramadan when the fast is observed even as fighting continues. As the Afghans peer at a platoon from Arnhem Company, 2nd Battalion, Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, carrying out pre-patrol vehicle checks in those Santa hats I wonder if anyone has given them cards for dealing with the British at Christmas.

The local governor and police chief join us for the tradition in which the officers and senior ranks serve the junior soldiers their Christmas lunch. A surprise gift of a live turkey is dealt with by the Gurkhas, and the chefs serve a full traditional menu. Too full, perhaps, as Brussels sprouts, the perfect missiles, begin to fly.

Outside afterwards three cheers are offered for the chefs. The hats and novelty antlers are as incongruous against the dusty yellow walls of an old fort as the sunshine of a Christmas Day spent in a desert on the edge of nowhere. It would have been the perfect moment for a post-Christmas dinner nap but weapons and vehicles have to be readied and the commanding officer sets off to one of the outer bases.

At the evening briefing, it has been another very quiet day — just two shootings. Someone wonders if the Taleban are learning the Christmas spirit but this brings only wry smiles. Intelligence suggests that they were using the lull to prepare fresh attacks.

Grenadier Guards Captain Patrick Hennessey is the author of the best-selling The Junior Officers’ Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars, an account of six months spent with his regiment in Helmand

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