At just after 7 a.m. on 19th May 2011, the Indirect Fire alarm started to sound at Camp Bastion. I heard the siren as I lay in bed, burrowing my face into my two pillows. Whenever I stayed at Bastion, I liked to make the most of its comforts – my bed also came with a duvet and a surprisingly firm, unstained mattress. Compared to life on the patrol bases, it was like staying at the Ritz.
The siren continued to wail across camp, but nobody stirred inside our air-conditioned tent. It was a drill, quite obviously. I pulled my duvet up over my head, trying to get back to the Caribbean. I’d been dreaming about an ex-girlfriend, the two of us lying on a beach in Montego Bay, such a long way from Bastion and its tedious routines.
The first explosion hit about a second later. It wasn’t that loud, but it was still loud enough to make me jump out of bed.
‘Fuck,’ I said.
Dougie had sprung out of his bed at the same time. He wasn’t the most agile of guys, so it had to be serious.
‘IDF,’ I heard him say, just in time for the second explosion, this one definitely closer.
I grabbed my pistol – for some reason – and ran from our tent to the Joint Media Operations Centre in my T-shirt and shorts. Dougie hurried in about ninety seconds later, fully dressed in his helmet and body armour – the correct response.
‘Are we safer in here?’ I asked him.
‘I guess so,’ he said. ‘We should be lying on the floor, though.’
We looked at each other for a long moment, two soldiers standing in a flimsy, prefabricated office. The drill in these circumstances was to lie face down on the floor with your hands by your sides, an ungainly position at the best of times. Our fear of discomfort and embarrassment outweighed any concerns about getting blown up, so we just stood there like idiots.
Faulkner walked in, the floor creaking beneath him. He was unfeasibly tall for an old pilot, and he looked even bigger in his helmet and body armour. I began to feel very underdressed.
‘Christian, get round, make sure everybody is up,’ he said. ‘Helmets and body armour all round.’
The all-clear siren rang out a short time later. Headquarters wasn’t yielding a great deal of information about the incident – a few lines appeared on Ops Watch at 07.40, describing ‘two blasts at Bastion’ – but that was it. We all went off for breakfast, then returned to the office for another day of emails and phone calls, our helmets and body armour still close to hand, propped up against our desks.
Details of incidents at other Helmand bases flashed up on Ops Watch throughout the day, but we didn’t realize the full scale of the offensive until Faulkner’s brief in the office that evening.
‘It’s been one of the busiest days in Helmand for a long time,’ he said, a stack of printouts on his desk. ‘Over thirty coordinated IDF attacks on bases across the province.’
He went through the details. Considering the number of incidents, the damage assessment was remarkably low.
‘A couple of insurgents were killed, and some civilians died. We just had a head injury.’
The attack on Bastion – the first of its kind since November 2009 – had seen two 107-mm rockets fired into the camp from rails found seven kilometres away. One had come down on the outskirts of camp without damaging anything, while the other had landed in a vehicle yard a short walk from our office. A US Marine had to be treated for ‘splatter’ to his back, but otherwise we were spared the casualties.
Faulkner pointed to a sketch on the whiteboard behind him. ‘We found another firing point with five rails, but all those rockets missed us.’ He’d drawn five lines going just wide of a blue squiggle that represented Camp Bastion. ‘We got lucky, to be fair. It could’ve been a lot worse.’
I sat there listening to him, trying to remember why I’d come out here in the first place. It was a long way from the comforting world of BBC local radio, warm and fuzzy with its homely procession of shallow councillors, miserable trade unionists and confused pensioners. Quiet desperation had been enough to unseat me from my news desk in Leicester, tipping me out into the middle of the Afghan desert. Like thousands of actual proper soldiers before me, staggered throughout the last decade, I had traded boredom for potential horror. In less than a week I was due out on the first big operation of the summer, highlighting the efforts of British troops in the latest round of the war. A lot of the Taliban would get killed, and some of us would get shot and blown up too.
‘If this isn’t the start of the fighting season, I don’t know what is,’ Faulkner said. ‘We can expect more attacks, more casualties and more vigils.’
It was perfect timing for our incoming celebrity guest. The soap star turned war reporter Ross Kemp was due to land at Bastion in a matter of hours, one of a gaggle of embeds touching down after midnight. They all had to be picked up from the flight line, briefed, accommodated and generally looked after. It was going to be a busy week for my colleagues in the office.
I met Ross the following morning. My team were filming and photographing his Tiger Aspect crew on their day-long induction package, recording for the military’s archives their movements around Bastion’s mock-up of an Afghan village. The mud compounds offered no respite from the heat and dust, so in between the sweaty tutorials on first aid and IED awareness, we took an early lunch in the shade of a nearby hangar. The food was standard Bastion training fare: boxes of soul-destroying sausage rolls, bags of peanuts and countless fruit-and-raisin bars.
‘This food is great,’ said Ross, to no one in particular.
‘You’ve obviously not tried the sausage rolls,’ I said.
‘I like these ones.’ He started eating a fruit-and-raisin bar. ‘They’re great, not like the food we had once in Musa Qala last time I was out here. We were tabbing all night, going for hours. They were dropping two-hundred-pound bombs all around us, guys were getting hit, two guys got broken legs. It was unbelievable.’
He continued in this manner for another two minutes, shoving food into his mouth the whole time, telling me all about the hardships he’d faced in Musa Qala. I wasn’t sure where the ‘two-hundred-pound bombs’ had come from, but he sounded genuine enough.
‘We finally got to the patrol base, just in time for breakfast, absolutely starving, and you know what they served us? One rasher of bacon and some powdered egg.’
I didn’t quite know how to respond to this anecdote. I had no war stories of my own, but clearly with Ross around, I didn’t need any. I’d watched his DVD box set before coming out here, and seen plenty of footage of him on his hands and knees in Green Zone irrigation ditches, grimacing into the camera as the bullets whizzed overhead. That was his money shot, the reporter under fire, right in the heart of the battle. It wasn’t enough for him just to interview the soldiers and tag along at the back of the patrol. He had to be seen to be in the firing line, front and centre for the ratings war.
I was different. I didn’t need to crouch down in front of the camera, delivering breathless reports on the latest fighting. My presence on film was not required. I interviewed the soldiers, and I looked after my team on the ground, but that was it. My questions would always be cut from the final edit, and if I appeared in any photographs, they would always be deleted. I was the army’s voiceless, invisible correspondent, right on the edge of the action, just outside the shot. Nobody wanted me in the picture, least of all my colleagues in the British media.
I left Ross to his fruit-and-raisin bars and returned to the office, where my new friend Mikkel was sitting at my desk, holding his disturbingly skull-like head in his hands, the very image of a tormented Dane.
‘There has been a problem with next week’s operation,’ he said.
I wondered for a second whether he meant the operation had been cancelled. We were supposed to be joining 1 Rifles and 42 Commando on a heli-insertion into Nahr-e Saraj. Mikkel’s responsibilities extended to booking our seats on one of the helicopters. He mentored our counterparts in the newly formed Afghan Combat Camera Team. They were supposed to be joining us on the operation, learning from us, watching how it was done.
‘What’s wrong?’ I said.
‘All the helicopters are full,’ he said. ‘You’ll have to go in on foot.’
‘Please tell me you’re joking, Mikkel.’
He ran a bony hand over what little remained of his hair. ‘At least you’ll get some better footage,’ he said. ‘There’ll be more action out on the ground.’
This was kind of true, but it was also bullshit. The heli-insertion would’ve provided us with some great footage. Instead, we’d be inching our way through the IED-riddled fields of Nahr-e Saraj on foot, very probably getting shot at.
‘Where are your guys going to be?’ I asked him.
‘I don’t think they’re coming.’
The change of plan meant we’d now be deploying earlier than expected, flying out to Patrol Base 5 to meet up with two companies from the Afghan National Army. They were patrolling from the base via Checkpoint Sarhad to the Nahr-e Bughra canal, a distance of some three and a half kilometres. That didn’t sound like much, but it would take at least two days. The plan was to clear the area of insurgents, making it safe for the Royal Engineers to build a bridge over the canal.
The plans changed again the next morning, and kept changing over the next two days. We were back on the heli-insertion, then we weren’t. We were back with the Afghan National Army, then we weren’t. We were driving in with the Royal Engineers on a road move, then we weren’t. Tension and uncertainty ruled the day, as it always did in the run-up to an operation. Surrounded by the comforts of Bastion, we distracted ourselves as best we could, killing time in the gym and the canteen and the coffee shop.
On the night of 23rd May, I was in my tent checking over my kit – we were back on with the Afghans, flying out to Patrol Base 5 the following morning – when the news came through that a British soldier had just been seriously injured in Nahr-e Saraj. Against my better judgement, I left my kit and went over to the office to get some more details.
It was quiet that night. Only Dougie was at his desk, going through the latest field report on Ops Watch.
‘Bad news,’ he said.
I stood behind him and read the report over his shoulder. A foot patrol out of Patrol Base 5 had struck an IED a few hundred metres from Checkpoint Sarhad. The British soldier caught in the blast had now died of his wounds. An Afghan interpreter had also been hurt – he’d been flown to Bastion with a shrapnel wound to his neck.
‘Sarhad?’ Dougie said. ‘That’s where you’re going, isn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I better get back to my kit.’
I left the office and went back to my tent, trying to think about my kit, trying not to think about the soldier’s family back in the UK, right now being told about his death, the chaplain and the officer standing on the doorstep, heads bowed. It was the worst way to prepare for an operation, running this kind of stuff through your head, but I’d always had a stupid, flighty imagination, and I couldn’t help myself. Inevitably I would start to think about my own family, my parents and my brother and my sister, all of them sitting around the dinner table at home, all of them hearing the knock at the door.
I really did not want to go on this operation. If I could’ve seen out the rest of my tour at Bastion, that would’ve suited me just fine. Yes, I’d volunteered for the Combat Camera Team, but that didn’t mean I wanted to get myself killed. Like most of my career decisions to date, I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew it wasn’t a grisly demise in this shithole.
I’d read enough field reports on Ops Watch to know everything I needed to know about the vast unpleasantness of combat. It was all anybody needed to know. You didn’t need Ross Kemp to guide you through the horror, and you certainly didn’t need the army’s own-brand footage.
You just needed to read the field reports.
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