19 APR Mukhtar

"Self portraits are a way of revealing something about oneself."- Eric Kandel

In 2007 I was a captain in the Royal Artillery posted to Germany having completed a deployment to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, as a military interpreter after a year at language school learning Farsi. I was sent to C Battery, a Close Support sub unit of 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery (3RHA), located in Hohne. I was trained as a Fire Support Team (FST) Commander and spent the majority of the year away from barracks undergoing training and honing the skills involved; so much so that for the calendar year of 2007 I spent less than a month in barracks. Due to leave the Army in December of that year I was asked to extend my commission to deploy to Afghanistan in the summer of 2008. I agreed on the proviso I could deploy with my team with whom I had been training. By now I had served for six years and already completed three operational tours but had never fired my rifle or encountered any trouble; my hope with this final tour was to get off the subs bench and play an active role in what I considered to be a good cause.

Having signed on the dotted line, the promise made to me was reneged and my role and team handed to more junior officer to further his career. I would instead deploy on Op HERRICK VIII, in the summer of 2008, to Helmand Province, as part of the Close Support Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team (OMLT) to assist the Afghan National Army (ANA). I was attached to the Royal Irish Regiment (R IRISH) who were the OMLT lead supporting 16 Air Assault Brigade of Parachute Regiment fame.

During this operational tour of duty I decided to take a daily selfie to capture my fourth and final deployment in the British Army. I wanted to document the variety of roles, locations and, above all, emotions that I knew would be experienced whilst on operations.

I'm so excited

Goodbye Germany,Hello Afghanistan

I left my barracks in Hohne, Germany, in the snow at 4am in the morning, first travelling to South Cerney in the UK, before flying onwards to Afghanistan and Camp BASTION in Helmand province. All new arrivals to the theatre of operations had to complete the mandatory Reception, Staging and Onward Integration (RSOI) package including rifle zeroing on the ranges behind the camp and I was no exception. Having expected to stay in BASTION I was surprised to have to relocate; the ANA and OMLT had their own base outside the BASTION perimeter in an adjacent location called Camp SHORABAK, also known as Camp TOMBSTONE by the Americans who had a presence there.

18 MAR Hohne, Germany
19 MAR South Cerney, UK
20 MAR Camp BASTION
22 MAR Camp BASTION ranges

With experience of travel and accommodation logistics, from my 2006 deployment, I was tasked to arrange and accompany an ANA major from Camp SHORABAK to his home town of Kabul. Flying via Kandahar Airfield (KAF) he stepped off the plane in Kabul, gave me a wave, and disappeared into the night. I stayed overnight at Kabul International Airport (KAIA) before finding my way back to Helmand via the joint Italian/ Spanish Camp ARENA located in Herat. I was  familiar with both locations; I had spent several months working with Italian forces and had been based in Camp ARENA and I had spent the my birthday at KAIA waiting to leave Afghanistan at the end of my previous tour.

Roam

Getting the air miles in

24 MAR C-130 to Kandahar
25 MAR KAIA
26 MAR Herat Camp ARENA
What a feeling

Prior preparation... no, not today thanks

My next task was to command a vehicle convoy from Camp SHORABAK to the town of Gereshk. Travel by road during the day was deemed high risk, so the journey was to be undertaken at night with headlights off using Night Vision Goggles (NVGs). The move was the first time both anyone in the unit had driven the route and that we had used NVGs. Unaccustomed to NVGs my driver had trouble gauging speed and we hit a pot hole, going to fast for comfort, 1km from SHORABAK on the way to the main road, irreparably damaging the axle. This selfie was taken in the back of the pick up vehicle which took two hours to recover us; needless to say we did not make it to Gereshk.

01 APR Camp SHORABAK
03 APR Range day
Big guns

D- 30 artillery range day

This was the only time in our tour the ANA fired their D- 30 howitzers; just days later we all rerolled from artillery personnel to boots on the ground as extra infantiers. Note the Mr T “I pity the fool!” patch; I had picked it, and others, up on my recent travels and was to wear them throughout the tour. Other elements of individualism included my Hooters baseball cap which I had bought at the Mall of America branch, Minnesota, USA where I had stopped for a night on the way to a ten day training exercise in Arizona prior to deploying to Afghanistan. Though I had been allocated to OMLT, I had also competed artillery training so in case of emergency I was recently competent and legally authorised to call in fire from the artillery and other means such as mortars, rockets, fast jets and helicopters.

04 APR Camp SHORABAK Ops Room
05 APR Camp SHORABAK
Here I go again on my own

I find the fastest way to travel is by Black Hawk

I was sent, solo, to Main Operating Base (MOB) LASHKAR GAH, based in the north of the provincial capital to mentor an ANA unit in the city.

My first night in Lashkar Gah I accompanied the captain I was replacing, as he said goodbye to the soldiers he had mentored, for a meal at the ANA base located elsewhere n the city. While it was a pleasant evening, the return to our MOB was not without incident. Having not officially signed out of or notified anyone of our plans we found the MOB gates locked and resorted to throwing stones at the CC TV to gain attention for access back in. The commander in charge of security for the MOB reported us up the chain of command and I was almost thrown out of Afghanistan. In the end, the outgoing unit decided I was not their responsibility and they had the more pressing matter of leaving Afghanistan themselves and I was allowed to stay. Having had promises made to me broken, the idea of being sent home for promoting Afghan- British relations, over a kebab, rather amused me

It's my life

Joint patrols

Six people strong was the minimum British Army size squad allowed to deploy outside of a base. As an OMLT of one person I was, essentially, incapable of doing anything without help or support from other British units. I was reliant on organising joint ANA/ British Army patrols or transport to leave the confines of the MOB and see or work with my Afghan soldiers.

Love is the drug

Opium and body armour

The OMLT position in Lashkar Gah included responsibility of an ISO shipping container in which £2.3million of opium (wet and dry bricks) and refined heroin was stored while the MOB incinerator was being fixed. My back of the fag packet calculations returned an estimate that were I seek the new profession of an international drugs dealer I would require closer to £20million to make the career jump worthwhile. However I had more immediate concern than planning my post military career; the storing of my body armour near the drugs meant the armour started to smell of opium and I suffered from headaches every time I wore it and even soldiers I was serving with started to comment on the ghastly fishy smell (shortly after the drugs were destroyed I replaced the body armour with a new set).

The boys of summer

Battlefield tourism

The view from the top of Qala- e- Bost, a fortress built over 3,000 years ago into a hill located near the convergence of the Helmand and Arghandab rivers. This was one of the few battlefield tourism locations I managed to visit during my two deployments in Afghanistan; the other being the Bagh-e Babur, in 2006, a historic park in Kabul where the tomb of the first Mughal emperor Babur is located.

06 May Qala- e- Bost
In-between days

Groundhog day

By now time was starting to lose meaning as the days merged from one day to the next and each patrol started to feel the same. On tour there are no days off, you do not stop at weekends; you are on the clock 24/7 from the day you arrive until the day you leave. I was now organising three joint ANA/ British Army patrols a week; the British Company Commander, whose troops would accompany the ANA and thus whose approval I needed, was pleased to agree to the patrols as it meant local Afghans saw their own army providing security. It also meant the double the numbers of soldiers on patrol with a larger impact on the ground.

08 MAY Val- e- Kram
12 MAY LASHKAR GAH care package
Don't you forget about me

Care package

Amongst the monotony of deployment odd moments, like a care package containing random items like a small wooden spoon, would lift spirits. I believe this was the only care package I received.

Mad world

Driving into an ambush

Having watched and predicted our route around the Marjah area we were informed Enemy Forces (EF) had set an ambush. We were instructed to deliberately trip the ambush; it was only due to a vehicle in the convoy suffering malfunction that this plan was abandoned, much to my relief as I thought the idea of wilfully driving into an ambush to be certifiable. On return to base we were told the EF, bored of waiting for us, went and attacked a police station for 20hours.

13 MAY Marjah
12 MAY ANA LTV
Beat it

Enough is enough

Still following guidelines of travelling in a British vehicle, I had sat in the boot of a Land Rover on an ammunition box under the feet of a soldier providing top cover, for two days. It was the straw that broke the camels back; the combination of no decision making powers over the British soldiers I was with, as they were not under my command, and discomfort of that ammunition box led me to break regulations and to travel in the ANA vehicles and patrol with my Afghans. So that I could call for British assistance if needs be I carried a radio.

Land of confusion

Direction change!

As we drove out the gate at MOB LASHKAR GAH to go on patrol we were redirected from our planned tasking to engage with an attack occurring elsewhere in our Area of Responsibility (AO). I thought to myself, ‘I have volunteered for this, this is a chance to fire my rifle and put my training. to the test… But what on Earth am I doing driving towards danger?’ After driving 30 minutes to reach the contact location we were informed we had reached the limit of our AO and that the fight, which had moved out of our AO, was now someone else’s responsibility. As we waited at a police station on the chance the contact changed direction and came back to us, the half of my ANA unit that was not on joint patrol drove past our location to take part in the attack. The attack did not come back in our direction and unable to join we returned to MOB LASHKAR GAH.

Emotions that morning had gone from the mundane as we had started the patrol, to a combination of exhilaration and fear as we had been rerouted, to calm at the police station, to disappointment and helplessness at watching my Afghan friends drive to the fight and not being able to support them.

17 MAY Miralzi

Just another manic Monday

R&R countdown

By now I was counting down days until I returned to the UK for my two weeks Rest & Recuperation (R&R). It was during this period when, on patrol with the ANA, I had the worst cup of tea in my life where a lead lined ammunition box had been used as a make shift kettle to boil water. I could never fault the ingenuity of my ANA, but one sip of this brew was enough for me.

The power of love

Back for a short time,not a long time

My plans for R&R revolved around attending a wedding in Wales of friends I had first met two years before on R&R during my first tour of Afghanistan. Worried I may make a fool of myself at the wedding, having not had a drink for a few months, I was in a pub (with friends) less than an hour after arriving in London. It was a messy night and I travelled to Dolgellau, in north west Wales, the next day with a hangover. However the plan paid off as my thirst for a beer had been satiated.

05 JUN London
07 JUN Dolgellau
17 JUN Somerset
17 JUN Somerset
18 JUN KAF
Should I stay or should I go?

Round 2! Ding! Ding!

I knew I would not be returning to MOB LASHKAR GAH for the second half of my tour but unbeknownst to me I had no idea how turbulent the next few months would be.

Hells bells

Welcome to Gereshk

I was initially sent to Forward Operating Base (FOB) GERESHK, located in the middle of the town after which the FOB had been named. My second night was marked both by listening to a firefight start somewhere in the city, gradually work it’s way towards the FOB and the fact my Lashkar Gah ANA unit arrived at the base. I recall sending radio updates of the situation and catching panic in my voice whilst waiting for the base to be enveloped by gunfire; something which never happened. The attack stopped 100m away from the FOB gates and then reversed direction and disappeared. We never found out who was involved or what happened that night. As for my ANA friends; they left the next day and I never saw them again.

22 JUN Helicopter to FOB PRICE
25 JUN FOB PRICE
02 JUL SN2
05 JUN FOB PRICE
13 JUN FOB PRICE; Decco
I love rock and roll

Long headline on two lines to turn your visitors into users

After two days at FOB GERESHK, I found myself sent to the Danish run FOB PRICE, based on the outskirts of Gersehk to run the OMLT Operations Room. The major I was replacing was leaving Afghanistan to go on his R&R and was busy packing; as such there was no handover/ takeover. If I had grown weary of my routine in Lashkar Gah, PRICE was worse. While I had the variety of patrolling and seeing local life in the former, I found myself chained to a desk in the latter, starting at 0800hours and usually finishing at 2200hours.

I was working close to 100hour weeks; my fitness fell off a cliff and I acclimatised to the cool air conditioning in the Operations Room. In an effort to stay fit I would undertake fitness in my body armour during my lunch break, at the height of the noon sun, if time permitted. I also tried going to the gym after finishing at 2200 hours but more than once found myself called back to deal with emergencies. A highlight of my time at PRICE was attending a concert by the Danish rock band Decco who had visited to entertain the Danish troops.

Winds of change

Overqualified

A planning tool I was trained to use involved a series of questions which included Question 5: Has the situation changed? My word, yes, and then some. An additional British infantry regiment, the 2nd Battalion Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (2PWRR) was being deployed to Afghanistan to bolster numbers, and they required artillery support. This meant the artillery elements of my OMLT, including the FOB PRICE Operations Room staff and myself, would leave the OMLT and revert to artillery duties. The Close Support OMLT would now be commanded by the Oregon National Guard. In practical terms the staff and I would reinforce Oregon National Guard, in regards to numbers while they conducted a tour of their AO and visited all the Patrol Bases (PBs) they were now responsible for, before travelling to Camp BASTION for onwards staging and tasking. For two weeks I had the duties and responsibilities of a soldier, such as being the rifle top cover on a vehicle. While sightseeing new locations and seeing friends was fun; this is not what I had signed up for.

17 JUL FOB Sandford
17 JUL PB Attal
Patience

Combat indicators

One of the longer days of my grand tour around Helmand involved visiting PB ATTAL, located in the Nahri Saraj District between Lashkar Gah and Gereshk. Having conducted a foot patrol around the AO, the PB was put on immediate alert and ‘stood to’; locals had been seen leaving the nearby village which was the combat indicator that EF had arrived and were itching for a fight. I picked a spot on the roof and waited. And waited.  And waited. Having become nervous in anticipation of combat multiple times during the summer I was, on this occasion at least, bored of the threat of action. Added to which I had zero responsibility, or decision making powers, as part of my current duties. Gently Jury, needless to say, nothing happened and after waiting two hours I accompanied the National Guard back to FOB PRICE.

20 JUL Green Zone
24 JUL Gereshk
25 JUL FOB PRICE
Try walking in my shoes

I just can not wait to leave the army

At the end of July I left the OMLT and made my way to Camp BASTION to integrate myself with 7th Parachute Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery, the artillery regiment of 16 Air Assault Brigade, waiting for orders to join with 2PWRR. While waiting I met my new Battery Commander (BC), my eighth line manager in four years of working at a regiment; it was not the best first interview with a new boss. A career officer (he is now a General) with an eye firmly on the promotional ladder I, as a captain about to leave the army, was a speed bump to roll over. Having signed a contract extension to deploy to Afghanistan, after arriving a month later than expected, I was due to leave the tour a month before the official end date, with my last six months service out of a theatre of operations being a legal requirement. This also coincided with my being a witness at the Old Bailey at the trial of Corporal Daniel James who was being tried in violation of the Official Secrets Act 1911; we had worked together in Kabul in 2006 (he was found guilty). This had all been agreed by my previous BC however my new one rejected my claims; I was to lead and establish an artillery planning cell for 2PWRR while my BC helped plan and take part in a 2,000 troop strong, five-day convoy through enemy territory to deliver a hydroelectric turbine to the Kajaki Dam. Code named Operation Eagle Summit the task was one of the largest logistical operations since World War II, however the turbine was only finally installed in 2016.

27 JUL Camp BASTION
Another day in paradise

I should not be here

It was with a heavy heart I travelled to FOB DELHI to meet and support 2PWRR; not only was I going to be longer in Helmand than expected but I did not think I was qualified for the role I was about to undertake. I was about to establish and command an artillery cell that was responsible for artillery fires, having not trained for the role and never done the lower ranked role of firing in anger on the battlefield myself. I was, again, to be tied to a desk but one nowhere near as nice or plush as before; FOB DELHI was the other end of the spectrum compared to the five star FOB PRICE. As fortune would have it once the cell was completed and active, although missions were completed under my watch, I never had to intervene. Thus I neither called in artillery nor did I ever authorise artillery fire. I also came across my FST, of whom I had been relieved of command when sent to the OMLT, who had been allocated to FOB DEHLI and had a quiet tour of duty; it transpired my tour had been far more interesting than theirs.

12 AUG En route to FOB DELHI
13 AUG FOB DELHI
19 AUG FOB DELHI
We're not gonna take it

Time to go

Operation Eagle Summit had finished and my BC had made his way to FOB DELHI. I, however, was not there. I had backed my convictions before he arrived and made arrangements to leave Afghanistan on my planned exit date. My route out of the country involved first travelling to FOB DWYER, where the gun element of C Battery happened to be based, with onwards travel to Camp BASTION to be arranged at a date TBC.

03 SEP En route to FOB DWYER
Don't dream it's over

Hitching a lift with the Household Cavalry

My final road move in Afghanistan was in a Jackal vehicle belonging to the Household Cavalry, a fitting end to my military career; my first platoon sergeant during training at Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst had been a Corporal Major in the Blues and Royals, part of the Household Cavalry Regiment (he was not a sergeant; the etymology of the word ‘sergeant’ comes from the Latin to serve and the role of the Household Cavalry was to protect, not to serve.) There was one final hurdle; my BC had stated I could not leave the country without his permission, which he finally gave the day before my plane was scheduled to take off.

05 SEP Return to base