18/09/12......Now back in Thame, a young soldier talks about his life in Afghanistan -
Interview with a local soldier just returned from his first tour of duty in Afghanistan - By Susannah Smith:
AFTER seven months in war torn Afghanistan, 'James' as we will call him (who, for security reasons does not want to be identified), a young British soldier, can hardly describe what it’s like to be back home in Thame. “It’s different,” he says, which is somewhat of an understatement. Afghanistan sits in the heart of the Middle East and is landlocked with both mountains and deserts. “It’s a stunning country,” describes James. “Really beautiful – it’s just that there’s a war on.” It is also one of the poorest countries in the world, with 53% of its people living below the poverty line and 3.5 million citizens who are refugees abroad. Afghanistan is a world away from prosperous, rural Thame, where we are sitting, in the ThameNews.net offices talking to James about his military experiences.
James himself, looking a relaxed and confident in one of the office chairs, is in a T-shirt and jeans, and is very much like any of the other young guys I know in Thame. It soon becomes obvious that now, for him there is a wide contrast between Britain and Afghanistan, the contrast between civilian and army life. For that’s what took him to Afghanistan: the war. “When you’re out there, it’s 24/7 for seven months, ” James explains. For soldiers on tour, there’s no going out or popping down the pub; you are confined to a check point (or “CP” as James says) simply because outside is not safe. “You do get ‘down time’ but even then you have your periodic watches,” he says, laughing as he recounts his squadron’s attempts to beat the boredom by building make-shift ping-pong tables and volley ball nets.
When I asked him what he missed the most, James took his time to answer and then opted for “Mum’s cooking... especially roasts.” With James walking me through the monotony of the necessary routine, I started to realise how tough it is for the soldiers out there, not just because of the combat, but even day-to-day living is a test of character. And if that’s not enough, he grumbles “there’s no alcohol and the showers are cold!”
As the conservation moves on, it becomes clear that the difference between civilian and army life isn’t the only contrast. Being in Afghanistan, he explained, was a more relaxed military experience than the training in Britain. “Over there, you’re almost left to your own devices. Whereas back here in England, you’re made to clean your gun every day. Then it’ll be inspected. But out there you’re just expected to do it. You’ve got to make sure your gun fires. It’s your responsibility.” So maybe ‘relaxed’ isn’t quiet the right word; it’s more of a collective acknowledgement of the serious situation the young soldiers are in, and a collective responsibility because of this. This bond between the soldiers is a running theme during our conversation.
“The adrenaline rush”
Coming from a family rooted in the military (Both James' parents were in the army and as a child he moved around with them to different postings), it is no wonder that he went into the force himself. “Its what I’ve always wanted to do,” he simply states, recounting a scene of imaginary woodland battles, chasing round with a stick as a child.
After school and an unsuccessful first application to the army, he ended up working at a local shop. After some time there, he finally got the phone call from the Army Recruitment Office: “And in four days I was at basic training!” Since then, he seems to have thrived in the military lifestyle and although he admits other people may have other reasons for joining, James “just wanted to go out there and fight the enemy.” He grins and says: “I just love it, the adrenalin.”
Adrenalin is a word that crops up frequently when talking to James about combat. “Sure, it’s terrifying when it happens but the training kicks in and everyone knows where they’re supposed to do,” he explains. Close to when his squadron was due to be returning home, James experienced his first serious combat. Animated now, he tells me of bullets flying over his head: “I admit I was scared, but once it was all over and we were out of danger, I was like, I want to do it again!” This confident yet resilient attitude seems a feature of his character and helps explain his love of the army. “Not all the lads are like me,” he acknowledged. I had to remind myself that this was his first Tour of Duty – he is likely to be back in Afghanistan in the not too distant future though the plan is for all British troops to be out of there by the end of 2014.
“A real bond”
Through the combination of some serious combat and a somewhat tedious lifestyle, James makes it clear that his friends and fellow soldiers make the experience more than bearable. “You honestly make really good mates out there,” he tells me, “and after spending seven months continuously with your squadron you know them inside out.” He goes on to tell me about the sometimes claustrophobic conditions in which the soldiers share everything they have with the rest of the lads because, as he explained, “....you know they’ll do the same for you.” Nevertheless, he acknowledged that it’s not always plain sailing and that disagreements do occur, which he accepted was probably inevitable within such a confined environment. “You just tend not to get too involved with people you don’t get on with - just may be politely say: ‘Alright mate?’ when you pass them but not really take things much beyond that.”
James told me about the importance of teamwork, so vital for survival; the mutual reliance with everyone watching each other’s backs. However, he made a clear distinction between attitudes outside, in the rugged and hostile Afghan deserts, compared to inside, in the safety of the guarded Check Points. “There’s a real bond but also lots of banter,” he said. He laughs and tells of an incident where one of his team suffered a bout of heat sickness when still a long distance from the Check Point. “It was all about encouraging him, saying: ‘ Look, there’s the CP now. Just keep going for a little longer!’ in order to keep his morale up. But, almost as soon as we entered the safety of the base, the ‘banter’ started. “It could have been any of us,” he says. “But we ‘ripped it out of him’ anyway, with things like: ‘Aw....! Dear, dear. Poor you!’ And stuff like that.”
“Almost like Thame...”
When I asked him about his experience of interacting with the civilians of Afghanistan, James explained that it was mainly the Corporals who were in contact with the people. Though he was aware, he said, that some of the civilians were supportive, remembering how one of the locals had indicated where some explosives had been buried. “We could’ve stepped on that and been blown up!”
Despite the length of the troubles in Afghanistan, James describes to me some signs of progress in the region. He talked of “populated little market towns, where it’s almost like Thame, where the local people obviously feel quite safe.” But though he could see some positive signs for the country, he emphasised the need for caution. “We still have to be vigilant in these crowded towns with thousands of people. Anyone in that crowd could be Taliban.” It was apparent that when outside the protection of the army base, the soldiers always had to be on their guard. “Well, it’s our job and we’ve got to do it to the best of our ability, which means being alert every minute we’re on duty,” he emphasised.
“I can’t wait to go back”
When asked to summarise army life, “It’s a lot of boredom and you have to work really hard,” said James. Yet it was obvious that he was itching to go back. Military life isn’t for everyone but for James he describes a place where he has found his niche, and looks forward with relish to the career and future ahead of him. A Private at the moment, he expressed a wish to move on to Lance Corporal and then Corporal. But what about after the army? “The army will help you out. It’s brilliant! You can get GCSEs or A Levels or a trade such a plumbing or mechanics. I think I’d like to learn all about armoury,” he muses.
The prospect of future Tours of Duty in Afghanistan didn’t seem to faze James at all. “I can’t wait to go back”, he said. The lure of the battle has always been a draw for young people it seems – particularly young men, and although modern, more technical warfare may have put a new spin on this, people haven’t changed. Talking to James has made me realise that, despite my personal discomfort at sending young people into military conflicts, an army career can have a positive influence on an individual. For James it is clear, the army has been the best choice he ever made.
Image: Courtesy of http://www.army.mod.uk