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Authors: Heloise Goodley

An Officer and a Gentlewoman

BOOK: An Officer and a Gentlewoman
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An
Officer
and a
Gentlewoman

Héloïse Goodley

CONSTABLE • LONDON

This book is dedicated to my grandfather,
Llewellyn Williams.
An author and true soldier.

The author attended officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 2007. Since this time the Academy has undergone what has become known as a ‘quiet revolution’. Since 2009 this has witnessed a dramatic change in both what and how Sandhurst trains cadets. The effect of these changes is that Sandhurst is now commissioning a different junior officer from that of four years ago. This process is evolutionary and will continue to change and adapt. Sandhurst now ruthlessly seeks to become a ‘Centre of Training Excellence’; exploiting new technologies to enhance learning and setting the standards which newly commissioned second lieutenants will take on to the Field Army: in essence demonstrating to the Army ‘what good looks like’. This is at the very core of the requirement for the team at Sandhurst. It will ultimately be the lasting legacy of Sandhurst in the formation of an Officer Corps adapted for the unknown pressures and complexities of the twenty-first century.

The following account is based on the author's own experiences at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and provides an accurate depiction of what it was like to undergo officer training there in 2007. However, in recounting some of these experiences, fictional licence has been applied as one person's account is simply not interesting enough to pen an entire book about. In a few instances it has been necessary to change the names of certain individuals, whilst other characters have become purely fictional representations (Captain Trunchbull) and bear no resemblance to their actual counterparts. The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst has been educating and training army officers for over two centuries and the staff and instructors who serve there are at the peak of their profession.

‘Every man thinks meanly of himself
for not having been a soldier …’

Samuel Johnson

I am sitting in near darkness, my seat belt fastened firmly around my waist. All the lights have been dimmed and the window shutters pulled tightly shut. To the outside world we have become just a distant black noise in the heavens above. I put on my body armour and helmet, securing the buckle and affixing Velcro straps. I’m not sure why we have to do this; if the Taliban are lucky enough to shoot the plane out of the night sky, a simple piece of Kevlar on my head isn’t going to prevent a jihadist jackpot; but I’m in no position to question, and do as I am told. The aeroplane swoops and yaws, starting its descent, forcing me downwards into my seat as we plummet out of the blackness towards Kandahar Airfield below. We list left then bank violently right; twisting and dropping on a roller coaster ride in the sky.

Without lights the RAF pilot is flying by night-vision goggles, the world below him illuminated in shades of neon green. Normally at this point on a flight everyone with a window seat would be peering out, those in the middle craning their necks to study the outline city lights of our destination below, but instead we are sitting in neutral silence.

Suddenly the background throb of the engines is replaced with a dull thud and squealing rush as the landing gear drops ready to touch down. The cabinful of troops sit in an eerily still darkness, senses heightened by the Blitz blackout. I feel a whiff of fear and
nervous trepidation creep in. I have wanted to come to Afghanistan since I joined the Army; this is the war of the moment, of my time. I want to do my bit, experience the machine of battle and finally put all that training to some use. But as I had packed my bags and bid family and friends farewell tiny doubts squirmed in the pit of my stomach, and a solicitous fear fluttered in my chest. It felt like peering over the edge of a high diving board or withdrawing money from a cash machine at the dicey end of town; I was aware of a danger but unsure of the reality of the threat. I had been trained for what lay ahead. I had been readying myself for two years; but no training can prepare your emotions. None of my training could steady the churning I now felt in my gut or the cold clammy sweat in the palm of my hands.

It was the early hours of 10 January 2009. Ten hours earlier I had left a grey drizzly Saturday behind at RAF Brize Norton, boarding the Royal Air Force plane to Afghanistan. On the outside, the plane had been a huge gunmetal-grey hulk, lacking any of the brightly coloured livery of commercial airliners, but on the inside it was identical to a British Airways cabin, because it had once been so (the RAF Tristar fleet were bought from British Airways in the early eighties). The only difference was that where first class should have been there were six stretcher hospital beds instead, ready to evacuate wounded soldiers from the battlefield, serving as a bleak early reminder that this was not a charter flight to Minorca. Unlike British Airways, lunch wasn’t served with candy smiles and silk neck scarves, but by RAF stewards wearing khaki all-in-one coveralls. They pushed a trolley up and down the cramped aisles handing out small white cardboard boxes containing an apple, a stale sandwich, a packet of crisps and a Mars bar, pouring jugs of sweet orange squash into paper cups.

Today this is how troops go to war.

My ears popped as we continued our descent. A cabin of sitting ducks, waiting patiently. Incognizant of the world outside, my fate lay in the pilot’s hands. Outside there was a whoosh and a hissing
sound as flares were dispensed into the darkness around the aircraft; then, moments later, a squealing bump as the wheels touched terra firma. The aircraft fuselage vibrated madly as the engines were thrown into reverse and we made our bumpy way along the runway. I drew in a deep breath; this was it, I had arrived at Kandahar International Airport.

Around me the cabin lights came on as the aircraft taxied to a parking bay and there was the usual clamber for items from the overhead lockers. Passengers filled the aisles readying to get off, as others stood at their seats, their heads crooked by the low ceiling above. At the front of the aircraft the doors opened, and a metal staircase was manoeuvred into position for the slow queue to filter forwards and disembark. As I reached the front and stepped from the plane, a smell hit me like a vicious slap, an overwhelming noxious miasma pervading the airfield: the shocking stench of human faeces. When the breeze blows in the wrong direction, which tends to prevail, a pong of poo lingers over Kandahar, picked up at the ‘poo pond’, a large open liquid sewage pit.

Welcome to Afghanistan.

(Popular rumour has it that a soldier once swam across the ‘poo pond’ for $100.)

At Kandahar the air is filled with noise too, like Kafka’s Castle; a cacophony of helicopter blades, jet engines, propellers, growling vehicles and shouting continues around the clock, all part of the war effort. It was in such stark contrast to the tranquil snowy Oxfordshire fields and dying Christmas lights I had left behind only hours earlier.

Once outside the aircraft and on the dispersal, the passengers climbed into a convoy of beaten and neglected buses for the winding journey from the aircraft to the ‘terminal’, a dusty tent lined with wooden waiting benches. Coughing and wheezing veils of black smoke, the buses made their way past the Taliban’s Last Stand – a crumbling building riddled with bullet marks, shrapnel scars and a bomb hole in the roof where an Allied raid ended the
Taliban’s reign in Afghanistan in 2001. The visible proof of battle damage suffered in their final fight gave a meaningful reminder that Kandahar is the spiritual home of the Taliban, and defeat in 2001 has not yet led to Allied victory.

I spent that night at Kandahar, rolling out my sleeping bag on the bottom bunk of a bed in the anonymous rows of bunks in a 600-man transit tent. Fortunately the jet lag and early start helped send me straight to sleep, because otherwise worry would have left me lying awake in the unfamiliar darkness, listening to the new sounds of war and the rustlings in the bunk next to me. The following evening I would be flying to Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, a place that would be my home for the next four months.

 

Constantly building and growing, Kandahar Airbase is the hub of NATO’s mission in southern Afghanistan. The machinery of war is well established in this sprawling city of tin hut and tent headquarter homes where rear-echelon decision-makers and support staff do their bit. The skyline is dotted with fluttering multi-national flags; Italian, Dutch, British, Australian, American, Romanian and Afghan soldiers all contribute to their effort in the coalition force. Among the offices and sleeping tents there is a central public square, called the ‘Boardwalk’, which provides recreational luxuries that soldiers fighting daily on the ground can only dream of. Along the Boardwalk’s wooden parade a fashion show of foreign uniforms can be seen as soldiers queue for pizza from Pizza Hut, visit the Canadian doughnut house, Dutch coffee shop, Korean takeaway or French Patisserie. In the centre of the Boardwalk, American Marines whoop and high-five as they play ice hockey on a full-sized concrete hockey pitch, while Danes shoot hoops on the basketball court. Around the airbase Filipino and Sri Lankan civilians empty bins, sweep roads, wash laundry and clean the toilets while bearded KBR
1
contractors talk into walkie-talkies; these are the people who are really winning from this war.

Among the eateries there are gift shops too, selling Afghan rugs, fake Oakley sunglasses, mosque alarm clocks and other curios at rip-off prices to soldiers on their return home. It was all far removed from the scene of war I had been expecting. And with this almost holiday camp atmosphere of pizzerias and iced cappuccinos it could be quite easy to be lulled into a false sense of safety at Kandahar, but the mortar alarm resounds regularly, causing people to scurry for cover as the base is often rocketed by the Taliban hiding in the surrounding hills, determined to win back their heartland.

The next evening I was back at the terminal tent again to board a Hercules flight to Camp Bastion, the main British base in Afghanistan. Flying around in the dark of night like this is a necessary precaution in Afghanistan to keep out of sight of the Taliban threat and it means that a lot of the RAF Hercules pilots rarely see daylight during their time in Afghanistan. At a painted wooden desk a female soldier found my name on a piece of paper and ticked it off, checking me in, and I carried my rifle through the scanner into the departure area (airport security restrictions are a little more lax here than they are at Heathrow). In the departure area I sat on a long wooden bench and flicked through old magazines and out-of-date newspapers, killing the time until my flight by reading last year’s news and drinking a warm bottle of water from the broken fridge. There was little else to do but wait and the dusty concrete floors were lined with soldiers sleeping, their heads propped against their body armour. I scanned the room, taking in the different groups of people. Some soldiers were gathered around a Nintendo DS, while others with headphones sat alone listening to music. There were two soldiers with straggly beards and shaggy hair standing at the back in black North Face jackets, trying to look inconspicuous, but obviously special forces. I could spot those who had been here before and experienced this many times – they had a nonchalant air and confident manner about them, as they headed to the coffee area and bagged the best spots to sleep, tucked out of the way and beyond the whirring
generators. That would be me next time, but for now, I was on edge, the nerves in my stomach had yet to settle as I worried about what lay ahead. Eventually an RAF soldier wearing a yellow bib and green ear protectors stood in the doorway to the tent and hollered for us to gather our things ready to depart.

Boarding the Hercules felt far more like a real act of war. The rumbling engines blasted out scorching hot air and billowing dust as I walked towards the tail ramp, causing me to shield my face as I stepped up onto it. I shuffled around metal pallets of netted cargo to find a seat and strapped myself in. Propping my rifle between my knees and donning helmet and body armour once more for the hour-long flight to Camp Bastion, where the fate of the twenty-first century world security is being decided.
2

Camp Bastion is the biggest British-built base since the Second World War and home to almost 4,000 troops. The camp occupies a rectangle four miles long by two miles wide in the southern Afghanistan desert. This vast and growing town of tents, barbed wire and huge steel shipping containers is set in a parched dusty moonscape, overswept by sandstorms. The soil here is so arid that not even a weed will grow, but just a few miles to the east meanders the Helmand River, weaving a lush nourished ribbon of green through the desert like Egypt’s Nile. The fields and orchards of this Green Zone are where the drug barons and warlords are, where the fields of opium poppies grow, where the Taliban choose to pick their battles and where British ground troops are based to fight them. Camp Bastion is located here in the neighbouring desert to support them, sending forward food, water, ammunition and equipment; launching helicopters and tending to the wounded in the state-of-the-art field hospital. It also provides a stop-off for battle-fatigued soldiers going home after months of fighting. And at Camp Bastion they stagger off helicopters into an oasis of
Western civilization emerging from their feral FOB
3
existences into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Eager for normality, they dump weapons and heavy body armour and head straight to the computer room to check Facebook and football scores, while in the dining tent these gaunt teenage soldiers fill their plates with steak and imported military cheesecake, and in the showers months of grime and dust are scrubbed away.

I arrived at Camp Bastion by night and the following morning woke early. I slid out of bed, grabbed a quick shower and dressed in the dark: T-shirt, shirt, trousers, socks, boots, a jumper for the January chill. I brushed my hair and teeth, adjusted the beret on my head and stepped outside into the still morning air. It felt fresh with a bitter bite that woke me as I wove my way through the rows of tents and blast protection walls to the Joint Operational Command (JOC, the decision-making nerve centre). Inside the night shift were still in, manning the bank of radios and monitor screens, getting updates on current events across the province. In the corner a large flat-screen television provided live Predator
4
feed, the flickering black and white images prying into a suspicious Taliban compound. For now life was quiet across the region; a few infantry foot patrols had gone out on the ground from their FOBs, but there was no sign of the Taliban. In the background a generator hummed, powering the whole operation. Maps and boards with plans and timelines hung around the room, while empty paper coffee cups piled high in the bin. This is the brains of British helicopter operations in Afghanistan.

I had arrived for the morning brief and, as it finished a shout came in: ‘Nine-Liner!’

A request for urgent medical assistance. A Royal Marine had stepped on a home-made bomb in Sangin. He was critically injured (‘Category Alpha’) and needed urgent medical help.

Suddenly the relative morning calm was shattered. Land Rovers raced through camp, sirens wailing and blue lights flashing, as the emergency response team surged into action. Down at the helicopter flight line they came screeching to a halt, disgorging bomb disposal experts, nurses, doctors and pilots into the back of a Chinook. Among them, a consultant who could start life-saving surgery on the casualty in the back of the helicopter, bringing A&E to the frontline. The rotor blades were already turning, slicing the air with a low thwack, thwack, thwack. Ground crew soldiers ran around detaching fuel nozzles and removing wheel chocks, readying the aircraft for lift-off; and within moments the Chinook and a supporting Apache helicopter were off the ground and on their way, disappearing in a loud collision of dust, noise and haste.

BOOK: An Officer and a Gentlewoman
13.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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