Civilian to Soldier: My Afghan Experience

Logistics1‘Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.’ I heard this quote during a history lesson ten years ago in school. Never did I think I would understand or have any idea what Winston Churchill was referring to. Twenty three months, nine exercises and three Combat Logistic Patrols (CLPs) later I knew exactly what he meant.
People are always asking ‘so what made you join the army?’ Honestly I don’t know. I grew up in a normal family, went to school up until I was just about to turn sixteen, sat my exams and left, going on to a long list of dead-end jobs. The Army was something that played on my mind but I was unsure for a long time. I was in and out of the careers office regularly and I knew in the end I’d have to really go for it or just give up on the whole thing. I knew it was going to be a huge life change and I would be leaving all I knew behind. In the end I went for it; there was no real future or career at home for me. After a reasonably quick process I found myself with an over-packed suitcase, too heavy for me to lift, dragging it along Glasgow Central Station ready to set off on my journey to basic training.

Press up position down

On arriving at Pirbright I was with 25 other girls, some looked older than me, some looked younger but everyone looked equally as nervous and frightened. As we all sat in a lecture hall this terrifying man stood in front of us spitting as he emphasised certain words. Apparently we had our chance there and then to leave if we didn’t want to be there. I debated it, I reckon every single person in that room did. All I could think was ‘what have I got myself into?’ Everyone stayed put, probably frozen with fear. After that we got allocated our rooms and put into Sections. The next few weeks after that went fast, there was so much to take on board. I felt drained and constantly tired, learning so many things at such a fast pace was tough going. Our Section Commanders would do regular room inspections and we were forever holding the press up position for the smallest of mistakes. ‘Play the game’ I was sick of hearing that. ‘Its only a game ladies; just got to learn how to play it!’ I just couldn’t wait to pass out, it’s all I had to look forward to and I wanted to make sure I got there in the end, no matter what it took. Throughout everything the main subject was always deployment to Afghanistan. The thought of it terrified me. Instructors said, ‘isn’t that what you joined the Army for?’ However, at that time I didn’t want to deploy; I was scared, but I never told anyone what I was thinking. Before I knew it I was standing in my 2’s on the parade square feeling the proudest I have ever been. It’s a day I will never forget and the fourteen weeks of blood, sweat and tears all really seemed to be worth it.

Welcome to the British Army

One week after the parade I was ready to start my Phase Two Driver Specialist training. I had the discipline part nailed. Turned up in freshly ironed kit, gleaming boots and a positive attitude. I was so used to strict timings, rushed days and keeping ‘switched-on’ to all the new information that came my way. Phase 2 didn’t work that way. There were no fixed timings or schedule for each working day. ‘Welcome to the British Army’ one lad said to me when I turned up for a map reading lesson which had been cancelled but the message had failed to reach me. I had that feeling again. I felt alone, unsure and I kept asking myself ‘what am I doing here?’ Just like all new major life changes things got better in time. I remember one day this scary Sergeant was giving all the girls a chat. She was speaking about Afghanistan, again the dreaded subject was raised. She told us about how it really was, she spoke about it in a way that made me look at it in a totally different perspective. Seeing how proud she was about her previous tours made me really think about deploying. Why had I been so afraid? All of the girls were constantly going on about deploying and the more I thought about it the more I wanted it. I wanted that medal on my chest, I wanted that sense of pride. I would do whatever it took to deploy!

Build up to uncertainty

After speaking with my Troop Sergeant I applied to join a Regiment which was due to deploy to Afghanistan. I was over the moon when I found out I was posted to 2 Logistic Support Regiment (2 LSR) in Germany. Again I was facing major life changes. I found the first few weeks more difficult to adapt to. I wasn’t in a room with anyone, I was initially in a very small Squadron, everyone kept themselves to themselves and lived their own lives after work. I felt lost and alone again, it was a lot to take on board but I had to prove myself and keep my head down. The social side of life got better, as I was no longer in training I had a sense of freedom I never had before. A brand new car, a decent wage every month and lots of new friends. Life was good and getting even better.
Throughout the year there were several exercises which had to be completed. I was nervous about each of them as I was new to TTPs, CLPs and different weapon systems. Nearly everyone I was working and training with had been on tour before, so they knew what to expect, they knew what to do and they made it all look so easy. In these 12 months of MST I learned so much, it was a challenge but I enjoyed it all and doing FTX was where I got a real sense and taste of what Afghanistan would be like. We drove through ‘Afghan villages’ with real Afghan people waving at us and running in front of our vehicles. Even though it wasn’t real bullets and IDF, the bang and explosions gave me such a fright. I was constantly waiting for scenarios to happen. Listening to people trying not to panic over the net was strange, they tried to keep calm but everyone felt under pressure as we had to get that tick in the box to deploy. Seeing a real life amputee was horrible, I take my hat off to medics because some of the states you see people in are horrific. The first time I saw one of the ‘Amputees in Action’ made up to look like a fresh injury, my stomach dropped, I got nervous and my hands went clammy. I knew it wasn’t real but that person once lived the worst thing that a soldier could experience. I would have thought something like that would have scared me and totally put me off deploying, if anything it made me more determined to go. I just had to make sure I knew my skills and drills, it would make me more confident to go out on the ground. By the time we had finished the Final Training Exercise, 45 Close Support Squadron (our sister squadron) had already started to deploy to Afghanistan. I was in 22 Close Support Squadron, we were told we might not deploy which was a big shock to us all. I was gutted, I felt so ready to go, I felt I deserved it.

Professional soldiers don’t flinch at explosions

I was determined not to miss out on deployment. I kept my head down, participated and volunteered for all I could and just waiting to see if I was going to get my chance. Eventually we were told a list of names was going to be released of who would be deploying. Due to there being so many of us not everyone was going to go. Sitting in a room packed with people anxiously waiting to hear the news was horrible, some people were laughing, some people were in total silence. As the list was read out I waited. My heart was pounding, it felt like it was going to break out of my chest, my hands were sweating and I was shaking. There were loads of names going, my troop came and the sections were getting called out and of course, my name was dead last! I had to wait that little bit longer than everyone else which was horrible but totally worth the wait. I was so happy I was finally getting to do what I had been working so hard for. People were literally gutted if they didn’t make the list. Girls were crying and I could see some of the lads genuinely upset. What had the world come to? These individuals were upset about NOT going to a war zone! It was bizarre but now I actually understood why.
I didn’t make a big thing of deploying to my family and friends, I was just glad I wasn’t missing out. Travelling to Afghan took ages and for the landing we had put our helmet and body armour on. The plane went dark. I was on edge but I stayed totally calm. After landing and getting sorted it was a matter of going through a Reception, Staging and Onward Integration (RSOI) package which took several days. We were in normal working routing in no time and before I knew it I was preparing for my first CLP. Going out on the ground was amazing. The lifestyle was so different, the villages and local nationals were like nothing I’d ever seen. Kids jumping all over my truck, trying to steal whatever they could, giving hand signals for food and water. My heart sank for them.
It felt like the biggest thrill and achievement when CLPs returned to Camp BASTION in one piece. I loved going on Ops, sitting on orders, MODACing my truck (fitting it with patrol equipment) and doing all the required ‘battle-prep’. It was a great feeling and to be doing my job made me feel like all the training and graft had been worth it. I went on my first Op TOTALISE – an operation to conduct a large-scale demolition in the desert – in February, we drove through the night with IR lights on, across the Western Dashte following cyalumes, it was exhausting. We helped the ammo techs put all the expired ammunition in place and took our vehicles 3 km away. This was going to be the biggest controlled explosion in Afghanistan coming in at 73 tonnes! It took ages to get set up and before I knew it I felt a blast wave and jumped at the huge explosion behind me. I got up on top cover to see the mushroom cloud in the sky. I couldn’t believe I missed it! Oh well, at least I could say I was there for it. The message to say the ammunition was going to detonate came over the net as it was happening so the majority of the CLP missed it. Brilliant!

Hitting the deck

In March the weather started warming up and life in Camp BASTION went on. I got told I was going to Forward Operating Base Lashkar Durai (FOB LKD) to help close down the FOB there. So it was back to basic training for me. Sleeping under a poncho, basin washes, rations and no internet. Within a few hours of being there the Infantry had us doing ground attack drills in case of enemy contact. Later that night I was heading for a wash and the sun was just setting. As I looked over the HESCO wall I saw huge mushroom cloud in the sky. As I looked directly at it I heard a massive blast and realised this was not part of ground attack drills. To the right hand side of the cloud I had to really focus my eyes on what I was seeing next. Mini flares? No it wasn’t! Tracer rounds! A big group of them flew about one metre past me and smashed into the HESCO behind me. I was frozen, I couldn’t believe what was happening. After the initial shock I dived behind the HESCO and kept low making my way to my body armour and helmet. I sat with my kit on shaking, waiting to see what happened next. Seeing all the Infantry and big men running about made it all seem so much more real. Thankfully no further attacks happened that night, although the guys on the sangars were firing their GPMGs all night. I lay in my sleeping bag all night wide awake, terrified that at any moment I would have to get up and put all my kit on and be prepared for the worst. It was the most terrifying thing I have ever experienced in my life but at the same time it’s the biggest thrill I have ever had! I now know what Winston Churchill was referring to when he said this was “exhilarating”. In a strange way I am glad to have experienced this. It was a real eye opener and I respect the Infantry so much for dealing with situations like that on a day to day basis. In the space of 23 months I went from civilian life, to not wanting to deploy, to deploying, to then facing one of the most feared things that could happen to a soldier; coming under attack. To say the least I was happy after that week to be back in Camp BASTION.

Bright future

I am very pleased with what I have achieved in the last two years. It’s been very busy and exhausting but most importantly it’s the most rewarding job anyone could have. My family are proud of me and never fail to tell me that. I’m also proud of myself; I never thought I’d make it this far and I feel I have achieved exactly what I wanted to do. I don’t know where the British Army will deploy to next but I’m sure with the correct training and right attitude I’ll be prepared. For now I am going to concentrate on my education, I would really like to achieve a degree and get as much from the Army as I can. There is so much to offer and I’m sure I will have many more exciting experiences to come.

Private Naismith
2 Logistic Support Regiment

Annual Four Peaks Challenge

Enjoy a walk across the hills to shake off those post Christmas blues.
Just over seven miles visiting Clifford’s Hill, Tan Hill, Milk Hill and Walkers Hill.
Then, surprisingly enough, passing the door of the Barge Inn at Honeystreet!
(I am assured that it will be open)
This will be a brisk walk and I promise not to stop and chat too often!
Please join us at the Village Hall car park, Stanton St Bernard (SU 092623) at 9.15 am.
Don’t forget to wear suitable clothing, and footwear.
All are welcome!
Any questions reply to this email or call on 01672 851426.