'Until Next Time'...A letter from Afghanistan
It is now 10 years since Operation Herrick 13, where elements of the British Army’s Medical Services deployed to Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. I was one of many Combat Medical Technicians that deployed alongside a barrage of supremely talented health care professionals of many specialities. Some were located in the exceptional Bastion Hospital as well as out ‘on the ground’ in the many Forward Operating Bases (FOB’s), Patrol Bases (PB’s) and Check Points (CP’s) that peppered the landscape of the province. My first memory of that tour was the cloying feeling of my helmet strapped tightly under my chin, and the darkness in the C130 Hercules as it sharply descended to land in Camp Bastion. I remember walking into a mammoth base of portable cabins, iso containers, makeshift DVD stands and the small pizza place around the corner from Bastion hospital. I missed seeing anything green, everything was dry and dusty, the sun sweltering, the sand was ridiculously fine that on our acclimatisation tab (marching quickly with weighted rucksacks) we kicked up so much dust it filled the air causing nose bleeds and persistent coughs. Looking back, I was so young, so naïve, I had been trained well but still had no real idea what to think or how to deal with this alien situation. The more experienced amongst us became mentors and advisors, bollocking us, coaching us, supporting us. We were a team and ultimately a family.
The head of that regimental family was the Commanding Officer. He was the best CO I have ever had, he was a real leader of people, a good manager, conscientious and stoic. One month after our deployment he wrote a letter to our families. It is a poignant voice from the past, a snapshot from a recent war, an integral account of what I and many of my peers will never forget.
‘Dear Friends and Family
The Relief in Place (RiP) is finally over. We are now in place having had thorough training and a good handover. The stark reality of operating in Helmand is beginning to bite. We have already had a share of dark days during Op MINIMISE shutting down all welfare communications. The reason for this is a noble one; to allow the next of kin to be informed in the correct manner and to avoid mistake. What it means to us, and you, is a break in communication. I thank you for your patience when this happens. Postal mail or e-blueys do not stop for MINIMISE – keep it coming.
The medics and medical officers deployed in FOB’s, PB’s and CP’s are doing incredible things. The number of patrols they are clocking up by the week is impressive; some are on two or three short patrols per day. The winter period has yet to reduce the activity level by any noticeable amount. Our medics have had their hands full on numerous occasions and have undoubtably saved lives. I know this because we ask them to write up the incident which we run past the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) and the Emergency Department in the hospital; so far they have not reported anything untoward; in fact they have been highly complementary about the standard of trauma care delivered so far, often in stagnant irrigation ditches or broken, dirty Afghan compounds. Those medics I have spoken to so far are up for it and ready to face the next challenge.
My special mention goes to the Ambulance Response Team (ART). There are six ambulance crews who collect casualties from the MEDEVAC helicopters and transfer them to the hospital and react to other emergencies or routine tasks in Camp Bastion. At five mins or fifteen mins notice to move the crews remain fixed in the crew room ready for the next mission. They have clocked a staggering 504 tasks in the last four weeks. Many times, the forward medics, the MERT and the hospital are applauded for their part in the treatment continuum from point of injury to the hospital. Seldom, if ever, is this link recognised. Although short this 500m journey is a critical part of the treatment as the flight in the MERT. Whatever interventions the MERT begin must be sustained up to and including the hospital bay. The many fleeting periods these medics and drivers have had with the casualties has had a gruelling, cumulative effect on them. But, again, I am truly taken by their resilience and their determination to continue to play their part.
Now that the RiP is over things begin to happen around us. R&R has started for a lucky (and unlucky) few. R&R is spread evenly over the four-month period starting one month into the tour and one month before the end. Regrettably some go early, and some go very late in the tour. The truly lucky ones are those who have the mid-point in the tour at Christmas. The R&R flights are subject to the same pressures as the flights in. Delays, diversion and cancellation can happen so please roll with it. The intention is that any such delay will simply bump the return flight by the same amount. There is constant communication between us and the Rear Ops Group so any variation to flight dates and times are available at the end of a telephone. When you do get your loved one back home, I urge you to look after them. Let them relax, unwind and pamper them but please return them to me because each and every one of them has a part to play until the end. I can see all personnel are fully committed, still eager and upbeat.
Until next time.