After about thirty minutes in flight, the Chinook banks to the left and reduces altitude. Most of us on board are craning our necks to get a glimpse of the ground. To the left of the aircraft lies a long spur of high rocky outcrops; on the opposite side, a patchwork of arable fields stretches to the horizon. As the aircraft continues to bank, we notice a clear sign that we are nearing our drop-off point: the still waters of the Kajaki Lake which shimmer in the morning sunshine. As we fly over its southern edge, the change in light reflection turns the lake from a brilliant quartz colour to a beautiful emerald. With no camera to take a photo, I commit to memory this image of serene beauty.

The loadmaster holds up two fingers to give us a two-minute warning.  Throughout the helicopter men are fighting to stand up, lift their rucksacks onto their backs and grab their personal weapons. It is vital that we disembark as rapidly as possible to minimise the risk of the helicopter being attacked by enemy mortar or rocket fire. Within minutes of touching down we have exited the aircraft, two lines of waiting troops have climbed on board to take our place and the aircraft has gone wheels up to make the return flight to Camp Bastion.

As the Chinook heads into the distance, we gather our kit and load it onto a trailer attached to a Pinzgauer utility vehicle. Squeezing into the back of the Pinzgauer, we make the short trip to Combat Outpost Zeebrugge, so named by the Royal Marines from whom we are taking over, after one of their many memorable battle honours.

Arriving at COP Zeebrugge, there appears to be some confusion. The outgoing Royal Marines company had a larger medical team, consisting of two company medics and two medics who were allocated to the operational mentoring and liaison team (OMLT – pronounced ‘omelette’). The incoming medical team consists of Geordie and myself, each with the expectation of providing medical support to the rifle company, whilst the OMLT colour sergeant from the Grenadier Guards, believes that we should be supporting his team.

The matter is referred to Phil, the company commander, sometimes known as ‘Angry Phil’. A tallish man with a shaved head, Phil’s decision confirms my thoughts. It is agreed that my team will provide support to the OMLT (and the Afghan national army platoon for which they are responsible) as well as to C Company. We will base ourselves at the company’s medical facility and visit the OMLT/ANA compound to see patients on request. Any urgent or trauma cases will be brought to our facility.

The fact that I am a nursing officer also causes some confusion. The infantry are used to having medical officers (doctors) and medics; during the early stages of the tour, I struggle to get the troops to understand that I am not a doctor. Numerous conversations with soldiers in which I explain that I am a nurse end with them replying “Okay, Doc.” One day Phil asks me to explain the differences in capability between a doctor, a nurse and a medic. There are differences not just in knowledge and skills, but also in mind-set; some of these can be quite subtle and nuanced, and I struggle to articulate them sufficiently well to give Phil the clear-cut answer he is looking for.

After humping our kit into the medical facility, Geordie and I start to make ourselves at home. The medical room is large enough to have two stretchers set up side by side and has fixed shelving on three walls, on which various packages of medical equipment and pharmaceuticals are laid.  The walls are rendered smooth with plaster and the bare concrete floor is laden with dust and sand.

At one end of the room, next to the door, sits a tatty two-seat sofa upholstered in blue leather, along with some camp stools and fold-up chairs. This area serves as both our waiting room and communal space. Off the main room is a narrow corridor running left to right; to the right is my room, adjacent to Geordie’s. At the other is a kitchen and another bedroom, earmarked for the two military policemen who are expected to arrive in the next few days.

On the evening of our arrival, Phil gathers the officers and senior non-commissioned officers for a briefing. Before the company starts patrolling, there will be a couple of days training which will consist of a round robin of specialist weapons familiarisation, demolitions and medical training, for which Geordie and I will be responsible. I want to ensure that the men are all confident in the application of the combat application tourniquet (CAT), can apply an emergency care bandage (field dressing) to a bleeding limb and apply a seal to a penetrating chest wound. If an infantryman can keep a wounded comrade alive long enough for either Geordie or myself to get to them, the battle will be half won.

Over the years, I have delivered many similar training sessions to bored soldiers who have shown little interest. With the prospect of combat looming, the troops are attentive during the medical training and work hard to get it right. I am pleased.

A day or two later, Phil issues orders for the company’s first patrol. It will be a limited foray to some of the closest villages lying to the north of COP Zeebrugge, with the intent of providing reassurance to the local population. Ideally we will demonstrate that we can provide them with security while also gaining information on the enemy’s strengths and dispositions in the area.

Geordie is to provide medical support for this patrol, moving at the rear of the company snake (single file deployment) with the CSM’s party. The CSM’s role is to facilitate rearward evacuation of casualties and forward movement of ammunition and water. Although we are operating in a contested battlespace with a 360-degree threat profile the logistic support concept remains linear, with the understanding that being to the rear of the company snake makes you no less likely to come under enemy attack.

For this first patrol, I remain back at the base to provide medical cover for the troops who have not deployed: the operations room team, the mortar section, those providing base security and the chef, who is busy cooking the next hot meal to be served soon after the company’s return. As with the CSM’s party, these men are not out on patrol but they can still become wounded. The base could come under attack from mortars, 107-mm rockets or direct-fire weapons such as machine guns, and the chef could accidentally pour boiling water over himself. I decide to camp out in the operations room for the duration of the patrol, which enables me to listen in on the radio net and receive an early warning of any casualties.

For each patrol, Dave remains in the operations room to monitor the progress of the patrol, record events on the big operations map and maintain the flow of communications between Phil’s tactical headquarters (Company Tac), the platoons on the ground, the platoon that provides over-watch from the high peaks behind the base and the joint operations centre in Camp Bastion. It is a pleasure to watch Dave perform this role; he clearly relishes what he is doing and goes about his business with a boyish enthusiasm.

The communications kit in the ops room generates significant heat which, despite the air-conditioning, combines with the rising temperature of the day to turn the operations room into something of a sauna. Early on in the patrol, Dave removes his shirt and lights a cigarette, announcing with a broad grin that this is now officially a smoking area.

The patrol passes without incident and the company returns, having patrolled out for a distance of about three kilometres without sight of anyone, friendly, hostile or neutral. During the patrol, an interpreter has been listening in to Taliban communications traffic using an ICOM scanner. The interpreter tells Dave that the enemy has been observing the company throughout the patrol and provides a running commentary of their observations. Towards the end of the patrol, Phil gives orders for the mortar section to put down a smokescreen to cover the company’s extraction.

Outside, in the weapon pits that sit next to my medical facility, the mortar section commander shouts fire mission instructions to his men; there is a frenzy of activity as the correct ammunition nature is selected, the range and elevation set and the figures shouted back in confirmation. Within minutes the mortar line comes alive with a series of deafening reports, echoed a short while later by the distant crump of impacting smoke bombs. I take a wander outside to watch the mortar line in action.

Looking north across the valley, I see several pillars of smoke merge to form a smokescreen which drifts on the gentle breeze. On the nearside of the smokescreen, about 800 metres away, I observe the company strung out over a distance of about one kilometre, making its way back along the road into the village of Tangye to return to base. Twenty minutes later, the last man is home. The first patrol of the tour has been completed without a shot being fired. Next time, it will be a different story.

Copyright Barry Alexander 2016

On Afghanistan’s Plains is available in paperback and kindle edition from Amazon in the United States and UK/Europe


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