On Friday 13th March, 2015 a National Service of Commemoration is due to be held in the UK to mark the end of combat operations in Afghanistan. The event is an opportunity for the country to collectively pay tribute to the contribution made by all those who served in Afghanistan and who worked in the county from 2001 to 2014.
The conflict came at a heavy toll with the number of deaths in Afghanistan standing at 453 British service personnel and MOD civilians. It was a controversial and incredibly complex conflict with the situation in the country changing so often it was almost impossible to keep track of what was going on at times.
Despite the higher-level political situation that caused the governments of countries involved in Afghanistan headaches over the years during the conflict and despite what opinions you may have on Afghanistan and the part our country played in it one thing that I believe needs to be acknowledged is the commitment and sacrifice made by all those personnel who served there.
During 2010 in my role at that time as an Army photographer I was sent over to Afghanistan on a short but very busy trip. The outline brief was to cover a range of stories to document various aspects of military life. I covered subjects such as the initial refresher training that all military personnel that regardless of their job must go through when they arrive ‘in theatre’. I covered some of the important and life saving work conducted by medical personnel and RAF crews. I photographed a visit by the Prime Minister, David Cameron as he met and spoke with some of the troops in Camp Bastion. Along with this I also looked at the training and mentoring of Afghan Army soldiers who were key in the longer term plan for them to eventually take over all military operations in the country.
I then headed to the ‘Green Zone’ and covered Royal Engineers who were clearing main routes of Improvised Explosive Device’s that would allow safe passage along the roads for the military and the local civilian population.
For the final stages of the trip I joined patrols into the ‘Green Zone’ with soldiers from the 1st Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles based in the Nahr-e Saraj region of Helmand Province and soldiers from 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment who patrolled daily from patrol bases in the Shah Zad area.
The ‘Green Zone’ is a narrow strip of lush vegetation which cuts through the desert province of Helmand along the Helmand river. The nature of the ground had provided ideal fighting ground for the Taliban, offering a degree of cover unavailable in the surrounding desert. It was in this area that British Troops saw some of the most intense fighting during their deployment.
Below are some of the photographs that I shot during that trip to Afghanistan and I will go on to discuss the part that Royal Wootton Bassett had in commemorating those troops killed in Afghanistan and before that Iraq. Then I’ve included a couple of photofilm pieces that I produced after I returned from the deployment. You’ll find the links to them below the pictures…
The view from a C17 transport aircraft as it flies over Afghanistan before landing at Camp Bastion loaded with troops and equipment.
The pilot of a C17 transport aircraft checks the cockpit instruments before landing at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan.
After arriving in Afghanistan British soldiers march through a dust storm on their way to rifle ranges to continue their mandatory
Reception, Staging and Onward Integration (RSOI) training before deploying from Camp Bastion to their final locations.
British soldiers sit in on a briefing as a heavy dust storm blows over the desert as they conduct their mandatory
Reception, Staging and Onward Integration (RSOI) training at Camp Bastion.
A soldier from the Counter Improvised Explosive Device Task Force briefs newly arrived soldiers
on the methods of finding and clearing Improvised Explosive devices as a Blackhawk helicopter flies past.
British soldiers practice and refresh their patrolling skills as they undergo RSOI – Reception Staging and Onward Integration – training in Camp Bastion.
The British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks to British Troops in Camp Bastion.
Corporal Samantha Wadelik lives in Glasgow and worked in Wishaw General Hospital as a Reservist.
She was serving in Camp Bastion Hospital as a Radiologist.
Royal Engineers destroy an Improvised Explosive Device during the clearance of ‘Route Dorset’ in the Green Zone.
An Afghan Army officer speaks to his troops during a graduation ceremony for around 100 Afghan Army soldiers at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan. The camp, situated next to Camp Bastion is the base for 1 Marine Expeditionary Force, United States Marine Corps who at that time played the lead role in the training of new soldiers in the Afghan Army.
Gurkhas from C Company 1st Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles cross a stream as they patrol from Patrol Base 2 in the
Nahr-e Saraj region of Helmand province in a joint patrol with soldiers from the Afghan National Army.
Gurkhas from C Company 1st Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles discover a field of cannabis plants in a compound in the Green Zone.
A radio operator from C Company 1st Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles patrols through long grass in the Nahr-e Saraj region of Helmand province
during a joint patrol with soldiers from the Afghan National Army.
A Gurkha soldier from C Company 1st Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles sits in a field in the Nahr-e Saraj region of
Helmand province as the patrol pauses.
A shura, or meeting is held with local elders in the ‘Green Zone’ to discuss the building of a new road that would allow greater freedom of movement for the local Afghan population.
An Afghan man sits on the outskirts of a village in the Nahr-e Saraj region of Helmand province.
The mortar line fires from inside Patrol Base 4 in Helmand Province in support of ground troops.
A vehicle is illuminated with the red glow of its interior lights at dusk at a Patrol Base in Helmand Province.
A soldiers travels to Patrol Base 4 in Helmand Province in the back of an armoured vehicle.
A soldier from the 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment poses for a picture holding his GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun).
A machine-gunner from Burma Company, The 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment waves through his fellow soldiers during a firefight
in the Green Zone in Helmand Province.
A Section Commander from Burma Company The 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment moves, under fire, along a ditch giving
orders to his men as a machine gun fires in support behind him during a patrol in the Green Zone in Helmand Province.
A young soldier sits and rests in a compound immediately after a heavy firefight in the Green Zone.
As the commemoration service is due to take place it might also be fitting to mention the town of Royal Wootton Bassett. A small town in northern Wiltshire. It became known throughout the country and the world as a town that honours the servicemen and women killed on operations both in Iraq and then Afghanistan. Starting off with a small number of people who noticed that the funeral cars were passing through the town some members of the British Legion then stopped and acknowledged the passing vehicle. In a short space of time this show of respect grew until it was not just the people of Wootton Bassett who attended but people from all over the area and indeed the country made the trip there.
Each and every time, regardless of weather or time of day the road through the centre of town was lined with people who all fell silent as the cortege approached. Family members standing with quiet dignity in their grief moved forward with flowers and placed them on the passing car. Current and former servicemen and women standing in uniform saluted. The Standards held proudly by members of the Royal British Legion were lowered. Young people looked on and a wave quiet respect passed across the gathering crowd which had come to represent the collective grief and sadness of a country.
Family members of a soldier killed in Afghanistan hold yellow roses as they wait the arrival of the cortege in Royal Wootton Bassett.
The body of a soldier killed during operations in Afghanistan is repatriated back to the UK.
The cortege for two soldiers killed in Afghanistan passes through Royal Wootton Bassett. The town became renowned across the world
for the way it became the focus for the grief of the public and for the country and also for the way
it honoured those killed during operations in Afghanistan and Iraq with the dignified way they greeted the cortege as it passed.
An image I shot on a small grassy hill outside the RAF Brize Norton base. After the repatriation ceremonies for troops killed in Afghanistan were
moved here from RAF Lyneham. It shows the diversity of people from all backgrounds and all ages who all felt an obligation
to attend a repatriation and show their respect to a soldier killed during operations.
The following are a couple of multimedia pieces that I put together on my return. Some of the pictures appear in both films but hopefully they give an idea on the conditions, the environment and the people in Afghanistan.
In one of the patrol bases I visited I was shown a poem written by a British Army officer, Lieutenant Ryan Davies. After chatting with another officer, Lt Jennifer Macmaster who served with the same unit I asked her if she would read out the poem as I recorded her voice. I then used some of my photographs from the trip to accompany the eloquently read poem and produced this piece:
Several months later I was photographing the Saltburn Folk Festival. During the course of the weekend I ran into one of the musician’s called Bob Fortune . Bob is a very accomplished Folk musician and after chatting to him he kindly gave me one of his CD’s. One of the songs on the CD was called ‘Afghanistan‘. He had written the song for his daughter who at that time was a soldier serving in Afghanistan with the British military.
I knew that the song would make a good soundtrack to a multimedia piece so after asking Bob for his permission to use the track to accompany some of my pictures I laid the track over some of the pictures to produce the following:
As for me this trip was a fitting conclusion to my military career and was my final trip to a conflict zone. A couple of years later and following a career that had spanned 22-years including nine operational deployments to areas of conflict around the world I finished my Army service. From a young soldier patrolling the streets of Northern Ireland, through Bosnia and then Kosovo and to the Iraq war in 2003 and finally to Afghanistan. I have visited some of these places on more than one occasion and each time it is a challenging, demanding and dangerous environment. An environment that unless you have been there it is difficult to comprehend.
Over those years, in my previous job before becoming an Army photographer, I’ve lived for days at a time in a hole in the ground. Heard my belly rumbling as I’ve needed a good meal. Gone weeks at a time without the means to have a good shower. Had rats crawl over me. Seen extremes of heat, cold and wet. I’ve seen and smelled the mass graves of those poor souls murdered by Serbs. I’ve called in artillery fire several times onto Iraqi positions. I’ve been spat at and called some very imaginative names and I’ve had bricks and stones thrown at me. I’ve seen senseless and cruel acts. I’ve been shot at numerous times – occasionally coming closer than one might particularly want! I’ve had RPG’s fired at my vehicle and I’ve been on the receiving end of many mortar and rocket fire attacks but you know something…none of that matters. Not really. As it all comes with the job. It’s all part of the game and it was something you accept without moaning and thankfully I was able to end my career without injury.
Far more importantly however, during all those mad and chaotic moments I’ve also met some of the bravest, skilled and most dedicated people there are. From all branches of military service and civilian agencies whose commitment, fortitude and sense of humour in the face of complete madness continues to inspire and offers a reality check to draw on when I’m faced with some of the problems that we all face in the course of our regular daily lives. Then there are the civilians. Caught up in situations that nobody wants to be in. Often without any fault of their own and yet despite horrific circumstances still retain, in some cases at least, a sense of hospitality and decency. So for me on what was my final trip in my career, Afghanistan was another opportunity to once again see all of those things and to see the honour and dedication with which people continue to do the things they are asked.
There were however some real issues and problems with our involvement in Afghanistan. Many of these problems will continue to plague the country and will continue to do so for years to come. Some may never be resolved. Hanging over all of this was of course the increasing British fatalities that was gradually wearing away at the resolve of the country to continue with involvement in a conflict thousands of miles away and as an Army Photographer I photographed, as was part of our role, far too many repatriation ceremonies to be under any illusion that it was all going to come for free.
There is always going to be a cost. Both in terms of economics and far more importantly and tragically a human cost. On all sides. But despite the opinions people may have about our involvement in Afghanistan and whatever political views may be held, to which people are absolutely entitled, I also believe that for those men and women who were willing to meet that cost and who put themselves in the places where the danger was very real, some of whom you see in the photographs, then a small acknowledgment of that by the country is the honourable thing to do.
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Images copyright Ian Forsyth / Crown Copyright
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