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A moment that changed my life forever

On 24 September 2012 at 3.30pm, after nine long months in Helmand, I was finally reunited with my children, Harry and Alfie. It was an unforgettable moment of realisation that changed my life forever.

‘AS I HURRY from my train at London Bridge station I glance at my Citizen Divers watch, my constant companion of the last 20 years.

I don’t want to be late for this appointment.

I notice that the black canvas military strap I fitted before departing for Afghan is caked in Helmand Province. Until this moment I’ve been oblivious to this but it’s impossible to miss against the cuff of the white dress shirt I’m wearing under my velvet blazer.

Save for my watch, I’m in full civilian mode, completely invisible amongst the multitude of commuters who criss‑cross the station’s concourse. Except, perhaps, that where they stride with confidence and purpose along unseen tramlines of relentless repetition my own trajectory is less certain. I’m an untethered element cast adrift in the throng.

I make my faltering way to the exit on London Bridge Street where The Shard towers above the railway lines that inspired it. The vast obelisk of glass and steel is a monument to a world of consumerism and excess that I turned my back on, but which I’ve been fighting to protect.

The irony is lost on me. At any moment two beautiful boys will appear at the station entrance and I’m straining to catch my first glimpse of them in the crowd.

Jane and I have been unable to agree on a reunion prior to this moment. Harry and Alfie are not waiting for the plane to touch down at RAF Brize Norton as I’d often daydreamed they might be. Nor are they present when our coach is mobbed by excited families as it swings onto the parade square at Lille Barracks in Aldershot – the start and end point of my Afghan Adventure.

I’ve been a forlorn bystander as colleagues push past me to embrace their partners or bundle their delighted children into their arms. Banners, balloons and even cakes are exchanged along with a multitude of kisses. Some affectionate, some passionate, some X‑rated, but all of them heartfelt. Alone in this welter of excitement, I make my way through the happy throng and head disconsolately towards the camp exit. It dawns on me that I don’t know where I’m going.

I keep walking.

As part of my mandatory ‘decompression’ programme I’m required to spend the next 48 hours on the base. But there’s no accommodation for me. Eventually I’m quartered in a condemned block that is awaiting demolition in another part of the garrison. It is eerily silent, cold and gloomy and matches my mood perfectly.

General George Patton warned that Glory is fleeting. This doesn’t feel like an especially warm welcome from a grateful nation.

In the end it is my sister, Edwina who comes to the rescue. As soon as I’m released from my military bonds of service she takes a day off work to travel to York and collect the boys. We’re in constant contact throughout our respective journeys and so, by accident rather than design, our rendezvous is a railway station. I can’t think of a better location for a reunion.

I catch a glimpse of Harry weaving through the crowd a split second before he’s airborne and hurtling towards me at speed. I have just time to catch him in my arms but not quite enough time to stay on my feet. I go down hard, but the cold stone platform is a feather bed in the joy of that moment. Alfie is only a few paces behind his brother and with a glorious cry of BUNDLE! jumps knees first onto my chest.

We roll around on the floor for a while, just as we’d done on the lawns of Gooseberry Hall five months earlier, oblivious to the commuters who step around and over us. My wonderful sister, who has made it all possible, stands back and allows us to revel in the occasion.

The journey that started at the MOB Price helipad six days and 4,457 miles earlier is finally over.

I’m home at last.

In the years before I became disillusioned with my life of comfortable consumerism I would wake at 5.15am each workday morning in order to fund our pointlessly extravagant existence. In those days Harry and Alfie would often sleep in our bed and I would lie in the dark for a few minutes, enjoying the warmth of my family beside me. It increasingly became the highlight of my day and I wondered why I needed such a large house and quite so many belongings when everything in the world that actually mattered fitted comfortably within the precinct of our double bed.

As Harry and Alfie turn me black and blue with their love on the station concourse, I realise I’ve been right all along to exchange possessions for experiences. I haven’t missed my designer clothes, my trophy house or my luxury goods even once.

Being reunited with my children, on the other hand, is an unforgettable moment that I will treasure for eternity.’

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

Amazon Five Stars A JOURNEY OF LOVE, SERVICE AND ADVENTURE. EXCELLENT!

Amazon Five Stars A MODERN WARFARE LITERARY CLASSIC! OUTSTANDING READ.

Amazon Five Stars ENTERTAINING, THOUGHT-PROVOKING AND COMPULSORY TO READ.

What others are saying about SPIN ZHIRA 

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SAS ROGUE HEROES

A new book, Rogue Heroes by Ben MacIntyre, is published today charting the early days of the Special Air Service.

It reveals how the organisation, which has been shrouded in mystery since its inception in 1941, survived numerous ‘cock-ups’ and obstruction from the army’s upper echelons to become the world-renowned force it is today.

It also reveals that many of its secretive missions behind enemy lines included, in the words of its founder, David Stirling ‘executions in cold blood’.

It seems that little has changed since those early days except that the modern SAS now enjoys the patronage of politicians and senior officers, seduced by raw courage, bravery and ruthless efficiency:

‘Towards the end of our tour a night raid in Rahim, conducted by a joint SAS and Afghan Special Forces team (TF196), resulted in three brothers being gunned down in their compound in front of their wives and children.

Again I found myself in conflict with British Tier One Special Forces. TF196 insisted the men were insurgents, but this claim seemed highly improbable to me. The brothers’ compound was just a short distance from one of our patrol bases and any suspicious activity would almost certainly have come to our attention. Our own J2 Shop had nothing on the men. The general consensus from our analysts was that the SAS, while ruthlessly efficient as always, had directed their special talents against the wrong targets.

When I challenged a TF196 spokesman on their version of events he played their top secret joker once more. Speaking to me by phone from an undisclosed location he said the information was classified. As a known Taliban‑loving apologist and mere part‑time soldier I could not be trusted and had no authority to contradict elite tier one special forces. A short while later I received another telephone call from the charming colonel in Task Force Helmand (TFH) ordering me to drop my line of enquiry. Although he remained amiable I detected a hardening in his tone.

The TFH top brass had silenced me, but the Rahim ‘spin zhiras’ remained determinedly voluble on the subject. They steadfastly maintained the brothers’ innocence and were outraged at the brutal executions in front of the victims’ families. Emissaries were despatched to the patrol base threatening retaliation and demanding an apology and blood money for the relatives. The PB Commander was bitterly angry that the raid had gone ahead without his knowledge, destroying the work his own men had done over the previous six months to marginalise the Taliban and protect the population from insurgent violence.

Shortly after we completed our tour the Rahim patrol base was abandoned and Afghan National Security Forces ceded control of the area to the Taliban. Perhaps these events were not linked to the slaying of the supposed insurgents but, given the long memories of our Afghan hosts, this seemed unlikely to me. Our actions had done nothing to strengthen the legitimacy of the GIRoA government as the Petreus COIN Field Manual had directed.

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

rogue-heroes  SPZ001_Front Cover with reviews

GREEN LINES

Army Sergeant Major Glenn Haughton, the senior non-commissioned officer in the British Army has recently published a set of six ‘Green Lines’. He describes them, not as a code or test but ‘the lines that I try and live by every single day’.

Glenn was the “Sarn’t Major” in Afghanistan, a man I feared and respected in equal measure.

glen-haughton-on-fitness

I see from his lines that it must be from him that I developed a deep mistrust for any man in uniform whose appearance might indicate an inability to meet mandated fitness requirements:

‘TEN MONTHS AFTER returning from Afghanistan I attended an Armed Forces Day parade at which I found myself standing next to two hugely overweight TA captains from another unit. To me they looked ridiculous, bulging out of their uniforms, Sam Browne belts straining to contain enormous bellies, rolls of fat flowing over their shirt collars. By this time I’d been conditioned by the Grenadiers to take an instant dislike to any man in uniform whose appearance might indicate an inability to meet mandated fitness requirements. These two were so vast they would struggle to find Taliban Hunting Club t‑shirts in their XXXXL size.

Given the occasion, and in the interests of inter‑unit cohesion, I bit my tongue and introduced myself. Ignoring my rank seniority they looked me up and down and resumed their conversation. Standing beside them I could not help but overhear their discussion. Unchecked by my presence they were making offensive and deeply critical comments about a female senior officer who was leading their unit’s marching contingent. It was clear they both felt that a ‘lumpy jumper’ was not up to this task and that they could do a better job themselves. Since they were not only obese but also overtly and crudely sexist, I was unable to resist the invitation I felt they’d just given me. I interrupted them, asking which part of the HQLF directive on physical fitness they had failed to understand.

They looked at me blankly.

“Come on fellas”, I said. “Take a look at yourselves. When was the last time you pulled on a pair of shorts and went for a run? No one’s going to let you lead a parade while you both look like Mister fucking Blobby.”

Both men wore Afghanistan medals, along with a clutch of others that indicated many years service in the reserves. For all I knew they performed some vital role, repairing shattered lives in the Bastion hospital perhaps. It was possible they had once been flat-bellied, steely eyed killers who had let themselves go – although this really was stretching credulity. I should certainly have exercised better judgement myself, admonishing them for their inappropriate comments rather than countering with a few of my own, but HQLF is right. Physical fitness is an indispensable aspect of leadership. These two, however crucial their individual efforts were in the defence of the realm, had long ago relinquished the right to lead or command soldiers, even on a public parade in central London, let alone anywhere near the sharp end of British foreign policy.

Their stunned reaction to my outburst was to be short‑lived. I observed them a couple of hours later merrily stuffing their faces at the buffet lunch laid on by the local authority to celebrate the ‘outstanding contribution made by our Armed Forces’. I knew I was a victim of my own prejudice, just as they were of theirs, but I couldn’t help but feel resentment that these two were cashing in on the heroism of others. I uncharitably reckoned that their outstanding contribution had most likely been to Pizza Hut revenues at Camp Bastion.

Later that day, as a media trained officer I was tasked to give a television interview to Ria Chatterjee for ITV London. Ria is a very attractive young woman and I was a little distracted by her beauty. I stumbled through a series of rambling responses to her questions, full of ‘ums’ and ‘ers’, all of which I knew would be unusable in the two minute segment she was preparing. Concealing her frustration at the incompetent spokesperson with whom she’d been saddled, Ria eventually asked me why Armed Forces Day should be important to the people of London. I told her it was an opportunity to show some solidarity with the men and women of the armed forces – who put themselves in harm’s way to keep others safe. It wasn’t a perfect delivery but it was a good enough answer and Ria used it to close out her report.

Even as I spoke the words I couldn’t find it in myself to apply them to the two chauvinist Blobby’s gorging themselves in the marquee behind me.’

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

AppleWatch revives ancient art form

The sketch feature on the AppleWatch has resulted in the unexpected resurgence of an art form dating back to the Ice Age about 28,000 years ago.

Sam Roberts @notsam explains:
sam-notsam
Phallic observance of this nature was widespread in Afghanistan:

DURING THE FEW days I’d been away, I discovered that in my absence someone had ‘cocked’ the notepad I’d been foolish enough to leave in plain sight on my desk.

Cocking was an obsession in the headquarters, a symptom of the sexual repression under which we all laboured. Both British and Danish commands imposed a strict no sex rule which, for the most part, was observed.

This was not the result of a commendable adherence to military discipline. Had an opportunity to engage in sexual congress presented itself I’m pretty certain that most of my colleagues, like me, would have set aside all considerations of military discipline and good order – but opportunity did not present. 

For men at their sexual peak – and even for those of us who had already passed that particular milestone – this enforced abstinence inevitably had its frustrations which were expressed in a number of ways. Cocking was one of them.

As far as I am aware this is an exclusively male obsession and involves the covert drawing of phallic imagery. This is nothing new of course. Such representations have been found dating back to the Ice Age around 28,000 years ago, and appear in many ancient cultures and religions. But the art reached new heights in MOB Price. Penis imagery would mysteriously appear on notebooks, notice boards, signage, PowerPoint presentations and operational staff work. An unusual geographical feature to the north‑east of PB Clifton was even referred to on our maps as ‘cock and balls’.

On one occasion I attended a packed briefing session in which a senior officer scribbled a note intended for Colonel James, who was sitting across the room, and handed it to the man next to him to pass down the table. By the time it reached its destination it had passed through the hands of a dozen or so officers and warrant officers, many of whom had surreptitiously cocked it. Although it was impossible to overlook the images with which it was now adorned, Colonel James accepted the note without so much as a raised eyebrow.cocked

Back in civvy street, probably even back in barracks in the UK, Victorian prudishness and political correctness would not have tolerated phallic observance of this nature. HR departments would be called in, enquiries held, perpetrators reprimanded or even sacked. But in MOB Price phallophoric celebration of the Lingam, and to a lesser extent the Yoni, went unchecked.

apple-watch-cocked

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

Snow conditions look good

It’s good to learn that all those trapped overnight in the Aguille du Midi cable car have been rescued safely. I wouldn’t fancy spending the night suspended 12,000 feet up in high winds.

While the media now question cable car safety I can’t help noticing that the snow conditions look great. Is it a sign for the season ahead? I certainly hope so.

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

 

5,313 IED events in Helmand.

According to Forces TV, the MoD has released a one-off report detailing the injuries suffered by UK troops during Operation Herrick in Helmand. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) accounted for 5,313 ‘events’ resulting in traumatic injury to 1, 982 British service personnel.

By the time I arrived in Afghanistan in January 2012 the IED was the Taliban weapon of choice. In nine months the combined Afghan, Danish and British force with whom I worked suffered 117 IED strikes and discovered a further 241 IEDs:

‘As the Grenadiers or fighting Ribs of Inkerman Company knew only too well, living with the constant possibility that your every next step may trigger an IED slowly and inevitably degrades the human spirit. It pervades every waking moment and is a constant and exhausting factor. Every breath must be carefully savoured lest it be your last. Every footfall must be critically considered and evaluated before being placed. Each tread is committed with unyielding trepidation. The euphoria of one safe step is immediately replaced by apprehension at the next and so on and so on until …

According to Aristotle, “Fear is pain arising from the anticipation of evil.” Not being as erudite as the great Greek polymath, for me, fear is the ever‑present possibility that my fellow man has carefully concealed a yellow palm oil container packed with a volatile mixture of ammonium nitrate and aluminium in the ground beneath my feet. It is the screaming anticipation that my very next step will initiate this crude mixture and a dark and powerful blast will remove my legs and my manhood and leave me bloodied and broken in the dirt.

As friends and colleagues fall victim to these devices and are forever mutilated or killed in circumstances or locations you have visited yourself, it becomes possible to reflect not that you have been lucky, but that you must be next. It’s a conviction that slowly and inexorably takes hold in the darkest recesses of your exhausted mind and grows like a malignant cancer.

During the course of my patrols in the Gap I witnessed young Guardsmen so overcome with fear that they would vomit at the front gates of the base before bravely stepping off on a patrol they have convinced themselves will be their last. I have also seen men so exhausted by constant vigilance that they lose all reason and stumble about blindly, no longer caring if they live or die.

Both are equally distressing to observe. But in this I was not always a mere observer.

On one patrol I was myself so overwhelmed by the certainty that I was about to take my last few steps on this earth that I became rooted to the spot unable to move either forward or back. It took the gentle and patient persuasion of a better man half my age to guide me, temporarily broken and useless, to safety.

I would hear IEDs detonated by other callsigns, sometimes less than a kilometre distant. Or I would join a platoon for a few days, to learn soon afterwards that one of their number had been grievously wounded.

One device claimed the legs of another London Regiment soldier, Lance Corporal John Wilson with whom I’d trained and prepared for deployment, another took the foot of Jay, an SF soldier whom I’d got to know. Jay had postponed his end of tour date when yet more faults on the ageing RAF Tristar fleet had delayed his replacement’s arrival into theatre.

I tried to convince him that he didn’t need to go back out on the ground but he ignored my advice. When the news came through that his patrol had been whacked by an IED and had a serious casualty I instantly feared it must be him, and so it proved to be. Some reckoned he’d been lucky – the device only partially detonated and his injuries could have been much worse – but I knew that Jay’s luck had run out with his chuff chart.’

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

Major Joe Schofield, MBE

One of the last great warriors of his generation, Major Joe Schofield, MBE who joined the SAS in 1941 and finally retired in 1979 has died at the age of 90.

Joe was one of the originals who served alongside David Stirling and Paddy Mayne in North Africa, operating behind the German lines to gain intelligence, destroy enemy aircraft and attack their supply and reinforcement routes.  He was still serving 32 years after the end of Word War Two when SAS ‘observers’ joined members of the West German counter-terrorism group GSG9 to storm Lufthansa Flight 181 in Mogadishu, rescuing all 86 passengers on board.

I wonder what Joe made of this collaboration with former adversaries? Although, in retirement, he was tireless in organising visits to France to lay wreaths on the graves of those members of the SAS who had been killed (and, in some instances, executed), I’m sure he recognised it as a sign of progress.

Rest in Peace, Joe.

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

 

The secret life of an army officer

Writing anonymously in The Guardian an officer reveals what life is really like in today’s army where ‘recent redundancies have left many people doing upwards of three jobs to cover the workload.’

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

 

Did the UK leave Helmand too soon?

Two years after British Forces pulled out of Camp Bastion, Jonathan Beale, the BBC’s Defence Correspondent asks: Did the UK leave Afghanistan’s Helmand too soon?

The answer is yes and no.

‘No’ in the sense that one definition of madness is to keep on doing the same thing over and over again and expecting something different to happen. US and UK counter-insurgency doctrine is childishly optimistic and doesn’t work. Two failed counter-insurgency interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are clear evidence of this, but the doctrine still stubbornly persists. Staying in Helmand  on these terms would have done nothing more than prolong the agony.

‘Yes’ in the sense that, with the right doctrine, more could have and should have been done. But it requires a shift in mindset as well as doctrine. Current political and military thinking is based on minimums. The minimum number of troops committed for the minimum amount of time. The best logic for staying in Helmand is to honour the sacrifice of the fallen, so that they did not die in vain. This is not a winning formula.

If we are to return to Helmand it must be with a new counter-insurgency doctrine, a clear understanding of the desired outcome and a realistic time-frame measured in decades rather than years.

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

Purchase your copy of SPIN ZHIRA

Incompetence and Arrogance at the MOD

The Times, 05 November 2012
Alfie and I make the front page of The Times today. Apparently Alfie’s application for enlistment into the Reserves has been delayed by red tape.

In November 2012, Deborah Haynes, The Times Defence Editor used a photo of Alfie and me to illustrate an article she had written exposing failings in Army Recruiting. Four years later and she is still writing about it.

It is yet another example of the extent of the incompetence and arrogance at the MoD. Despite obvious failings, little has been done to address the issue. As General Melchett once said, ‘If nothing else works a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through’.

The impact is considerable. It creates significant gaps in our defence capability, leaving the army undermanned and the nation vulnerable. The knock-on effect is to increase the demands on our serving soldiers who are required to do more with less to fill these capability gaps which, in turn damages morale and well-being.

But perhaps the most depressing aspect of this astonishing mismanagement and waste is that it appears to have gone unchecked without any apparent accountability or culpability. Even now the MoD seems to be in denial, insisting ‘action has been taken’.

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SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

Purchase your copy of SPIN ZHIRA