November 1, 2012
I am delighted to bring my ‘Women in the Military’ series to a close with a bang-up-to-date look at the lives of women serving in Afghanistan in 2012. The following images are by Alison Baskerville, who has kindly given her permission for me to display them here.
Alison Baskerville is a photojournalist and documentary photographer. She studied at Westminster University and has a MA in photojournalism. Her career started in the RAF where she served for 12 years seeing active service in Bosnia and Iraq. It was whilst in Iraq that she became inspired to capture her surroundings on an old Nikon film camera and gave her the motivation and desire to change career paths and become a photojournalist.
In May 2012 The Royal British Legion sponsored her on an embedded position with our Armed Forces in Afghanistan to develop a body of work exploring the changing roles of women within the Forces. Alison was granted unparalleled access to the British Army’s Female Engagement Officers (FEOs) and the women at the Afghan National Army’s training centre in Kabul.
Captain Anna Crossley is a Female Engagement Officer in the Upper Gereshk Valley of Helmand. She is heading out to join soldiers from 3 Rifles as they prepare for a patrol to help Anna gain access into a local compound.
FEOs are drawn from female volunteers from across the army who receive specialist cultural and language training to enable them to carry out their role. Anna’s language training has helped her to gain access to compounds and the residents are intrigued by her. On many occasions she often pretends to have what she refers to as a ‘Helmand husband’ to help her gain rapport with the women who do not understand the concept of remaining unmarried.
There is little in the way of privacy within the check points and patrol bases of Helmand. The women use their mosquito tents to provide some personal space, often decorating them with gifts from loved ones.
Preserving femininity in the desert. Captain Alice Homer is an officer with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. She has just spent six months running a small section of soldiers in Camp Bastion.
Known informally as a ‘death letter’, most women will write a message to their family which will be kept somewhere safe and only delivered if the worst should happen.
Keeping hair in a french plait helps secure it under her beret throughout long, sweaty days.
Patrol bases within Helmand have limited showering facilities which will often consist of a hosepipe in a tent and only one shower for both men and women. A small hand made sign provides the only guard to privacy
Favourite toiletries are an often requested item in care parcels sent from friends and family
A bucket is the only way to keep clothes clean at FOB Oulette in the Upper Gereshk Valley in Helmand
Non-issue underwear is a way for the women to keep a sense of their own identity and a chance to add some colour to their surroundings
A contrast of cultures. Young Afghan women arrive at the Afghan National Police Head Quarters in Lashkar Gah where they hope to receive training and learn basic literacy skills. One day they hope to graduate and gain some element of independence.
“It all starts with education. If we can teach these young girls that they have a right to be free then perhaps we can change things for the next generation of women for Afghanistan.” Says Gullali, Head of the Department of Womens’ Affairs in Gereshk, Helmand Province
Jessica French will return home to her boyfriend and family. She is also looking forward to getting back into her favourite sport, sky diving.
“When I meet soldiers like Jess, I hope that women from Afghanistan will see her and also want to put on a uniform, get a job and learn to be independent” says Gulalli.
At the end of her tent Jess and the other girls have created their own ‘lounge’. It’s a space where the girls can escape to the very different world of Downton Abbey.
Jess French takes time in between patrols to clean her personal weapon, a 9mm Sig Sauer pistol.
Jess often works with women in other roles. Harriet (left) is a qualified army vet. They prepare to head out on a joint patrol to engage with local Afghan families to train them in basic veterinary care.
At the Kabul Military Training Centre Afghan female recruits take part in a 20 week course with the hope of becoming an officer in the Afghan National Army. Captain Susanna Wallis is a Royal Signals Officer who has volunteered to mentor these women.
The women take a break after practicing their marching skills. Although the training takes place in a separate facility to the men Susanna has pushed for the women to graduate alongside the male soldiers.
Anna arrives home at RAF Brize Norton at the end of her seven month tour and is met by her father Alan and mother Carol.
The photographs are being displayed in support of The Royal British Legion throughout the Poppy Appeal.
Where: Gallery @Oxo, Oxo Tower Wharf, South Bank, London, SE1 9PH
When: Exhibition open to public 11am to 6pm 25 October to 11 November 2012
Alison Baskerville is on Twitter: @AliBaskerville
July 9, 2012
Continuing my ‘Women in the Military’ series is a woman who was never officially part of a regiment, instead she bore the rather disparaging name ‘dependent’ that is inflicted upon all spouses and their offspring no matter how independent they may be. Sally Thorneloe was married to a commanding officer. Being the partner of someone in a position of responsibility means that you need to work as a team to make life a success. Their failures are your failures and their triumphs are enjoyed together, you rely on that teamwork to succeed. Sally Thorneloe became something harder still than a commanding officer’s wife. She became his widow.
On Sunday 2nd August 2009 I remember exactly where I was. I was sat at my breakfast table with a copy of The Sunday Telegraph in my hand. I remember picking up the newspaper and seeing Sally Thorneloe’s picture. It was a moment that will stay with me for a long time.
I only know three Welsh Guards, and of those three I only know one well. I don’t know Sally Thorneloe, but there was something about the way she was looking into the camera that instantly, deeply affected me. I did not need to read the headline, or the caption. I did not even really need to read the rest of the article, and by the end of it I was sobbing. What had happened to her was glaringly obvious from the look in her eyes. The character, the defiance. The indescribable pain, yet the overriding determination not to be seen as weak. I won’t pretend I know what it’s like to lose the love of your life, but I felt a sudden affinity with those eyes. They told the story of every military partner’s worst nightmare, but they also told of strength.
I won’t rip off the Sunday Telegraph article so delicately composed by Olga Craig just weeks after Lt Col Thorneloe’s death, so instead of retelling her story I have included it below, linked and verbatim. I would simply like to pay tribute to a lady who lost ‘her best friend, her soul mate and her hero’ almost exactly three years ago, on the 1st July 2009. The Welsh Guards are currently deployed again in Afghanistan.
Widow of Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe: ‘Rupert found his moment of Heaven in Helmand’
By Olga Craig, Assistant Editor, The Sunday Telegraph
7:00AM BST 02 Aug 2009
It was one of those perfect English summer Sundays: the sort that are heaven-sent for a languid, laughter-filled family day out. Sally Thorneloe and her daughters, Hannah and Sophie, had spent the day with family friends in Ketterick. Hannah, four, and the boisterous two-year-old Sophie, had squealed with delight as they bounced on a trampoline in the back garden. ”They kept calling out: ‘Daddy’s coming home soon. Daddy’s coming home’,” Mrs Thorneloe says, a slow, bittersweet smile spreading across her face at the memory. On the way back to their Aldershot home, stuck in a long traffic jam, Mrs Thorneloe pulled into a lay-by and tried to entertain her exhausted daughters with word games. ”Then my mobile rang. And it was Rupert. It was such a lovely, lovely surprise,” she says.
No one knows when an innocuous phone call, an everyday, chance conversation, may be the last words one will exchange with a loved one. But, as the wife of a British officer on active service in the desert heat and horror of Helmand province, Sally Thorneloe knew that each phone call from her husband, no matter how brief or how snatched, were words to be cherished.
”And as the date of his return home comes closer and closer those calls become more buoyant, more carefree,” Mrs Thorneloe says. ”When your husband first leaves you feel the separation so keenly. It’s difficult not to become frustrated and a little terse at times on the phone. But as the homecoming comes closer, you become closer. You make plans. There was our fifth wedding anniversary on his first week home. And the girls were so excited.” As Mrs Thorneloe chatted to her husband, gaily reminding him that it was less than three weeks until he would be home, Sophie began calling out: ”Daddy, Daddy.”
”It was her new word. She had learned it since she had last spoken to her father. Rupert heard her in the background and he just couldn’t believe it. I put her on and she was shouting: ”Daddy, Daddy.” Rupert was so thrilled. It was the first time he had heard her say it. He told me he couldn’t wait to see and hear Sophie call him Daddy when he got home. Then he talked to Hannah and she told him all about her day. It was such a lovely, relaxed, family phone call and I’m so glad I wasn’t cross with Rupert about anything.”
Sophie’s father never did get to see her say Daddy. That final, fateful phone call, on Sunday, June 28, was his last to his family. Three days later, on July 1, Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, the charismatic Commanding Officer 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, died when his Viking armoured vehicle was blasted from beneath by a Taliban improvised explosive device (IED).
His death has meant that Sally Thorneloe, loving wife and devoted mother will, for ever more, be defined by the unenviable sobriquet that history has thrust upon her: widow of the highest ranking British officer to be killed on active service for more than a quarter of a century. Not since Lt Colonel H Jones died in 1982, during an assault at Goose Green in the Falklands War, has the Army lost such a senior officer on the battlefield.
When Lt Colonel Thorneloe, 39, died, alongside his driver, Trooper Joshua Hammond, 18, en route to the front to rendezvous with his men, the Army lost an inspirational and outstandingly talented officer. At his funeral service in the Guards Chapel at the Wellington Barracks in London on July 16, which was attended by Prince Charles, Colonel in Chief and a close friend, the then head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt and scores of senior officers,
Lt Colonel Thorneloe was described as ”quite simply the best of his generation” and as a leader who was ”calm in a crisis and, in success, modest”.
Sally Thorneloe, however, lost much, much more. She lost the man she says was: ”my best friend, my soul mate and my hero. The man who always made me feel like I was the best person ever when I was with him. He was such a big man in every sense. I felt so protected and secure and loved around Rupert. And I miss him so very, very much. Shortly before he died, he told me in a phone call that he had been ‘out on his travels’, as he called being on patrol, the night before. ‘Oh Sal,’ he said, ‘last night I slept in a mulberry grove. And it was so beautiful. It was a little like waking in the Garden of gethsemane. I fell asleep listening to Pachelbel’s Canon on my iPod.’ I found the thought of that so comforting: there he was, in Helmand, yet he had found his moment of Heaven.”
Lost in silence for a moment, tears threatening and her lips trembling, Mrs Thorneloe turns to the mantelpiece, picking up a framed photograph taken on her wedding day – July 24, 2004. The black and white picture of her and Rupert – she clutching her bouquet and hitching up her wedding gown, he, a big bear of a man in top hat and tails, beaming proudly – was taken in Oxford moments after the ceremony in St Giles church. ”I love this photograph but I only spotted something in it last week,” she says, her voice breaking now. ”We are walking past a placard advertising a recital of the Canon. We had just had it played at our wedding, it was Rupert’s favourite piece of music. And, then, of course,” she says, the tears now falling, ”it was played in the Guards Chapel, at Rupert’s funeral.”
In the weeks since her husband died Mrs Thorneloe, 43, has learned more than one would ever want to know of the anguished world of the bereaved. ”I have been given a life that I don’t want,” she says. ”Facing the future is a bleak and unforgiving thought. I keep thinking how long will I feel like this? But my girls are my salvation and they are my future. Sophie is so terribly young and, realistically, the possibility of her having any meaningful memories of Rupert are so heartbreakingly low. She still runs around the house calling for her Daddy and when she sees him on television she jumps up and down with excitement, but she is much too young to understand death. She knows something is wrong. She knows that Daddy hasn’t come home. She knows that everyone is sad, that everything is different. And I know that nothing will ever be the same.”
Telling her older daughter Hannah of her father’s death was, Mrs Thorneloe admits, one of the most painful moments of her life. ”I was told of Rupert’s death late in the evening of the day before Hannah’s school broke up. The next day, when she came home, the padre was with me. I sat her down on the sofa, where she always lay with Rupert, and said: ”I have something very sad to tell you. You know that Daddy’s been at work in Afghanistan. Very sadly Daddy has died and he can’t come back.’
”Hannah looked so bereft, so bewildered. She got upset and then asked if she could do some colouring. Children live in the moment and are naïve about pain, and I’m so grateful for that. Since then we have talked such a lot about Rupert. At first I was terrified that somehow she would forget her memories of him. But I know she won’t. She was such a Daddy’s girl. She adored Rupert, she was utterly obsessed with him. She looks so like him and has so many of his mannerisms.”
Sally Thorneloe knew little, she confesses, of the rigours and demands of being an Army wife when she married. She and her husband met ”through friends of friends” and their mutual love of sailing in the autumn of 2001. ”I kept hearing of this wonderful man called Rupert,” she says. ”The first time I met him I was struck by his beaming smile. It lit up his face and seemed to light up everyone else’s. We spent a lot of time sailing: around the Isle of Wight, drinking tea in the cockpit of Valentina, his boat. And then coming home for a big glass of red burgundy. I just adored him.”
After a two-year courtship, with a tour of Germany in the offing, Rupert proposed, producing a surprise platinum and diamond engagement ring. ”He just announced: ‘I’ve got something for you,’ she laughs. He was good at surprises.” Four weeks before Mrs Thorneloe’s 39th birthday, the couple married. Hannah, a honeymoon baby, was born on May 5, 2005 – Father’s Day in Germany. ”We had just sold the boat because we needed a car. And a pram, too, as it turned out.” On May 10, 2007, Mrs Thorneloe gave birth to Sophie. ”I was a little worried that Rupert might be disappointed not to have a son but he laughed at me and said: ‘No, I always wanted girls.’”
As an Army wife, one must be resilient. To acknowledge that there will be long and lonely separations and that there will be, too, the distinct possibility of violent death on a distant battlefield. ”I remember Rupert almost warning me off a little before we married,” Mrs Thorneloe says. ”But if you fall in love with a surgeon you don’t decide not to marry him because he works long hours and might be home late in the evening. Being a soldier was part and parcel of who Rupert was. You couldn’t separate the man from the officer. He was deeply passionate about the Army, he couldn’t possibly have been anything other than a soldier.”
But death was something neither truly contemplated. ”We never really spoke of the possibility of Rupert dying. Because neither of us ever, for a moment, thought that he would. If you dwell on that sort of thing you would never get out of bed in the morning. The only time we touched on it was when Rupert told me whose funerals he would come back for. I remember saying: ‘Gosh, in the unimaginable event, what am I going to do Rupert? Where am I going to go? What am I going to do? He didn’t say much. Just something about how Wiltshire, where we often talked of moving to, would be a nice place to live. We just never, ever thought Rupert would die.
”The Army was his passion. Yet in a strange but sad way it has only been since Rupert’s death that I have truly grown to admire and understand why he loved the military so much. And the wealth of support and compassion I have received from the Army has been truly overwhelming.”
Lt Colonel Thorneloe, however, came from a family steeped in military tradition. His father is a retired major who was immensely proud of his son. The colonel had been educated at Radley and the University of Reading before being commissioned into the Welsh Guards in 1992. He served in Germany, Northern Ireland and Iraq (for which he was awarded the MBE in 2006). Before being sent to Helmand, he served as an aide to Des Browne, then Defence Secretary, in Whitehall.
”That was Rupert’s ultimate job,” Mrs Thorneloe says. ”For him it was the pinnacle: it combined his twin loves, the Army and politics. When he was in Whitehall Rupert would call Hannah every night, on the dot of seven. She used to ask? ‘Will Daddy be home before I go to bed.’ Some nights she would hear his key in the latch. He would drop his bike and run upstairs to see her. For Hannah, being older, his leaving to go on tour was so very difficult. She and her Daddy were inseparable.”
While in Helmand, of course, the phone conversations were all too often snatched and the homecomings few and far between. Colonel Thorneloe’s last leave was at Christmas. ”It was a real family affair, with stockings for the girls and lots of present opening,” Mrs Thorneloe recalls. All too soon, however, her husband had to return to the front line. ”I always tried not to get too emotional when Rupert left, but we sat drinking tea for an hour together before he went and I told him how much I loved him and how much the girls loved him. He knew that, but I got to tell him that which is important.”
Then, of course, came Wednesday, July 1: the day Colonel Thorneloe died. ”They ring the door bell, that is how you know,” she says simply. It was 9.20 in the evening when two officers from the Welsh Guards came to break the news. ”I saw the green shadows through the glass and I remember thinking it’s late for welfare to call. The second I opened the door and saw their faces, I knew. I just knew.”
The Army, a well-oiled machine when one of its own is lost, immediately enveloped the family, preparing them for the repatriation of the bodies.
”The part of that day that I will never forget is the sound of the aeroplane as it approached,” Mrs Thorneloe says. ”It was very important to me to have Rupert home. We stood side by side with Joshua’s family, the Hammonds, and we both watched our men come home.”
Mrs Thorneloe spent some private time alone with her husband and, on July 16, the day of his funeral, she stood ramrod straight as his coffin was carried into the Guards Chapel by eight Welsh Guards. Sombre in black, she stood by her mother-in-law, Veronica, both women clasping hands as they bade their final farewells. ”It was really important to me that I was strong for Rupert. That might sound ridiculous but I felt so much that that was what Rupert deserved: that we who loved him most stood proud.”
After the service Prince Charles, who attended with his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, spoke privately to the Thorneloe family. ”He was incredibly compassionate. Very caring and sensitive. Rupert would have been humbled,” Mrs Thorneloe says.
In the bleak days that have followed there have been many emotional moments. Unlike many of his comrades, Colonel Thorneloe did not leave a letter for his wife. ”At first I was desperate, I so wanted to have one to read, to have it in my hand. But I know how much Rupert loved me and the girls, and that is what matters.” On July 24, which would have been the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary, Mrs Thorneloe spent several hours at her husband’s graveside at the family plot in west Oxfordshire. ”Rupert always loved the rain and, strangely, it has rained every day since he died,” she says. ”As I stood there, in a downpour, I suddenly felt that, somehow, in that rain I was closer to Rupert. I used to hate the rain, now I have come to love it. It reminds me of Rupert, carrying one of the girls, when they were babies, in a papoose. With a great big umbrella to shelter them from the rain.”
There can be no doubt that Rupert Thorneloe was an inspirational leader: as Brigadier Tim Radford, commander of Task Force Helmand, said: ”He died as he had lived, leading from the front.” The fact that he did so. That on the day he died he was travelling to meet his men, cost him his life.
”Of course I think of that,” Mrs Thorneloe says. ”But Rupert was passionate about what the Army was doing in Afghanistan. He believed utterly in the job that he was doing in Helmand. He was truly living his dream.”
Mrs Thorneloe is well aware, of course of the mounting controversy over what is perceived as the Government’s lack of support for the Armed forces. Indeed her father-in-law has stated publicly that it has failed to ”put defence first”. July was the bloodiest month so far in the fight against the Taliban. During the five weeks of Operation Panther’s Claw, which plunged British forces into ferocious combat, 22 soldiers died and 57 were injured. As the coffins of yet more young soldiers, covered by the Union flag and carried by comrades, make the solemn journey through the streets of Wootton Bassett, so the clamour for more helicopters, for more heavily armoured vehicles and more troops has grown from a public that, increasingly, believes its soldiers are being sent to war ill-armed and ill-equipped.
Many argue that, had more helicopters been available, Lt Colonel Thorneloe would not have been travelling in a Viking – a vehicle that is inadequately armoured to withstand IEDs and which is due to be replaced next year by the more robust Warthog. It is not a subject Mrs Thorneloe wishes to discuss. All she will say is one, carefully constructed sentence. ”I have thought about it,” she concedes. ”But I will let other people talk.” Her husband, she emphasised, was committed to the Army’s role in Afghanistan. ”He believed in it utterly.”
In the past week the Welsh Guards have built a trampoline in the Thorneloes’ back garden. ”The girls and I bounce on it and reach up to the sky, to be nearer to Daddy, I tell them. I am just so devastated that Rupert is not here. But I can’t be cross with him for doing what he passionately believed in. When he got into that vehicle that day he wasn’t thinking: ‘today’s the day.’ He was just thinking I want to go to see my soldiers. The quickest way that I can. That was Rupert.”
The Welsh Guards are in the process of setting up the Welsh Guards Afghanistan appeal. Donations can be sent to Regimental HQ, Welsh Guards, Birdcage Walk, London SW1E 6HQ. Cheques may be made payable to ”The Welsh Guards Afghanistan Appeal.”
April 3, 2012
The most important frame of mind to force yourself into when coping with your partner’s deployment is this:
You have to get yourself through this on your own.
He is not your crutch, you cannot rely on him, you cannot vent to him. If you rely on contact with him to keep you emotionally stable at some point the sudden lack of it will knock you sideways and leave you falling with no safety net. Of course when I say ‘alone’ no woman is an island, and there will be contact at times. The person who fixes you when you need fixing will be you and the things you put in place for yourself.
Now that you are in the right frame of mind, what ammo do you need in your deployment arsenal to make sure you are prepared for every eventuality?
MILITARY PARTNER DEPLOYMENT TOOLKIT
Some of these will apply to parents, siblings and children too
A General Power of Attorney will help you deal with any finances or assets that he needs you to in his absence. I provide a free (yes absolutely free!) Power of Attorney here. It was written by a solicitor and needs both of your signatures witnessed. Should you require a more complicated POA with restrictive clauses, ring a solicitor. If you do not have a Power of Attorney, practice crying on the phone to companies and playing the Afghan card – however this is no good if you need to act in his larger scale interests.
Take lots of photos and make lots of videos. This is generally accepted to be normal behaviour although on a personal level I must admit I never look at any of them when mine is away as they reduce me to a sobbing mess.
A Lasting Power of Attorney – this is a more complicated legal document than the general one so should be sought from a solicitor. It will mean you can handle your partner/sibling/child/parent’s interests should they lose mental capacity. It is a safety net should not the worst, but the next worst possible thing happen.
Wills. Without wishing to bring too much doom and gloom, it is not just your serving family member who can die, you can too. Why not go and get joint Wills together before they leave? You can sort out their lasting POA then too.
Now they have gone
A little sulk is always on the cards once you have been ‘deserted’. Most people I know have an ice cream evening, watch a few DVDs and do not have any friends or family around for a couple of days. Then it is time to stop moping and crack on, much as you would like to go to sleep and not wake up until they come home!
That person you can collapse in front of, crying on the floor. You may not need to do this for the entire six or seven months, but it is important you know who that person is, and that they know you might need them. It will probably happen on a birthday or Christmas, when you are supposed to be happy but you just don’t feel like it. If ‘that person’ is there and you can go into a quiet room and cry on them, all the better. Some people break down on bizarre occasions – I burst into tears once when my boss asked after my other half.
A safe friend. For the ladies, a ‘safe’ male friend is vital. When I say safe, I mean rock solid safe. There has to be absolutely NO chance this person can have or develop feelings for you. You will be at your most vulnerable and needy at points over the next six months and you will need big man shaped arms around you. There really is nothing better when you are low. Even better to have a few different safe friends, but again selection is vital otherwise serious problems may develop. (See later)
Your In Case of Emergency Person. This is the person who knows exactly what to do should YOU be injured or worse. They should be marked ICE in your phone. They should know how to call your garrison/regiment switchboard, who to ask for, exactly what squadron/company your partner is in, his/her full name, rank and service number and all of your details. This is to relay information about what has happened to you directly to the UWO (Unit Welfare Officer) so that your partner/family member can be informed immediately.
Event Planner. Set dates to look forward to, meals with the girls, trips out with the children. Count down to those milestones rather than the next time you will see your partner or family member again. The big numbers are far too daunting and the smaller leaps will go much faster.
His Aftershave/Her Perfume and one of her jumpers. A friend suggested vacuum bagging them to retain ‘their’ smell. Try it – it really works! Perfectly preserved for your sniffing pleasure.
Have the house as you like it. No more compromising on style and layout of your living room, shove candles everywhere and have the whole room smelling of flowers if you wish. It’s your six months to have everything exactly the way you like it, so make the most of it!
A Planned Holiday. Book a girly holiday, or a trip with your uni friends. Tell the regiment/commando/squadron where you are going and how long for, but don’t let him being away stop you going. He should not be the only one getting a bit of sun.
Shoeboxes, Blueys and Customs Declaration Stickers. Stock up on small boxes, supplies of blueys and a whole reel of customs declaration stickers. You might need to sweet talk your post office lady!
Small scales. You will need to weigh everything you send so if you have table top scales that can take up to around 3kg they will be perfect. Remember, BFPO will not take anything over 2kg, and I have heard countless stories of family members leaving Post Offices in floods of tears because the person behind the counter wouldn’t accept a parcel weighing 2.1kg. For care package contents ideas click here.
Your girly friends. You need them more than ever, and civvy ones are just as important if not more so than your military-partner friends. Hanging out solely with other separated wives will blur your perspective and keep you too wrapped up in your partner’s deployment. Close civvy friends are key to helping you remember that you are a civilian yourself with a civilian life that existed before you met your partner. For ‘your’ six months, you need to cope as if your other half does not exist. This may sound cruel but it is a good way of putting a mental block on your emotional reliance of him and helps you to draw from your own strengths and ingenuity. You must be positive about it – you CAN do it, and your girls can help you do it.
One for the girls; adult toys. I need say no more.
Home phone Bluetooth. This is brilliant. You can get phone systems that link with your mobile via Bluetooth so that no matter where you leave your phone at home (upstairs on charge for example) the house phone will ring when your mobile does, and you can talk to whoever is ringing on it. It even tells you who is calling.
Car Bluetooth. Same principle, and vital if they ring when you are driving.
Polaroid Camera. Just a bit of fun, you can get second hand ones for upwards of £30 online, but really any camera will do. Why not take a picture a day or week and post them to him, or create an album of your tour diary photos for him to look at when he gets back.
What you DON’T need
The dangerous friend. There will always be a predatory male who cosies up to you during your partner’s tour. For some of you there will be more than one. It is very easy to reply to texts when you are lonely and it is even easier to agree to go for daytime coffees and use this person to unload your problems onto. USE YOUR SAFE FRIEND! You may be in denial about your dangerous ‘friend’ but deep down you know you are treading a slippery path that could end your relationship. You don’t want that, so go home, stare at pictures of your partner, then ring your safe friend (or a girly friend) and arrange to meet up with them instead. You’ll thank me later, I promise.
Wife-and-girlfriend-mass hysteria. This will happen every tour regardless, but for your sanity it is best to stay out of it. Unless the person who has been killed is the husband of your best friend, don’t get involved with the frantic texting and gossipy phone calls. It will only make you more worried about your other half or family member. Easier said than done, I know. Yours may not even have seen what happened, or been around at all. They could be operating in completely different areas of Afghanistan from others in their regiment.
Panicking over missed calls. They WILL ring back, you may just have to wait a few days. It could even be in the next ten minutes. If you do a job where you can’t have your mobile on you (or even on at all) this can be particularly distressing, especially if you come home late at night to two forlorn sounding voicemails. Have a tactic for when this happens – write him a long email or ebluey telling him what you were up to that day.
Arguing with him. Fighting down the telephone or via email over (relatively) petty things is bad for the pair of you. If you feel like ranting, write the email and then save it into your drafts and delete later.
What you need the most though is positive mental attitude… you can do this. You may have done it before, if you have, it won’t be the same but you will be better at coping this time. If you haven’t, just remember that lots of others have and we are all still standing. If we can, you can. Have a little faith in your own strength. You never know, you may surprise yourself…..
Every soldier has a unique reasons for enlisting. Ask some, and you will understand.
Whether it was to escape a broken home as a boy soldier at 16, a childhood friendship pact to go together, a result of the recession, a dream to fly, a failure by our education system resulting in no other viable alternative, a need to provide for a young family in hard times, a sense of duty, family tradition, the desire for travel and tough physical exercise, childhood ambition, a want of comradeship, a love of adrenaline rushes, the good pension or a wish to lead men, every soldier signed up with a reason. Rarely will you find one who will tell you the reason he applied was because he whole heartedly agreed with the political decisions of our current government in power and a desire to act upon their every whim.
Soldiers are not allowed to speak out if they disagree with the war. Soldiers cannot take part in anti-war demonstrations. Soldiers are given the phrases we hear them sometimes ineloquently deliver to waiting television cameras as they alight from coaches within their garrisons at the end of a six month tour. They mean what they say in the sense that they believe it. They are not stupid however, they know exactly why they say what they say; to retain unity in their ranks, a belief in a common purpose – a belief that these deaths are not in vain. From the Oxbridge educated Captains with first class degrees to the Generals who worked their way up from scratch, the army is instilled with the belief that no matter where they go, they go together. As one.
These men and women are husbands, wives, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, boyfriends, girlfriends, fiances or fiancees. They have best friends, a dog perhaps, a dodgy uncle, a smelly cat, an irritating ex and a nosy nextdoor neighbour. TA soldiers have normal civilian work colleagues (you never know, Alan who fixes the photocopier may exchange his tired shirt and trousers for a salad suit and sniper rifle at the weekend) and your local GP or hospital nurse may have been out in the field in Afghanistan applying tourniquets to soldiers who have just had a limb blasted off by an IED. They laugh, they joke, they cry and weep. They are trying to stop smoking, leave an abusive partner, or restrain an expensive desire for Jimmy Choo shoes. They are not politically motivated. Without question, they will go wherever they are needed.
If we were at war with a huge super-state tomorrow, these are the people we would hide behind. They are the ones, like those brave men and women who protected our country so valiantly in the two World Wars, who would sacrifice themselves for our freedom. They did not choose to go to Iraq, they did not ask to go to Afghanistan, but they willingly fly in at a moment’s notice to obey their commanders in battle. They are but humans, not heroes.
Do not sit in the ivory tower of your air conditioned, open plan office (third floor, past the kitchen, cubicle on the left), reclining back in your adjustable chair, leaning on your wrist support (there to prevent an RSI, of course) and criticise our Armed Forces to your colleagues, when they are doing their jobs to the best of their ability. Mock the politicians’ greed as you will, but do not denounce the men and women who put their lives on the line in the name of our country. Unless you have been in the heat of battle, adrenaline surging through your veins, making decisions faster than you can normally think, you can never understand the real reason our troops do what they do. They do it because they are born to do it, trained to excel at it and desire more than anything never to let their colleagues down.
As the guest of honour at my sibling’s officer graduation said… “look at the man on your left, then look at the woman on your right. They are the reason you fight”
Support our troops, even if you do not support the war.
Unless you hung around an army barracks’ front gate with your knickers conveniently already draped around your ankles at 1.20am on a Saturday morning in order to bag your man, you probably did not go looking for a military partner. In my case, coming from a military family, I thought I knew what to expect. How terribly misguided of me. My parents had climbed the hierarchical ladder to such a height that when I was born they could organise their lives to suit themselves. Dating my other half was a shock to my system, not eased much by the sugar coated glossy half-truths he sweetly fed me at the beginning of our relationship. It did not sound that bad. We managed our first tour well, as it was in the “exciting” honeymoon period, letters were exchanged and packages sent, long (alright that is a lie, sometimes incredibly brief due to minimise cutting off comms) telephone conversations in the evenings meant that time passed quickly. I was not used to him being around twenty-four hours seven days a week, so the total emptiness of his absence was not felt so keenly. I can do this, I thought to myself. This life will not be as bad as my mother keeps trying to tell me it will be.
I will never walk away from him, because he is my best friend, my confidante and my soul mate. But, by god, sometimes I want to. I curse the military more than I ever cursed any girl who tried to steal an old boyfriend, more than during any childhood argument with my little sister after she had borrowed and broken a prized possession. The Ministry of Defence (known in my house as “the f*cking army”) is my other half’s other woman. In fact she is worse than that. She is his controller, his dictator. She owns him. He spends more time with her than with me, and if we are about to make plans she will come along and royally fuck them all up for us. Dealing with this is difficult for both parties, as the desire to rant and scream at him for something beyond his control is sometimes impossible to resist. “Please don’t shout at me, I want to be with you as much as you with me.” “I’m not shouting at you, it’s not your fault, I’m angry at the army.”
So what pearls of wisdom can I offer to anyone who has found themselves in this situation after falling in love with one of these men in green?
The army will ruin your life. The army will ensure you have no partner at Christmas, no partner on Valentines Day. Your birthday will not be spent with your other half, you will learn to rely utterly on your friends and family. Forget anniversaries, genuinely, forget they exist. You cannot be the kind of person to take offence when no card or flowers arrive on your special day, because if you are, you are in the wrong relationship. You have to handle the household bills, the council tax, mechanical problems with the cars and DIY. You must be strong for others and be able to handle both his family’s problems and your own, as he will often not be around to help. You are basically a single woman and will be for the rest of your life, strengthened in the knowledge that in spirit he is with you the entire time in everything that you do. How often I lament that I have heard him say “I would be with you if I could. I am so sorry.” more times than I have seen him walk through the door. Expect to have to trust your partner implicitly. You will not know where he is ninety percent of the time, or who he is with. He feels the same about you, an open honest relationship is the only way long distance (for this is essentially what this relationship is, even if he lives an hour away) will work. Want to make romantic plans for a weekend away? Forget it. Well, do not forget it, but be prepared for these plans to have to be cancelled last minute, as She in her infinite wisdom has decided he is needed for some task. Often these tasks appear meaningless, he may, as my partner is this weekend, be in fact sleeping in a bush. Invest in travel insurance. Brush up on your GCSE German. You might end up visiting or even living there. Play the Afghan card, even when he is just on exercise in Britain. The Afghan card will get you access to all his billing information to perform tasks for him when he cannot, in my experience subtle crying (a little tearful sniff here and there) on the telephone to companies is a far more successful way of getting what you need than rudeness. Try not to snap at him when he cannot go somewhere or do something. He is missing my graduation, this is not his fault. Patience must be your strongest virtue, kindness and the ability to bite your tongue the closest second. He may sometimes lie to protect you from worrying. A discussion between you about this is recommended, if he feels he should omit facts when he is on tour, then this is his prerogative and you must respect it. PTSD. Be aware of the symptoms. Be aware that he may not ever be able, or wish, to recognise that he has it. Know that there are some things he may never wish to share, and that at the same time he might serve his years blessed in that he does not experience anything awful at all. You do not know and will never know more about the Army than he does. Do not listen to the idle gossip of other military wives and girlfriends. Do not get involved in tour-time wife and girlfriend mass hysteria. Believing blindly that they will come back in one piece is the only way to get through a tour. Listen to the news, but do not become absorbed in it. LIVE YOUR OWN LIFE. Have your own career, your own dreams. If you invest too much in his life and his work and dreams, your own happiness will suffer. Treat him as an equal, not a superior, but understand that his job involves a certain amount of flexibility. Keep your friends close and your family even closer. You will need them.
I would not wish this life on anyone. The reason I have this path ahead of me is because the love of my life chose this career for himself nearly a decade before we met. He is my best friend and I support him fully, as he does me in my chosen career path. However, if he did not support me, if he was not my best friend I would be running for the hills.
This is going to be hard but you have decided to stand by him (or her!) and deal with it. This is, therefore, the mentality you must adopt and it is one you cannot let falter, for both of your sakes.