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Lest We Forget…

10 November, 2010 1 comment
The Cenotaph at Whitehall is a memorial to mem...

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I must first apologise to those few of you who read this blog. I  had intended to write much sooner after my return from R&R but circumstances haven’t been favourable for various reasons.

I don’t know when I’ll get to post this, suffice to say I’m writing it the Sunday prior to Remembrance Day and Op Minimise has been in force since 7AM. It’s been a sombre day with yet another British soldier being injured. This time I know the cause, and the injuries, and I’m appalled.

It’s at times like these that I question this life, not in the personal, suicidal tense but with regards to being a member of the Armed Forces as a career. Many people when confronted with a service person questioning their employment in this time of conflict ask “well, isn’t it what you signed up for?” In many cases this is an innocent, if naive, question, on others it is meant to draw debate. I know it’s not why I joined up, yes there was the awareness of the risk it may occur, but at the time I joined the Northern Ireland Peace Process was under way (albeit in its infancy) and Bosnia was beginning to ease its burden on our forces. By the time I’d completed training I found myself in Kosovo, since then there has been a constant stream of conflicts drawing us further afield, stretching us further and increasing the toll of dead and wounded each Remembrance Day.

It’s been said that with great power comes great responsibility but that’s just it; those who are out here do not have any great power, they are simply dedicated to a task which has fallen to them for whatever reason. They are no different to you or your neighbours, friends and family and yet the Nation expects them to face what no man should be asked to. Teenagers are forced to face their mortality, and their mates, on a daily basis, and all those who support them face the knowledge that the incessant procession of helicopters approaching Nightingale mean more of us have come closer, or too close, than any ordinary man should be asked to.

In 2008 when Morpheus Rising released An Ordinary Man in aid of HELP for HEROES I was criticised by fellow servicemen for the lyrics. Their argument was that we are anything but ordinary, we were a special breed, a breed apart. They missed the point. We are not extraordinary individuals, we do not have extraordinary powers, but we do face extraordinary situations and dig deep enough within ourselves to find the strength of character with which to face those situations. It’s a matter of camaraderie, fellowship and a common bond of respect for those whom have gone before which enable us to do what we do, whatever we do.

He’s an ordinary man
Why should he find himself doing these things
No ordinary man should be asked to do
He’s an ordinary man
just trying to do these things no one else can
He’s an ordinary man

The full lyric for An Ordinary Man can be found here. The song is currently available on the re-released single Fighting Man and can be purchased from iTunes and most online music stores as well as in CD format from Amazon UK and Morpheus Rising’s own store. Proceeds from the single are being donated to HELP for HEROES and the Royal British Legion‘s Poppy Appeal.

The personal impact however, is a different matter. What happens in this conflict and those things people see have an effect, a different one on each individual, but they will have an effect.

I remember speaking to a young Royal Anglian in hospital who explained that, despite having only served 4 years in the Army, he was leaving once he returned home. His reason? Not the fact that he had lost friends, nor the fact that he was lying in the hospital bed opposite mine having been injured by shrapnel from an RPG. His reason was the fact that he had joined the Army to be a sniper and he was out here doing just that. As far as he was concerned he had nothing left to achieve. He had joined the Army with a goal and that goal had been reached. Time to leave.

There are others who go home with a desire to return, they relish the challenge, they crave the adrenalin, they want to avenge their friends.

There are those who return home physically intact but shadows of the men they once were. PTSD, or shell shock as it was once known, is now widely accepted as a serious condition which needs treatment and care. In years gone by it has been ?? as cowardice, madness or an excuse. It is not. It is a reaction to something which has been seen, been done, even heard, which that individual’s character has decided is too much to deal with head on. It manifests itself in a different wat with each person who suffers. It is prevalent and it needs to be dealt with.

In reality everyone questions there involvement in a conflict such as this. Whether the reason is religious, moral or ethical, at some point every man jack will question the validity of the decisions made in the heat of conflict or the peaceful corridors of power. It is this journey of self discovery which will determine the type of person we are. It is the revelations we become aware of through that process which will determine the people we will become.

They ask me where I’ve been,
And what I’ve done and seen.
But what can I reply
Who know it wasn’t I,
But someone just like me,
Who went across the sea
And with my head and hands
Killed men in foreign lands…
Though I must bear the blame,
Because he bore my name.
‘Back’, Wilfred Gibs

On Thursday November 11th at 11AM I hope you will all observe two minutes silence. Not just for those who have already paid the ultimate sacrifice, or those who find themselves at Headley Court, but also for all those Fathers, Sons, Daughter and wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, relatives and mates who find themselves out here doing their job. After all, it’s what they joined up for isn’t?

P.S. Since I wrote this we’ve been on Op Minimise continuously…

It’s the little things…

9 October, 2010 Leave a comment

The intention was to post to this blog each Sunday evening while I’m away. For many reasons that hasn’t happened;  long nights, trips away, nothing to say, too much to say, too tired, too busy, the reasons go on. The primary reason however is the lack of control over whether or not there will be internet access available.

All over Afghanistan there are pockets of British personnel and, in most cases, wherever they are there is the provision of welfare internet, both user terminals and WiFi hotspots for using with your own laptop, netbook or other internet enabled device. This service is a double-edged sword, both a welcome capability and a security threat. It is also a liability.

Every time there is an incident in theatre involving a British soldier (and some other coalition nationalities) the internet is turned off. It is done for many reasons but the primary one is that of protecting the relatives of whomever is involved in the incident from hearing rumours or gossip about what may, or may not, have happened. It allows the correct procedures to be followed and people to be contacted in the proper manner to advise them of the situation over here. Sometimes that contact could be a phone call from a son letting his Mother know that he really is fine, others may be a member of the unit advising parents of their child’s injury or, in the worst cases, a Casualty Notification Officer advising someone that their son, daughter, husband or wife has regrettably been killed in action while serving on operations in Afghanistan.A brass shell cross and stone cairn in memory of those fallen on operations in Afghanistan

The process is called Op Minimise and, for much of the two plus months I’ve been in theatre, it has been in force.

Yesterday, last night and this morning we were again in the grips of Op Minimise and something I heard discussed gave me pause for thought. There is much said of the British ‘squaddie’ and not all of it is favourable, we are maligned as drunken boors, womanisers and bullies (among other things not all of which I might add are as negative). And yet last night I heard something that epitomised man’s compassion for his fellow man or, in this case, his fallen brethren.*

A couple of young soldiers were chatting outside their accommodation and I heard the conversation turn to Op Minimise and the reason for the current imposition.

It’s terrible, don’t you think, that we know what’s happened and yet we also know that it’s taking so long for the relatives to be informed. It must be so hard for them to find out like that.

I’m ashamed to admit I was quite taken aback by this, and also impressed. I know the soldiers in question and despite my knowing their characters I hadn’t expected this train of thought from a young man in his situation. Especially when  most of his peers were simply feeling hard done to due to the lack of internet capability in the accommodation due to this inconvenience.

To say I was impressed by this would be an understatement, it made me proud and reminded me (not that I needed reminding) that there is far more to our soldiers than people give them credit for.

It also made me look at myself and wonder how many times I’d felt hard done to when I hadn’t been able to ring home or jump on Facebook or WordPress because some poor soul had found himself joining the ever growing list of casualties in this conflict.

And it made me count my blessings.

* The brass cross in the photograph had 3 plates of names when I was last here in 2007, it has now been moved and stands on a larger, two levelled stone cairn with 13 plates on it. Over 100 of those names have been added in the last year.

(I did have a lyric to post with this, but on second reading I think it’s better to wait.)

Wasted Days…

6 October, 2010 Leave a comment

The whole reason for this blog was to document the writing process for material for the band I sing with, Morpheus Rising, while on tour in Afghanistan. As with all things it seems to have grown legs and formed a life of its own. I always intended to write about songs I listened to as well, and various aspects of life out here, but it seems to have been so much more than that so far. And today is more of the same.

One aspect of this life I have never been able to reconcile with my role as husband and father is the amount of time I spend away, missing birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas and other holidays. and this time is no different. I’m due to miss Christmas and New Year (again), my eldest daughter’s 18th (not that she’d want me cramping her style!), my younger daughter’s 13th and today… Well, today is the birthday of the most important person in my life and, yet again, I wasn’t there to celebrate and make her feel as special as she deserves.

When I was younger I used to listen to songs which meant something to me as they seemed to echo my experiences at the time. There were loads of them, some were up beat and full of life, others not so much. Through the years many of them have continued to have meaning and I usually find one to fit my mood, forcing me further into despair (in an effort to shake myself out of it), or lifting my spirits to a point where nothing else matters. Not so today.

So, today, I found myself trying to find something to voice my thoughts, air my concerns, but instead I found myself making up my own. As with ‘Another Life’ which I wrote earlier on this tour, I’ve written something which may not fit within the Morpheus Rising stable, but nevertheless I think it belongs on this blog which has become so much more than a diary of an album’s lyrics.

Special Days

Another one passes by
Did I say goodbye?
Should I?
What am I doing here?
Telling myself it’s for the greater good
Looking out over the sands of time
Who’s watching over you
That labour should be mine

Time seems to fly
Did it really go by?
But I
I shouldn’t be here
Telling myself it’s for the greater good
Leaving all of you behind
I should watch over you
More of the time

These special days will never return
These special days should be the greater good
Making up under cover of cold dark nights
Time spent together putting the world to rights
These days we’re wasting should all be special days

Little boys cry
Girls starting to drive
Flying by
I should be there
Telling myself it’s for the greater good
Looking out for all that’s mine
I should be there
More of the time

These special days will never return
These special days should be the greater good
Making up under cover of cold dark nights
Time spent together putting the world to rights
These days we’re wasting should all be special days

To Rose, and my three beautiful children, I’ll see you soon.

North of Nowhere

24 September, 2010 Leave a comment

I wrote in the previous entry of my recent trip and the Danes that I met there. I talked of the traits I saw in them. One I didn’t mention was their renowned fierceness as warriors. History has proven the Danes to be great warriors and their involvement in this current conflict is doing nothing to harm that reputation.

I also mentioned an ‘interesting’ flight home after my visit and said I would write of it in this entry…

Once my work was done it was time for me to return to the safe confines of our desert bastion. On arriving at the departure point I was met by the normal rag-tag individuals heading onwards to their journey home and people going back to their base after a visit for whatever reason. There was also, on this occasion, a group of Danes with enough kit between them to finish the war!*

The LPC advised that these modern vikings were to board first with the rest of following on, we’d then be ferried ‘home’ before they were forwarded to their final destination.

All that changed as soon as the ride landed and the LPC spoke to the loadie, we were bustled on first, including the working dog on his way home for a medal, ann were followed on closely by the squad of tooled up Scandinavians all grunting, back slapping and showing each other the Devil‘s Horns (a la Ronnie James Dio \m/). The lights went out, the rotors changes tone and we lifted into the moonlit night…

I don’t know where we went, I do know it was vaguely North, and after an indeterminate length of time (it’s best to snooze on these journeys) we touched down, and waited…

The rotors surged again and we were once again lifted into the moonwashed skies and heading North(ish). This leg was slightly longer and I tried, once again to doze, to no avail… Even behind closed lids the brightness of the defensive flares are blindingly bright. Given the fact they have to divert attention await from the heat of the turbine engines keeping this thing in the air I can understand it, but it was a bloody rude awakening! After watching through the domes perspex window as the pale grey landscape rushed by not too far below I drifted of into slumberland once more. I was rudely awakened by the sound of weapons, more grunts and back slapping and shouts of ‘two minutes!’ as these guys readied themselves to disembark God only knows where… I must admit to being a tad concerned when one turned to my mate and, with two fingers held in a Churchill manner, shouted ‘two minutes!; at him and looked at the two of us! (Not bloody likely was both our initial responses.)

By this time we could feel the bird dropping fairly quickly and I glanced out the window again to see… nothing. There was a huge vista of  pale grey with light and dark patches here and there but no light, no activity, and more importantly to my defensive mind, no cover.

As we pulled a hand-brake turn (I don’t know how else to describe it) and  touched down they launched themselves into the great unknown (although I’m sure they knew where they were!) and dispersed themselves into defensive positions. We them lifted off and headed back from whence we came. This leg of the journey was far less eventful with little or no chaff or flares and a far greater height being reached. Having embarked on a 15 minute ride on a Chinook I arrived back safely over 80 minutes later.

I mentioned last night that this flight had spawned some lyrical musings. Here’s the bare bones…

Day’s over, the job’s all done
High time now to hightail it home
Light of day in dark of night
Full moon’s overhead

We’re not alone, there’s more to come
For some work’s just begun
Light’s out, head down
All Hell’s gonna let loose soon

Dark of night, flares so bright
We’re headed North of Nowhere
All tooled up, let’s stir it up
We’re headed North of Nowhere

Moon rides high, light’s up the sky
Washing sand and village white
Signs of life show down below
Dropping down, it’s time to go

Dark of night, flares so bright
We’re headed North of Nowhere
All tooled up, let’s stir it up
We’re headed North of Nowhere

* I know we’re not at war, but I hope you’ll allow a little poetic license!

Lords of the North (The Vikings are here!)

23 September, 2010 1 comment

Three years ago I found myself the guest of the Danish Battalion (DanBat) deployed to Afghanistan. Having moved forward from Kandahar before it was actually achievable we found ourselves without any of the life support necessary to accommodate a Squadron Headquarters and, to their credit, the Danes went out of their way to put us up the best they could. We had a roof over our heads and beds to lie on and that was about it. There was no aircon or other comforts and that continued until we managed to wedge ourselves into the camp of a British infantry battlegroup.

My memory of the Danes from that period is of a group of very tall, very calm and very likeable individuals. Nothing seemed to ruffle them, they were industrious, determined and, in our case, very welcoming. They seemed to epitomise my vision of the Scandinavians and only strengthened my opinion that the people of Northern Europe are how we should all hope one day to be, polite, focussed and proud.

Fast forward three years and I’ve walked into a well established rear location which allows a Squadron Headquarters to function in what many out here would consider luxurious conditions. Air conditioning, a ‘real’ office environment for work, and salubrious accommodation for sleeping in.

From this gilded tower I flew (slightly) North a day or so ago to touch base with one of our detachments. And once again I was to find myself a guest of the Danes.  The last 24 hours have been one hell of an education for me.

The DanBat are responsible for an expansive and important swathe of land in this area and yet, in the safe confines of my everyday environment, despite knowing the equipment I had deployed and the work our guys were having to do to maintain the existing infrastructure and their efforts to accommodate the plans for expansion I had no idea just how dependant they were on our assistance. It’s nice to know that, in some small way, I am able to repay their benevolence of three years ago. Promises of effort, and little advances in their aspirations, resulted in genuine platitudes which initially seemed slightly overdone until it was explained just how dependant on these they actually were.

This visit has done nothing but cement my opinion of three years ago, but it has also added a new dimension to it. As well as the traits they showed before I now know how much they deserve the respect they so rightly have earned. Despite their equipment shortcomings, and their dependence on our help they as forging on, punching above their weight, in a fashion reminiscent of the Danes we came to know as Vikings. And their countenance does nothing but reinforce that image. Tall, blonde, muscular and square featured describes more than a majority of these proud warriors (and more than a few had the obligatory beard!). Towering men, statuesque women, who carry themselves in a manner which portrays strength and pride.

Three Nations mourn... Flags at half mast in Afghanistan

A mark of respect.

The day I arrived the Danes had lost one of their soldiers and the flags in camp were flying at half mast when I arrived, they were still flying at half mast as I left.

I’m glad they’re on our side.

I’m now safe at ‘home’ despite an interesting flight back*, I think I’ve found inspiration for the next new lyric, but in the meantime one of the lyrics from Morpheus Rising‘s back catalogue seems more than fitting. To the ‘Lords of the North’:

Born of these Northern lands,
Tracing the line back to the time when the Gods of old still roamed
They’ve come here before, they’ll come here again
With an iron hand

Destined to rule these lands
The blood in my veins is the blood of kings
I’ve come here before, I’ll come here again
With an iron hand

Out of the mist they came,
Sailing across the sea from the land where the Gods of old still roamed
They’ve come here before, they’ll come here again
With an iron hand

Leaving the land in flames
Riding across the plains to the place that I call home
They’ve come here before, they’ll come here again
With an iron hand

I am a Lord of the North
I am a Lord of the North

This land will always belong to me
This land will always be free
It will always be free

This land will always belong to me
This land will always be free
It will always be free

I am a Lord of the North
I am a Lord of the North

I am a Lord of the North
I am a Lord of the North

Lord of the North
with an iron hand, Lord of the North
Lord of the North
I’ve been here before, Lord of the North

Written & Arranged by Harwood/Tennick  © 2008

* I’ll write about the flight ‘home’ the next time, just now I need to get some notes down for the lyric…

A Little Inflammatory Rhetoric

22 September, 2010 Leave a comment

As far as I’m aware Jesus and Mohammed were great advocates of peace. As were most prophets through the ages.

Not the peace we forge in these days of Government funded conflicts in the name of global stability and world peace. Peace in the true sense of the word, ‘love thy neighbour’ and all those sayings which are paid lip service the world over in quaint old buildings in villages and suburbs as people search for meaning to their existence.

Peace of the kind promoted by the very Gods that armies wage war in the name of.

The World Peace monument in a pond next to a s...

Image via Wikipedia

This is not a new occurrence by any means. All through history nations and alliances have waged war in order to prove their Faith is the one true religion. And they have done so with the impunity only secured by the knowledge that their belief is justification in itself for their actions.

Okay, enough already!‘ I hear you cry!

Yes, I know it’s all a bit heavy but, as I’ve stated before, it’s the whole premise behind this blog’s title. (Look closely…)

Despite the premise that this is a ‘War on Terror‘ everywhere you look there are religious icons to be seen. Crosses made of wood or brass shell casings, Stars of David, Crescents, you name it and you’ll find it here. Each of the sides have their religious elders along for the ride and they hold religious services to glorify the sacrifices made, on both sides.

This, in my Devil’s Advocate of a psyche, raises the question: Are we on a crusade? It was this question that raised its ugly head late last night while I struggled to get to sleep. It was this question that rattled around the empty space that I had been trying to fill with some words to put to the latest track I’d received from Pete. And it was this question which grew to form the lyric I have been searching for, for weeks.

This is not the peaceful, introverted or reflective lyric I’ve produced of late. To be honest I’m a little surprised by its anger, but I’m also pleased with it, as I am with everything produced so far…

Down through the ages they’ve answered the call, they’ll answer again
In history’s pages the worthy stood tall, will they stand there again?

The soldiers of freedom with faith as their guide, they’ll answer the call
Taking lands from the heathen regardless of right, their armies will fall

Holy Wars, fought in whose name?
Holy Wars, always in vain
Holy  Wars, who counts the cost?
Holy Wars, humanity’s lost
In the name of the Cross
This is the Last Crusade
Is this the Last Crusade?

Facing down evil at every turn
This is the reason you answered the call
Seeking redemption through others demise
Can’t you see reason? It’s all just a lie!

As hordes stand against them they’ll fight to the end, no matter the cost
When the world stands against them it’s time for the end, we can’t pay the cost

Holy Wars, fought in whose name?
Holy Wars, always in vain
Holy  Wars, who counts the cost?
Holy Wars, humanity’s lost
In the name of the Cross
This is the Last Crusade
Is this the Last Crusade?
This is the Last Crusade
Is this the Last Crusade?

Answers on a postcard…

Birdsong

11 September, 2010 2 comments

I wrote a recent blog concerning the Vigil’s held here each week for the fallen and, unfortunately, it has been every week since my arrival and on most occasions for several individuals.

In my usual location we are isolated by several miles of desert in all directions and, as such, see very little of any kind of animal or plant life (unless of course you count the swarms of Starship Trooper-esque ants which are everywhere in this country)! This week however I have travelled to the capital of Helmand Province to carry out some work on an ailing system and it’s a somewhat different experience. I’ve already written of the bemusing experience of seeing greenery, trees, flowers and a gazebo during my previous visit, but this time I noticed something else…

We paraded in front of six flags; the Union flag, the Stars and Stripes, the national flags of Denmark, Estonia and Afghanistan as well as the Black Rat of 4th Mechanized Brigade who are currently the British war fighting brigade out here.

 

A view of Sangin Valley in Helmand province - ...

Image via Wikipedia

 

The service was in memory of two British soldiers who had died in combat during the previous week, both young men who made a mark on those who they worked with. As the Last Post faded and Flowers of the Forest made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end I noticed something I didn’t even realise I’d missed.  As the sun set and the Muezzin sang the call to prayer behind the stirring sound of the bagpipe’s lament I heard a bird sing. I don’t know my ornithology so I couldn’t even tell you what it was, other than inspiring, rejuvenating, refreshing.

One of my favourite novels is Sebastian FaulksBirdsong, a book I first read between my previous tours of Iraq and Afghanistan and several times since.  A story in three parts (although written as two) it details a man’s life before and after his life in the trenches as a tunnel rat during World War I.  I do not think I have read something either quite so thought provoking or emotionally exhausting in all my years of enjoying literature. I am in awe of the ability of Faulks to write of that period as if he was there, the detail, the depth of perception is, quite simply, staggering. I also find the juxtaposition of the wartime element with the romance of the ‘pre-story’ and the emotion of the closing pages part of its charm.

Despite my love of this book I had never fully grasped the reason for the title. Yes, I am aware of tales of there being no birds over many of the sites of major battles in more than just World War I, and I am aware of the joy birdsong is meant to provide, lifting the heart and healing the soul, but until this day I had never truly understood.

I do now.

It seems strange that the sight of a feathered creature flying erratically over flags flying at half mast, singing their song, oblivious to the tragedy unfolding below them could lift the spirit, but it does, and emphatically so.

It’s moments like these which provide the inspiration for lyrics which mean something, not only to the author, but to the reader or listener as well. Later on that night I found thoughts rattling around my head which needed a release. I’m concerned that much of what I write just now may seem self-obsessed or overly dramatic/melancholy, but I suppose it’s the nature of the beast. At times like these you find yourself questioning your values, your morals and your sensibilities.

Those thoughts found an escape, it’s only a beginning, but here is what may well become Birdsong:

Don’t sing songs in our memory
You can’t know the words
Don’t regale us with stories
The truth needs to be heard

Listen instead for the life we preserved
The sounds you ignore as you walk through your day
Heed what we say as we give you our word
They’re the reason we came here and were willing to stay

When the bird breaks its silence, listen close to the song
It was there in our haven, it followed us on
When the bird breaks its silence, don’t ignore what it sings
It was there as we struggled, as young men became Kings
When the bird breaks its silence, listen through to the end
It was there as they fought, those lions of men
If the bird breaks its silence, you’ll all get to see
The reasons you live in the land of the free