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And the Heaven’s cried…

10 January, 2011 Leave a comment
Royal Regiment of Scotland Tactical Recognitio...

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As the darkness loomed the rain which had been threatening all day began to fall, not much, but just enough to kick up the dust and bring on that smell you get after a thunder storm which has been promising to erupt for days finally falls… It matched my mood.

This could well be the last entry of this blog. Or at least the last entry written while I’m out here doing my job. I’ve been trying to write this for months with several false starts, aborted attempts and more than a few expletives. I’ve written much about all types of music while writing this blog. I’ve written of music I listen to, that which I’ve written, music I like and music I’ve seen but, of all these I think this entry is the most pertinent. This is about a ‘Song from a Distant Theatre’. As the rain fell I felt it was time to add to this, but I digress, let’s start at the beginning…

Today didn’t quite start as expected. Our replacements arrived in the early hours of yesterday morning and, by lunchtime, we’d started the long awaited Handover/Takeover process, HUGE sighs of relief all round.

With that in mind, this morning should have arrived with some sense of elation, or at least a little excitement. But no, another bad night’s sleep, another early start and, to cap it all, there were clouds from one edge of the horizon to the other. Rain.

So, with trepidation, we headed into work for the second day of our HOTO. Despite the worry of rain everything went to plan and the day went well. We had to cancel the afternoon’s briefs we’d planned as their was to be a vigil held for the second of the two soldiers who died over New Year. This was to be the last vigil I’d attend on this tour (I hope) and I wasn’t sure how I felt. There was definitely relief, no more, there was a tinge of sadness, I can only remember 1 or 2 weeks we’ve been out here where we haven’t to attend one of thes

Private Joseva Saqanagonedau Vatubua was killed on 1st January 2011. He was on patrol with his unit, a member of 5 Scots (prevously known to us all as the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders), when an explosion killed him. ‘Big Joe’ as he was known to those who served with (according to the eulogies read today) was a mountain of a man who played rugby at the highest level, loved his job and was a charismatic character.

These services are hard to take at the best of times. When the Scots or Irish are involved they’re even harder for me, as a piper, as the lament always makes my hairs stand on end and the lump rise in my throat. Today was no different.

And then it was.

The service panned out as normal, the introduction, prayer, eulogies, last post, lament, reveille, reading and dedication all rolled out as normal and then something new happened.

‘Big Joe’ was Fijian you see and there are a fair number of these proud people serving in our Army including many in 5 Scots. As the vigil drew to a close those Fijians present broke into song. It was obviously rehearsed as they performed like a well schooled choir* with the bass and baritone voices forming beautiful harmonies as they sang a song I don’t know, I don’t even know the title and heard too few of the words to even hazard a guess, but it wasn’t the lyric. It was the sentiment. And it broke me.

After the song ended we were fallen out to our duties and, for the first time in all the vigils I’ve attended, there was no buzz of conversation until what seemed like several minutes after that order. Usually it’s like an immediate release valve, but not tonight. There seemed to be a sombre mood over the gathered crowd and tonight, having spoken to several friends it seems I’m not the only one to have been affected.

We returned to work with the clouds still hanging over us and continued to work on our HOTO.

As the darkness loomed the rain which had been threatening all day began to fall, not much, but just enough to kick up the dust and bring on that smell you get after a thunder storm which has been promising to erupt for days finally falls… It matched my mood.

I’d like to think that rain was whomever or whatever it is we pray to when we hold these services showing his respect, or at least understanding for our loss. It may seem wishful thinking or childish fantasy, but tonight it makes me feel that little bit better.

I’ll be heading home within a week or so and I’ll be doing my best to forget everything out here, for at last a little while. I will, however, always remember the day that the heavens cried for Private Joseva ‘Big Joe’ Saqanagonedau Vatubua.

Ne Obliviscaris.

* It turns out it was a choir, and one which Joe had been a member of.

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.)