My alarm drags me from a dream standing barefoot in a garden with mint entwined in the grass, a clear sky above me and birdsong in the distance to my dusty bleak Forward Operating Base in Kandarhar, Afghanistan, 0620hrs Christmas Morning. Right now I’m contemplating killing myself, it’s the only way I know I’ll be able to stay in this sleeping bag for a prolonged period of time. I whisper “Fuck my life” before I adjust my eyes to the overpowering, dominating darkness of our tent. I’m the only one up and I crawl out of my bag and get dressed. I lace up my boots and walk out into the morning cold and it feels like I’ve just run headfirst into an iceberg. I can’t wait for the Afghan winter to be over with. Outside the tent I head straight past the shaving area made up of a few tins, a mirror and a half-full jerry can and walk down the gravel path. I grab my immaculately clean rifle, sling it over my back and pick my dusty helmet up with my other hand. I pick up a cup of coffee that tastes like powdered death and has the unique bitter aftertaste of pure hydrochloric acid from the brew area. As I’m wandering over to the tall sanger that is tucked in the corner of our Forward Operating Base I almost forget I volunteered for this tour.
I don’t usually do sanger duty, but its Christmas so we’ve been put down on the roster for today. The people that live on the other side of our FOB perimeter are stuck between the Taliban who want sharia law, stoning people to death and to generally live like cavemen with mobiles and the West. We exploded into these people’s lives back in 2006 and want to give them democracy, supplied through a 5.62mm bullet, an 82mm Mortar shell, or a village shattering 2,000lb bomb. I’m not surprised most of them contemplate turning themselves into suicide IED’s. As I head up the well-worn wooden sanger steps I place my helmet on and bring my rifle down to my side making sure I don’t spill the coffee in my other hand on the way up. The guy in the sanger informs me nothing has happened. After he’s finished giving me the routine handover he heads down the sanger back to his bed. The Bastard gets a medal for that at the end of his tour. Jonno, our little 21 year-old Welsh lad usually does this particular sanger shift. I can see why he prefers it up here to working with us. Apart from a radio check every hour you are alone. With just yourself and a mundane task of watching for anything suspicious you can really let your subconscious run away with itself. I can’t help thinking about being at home, what my family is up to right now this Christmas morning and I’m struggling to remember what a pint of Fosters actually tastes like. The little wind-up radio plays Christmas songs in the background, one of the great hearts and minds strategies was to give a load of the radios to the local kids to try and win them over, but instead they end up tuning them into Taliban FM. This war is a joke.
The tripod on my rifle sits on the sandbag that overhangs the viewing area, the rifle rests half-heartedly in my arm and I scan the area for anything at all mildly interesting. There’s a machine gun in the centre of the sanger behind me that has been used these past couple of weeks at enemy trying to take the sanger on. On this particular morning, the locals are just getting on with everyday life. As I take in the view on this Christmas morning with the empty ploughed fields intersected by irrigation ditches laden with IED’s, and the kids playing with sticks on the mud path I can’t help but think in some strange way it is a privilege to witness all this chaos laid out before me. After 2 hours in the sanger my replacement turns up and I let him know that nothing’s happened and not to expect anything to happen. I walk down the steps of the sanger, unfastening my custom clip chin-strap on my helmet as I get half way down then slinging my rifle round my back when my boot sinks 20mm into the sand as I reach the end of the steps. I head towards the desert rose, a plastic tube dug into the ground that is used as a urinal, which is a great idea, until it starts to rain and the mud begins weaving puddles of yellow slime. I have a quick shave to stop John getting on my case about setting an example. I use the cheap shaving stuff sent by the charities in small shoeboxes because my mail hasn’t arrived for 7 weeks now. There’s no patrols today by British Forces, instead they are sending the Afghan Army on a patrol by themselves to look like there is a presence on the ground. In truth, it’s a political decision, it would look bad on the government if a Soldier got killed on Christmas Day and as an afterthought it would also be bad for the family. However, if an Afghan Soldier got killed no one would give a fuck. That’s war.
The Christmas stag duty has been released and John has got 2 stags around dinner time. John, the Staff Sergeant in charge of our detachment, misses the Christmas dinner but I’ve told Jonno our young Gunner to get him a plate done up so it’s ready for him when he comes off. Jimmy, my supposed Commander who I show daily how to do his job, completely misses his Christmas dinner so he’ll be having his cold, on his own, in the sanger. We know there’s a good chance we won’t be flying UAV’s so we turn the metal storage container that we usually work out of into a little dining room. With ammo boxes for chairs, the map table turned into a dining table and a liberal dashing of tinsel, this metal container looks nothing like the typical room that we hate being in. We all head up to the tent and pull from underneath our cot beds individual stashes of liquer chocolates and minituares of whisky, brandy and vodka sent from our families’ and lay them on the dining table for our after dinner celebrations. Jonno runs off to get the meals and something for John. I chat small talk to Jim but I know all he’s thinking about is his daughter back home. When Jonno gets back we don our Christmas hats and tuck into the dinner with turkey, proper roasties and even Brussels. For a couple of moments our subconscious is unconcerned where we are and we feel are souls alleviated from any suffering, homesickness or anxiety for a time. We look at each other and blow our cheeks out, the meal bloats our stomachs that have had nothing but rations and protein shakes for weeks. We get the minitatures out and a good helping of chocolate liquers to really let the stomachs know we are living the dream. I’ve never seen the team so happy on the outside, but like a dusty footpath in an afghan village, underneath the thinly baked topsoil there’s a hazardous explosive device lurking under the surface, as much as we are enjoying it here, we just want to be home with our family. The fucking politicians who are sitting at home with their families don’t know how much we hate them. As Jonno and Jim head up to the tent I put everything back where it needs to be and lock the container up.
I’m on guard commander duty in 5 minutes so I head down to the brew area, near the Operations room, which conveniently happens to be the Guard Commander handover area. The off going Guard Commander hands me the personal radio headset and the bag which has a light in it and some batteries. Jonno is back on the sanger, he only had a lie in, not an early night so he’s back up there. Its 20:15 and I’m on my second coffee, it never fails with the aftertaste. I would go for tea but mixing that with powdered milk goes against everything I stand for as a Human. After walking round camp for a few hours and popping into the four sangers to keep me occupied, I do a radio check to see if everyone is okay. It’s been eerily quiet all night and I’m grateful my duty is finishing in 5 minutes. Something’s not right here. I go down to the brew area and have one last drink before my handover begins. It only takes 2 seconds to inform them all is quiet this Christmas Eve. I take a stroll past the Operations room and across the Helicopter Landing Site towards my tent and just before I enter the tent I look up and see the moon looking down on me with a cleansing purity. I sigh and walk into the darkness. Christmas day is over. Another day is over only a hundred more to go. As I take my boots off and climb into my sleeping bag still fully clothed I close my eyes. As I feel myself being pulled towards the tranquil garden I can almost smell the summer fruits tickling my nose. Then suddenly without warning and remorse a mortar explodes in our camp. The tent shakes and poles collapse all around me. Everyone jumps out of bed. As I frantically grab my helmet and rifle I glance at my watch. It’s 00:01 Boxing Day. Right now I’m contemplating killing myself.