Next to my tent in Camp Bastion is the Vigil Ceremony Parade Ground, where those killed in action are remembered. Inscribed on the monument are the names of all the soldiers that have given their lives in Helmand. Carved into stone are these words:
"When you go home tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today."
Children of War: I think I have been a little naïve. I presumed that that the army would be full of people around about my age. Everyone I meet at Camp Bastion rather neatly fits into that railway carriage called middle-aged. Ergo the army is middle aged. It's the old pathetic fallacy - cats have four legs, my dog has four legs, therefore my dog's a cat.
But I realise this innocuous reality by comparison. With age comes rank and with rank comes a desk job. So Bastion it is for those of an age. And the comparison. We'll go on patrol and the patrol leader 'Lieutenant Someone Not Very Old', will be about 24, and the rest of his team, well I would say that 50% of the boys in my sons year at school look older.
My son is 14. It breaks your heart and disturbs your balance. And the youngest of all always seems to be the squaddie with the Vallon. The Vallon is the IED sweeper they use to find those horrors of war that wreak such havoc, and the first soldier in the patrol operates it. He clears the path for the rest to follow. He is the 'plougher of furrows' for the army. I have met a few of these now and I would say their average age must be around 12 if looks are anything to go by.
Of course, it all makes perfect sense when you analyse it. Give the most dangerous job in the army to the kid who has no sense of mortality yet. It stands to reason. You wouldn't do it if you understood death. They should be doing their homework and drinking milk, not sweeping for mines. Someone have a word please!
Target Audience: I have been in the world of communications long enough to know that those clever media people are no fools. When I arrived in Camp Bastion, Helmand, it was clear, that amongst other things, my aquamarine sleeping bag was not up to scratch, in so many ways.
There had been a mad scramble in Kabul before heading to Helmand trying to buy a sleeping bag, any sleeping bag at all really. My kindly host had sent teams of people to scour the streets and bazaars, end eventually they triumphantly returned with four second-hand ones. After diligent washing and drying, the proud unveiling took place and I had my pick. I feigned enthusiasm and gratitude, but inside my concern gushed like a geezer. I was going on embed with the British Army, and these were my options; two pink/red sleeping bags, one patterned with the Union Jack, or my aquamarine bedfellow. Each had that 1970s look and feel and I was struck by two impending problems. All four would mean that the army would, for two weeks, ruthlessly abuse me for being gay, and I was going to need Sherpa Tensing to carry my bag - when rolled it looked like a medium-sized Afghan rug.
But needs must and time was short, so I picked the aquamarine, rolled it like an enormous reefer and strapped it to my rucksack. It soon became apparent that it wasn't quite up to army standard issue though, so after a few days of embarrassing deliberation, we jumped into the media ops 4x4 and headed for a tour of Naafis and PXs in Bastion in the hope of purchasing a replacement. These places have everything you could wish for if you are stuck home from home for six months, and you could easily empty your meagre bank account in a thrice.
Whilst buying cotton wool buds (an essential item, though slightly gay and thus confirming my gay status) I watched one fresh-faced squaddie buy a Power Mac without blinking - $1500 handed over as though buying beans. For reasons that were beyond me we had to visit all three establishments in Bastion for purposes of price comparison, but eventually I had my new sleeping bag, green and discreet, all boxes ticked and I headed for the checkout.
Just like any checkout around the world, they place the magazine racks adjacent, for that impulse purchase. And this is where my thesis that media people are clever was confirmed. The magazines broadly speaking fell into three categories as follows; magazines about killing, war and weapons, magazines about body building, tattoos and protein compounds, and magazines about breasts, boobs and tits. I was shocked! In all my time with the army no one had ever sworn and Dostoevsky was regularly quoted, but maybe the media people were smarter than I thought, because these things were flying off the shelves quicker than the underwear worn by the models within.
"All hope is lost" I mused, I will never get November's Gardner's World now, "how will I read of quantitative easing?", and then there, in the corner, glinting at me like Willy's Golden Ticket, a nugget of hope - the epitome of high brow in a Red Top world, a single copy of Time Magazine. I got down on my knees and sobbed.