An Afghan Christmas
“Ho, Ho, Ho, Scary Christmas!!” One of my deployment colleagues, modelling one of his more unusual Christmas presents (??)
It’s been a couple of years since I last had to spend Christmas apart from my family, whilst I was deployed to Afghanistan, but I actually have quite fond memories of it – it was unusual, short, but unusual! The run up to Christmas was pretty hectic, with the work carrying on at its usual frantic pace, and the weather the same as always. The only clue to the coming celebrations was the increase in parcels being flown in to the base.
If work allowed, at the sound of the Chinook coming over the base, we would grab our helmets and goggles and leg it over to the Helicopter Landing Site (HLS) to help the Army posties with the increased mail load. Once the Chinook had landed and the loadmaster gave the signal we would run on board, rotors still turning (hence the helmet and goggles for any flying debris) grab the mail sacks and run off again to dump it just outside the helicopter, then go back on for more. Once all the bags were off we would all bundle on top of the pile of mail sacks to hold them down until the helo had flown off again and we could help the postie get the bags round to the mail room for sorting.
Whether there was anything for me or not, it felt good to be helping people to get their mail, even though our help made no difference at all! I totally understand though, as wonderful as it is when people back home fill shoeboxes and send them out, it can cause problems. Even just the mail from families and friends took up a massive amount of space on the helicopters, so the boxes from anonymous supporters can push it too far and cause problems with having enough room for transporting equipment and personal mail for the troops out there.
A few days before Christmas day I discovered something new about the Royal Marines (Also known as Royal, Bootnecks, or Bootys) that I wasn’t aware of. In the months I’d been working alongside them I’d already discovered that they loved cleanliness more than the average man. In fact there was nearly a mutiny when the bosses decreed that there was a 1 shower in 24 hours policy due to the waste water pit filling up too quickly!
What I hadn’t yet realised was their penchant for dresses! And we’re not talking in the charity-shop-comedy-dressing-up way…. The biggest surprise was when one of the guys showed me his special frock – it was an off-the-shoulder floor length red satin ball gown. That fitted him. Like a glove. With his military desert boots underneath. Scarily, he’d brought it out 3 months previously in the bottom of his bag, specifically to wear for Christmas – and there wasn’t a crease in it!!
Christmas Eve me and some of the other girls I shared a tent with decided that would go to Midnight Mass. I’m not a religious person, but it was lovely. Although we had a bit of an issue – one of the girls hadn’t showed so one of the others decided to run back to the tent to tell her to get a move on. The one who hadn’t turned up, got there just before the Mass started, but the lass who’d gone to find her didn’t come back. It was only when we got back to the tent that we found her there all tucked up in bed with wet hair. It seems that as she’d run back in the dark, she’d managed to run into the random little concrete fountain in the middle of the compound. Unfortunately it was before they drained it (due to it being a mosquito magnet) and she’s gone right in – personal weapon and all!! Luckily she – and her weapon dried out fine, but she didn’t have a great start to Christmas Day!
Christmas day itself brought out the rest of the dresses – the Company Sergeant Major had a fetching French maids outfit, with red stockings and a long curly auburn wig. It all worked so well with his moustache and boots. One of the officers had a “Mother Christmas look about him. They were all over the place; it was pretty surreal strolling around the base with lots of these Bootys in dresses. Ironically those few girlies of us were all dressed in our combats, so basically dressed as blokes!
The day was in fact almost exactly as any other day – we still had work to do, although there were a few subtle differences (apart from the frocks). We went in to work at the normal time (wearing Christmas hats), and at about 10 o’clock we took a break and opened our presents from home, still sat in the office. Then back to work till lunch which was served by the officers. I was also taking photos whilst there so the Padre ended up carrying my plate and basically being my personal servant for the meal J We were pretty lucky, compared to some of the guys stuck in the FOBs (Forward Operating Bases), at least we had a proper dining tent, chefs and kitchens, not ration pack Christmas dinner, with (maybe) a turkey cooked in a makeshift oven constructed out of ammo boxes and hardened mud!
After lunch it was back to work as usual, but then in the evening we finished a bit early and set up a “mobile cinema” basically a projector and screen hooked up to a dvd player and a couple of us got our sleeping bags out and snuggled under them watching The Goonies and Shaun of the Dead until bedtime. Christmas was done; Boxing Day was back to business as usual.
The bonus for me though was that I only had a couple of days to go until my “R & R” (Rest and relaxation) back home with my family. I’d purposely booked it over New Year’s Eve thinking that it would be a good time to be back home – but I soon realised that being at home when there were a large number of fireworks going off all around, having just been in an area where a loud unexpected bang is not a good thing, was a very bad move! I spent New Year’s Eve constantly on edge, with every firework making me jump – in fact even now they make me feel slightly uncomfortable, not scared or nervous, but I just don’t enjoy fireworks quite like I used to!
Overall throughout my career I’ve been very lucky, having only had to spend 1 Christmas away from home, having got lucky when I was in Kuwait in 1999, due to leave in February 2000. They dis-established my post out there just before Christmas so I found myself knocking on my parents’ door at 4 in the morning on Christmas Eve – without telling them I was coming home! The only problem was that as I’d been expecting to celebrate the millennium on deployment with all of my colleagues out there, I had nothing planned for being back in the UK, so I spent it at home, thinking of all the guys still away.
And this Christmas, as with all the others, I will have a thought to my colleagues and fellow service personnel who are away from their families. And I’ll also be thinking of those who haven’t made it back, and the families will not be able to spend this time with them, whether this is the first Christmas they haven’t been around or if it’s been a couple of years. You will always be missed xx