Day 22: Uniform(ity)

Having lived on army bases for the past 19 days, I am surrounded by a sea of camouflage. The uniform for men and women is the same: “camo” cargo pants and long sleeved shirt, boots, t-shirt and a hat whenever you are outside, even at night time. The only thing that makes people look a little bit different is the insignia which tells you their rank, and the patches on their sleeves which tell you the unit they belong to. But these are symbols that enforce a group identity, not individuality.

Soldiers in uniform eating at the Mess, Al Minhad Air Base

Soldiers in uniform eating at the Mess, Al Minhad Air Base

The dress code even extends to hair and accessories.  Men have to shave (unless they are serving on a ship or in the Special Forces) and women have to pin their hair up in a bun with no escaping wispy-bits! No jewellery is allowed, including wedding rings. One young woman I spoke to who had been married less than a year before she deployed, said she wore her wedding and engagement ring to bed at night, but took it off when she dressed in her uniform each morning.

Military personnel are usually allowed to wear their own clothes for PT (personal training), but not at Multinational Base Tarin Kot. Here the CO (Commanding Officer) of 7RAR (Royal Australian Regiment) Task Group followed the American lead and organised for his troops to have a special PT uniform of t-shirt(with their logo), black shorts and cap. They were to wear a uniform at all times, and could only wear “civies” in their bedrooms. They had to wear their proper uniform to the mess and always carry a weapon. He called this “posturing” – always looking organised and ready for whatever the enemy might throw at them. He didn’t want any of his troops to get caught out like the chap in this photo by David Guttenfelder (scroll down to no. 33).

When Ben Quilty painted Australians serving in Afghanistan, he asked them to pose nude. He stripped away the protective covering of their uniform and asked them to expose themselves physically and emotionally.  Naked, they have no rank, no armour, no weapon.They are human beings at war.

I’ve been wearing a similar uniform “in country” of long pants, t-shirt, long sleeved shirt, boots and a hat (when I can find it) every day.  While it is nice not to have to think about what to wear, and handy to have clothes with so many pockets; I don’t like it. It makes me feel asexual. The uniform is so shapeless and exactly the same for men and women. I suspect this is a strategy to deter fraternisation! Not being able to wear any jewellery, fancy hair clips or nail polish also stifles my self-expression. I feel like I’m back at school.

From what I’ve observed, the strict uniform code doesn’t extend to tattoos. Is this because tattoos have some connection with warriors? Think of the Maoris and the Picts from Scotland with their blue woad. In Australia, Aboriginal men scarify the bodies of adolescent boys as part of their initiation rite. The markings also indicate that they are now FAMs: Fighting Age Males.

While the tattoos of most military personnel are covered by the neck to ankle uniform, I’ve seen a few peeking out of collars and cuffs. It’s the one mark of individuality and self-decoration they have left. Perhaps tattoos are common in the military because they help people state: this is who I am and this is how I’m unique.

LCpl Tamara Jesenkovic's tattoo. Her sister has the same design on her ankle. They had the tattoos done together before Tamara deployed to Afghanistan.  Photo by G1.

LCpl Tamara Jesenkovic’s tattoo. Her sister has the same design on her ankle. They had the tattoos done together before Tamara deployed to Afghanistan. Photo by G1.


Day 21: up, up and away

Today we said goodbye to the magnificent mountains of Kabul and flew back to AMAB (Al Minhad Air Base). We were supposed to be going to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, but the flight was cancelled.  I was a bit disappointed not to visit Kandahar, once the capital of Afghanistan and now the second largest city, but not much.  If you’ve seen Ben Quilty’s painting of Kandahar, you’ll know why.

On the trip back to UAE, we were visited by the Easter Bunny!  Loadmaster Tim “Chief” Winship hopped along the rows delivering little eggs and making us smile.  That’s if we weren’t asleep like G2, aka Dr Steve Bullard.

Tim "Chief" Winship handing out Easter eggs on our flight

Tim “Chief” Winship handing out Easter eggs on our flight

G2 takes a nap on the Hercules

G2 takes a nap on the Hercules

“Chief” is the creator and editor of the “Spew Bag Times”, the in-flight magazine for the Hercules’ he works on. Each issue is hand-written on a motion sickness bag and reports “the chunky news” such as the colour of the pilot’s underpants, and other more useful information such as altitude, flying speed (about 520km/hr), outside air temperature and time of arrival at destination. He’s donated a couple of “issues” to the War Memorial.

Our co-pilot enjoys some Italian pizza (on right) at 28,000 ft

Our co-pilot enjoys some Italian pizza at 28,000 ft

For the second half of the four hour flight, I was able to sit in the cockpit and watch and listen to “Ayresy” and “Flippy” fly the Herc. This is John Ayres’ first deployment as a Pilot/Captain, although he has flown many times as a co-pilot. He’s one of the subjects in our portrait commission (see day x). He says the Herc is designed by pilots, so it is simple enough for them to fly.  Other planes are designed by engineers and are much too complicated. Even so, the array of dials, knobs, buttons and screens looked quite bewildering to me.

Pilot John Ayres in the cockpit

Pilot John Ayres in the cockpit

The pilots guide the Herc the long way around Iran, so as not to intrude on their airspace. The Pakistani Government is happy to share “their” atmosphere with Aussies. I listened to the pilots communicating with other pilots and air traffic controllers via shortwave radio. Fortunately the language of the skies is English.

In between the radio calls, the air crew, who are all on “comms”, engage in a lot of banter and do the daily quiz from the Sydney Morning Herald. They download it to a tablet before they take off for the day and do it as part of their in-flight entertainment. It reminded me of my Photographs Team at the Australian War Memorial who do the quiz from The Canberra Times each day. We needed the help of the brainiacs in Photos!

One of my favourite signs from Kabul

One of my favourite signs from Kabul

Even though we were flying at 28,000 feet, the visibility was very poor due to the dust. Still, watching the plane descend and land on the runway was an experience I’ll never forget.  It was something that John Ayres experienced when he was seven years old, and from that point, he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.

Day 20: Easter without eggs

It’s Easter Sunday and I am feeling deprived because I have NO chocolate eggs to eat. When we went to the European DFAC (Dining FACility) for brekky, I consoled myself with a croissant dipped in hot chocolate.

We have been SO busy in Kabul, that there hasn’t been any time to go to the gym. But I have had to wear my bone-crushing body armour every day, which is like walking around carrying 23 kg of weights at altitude’s higher than Perisher, Smiggins or Blue Cow in the Snowy Mountains. So I think I’ll have another croissant.

"The French Quarter" where the French forces sleep) at Kabul

“The French Quarter” (where the French forces sleep) at Kabul

I have finally found a recycling project in Afghanistan! This one warms your heart. The blue plastic lids from the umpteen water bottles which get consumed in Kabul are collected, sent to the clever people in Turkey, and turned into wheelchairs! Now I can have another bottle of water to wash down the croissant(s).

recycling water bottle caps - photo by Steven Bullard (G2)

recycling water bottle caps – photo by Steven Bullard (G2)

keep collecting those lids!

keep collecting those lids!

Today I interviewed a young soldier who is training members of the Afghan National Army (ANA) in logistics. He is helping them order, dispatch and keep track of the sort of goods you need to keep an army ticking: weapons, boots, vehicle parts, etc. This is a pretty challenging job in a country with low literacy levels in Dari (see day 19) and when the goods arrive labelled in English! Teaching people how to use a computer and move from a paper-based to an electronic inventory is even more challenging. Fortunately, this soldier has a fairly laid-back, relaxed attitude which helps him get along with the Afghans and do his job. He is much better suited to it than his American counterparts who want things done NOW and done THEIR way, because it is the RIGHT way.

I’ve had to be inventive when it comes to finding places and furniture to do the audio interviews. Note innovative table made of water bottles below:

Interviewing Tod Peronchik at the Central Supply Depot, Kabul.

Interviewing Tod Peronchik at the Central Supply Depot, Kabul.

The G-force joke that I keep inviting different men into my bedroom, because sometimes that is the only quiet place for an interview!

My "recording studio"/bedroom in Kabul - note dual purpose rubbish bin

My “recording studio”/bedroom in Kabul – note dual purpose rubbish bin

But G3 has been sleeping with three under-age women each night: Tinkerbell, Snow White and Cinderella. I’ve been sleeping with Barbie and G2 with Dora the Explorer. All the doona covers are cartoon or Disney characters.  Is this telling us that war is child’s play?

Going to bed with Barbie

Going to bed with Barbie

Day 19: the streets of Kabul

Today we went “outside the wire” again through the streets of Kabul. The insurgents keep thinking up new ways to attack enemy vehicles with IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), so much so that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is struggling to create new acronyms to keep up with their deviousness! However, I felt quite safe in our “up-armoured” 4WD, wearing my body armour, helmet and ballistic eye protection and being driven by two experienced Australian soldiers. (By now you’ve probably heard the news that five soldiers – two from Australia and two from the ANA were injured in an IED attack on Easter Sunday).

IMG_0618 resized street in Kabul Nth

Street in Kabul – none of the roads we travelled on were sealed – some were graded

I managed to take a few photos through the window of Kabul.  We were travelling around the northern outskirts of the city, not far from where the book “The bookseller of Kabul” is set. I can highly recommend this book for its objective portrayal of life in an extended family who have lived through 30 years of Afghanistan’s turbulent and violent political history.

IMG_0603resized houses, scrap metal yard behind CSD Kabul

Scrap metal yard and houses on the mountainside in Kabul

Alexander the Great conquered Afghanistan in 330 BC as did Genghis Khan in 1204. Venetian Merchant, Marco Polo travelled through Afghanistan and possibly stayed in Kabul during the 13th century. Kabul was the capital of the Mughal empire from 1504. Britain fought three wars with the Afghans before the Russians invaded in 1979 and the Taliban in 1996. The country has only known 40 years of relative peace and stability in the last 200. No wonder it’s so impoverished.

IMG_0593 resized goats in Kabul

goats sometimes share the road in Kabul

I felt a sense of despair travelling through Kabul. The nation needs peace, and an educated workforce of men and women – but only 43% of adult men and 12% of adult women are literate.

IMG_0592 resized bicycle repair shop

Bicycle repair shop, Kabul – many Afghans are expert bush mechanics

The ADF is part of an international effort to build up the capability of the Afghan National Security Force (army and police); but what about building the capabilities of the country’s teachers, doctors, accountants, farmers etc.?

Fruit sellers, Kabul

Fruit sellers, Kabul

girls herding hairy goats, Kabul

girls herding hairy goats, Kabul

Day 18: not really here

Today we arrived in the capital of Afghanistan: Kabul. We are staying at Kabul International Airfield – North (KAIA-N), home to defence personnel from many countries who have joined the fight against the Taliban. This is my second trip into Afghanistan – the first was to Tarin Kot (TK) but then we flew out to the UAE again. On neither occasion was my passport checked nor stamped. It’s as if the two military bases I have worked and stayed in are island enclaves within the country. The military talk about going “into country”.  I feel like I’m geographically in Afghanistan, but not really here. I haven’t tasted any Afghan food, heard the call to prayer or seen any feasting celebrating the Afghan new year (Spring Equinox – 21 March 2013).

I feel more like an intruder, than a visitor. The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA), lead by Hamid Karzi, welcomes the support of countries like Australia, so I guess my intrusion under the umbrella of the ADF (Australian Defence Forces) is sanctioned.

The majestic mountains around Kabul are part of the Hindu Kush and are closer than those around TK. They look ripe for climbing. If Afghanistan had not been at war for most of the last 200 years, it could have a thriving nature tourism industry.

IMG_0577 resized sunrise looking sthwest from KAIA-N base

sunrise looking South West from KAIA-N base

For the first time, I have gone ‘outside the wire’ “in country” as we drove to the other side of Kabul to visit the burgeoning Afghan National Defence University. This is where Afghanistan will train its military officers and soldiers. A coalition of nations – Australia, Britain, USA, France, Romania, and a few others – are helping Afghanistan to establish its “Sandhurst of the sands” (although “Duntroon of the dust” is more accurate, in my opinion.) One of the subjects in our portrait project is mentoring Afghans in their roles as company sergeant majors. He finds this easier than negotiating the politics around security and SOPs (standard operating procedures) at a multinational base where every country has their own way of doing things which they think is best.

Women are able to join the defence forces, and segregated accommodation is being built for them at the base. ABC journalist Sally Sara tells the story of two Afghan sisters who had to overcome entrenched discrimination in order to train and work as helicopter pilots in the Afghan airforce –

Although it was Good Friday when we arrived in Kabul, there were no hot cross buns in the mess. I don’t think the Easter Bunny will hop into Afghanistan, even though he won’t need a passport.

The Easter bunny hopped in to the Kabul ISAF airbase, but didn't bring any eggs :(

The Easter bunny didn’t bring any eggs to Kabul ISAF airbase 😦

Day 17: Battle rhythmn

Back in Australia, you’ll hear the phrase: “work/life balance”. Balancing the needs of children or significant others with the demands of a job while running a household can be a complex and sometimes stressful juggling act. Things get out of balance easily. On deployment, I’ve come to the conclusion that the equation is not “work/life” but “work = life”.

People work weekends. The cycle of a week is created by the Friday morning sleep in they get at Multinational Base Tarin Kot, which is preceded by pizza every Thursday night in the mess. Otherwise every day has the same routine.

One of the soldiers I interviewed talked about getting into a “battle rhythmn”.  He would get up about 6am every morning, go the gym or go for a run, shower, eat, then be in the (windowless) office by 8am. His duties during the day were punctuated by making coffee (in the espresso machine), eating lunch and dinner, contacting his family, and another PT (personal training) session. The absence of domestic chores meant he could work through until 9 or 10pm before starting it all again the next day. As an RSM (Regimental Sergeant Major) or “senior soldier” of a regiment, I think the only battles he had engaged in were with the printer and the coffee machine!

Creating a routine is a common way for people to make sense of an expanse of undifferentiated time. An eight month deployment can feel endless, especially when the days lack variety. Creating a routine is also a strategy that hostage prisoners use to help them get through their days/weeks/months in captivity. As Australia prepares to withdraw from Uruzgan province, it has taken a step back from the “front line” (see Day 13) to advise and allow the Afghan National Army (ANA) to lead the fight against the Taliban. Even when the Special Forces (SF) go outside the wire now, they must take an ANA soldier with them for each SF soldier. This means that there are a lot of soldiers from 7RAR back at the base doing mundane tasks who are getting thoroughly bored and frustrated. They may be part of a QRT (Quick Response Team) or MRT (Medical Response Team) but when there are no emergencies to respond to… then they are getting paid handsomely to stay fit and healthy.

Boredom can mess with your head just like seeing a mate injured can. I admire the section leaders who can keep their troops from becoming complacent and venting their frustations inappropriately. Gym sessions are both physical and psychological workouts.

I am writing this post from one of the lounge chairs in the recreation area. Sometimes the “sounds of war” are the roar of a crowd at a footy match (broadcast on a wide screen TV), the click of a cue on a billiard ball and the whirr of air-conditioners.

relaxing in front of a footy match at AMAB

relaxing in front of a footy match at AMAB

table games

table games

Day 16: staying connected

No modern soldier goes to war without a laptop. This was an observation that Sally Sara, the ABC’s former foreign correspondent in Afghanistan made.  Sara reported that when some troops who were stationed at a remote patrol base and hadn’t been able to have a shower for three months were offered the choice of having showers or internet access installed, they chose internet.

When you’re sent on a 6-12 month deployment, chances are that you’ll miss significant events like birthdays, Christmas, wedding anniversaries, or your child’s first day at school. One mother I spoke to participated in her son’s 5th birthday via skype. The family had the i-pad on the table and put a party hat on it. She sang ‘happy birthday’ to him with the rest of the family and watched him cut the cake. She said it was as good as it could have been, given the 11,600 km and seven time zones between them.

Some people, particularly mothers who deploy, try to stay very connected to their family while they are away. For example, one mother listens to her son read his school reading books and another gave advice about the making of an Easter bonnet via skype. Another mother was very hurt when she returned from a six month deployment and found her now 18 month old son was initially very cautious and wary of her. It was a day or two before he would accept physical affection from her.

There is some debate in the ADF about whether this is a good thing – whether it is good to have deployees emotionally connected with their families back home. In previous wars, people waited weeks or months for a letter to arrive, so they couldn’t be as involved or connected. Will today’s ADF employee be distracted from their work if they are watching the clock to see when the time will be right to telephone or skype? Will they miss a warning sign in a battle zone if they are thinking about how to help their son stand up to the school bully, or help their daughter adjust to kindergarten?  I think that if you want to have highly skilled women in war zones, then you need to make it as easy as possible for them to be there. Reducing the amount of contact with your family doesn’t reduce the pain of separation nor the need for emotional attachment. You never stop being a mother.