The day began the same as any other. I got into work that morning. Parade just starting to form up as I ran the last few yards to be there on time. Then off to the crew room for a quick brew. As we were all given our jobs for the day. “Steve, you need to go to admin” I was told. What had I done wrong this time I thought but as I arrived outside the admin hatch I was given a letter. It was a brown A4 envelope and was quite thick. I immediately knew what it was. As I opened the envelope containing a travel order I stood shaking scanning the front page. I knew my turn for deployment was due. However, I didn’t know where I would be going. With the choices being either the Falkland Islands, Afghanistan or Al Udied (Qatar) I knew where I wanted to go and deep down I knew where I didn’t.
When I joined the RAF on 4th November 2003 I knew what I was doing. I wanted a career that I could be proud of. The war on terror in Afghanistan had already kicked off and of course, there was a possibility of a tour over there but deep down I didn’t believe I would be going. I thought the fight would be over long before I had completed both my basic and trade training, After all, that would be another year. The war had already been going for a year before I joined up. I was Nieve back then. How can the best Army, Navy and Air Force in the world go to war against a load of farmers armed with AK-47s and rocket launchers and it being anything other than easy?
Eight years later and here I was, sitting on a bench outside the admin hatch. Reading and re-reading the travel order, Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. There it was in bold letters clear as day. “Where are you going”? the lads asked as they filed out of the crew room, looking over at me. They must have noticed the paperwork from their own tours. I hid the initial fear from my face. “Afghan baby”, I said laughing as I stood to join them. The truth is I was shitting myself. I couldn’t let them know that though. Afghanistan was a revolving door on our squadron as normal as the weekend. It was routine for everyone on the squadron.
Not knowing how to think on the run up to my flight, I decided to act like I wasn’t bothered. This was in the hope that my fake confidence would breed real confidence, but as the weeks turned to months one training course began as another ended. I was getting closer to my tour. Sitting in the crew room one day I was reading about another poor lad killed in his prime serving his country. Stepped on an IED (Improvised explosive device (a bomb) the newspaper said. I remember thinking this was becoming all to “normal”. I stopped thinking about how this soldier had died a hero (obviously he had) all I could think was, that’s another family broken by this war. With every passing colleague killed my fear escalated These guys, the Taliban were not just farmers with AK’s they were dedicated warriors fighting for a cause they would happily die for in a country where they knew the terrain like the backs of their grubby hands. I needed to switch on and give them a little bit more respect.
Sitting down that night I took out a notepad and a pen. I wanted my children to be proud of me, that’s why I stayed in the forces after they were born. The reality was sinister. If I died this year my children wouldn’t even remember me let alone be proud. This was going to be a lot more dangerous than I thought all them years ago when I first joined up. The chance I could be killed was a real possibility. I had never aced any of the pre deployment courses in the run up to my tour and yet soldiers were being killed dailey so I decided to do something I hadn’t given much thought to. I started writing my death letters. This was a common thing in the military although it was never spoken about. I started writing but had to keep restarting tho because the letters kept smudging as the tears freely fell from my face. I know I had said it before but was I really willing to die for my country?
In the days before flying out to Afghanistan, you become so focused on getting the last parts of your joining instructions finished. Going around the different sections getting a signature to say you have the correct Security clearance, equipment, uniform and your person weapon The SA80A2. Oh not to forget your medical and dental certificates. If you have all the right training, equipment and certificates surely this would give you a greater chance of coming home.
Then it happened, the day of my flight to Afghanistan. My kit was packed, documents checked and rechecked. Physically I was ready. Emotionally I was a wreck reading the children a bedtime story I finished the book putting it down My son was already asleep had I seen him awake for the last time? I got into bed with Lexie fighting back the tears as I told her I was proud of her and that I loved her to the moon and back. Playing with her hair she asked “Daddy why do you have to go to the big sand pit” This is what I had told her. how do you tell a 4 year old you’re going to a war zone? I explained it was my job and I needed to go so that we could do lots of fun things together when I got back and eat lots of sweets. She asked me if I would be back by the morning and I said no. Then she said by bed time I again told her no I said I would be gone for three months. She made me laugh when she said but daddy that’s like 6 years….
I gave Kieran and Lexie a kiss with tears filling my eyes. Flashbacks of the day she was born. How lucky I was and here I was about to go to Afghanistan. Suddenly I didn’t want this anymore I wanted to stay at home with my family. I tried so hard to keep a straight face. I was completely broken. As I turned to face the door I heard her say she didn’t want to do fun things and she would never eat any more sweets ever again, if I stayed at home. I didn’t look back I said goodnight and I walked out of the door turning the light off. As I left their bedroom I heard a car horn. My transport had arrived but I couldn’t let them see me like this, so I went to the bathroom cleaned myself up and went downstairs.
I noticed another emotion as I Kissed the wife goodbye, I wasn’t upset about leaving her. I still had lexies words ringing in my ears as I picked up my bags and my jacket and left. What did that mean?. The driver turned to me as I got in the car and said hey bro you good? I was inconsolable, Did every member of the military feel like this when leaving behind their family? I guessed they must but I also scolded myself telling me to man the fuck up and stop crying. Thousands had been before me and thousands would go after. I looked up at the children’s bedroom window hoping it would be dark and the curtains pulled. I could see Lexie screaming and shouting and it broke my heart. Wanna run back in the driver asked but I said no please just get me out of here.