STAY IN TOuCH BY WENDY SEARLE
The Joint Air Mounting Centre in South Cerney, Wiltshire, is a military airport which handles soldiers flying out on operations or exercise. Before they board a plane, their documents and luggage are checked, in a similar way to a normal airport terminal. But these air travellers are soldiers who are in desert combats, their luggage is issued kit, and their thoughts are with their families.
20,000 troops go through the Centre each year and will often be deploying to Afghanistan for six months, waiting several hours for a night flight. ABF The Soldiers’ Charity has funded the Centre with internet connection, a games zone, five PC terminals, TVs and a Playstation so soldiers can keep themselves occupied and get in touch with loved ones in the hours before they board the plane to a war zone.
Warrant Officer 1 Jez Shazell, Senior Movement Controller at the Centre said “This is their last bit of reality before they actually get into theatre. The frontline guys will be straight out to the FOBs [forward operating base] within six to seven days. Until they get settled in the FOBs, they’ll probably get a couple of minutes with the families. Their first real contact might be a few weeks [away]. This is really the final opportunity to say goodbye to their families before they go out the door.”
Traditionally, letters from home have been a highlight of being away on operational tour. From the World Wars, to the Falklands and now in Afghanistan, communication with loved ones has been vital to those who are far from home.
But how much has changed now internet access is possible and serving soldiers can pick up a phone and call their families?
One more traditional method is to put pen to paper. For the troops writing home from Afghanistan, and to those at home writing back, this is often done via a bluey – blue airmail paper which folds into itself – lighter to send that an ordinary letter. Even with the advent of email and phone call, the importance of receiving a letter still cannot be underestimated.
Major Denis James returned from Op Herrick in Afghanistan late last year, just in time to spend Christmas with his wife Eleanor and their three young boys.
“There’s nothing nicer than getting a real letter when we’re in theatre.”
The deputy head of British Forces Post Office (BFPO), Colonel Paul Smith, explains how things have changed, even since the first Gulf War.
“The biggest change is the introduction of e-blueys. It’s a hybrid mail system which reduces the burden on the physical operation system.”
E-blueys can be sent from soldiers to arrive at home as a letter, as well as being sent from the UK. Once the email has been sent, it usually arrives in the form of a hard copy letter, 24-48 hours later. There are currently more than a dozen machines in the operational areas of Afghanistan which print off the e-blueys.
“You need to be able to get on to a computer in theatre – one with a normal internet terminal. It arrives in the post a couple of days later,” Major James added.
But it’s not just friends and family who send letters and treats to those serving overseas, as Major James explains.
“We were almost overwhelmed by parcels addressed simply to ‘A Soldier’. We have a special relationship with the village of Braunston in Northamptonshire and they sent parcels to The Viking Group [a single squadron which uses the Viking cross country vehicle in Afghanistan].”
“They sent useful stuff, sweets, snacks, also a whole Mills and Boon collection! It’s just so nice to receive stuff from strangers, it’s all welcome and very thoughtful – and we try to write back.”
Although the use of the internet and phones (special phone cards provide 20 minutes a week of time on the phone), many soldiers are in FOBs and so may not be near a fixed phone line or a computer.
Major David Lee served in the Falkland Islands in 1982, and Afghanistan in 2008 - and was away for three and a half months. There were no phone calls, no internet. Yet as a young soldier with Second Battalion the Parachute Regiment, Major Lee came across a novel way to get a message to his mother, to let her know he was safe and well.
“Communication to back home was nil. The only way you communicated was by postal bluey. I got a message to my mother via radio-ham on CB radio. There was an enthusiast in Goose Green who relayed a message to another ham in Hull and a message got through that way,” he said.
He says times have changed since then, and just having the facility to pick up the phone means a lot to those a long way from home.
“Whether they want to or not, having the facility to do so enhances morale considerably,” Major Lee said.
BFPO’s Colonel Smith agrees: “Operationally, the mail is fundamentally important. People still believe in its importance for morale, and the mail is flown into theatre almost daily.”
The situation in Afghanistan has captured the public’s imagination, who show their support through their own kind of mobilisation, sending thousands of parcels to people they have never met, giving a huge boost to those so far from home.
Major James stressed the importance of those parcels to him and his troops: “The overwhelming thing was parcels from strangers. In Iraq, I got one at Christmas. In Afghanistan, we must have received ten a day.”
So, with letters and the all-important parcels, and now with the advent of e-blueys, the internet and phone calls, home is brought just a little bit closer for soldiers currently in Afghanistan.
FRONTLINE | FEBRUARY 2011 | 15
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