Saturday, August 27

In My Place

It's taken me a while. A while to duck, weave, bob and slide through four weeks away from France, Paris and the Legion. A while to gather my thoughts and prepare for the next significant chapter in my life as a Legionnaire. The horizons from here on in are far more hospitable. No sooner shall one peak be climbed than the winding trail towards the summit of the next one will reveal itself. Bite-size. Short-term goals, a continued sense of progress, whether or not it's all merely an illusionary tactic inflicting absolutely zero damage on the all powerful and immovable Master Time doesn't bother me. Keeping busy, that's the name of the game. Time flies when you think of all the fun you'll be having soon, or something to that effect.

In any case, approaching the end of my gluttonous month on the sidelines, I feel recharged, reinvigorated and just about able to stomach a return to the regimental lifestyle. Keeping busy certainly seemed my principal mantra during the holidays. The first meaningful break post-Afghanistan afforded a deceptively profound opportunity to reflect on all that I did (and didn't do) during that six month tour of duty. Familiar faces from the past, newly-made acquaintances and unknown voices, fingers on keys, all afforded an unexpected epiphany concerning the significance of that half-year spent toiling in Taliban-riddled valleys over six thousand kilometers away from the cosy pubs and unreliable public transport of my dear old Dublin town. People who claim it's a small world have a thing or two to learn about context.

My first encounter involved an e-mail from a relatively new acquaintance of mine currently living in New Zealand. Establishing a connection between me and another of her friends, she asked me to perhaps offer some inside info on current conditions in Afghanistan. The idea was to strengthen this girl's knowledge of what to expect, etc before she possibly shipped out on a humanitarian-type mission to set up a physiotherapy clinic aimed at helping rehabilitate and offer support to injured civilians, most often amputees from land mines. It took me almost a month to reply. Not that I hadn't checked my e-mails, nor read the initial e-mail from my friend a million times. I simply had no idea what to say, what to write, what to offer at all by way of advice. But more alarmingly, my role as a soldier suddenly seemed frighteningly inadequate alongside someone willing to go over to a country like Afghanistan unarmed and with the sole desire to offer DIRECT aid and assistance to handicapped civilians. I eventually replied. I hope it was helpful to her. It certainly was to me. I think.

My next epiphanic encounter came from a rather unlikely source. Growing up as a child, both my parents worked full-time. 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. Distinctly middle-class, my sister and I never wanted for anything (except those things which my parents wisely determined us to not really need). Having two professional parents did however require a child-minder to take the reigns during weekdays until the halogen office lights flickered off and the car keys crashed magnificently into the metallic tray on the hall table announcing the return of mum and dad, dragging early hints of a tumbling dusk through the front door each evening. 

My child-minder's name was Rosie. 

I remember not fully understanding what she had actually done in life before deciding to mind children on a full-time basis. I knew she had been a nun or missionary, and that she had spent time in Calcutta many years ago, but not much else by way of detail. A fantastically strong-spirited and frank, sensible woman, I owe an inexpressible amount to her for how she helped raise me and mould me in to the human being I am today. Years had passed since I had last spoken with her, so this time around I decided to pick up the phone and arrange to drop up to her house. Upon seeing her again, it quickly descended into that old familiarity that only certain relationships are privileged to encounter. The tea flowed, the scone-crumbed saucers piled up and the conversation pumped out rhythmically and without showing the faintest sign on relent throughout the afternoon. I had brought along a little gift for her from Afghanistan, quipping how now she could say that she has souvenirs from Kabul as well as Calcutta.

"Oh I've been to Kabul!" she said with astounding alacrity.

"Really?" I half spluttered, feeling my highly-regarded accomplishments take a stinging hit.

And indeed, she went on to describe in truly fascinating detail a school she helped run in none other than Swat Valley more than forty years previously. Swat Valley is a valley straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and arguably one of the most dangerous places on earth for a Westerner. She proceeded to recount captivatingly vivid tales of the students in their day-to-day lives, disputes with parents over the wearing of veils and adherence to the annual feast of Ramadan. Suddenly, six relatively uneventful months under the protective umbrella of NATO seemed rather pale by comparison.

Of course I say "uneventful" when we still lost men over there during my tour. However, nothing compares to the level of activity and hostility facing French troops and Legionnaires in Afghanistan at present. First was the suicide attack killing five French soldiers in the locality of Joybar in the Tagab Vally. Engaged in what had been considered a routine mission during our subdued Winter shift - providing a security perimeter for a meeting between local village elders and French NATO commanders - they found themselves on the wrong end of a devastating assault. I remember reading the reports containing names of places we had passed hundreds of times without incident. The Summer period really is all the more hotter. Then, distressingly, came the news that two legionnaires had fallen in combat. Now the specific circumstances of their demise aside, it was a winding blow to the entire legion family, but especially to the green berets with glistening golden flame insignias serving in that God-awful, daresay unsalvageable land. Indeed my best friend from basic training took a hit of shrapnel in the same attack. Currently Facebooking from a hospital bed in Kabul while awaiting redeployment to his company out in the field, he downplayed his wounds with characteristic modesty and humility, interspersed with some high-class low-brow humour of course. Shards of jagged metal embedded in his arm and neck or not, I'd still demand a clinically outstanding sense of wit at all times.

Therefore I'd like to take this opportunity to dedicate this particular blog to my good mate Gus whose failed attempts at chatting up the female medical staff can be positively tempered by the knowledge that he's undeniably one of the smartest, bravest and professional legionnaires fighting the good fight out in the big bad world today. Let there be many more following in your footsteps buddy. Those reunion beers are long overdue.

Finally, taking the above in to account, let it never be forgotten that there are men and women out there achieving the unimaginable by helping the most helpless and vulnerable people in the world today. Their efforts are more courageous than those of some of the most muscle-bound combat-clad troops you may encounter in your lifetime. They truly are the unsung heros.

Of course, not all of them were clever enough to start a blog!

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