Page last updated at 00:41 GMT, Saturday, 27 June 2009 01:41 UK

Life abroad in the British forces

Servicemen, women and veterans are being honoured in events around Britain on the first Armed Forces Day.

It is a chance for people to raise a flag to show they are appreciated.

The BBC caught up with serving men and women posted to far-flung destinations around the world.

Staff Sgt Grant McFall
Staff Sgt McFall said the Afghan contractors are keen to learn

Staff Sgt Grant McFall is a Royal Engineer who works as part of the reconstruction and development team in the provincial capital of Helmand Province for 522 Support Group Royal Engineers.

He said, from his point of view, things were "really progressing" in Helmand: "We do all kinds of reconstruction, from schools to mosques, and we get contractors in, and do everything from tenders to project managing - the whole life cycle of a construction site.

"We go out on patrol with the infantry and close protection team, and mentor the civilian contractors and try to bring them up to British standards. They're top class, the Afghan contractors, very keen to learn.

"The contractors I've worked with at Lashkar Gah are keen to work with Isaf [International Security Assistance Force]. However, when we turn up on a construction site, we only have 10 minutes of walking around the site because if we do get noticed, it could jeopardise the contractors' well-being, being seen to work with Isaf forces.

I think that having an Armed Forces day is a great idea. I don't think the British Army gets enough acknowledgement of what we're doing out here
Staff Sgt Grant McFall

"But there are more projects than there have been in the past. I've been out here three months, and have around 16 construction projects here. When Isaf first came out, they were mainly doing smaller cash projects. Now we are overseeing the construction of a new jail in the province, costing £1.6m

"I have three months left of this tour. I did my clerk of works construction course, and I've been thrown straight into the deep end here. I love it. It's a dream come true - this job is brilliant.

"On this Armed Forces Day, I'll be out on patrol on Lashkar Gah keeping an eye on the construction sites. My wife's a nurse in Nottingham, which keeps her busy, and my son Kian, who is two and a half, will be at nursery.

"I think that having an Armed Forces day is a great idea. I don't think the British Army gets enough acknowledgement of what we're doing out here."

Major Anna-Lee Johnston
"The men in the company love serving with each other," says Maj Johnson

Maj Anna-Lee Johnston, 34, has served in the Army for 12 years and is commanding two platoons at Camp Buehring in Kuwait.

Her officers are checking and fixing military equipment arriving from Iraq, following the withdrawal of British forces. It is then shipped to the UK or to the frontline in Afghanistan.

"I've been away since the beginning of May. We're in the centre of Kuwait, in the middle of a large piece of desert. It's an American camp for 23,000 men and we've got a little bit of Britain in the bottom corner. Three times a day a bugle plays over a loudspeaker and you have to stop and salute the American flag.

"Much as they miss family and home, [the men] want to do what they are trained to do.
Maj Johnston

"The Americans don't do anything by halves so we have a cinema, Starbucks and massive gym. We try to make life for the men as normal as possible.

"The food is outstanding, but we're going to come home weighing 25 stone, there's a lot of deep fried food. But ask any British serviceman what food they miss most and they'll say curry."

The other thing the soldiers miss is baths and showers. As the water has to be shipped out, they only get two 30 second bursts in which to shower.

Soldiers also work much longer hours when away. They get up at 5.30am to run, as it is too hot to do it any later, then work from about 8am until at least 7pm. They work seven days a week, with a later start on Sundays.

'50 degrees'

"I'm sat in an office with a computer, phone, probably the same as what I would be doing at home, while the boys are in a hangar, fixing things," said Maj Johnston.

"But what's different is the environment, the desert heat and sand, things like that. It's 50 degrees at the moment. It takes 10 days to get used to it when you come here.

"I miss my parents, my friends and my dog. I had a load of mail through today, our families can now use something called an 'e bluey' - they can send letters and upload pictures, and it takes four seconds to get from the UK to here.

Maj Johnston said there was a sense of "pride and achievement" amongst her men.

"The men in the company love serving with each other and as much as they miss family and home, they want to do what they are trained to do, that's how I feel as well.

Sqn Ldr Smith
It takes 18 hours to fly home, says Sqn Ldr Smith

Sqn Ldr Neil Smith, 35, is currently serving in the Falkland Islands, where the UK still has a strong presence, with Army, Royal Navy and RAF personnel.

While the status of the British overseas territory is still disputed by Argentina, the personnel are also involved in tasks including road building and mine clearance.

"We're often forgotten about in the UK. We're out here for four to six months at a time. Everybody here is absolutely in no doubt about the importance of the job we are doing here.

"When you go into Stanley, which is an hour's drive away, everyone is really proud to have us here and is really proud to be British. They really appreciate our presence on the island."

Sqn Ldr Smith, who has an administrative role, served in Iraq last year and says he is well placed to compare the two.

I'll miss the Ashes series, that kind of thing, really mundane, but you still miss out
Sqn Ldr Smith

"Clearly here you don't get the same immediate threat, or see the sun as often as in Afghanistan, but people have to cope with being 8,000 miles away from home.

"It's just coming into winter here, we've just had the hottest June day on record, and it was 12 degrees. It is a little bit of a cliché but you really can have four seasons in one day.

"We have to contend with the time difference, we're five hours behind the UK, so we tend to come in early so we can deal with the UK more easily.


"It's hard to think of people stationed any further away from the UK. It takes 18 hours to fly home.

"Everyone experiences a feeling of isolation. If something is happening at home, be it a child taking their first steps, saying their first words, or taking part in a school play, and you can't be there, it can be hard.

"You miss friends and family. Often people are planning things in the UK when you know you're going to be away. I'll miss the Ashes series, that kind of thing, really mundane, but you still miss out."

But living so near the South Pole does have its compensations.

Sqn Ldr Smith said he could go down to the penguin colonies and see four different species - something most people never get to experience.

Commander Phil Waterhouse
An office job "doesn't ring my bell"

Cdr Waterhouse, 43, is in charge of logistics on HMS Bulwark, one of the five biggest or "Capital" ships in the Royal Naval fleet.

It is his job to organise equipment, personnel, food and stores at sea during its current six-month deployment in the Far East.

Operation Taurus aims to maintain the Navy's fighting capability by training alongside key allies including Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh, India, Turkey, Greece and France.

The ship is near the Maldives islands, off the Indian sub-continent, and heading to the Gulf of Aden on its journey home to Devonport in Plymouth after almost five months at sea.


The married father-of-two, from Tavistock in Devon, has served in the Navy for 27 years and is one of 606 crew members on board.

"I've been on this ship for 13 months and spent a little over two-and-a-half months at home. It's bound to be a challenge, especially with the teenage kids growing up.

"If you can accept that and give it due regard, there's so much opportunity to see different aspects of the world."

HMS Bulwark
HMS Bulwark carries eight landing craft and up to three helicopters

He said the port city and British naval base of Visakhapatnam on the east coast of India "took his breath away" because of the warm heartedness of the people, despite their poverty.

"Every day is a different day, " he said. "God forbid I leave the Navy and sit behind a desk and catch the 0922 to Plymouth, or whatever, it just doesn't ring my bell."

HMS Bulwark is the flagship in a fleet of 12 ships taking part in Operation Taurus, although it is now down to a core of five. At its height, 3,300 personnel took part from 17 nations.

Cdr Waterhouse said it was important to build relations, interact and train with different allies because these days it was "very rare" for a country to operate in isolation in a war situation.

When the ship reaches the Gulf of Aden, it will help other British ships police the area for pirates from Somalia and Yemen.

Cdr Waterhouse does not anticipate trouble: "If they do try to take us on, there will be 600 people with rifles and a few weapon systems."

Leading Seaman Lucy Gilston
"It's such an adrenalin rush"

Leading Seaman Lucy Gilston, 30, from Portsmouth, is one of just 65 women on board HMS Bulwark. Her role is to organise travel, wages, administration and deal with staffing issues.

But she is fully trained in combat, damage control, replenishment at sea, first aid and fire fighting.

She works long days below deck, often from 0800 to 2200, but says she has seen some amazing places and cultures, and is given time off the ship to explore.

On this trip alone, she has visited Malta, Turkey, Crete, Egypt, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Maldives, Cyprus and Gibraltar.

She says she misses her father, who lives in Gibraltar, and her mother and sisters back in her home town of Warrington in Cheshire.

"I miss my family more than anything and also the personal space. You're in a living area with 20 other girls, so there's not much privacy and there's a bit of a fight for the shower.

"Each place is not the same and I've seen some beautiful places on this deployment... my favourite stop so far has been Thailand, mainly for the type of culture, people I've met and beaches.

"The biggest danger whenever you go anywhere is being attacked, but because we train each day, we know inside out what to do and the adrenalin would just kick in.

"Before I joined the Navy, I thought I could never do it, but it's such an adrenalin rush."

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