Page last updated at 07:40 GMT, Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Jackie Bird's Afghanistan diary

Jackie Bird
Jackie Bird is following the medical reservists of 205 Scottish Field Hospital

BBC Scotland presenter Jackie Bird is in Afghanistan to follow the medical reservists of 205 Scottish Field Hospital as they begin a four-month assignment.

The Territorial Army members are stationed in the hospital in Camp Bastion, which deals with casualties from across Helmand.


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times"

(A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens)

This is the final blog before we leave Afghanistan.

For Care and Duty in Afghanistan

I've decided to knock it on the head now because I fear that as a result of my crack at the RAF's transporting abilities on day one, the chances are tomorrow's offering will come from North Korea, where they have dumped me.

Travelling abroad for a story always demands a big analysis of what you achieved.

So much time, money and planning goes into foreign trips these days that end results on screen, radio and online have to be worth it.

Last time we were in Helmand there were a few e-mails from viewers accusing Reporting Scotland of glorifying war, simply because we were out here. That's nonsense.

Extrapolate that and you could argue that we're promoting every item we cover on the news simply because we've given it air time.

We set out to give an insight into a remarkable event - a band of Scots from across the NHS crossing borders and professional cultures to do astonishing work in a warzone. I hope tonight's programme achieves that.

In addition, Cameron Buttle's unique access to the Scots in a far flung FOB (Forward Operating Base) gave an understanding of the life of a soldier in this conflict.

Cpl David Mackie
Wherever we are all the Scottish regiments always try to make the best of the situation we are in
Cpl David Mackie

From what I've seen this time round I've certainly been able to clarify my own feelings about the situation here.

Over our two weeks our small team worked well, worked hard, swapped underpants in the communal wash and traded some magnificent insults. I've laughed till my sides were sore.

Simultaneously I've witnessed some terrible sights emerging from ambulances and in the operating theatre. I've never felt so depressed at the damage to young life.

So how can we find something to smile about? Well, the soldiers certainly do and they're in the thick of it.

For Queen and Country may be part of their reason for joining up, but when you ask the soldiers how they're able to do what they do in the face of such danger they tell you, it's for their mates.

The Mert (Medical Emergency Response Team) explained

Their experiences are dreadful but the whole "band of brothers" bond is robust.

In the FOBs especially, the men, and the few women, feel a deep responsibility for each other. And the laughs are never far away.

We're a funny old species. Even in the darkest moments an opportunity to enjoy a bit of light relief is seized.

The best of times, the worst of times, indeed.

For Care and Duty: A Reporting Scotland Special will be shown on BBC1 Scotland at 2130 GMT on Wednesday 3 February.


There's not a lot to do in Camp Bastion except work or sleep. When the soldiers aren't doing that life revolves around "scoff and phys".

Let's deal with scoff first.

I know I'm letting the cat out of the bag here because I did play the sympathy card that this trip to Afghanistan would be full of hardship.

And yes, many things are basic, but the food is outstanding. If an army marches on its stomach, the guys here will do OK.

The quality is excellent and portions are huge.

I travelled here with four colleagues from BBC Scotland. They've embraced army life. Well, the grub.

Scottish volunteers have taken over the running of Camp Bastion hospital

They are now all complaining that the laundry service here - which entails you chucking your gear into a net bag and hoping for the best - has shrunk their clothes.

Without wishing to sound pious, but certainly coming across as such, none has offered to join me on my runs or down the gym. Cameron Buttle did break into a trot once, but that was because he thought he was going to miss lunch.

And that brings me to the second obsession here - " phys". Men and women cram the gyms by night and jog around the base by day.

They're honed and fit and put us civvies to shame.

But in a terrible irony this war is taking from them what they so prize.

The IEDs, the insidious explosives used by the insurgents, are in danger of creating a generation of amputees.

Yes, we hear of the fatalities here. We see the pictures of the fallen and read of their heroics.

More real

What isn't conveyed is the dreadful number of men who lose limbs.

The official figures are there if you look for them, it's just that the faces aren't.

This isn't a revelation, it's already filtering through to the media in general and there have been television programmes featuring the bravery of those fighting back. It's just that being here makes it seem more real.

During our time at Camp Bastion hospital the number of amputees has run into double figures - and that's just in a week.

And it's not just the loss of a foot or a if that could ever be a "just". Within the last year the strength of the explosives has increased to the extent that multiple limb loss is the norm.

A nurse who'd been here two years ago struggled to find the words to describe what he's seeing on this tour.

This seasoned veteran of the operating theatre shook his head. All he could manage was, "sickening".


Chilling. The morning alarm call sent a shiver up my spine.

The announcement delivered in a measured monotone from the Tannoys around the camp said simply: "Op minimise. Op minimise. Op minimise."

Each pause of the phrase allowed the reverb on the previous two words to dissipate into the desert.

It sounds eerie enough, but the meaning is much more sinister.

"Operation minimise" is the notice given to everyone here that communications with the outside world are being halted.

It usually heralds the approach of a helicopter bringing in badly injured soldiers and is an attempt to stop word getting back to the UK of an incident before families have been informed.

Major Graeme Wearmouth
Major Graeme Wearmouth, from B Company, The Royal Scots Borderers, blogs from Helmand in Afghanistan.

"Each path in Helmand presents a different challenge to operate in.

"Certain places earn reputations more chilling than others.

"We have a long way to go on this tour and it remains a deadly battle.

"The margin for error is slim, but we have built on the work of our predecessors, and the words of their outgoing commanders urging us to take this place forward still feel like a big responsibility - but one that we will shoulder."

To read more from Major Graeme Wearmouth click here

Heading up to the hospital that morning we were told the helicopter was carrying three Category A casualties, the most seriously injured.

They were British soldiers caught in IEDs and then ambushed.

As you read this all their families will have been informed.

Night-time is never dull here.

There are usually new arrivals in the journalists' tent fumbling with sleeping bags in the dark, or those taking night flights and heading for far-flung FOBs to take their chances in search of a story.

None of us has slept particularly well.

The roar of the giant military planes as they heave themselves from the runways and the constant thunder of countless helicopters gate-crash your dreams.

It's not a recipe for a quiet night. I go to bed with ear plugs and a rather fetching furry eye-mask. Kate Adie meets Paris Hilton.

It must be difficult for the members of 205 on their first tour.

They've got the Battle of Britain soundtrack, communal sleeping arrangements and shift work which, at peak activity, is a test of their skills and their stamina.

We're making a programme. They're saving lives. I think I'll stop moaning.


Engineer Pete is on hospital watch. Cameron (reporter) is being creative in the empty container he calls home, producer Craig has banned me from leaving the tent as I need to edit with cameraman Chas ... and unless you want to know about his prodigious M&Ms habit, I'll blog again tomorrow.

You can find is a feature on 205's fascinating pre-deployment training exercise here .


Our tent has become the new Helmand battleground. It's a big, unsavoury, communal thing with broken bits of plastic matted dirty flooring.

I'm not complaining as it's the only journalists' tent in Bastion and it's either here or freeze to death under the stars.

It's available to every TV crew or newspaper reporter passing through, and over the past few day's my sleeping-bag bedfellows have included a team from the Discovery channel, ITN, a freelancer for Channel 4 and various MoD in-house writers and photographers. (I'm putting in a request for Men's Health to despatch that reporter they put on the cover.)

The field hospital treats both injured soldiers and locals

So is there a media melee here? Of course not, they're all lovely. No, the aggro is between ourselves - the BBC Scotland team.

The boys want the heating off at night, I want it on. The whole thing's descended into farce with each of us sneaking in the dead of night to turn the heater on or off. A nice, warm, bedroom. It's what I'm used to.

As we squabble, the medics of 205 continue to save lives. Watching a surgeon up to his elbow in a chap's stomach trying to fish out a bullet is a sobering business. On one hand you feel privileged to even witness such a thing...on the other you feel entirely useless.

As you compliment the surgeons on their skills and their ability to function amid the blood and gore all they say is, it's what they're used to.

They've worked their magic on a beautiful Afghan child who seemed to have taken up residence in the hospital. Dusta is around eight. She and her family were caught in an IED and she suffered burns and a broken leg. With huge brown eyes and a mass of dark curly hair, she hobbled around the ward on crutches charming the nurses.

Dusta was discharged today and sent home. It's hoped the dressings on her burns will be changed on a regular basis to keep her well, but I wouldn't put money on it.

She's going because this is a military hospital with a duty to treat local people caught up in warfare, but the aim is not to create what's described as "a culture of dependency" among the Afghanistan population.

As she was wheeled from the hospital with her uncle she didn't seem too bothered to leave the central heating, the clean dressings and the specialists on hand.

She's going back to goodness knows where, but I guess it's what she's used to.


Today began with life and ended with death.

What can you say when a dying man is wheeled past you? We were outside the hospital when the MERT helicopter landed, and the ambulance brought the casualty to the front doors where the emergency team was waiting.

We were told he was an Afghan national who'd been caught in an IED (improvised explosive device) and had suffered multiple limb loss.

That description "Afghan national" was of course clinically correct. But on the stretcher, a few feet from me, was a young handsome bearded man with luxuriant brown hair.

They were giving him CPR as he was taken from the ambulance. Because of the sensitivities we were asked to stop filming. He wasn't expected to make it.

The emergency team deal with casualties brought to Camp Bastion

As we packed away our camera it emerged that the Emergency Department team had persevered and effectively brought him back from the dead.

We raced into the hospital to see him being wheeled into theatre. The senior ED nurse was beaming. This was 205's first emergency, their first serious test, and they'd pulled it off.

By the end of the day the smiles had been replaced by a mood of sombre respect.

The hospital staff took part in Camp Bastion's service for two British soldiers who were killed at the weekend.

It was held on a stretch of land in the centre of the camp, and anyone not on duty was required to attend.

This simple vigil was the military's opportunity to pay their respects and marked the soldiers' removal from the hospital to the airfield, where a smaller repatriation ceremony would take place.

From there they'd be flown to RAF Lyneham. No outside filming is allowed of these ceremonies but photographs were taken for the young men's families.

A minute's silence was started and ended by two thunderous cannon shots that punctured the chill of the Afghan afternoon.

The ground shook under our tent. Too close for comfort for us - but too far away to be heard by delegates in London taking part in the international conference to try to find a way out of this conflict. Pity.


We began this trip the same way as the last (I was out here in the summer of 2008) by playing that well-known military game, the RAF hokey cokey. You load your whole team on. Your whole team off. Your whole team on and then maybe you'll take off.

So there was a bit of delay.

Any serviceman or woman out here will tell you that the so-called "airbridge" from the UK to Afghanistan is less than perfect.

Frequent delays are an inconvenience to a TV crew, but when it means you lose a couple of days of your longed-for two-week R and R break, it's a real problem.

It was also a problem for 205 Field Hospital, the Scots medics whose tour we're out here to film.

They were delayed - halfway through their trip - for two days and, just to put the tin hat on it, the bulk of the unit arrived completely knackered in the wee small hours.

It meant that rather than having a three-and-a-half-day handover with the previous field hospital, who you can imagine are all champing at the bit to go home, they have 24 hours. So no pressure then.

'Serious injury'

Camp Bastion is as big and incongruous as I remember.

A tented town with about 3,500 personnel in the middle of the desert.

This time it seems busier. The helicopter activity, which once seemed sporadic, is constant.

The increase in troop numbers is clearly having an effect.

Camp Bastion hospital, where our Scots will be for the next four months, is a medical centre which treats not only any soldier injured in the conflict in Helmand Province, but many Afghans too.

Jackie Bird in Afghanistan
Jackie Bird is following the medical reservists of 205 Scottish Field Hospital

Local people, especially children, get caught up in blasts from IEDs. The hospital is rarely quiet.

One of the first emergencies our crew witnessed at the hospital was a soldier who'd been hit by an IED. He didn't make it.

I don't know what I expected the effect on the hospital to be. Healthcare professionals deal with death on a regular basis, but of course this is different.

The sheer youth of those who are losing their lives or their limbs somehow makes it worse.

The death cast a shadow over the entire hospital. The mood was sombre, but there was work to be done.

An American doctor shook his head and told me: "I've served in Iraq and in Afghanistan, but I've never seen so many serious injuries, or so much death, as on this tour."

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From southern Scotland to Helmand
03 Feb 10 |  South of Scotland

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