Pacific connections were immediate when we landed at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province. Tongan guards at the airport were busy kicking a soccer ball around and their casual laughs put us at ease after another C-130 flight across the desert from Kandahar into this heavily fortified base in the southwest. We are met by a Palauan PAO, Sgt Rengelbai, who takes my Guam Battalion escort Sgt Ed Siguenza and myself to accommodation at the Marine base.
The scale of Camp Leatherneck and adjoining British base at Camp Bastion, which both serve as the main base for ISAF operations across southern Afghanistan and particularly Helmand province, is huge; a pop-up city of 30,000 in the desert, like a military Las Vegas, playing equally high stakes.
“There are more people in this camp than in my whole country!” laughs Sgt Rengelbai, as she drops us at stacks of reinforced steel shipping containers turned into accommodation. Next to them are lines of thick concrete bomb shelters.
It is not hard to find the easy-going Guam Battalion troops – they would be the ones sitting in the doorways of their rooms, relaxed and quietly strumming guitars, while all around them serious-looking Marines stride purposefully back and forth as if in another world.
Next day, Sgt Siguenza and I climb onboard a British Chinook helicopter at dawn, flying to a FOB called Lashkar Gah, which is also the capital of Helmand province. Where Leatherneck is a huge base surrounded by empty desert, here in Lashkar Gah we find the reverse – a small, vulnerable base surrounded by a city that is by turns indifferent or actively hostile to ISAF forces here. I watch the rear door gunner scan for incoming as a city of mud and clay rushes below. In a noisy cloud of dust we are on the ground and out the back door.
There is the usual rapid-fire briefing about what to do in the event of mortar or rocket attacks, delivered by a Brit with a hoarse voice and faraway stare, as a line of troops file past to our chopper for their ride out. The fine powdered sand and dust is all over us, no amount of shaking clothes and equipment seems to get rid of it.
After meeting the Guam Battalion contingent, which includes some Palauans and and a tough-looking American Samoan, Sgt Samana, we are driven by buggy to the edge of the camp to go out on a foot patrol outside the wire. There is a prayer, delivered in a huddle as if in a gridiron match, which ends with “stay alert, stay alive” by the patrol commander. He warns us “there will be eyes on us the moment we step outside. Don’t bunch up and keep scoping the streets until we get our package away”. This is a reference to our mission – providing cover for two local couriers holding packages to get safely out of the camp and disappear undetected into the town on their own mission.
I follow a unit of 6 men stepping through blast proof doors onto the street, allowing myself a smile as I notice Sgt Samana in front of me with a large machete strapped to his back. Trust a burly Samoan to be carrying a serious knife like that on patrol…there are no coconuts to be chopped here in the desert but the sight of it was strangely comforting and homely. Just as the Gurkhas and their famed kukri knives are feared by all who face them in combat, so too a big Pacific islander wielding a machete can be a fearsome sight to behold, even for Afghans.
Outside the walls of the camp we can see Afghans on the streets going about their business, the roar of motorbikes and cars kicking up more dust. The soldiers run quickly to nearby walls with M16s pointed and ready, eyes fixed on their scopes and any suspicious movement ahead. It is a 20 minute patrol around the block, filled with nervous glances and at one point I turn around to notice the couriers scurrying away behind us, finding back alleys to melt into the city. Mission completed, we are back through the iron doors and soon peeling off armour and helmets in the morning heat.
We move back to the centre of the camp where lines of tactical vehicles are parked and prepped for more patrols. A group of Guam Battalion guys are getting ready for a vehicle patrol and we are just in time to catch “the singing medic” – SPC Ryan Chestor Arellano do his stuff. There is no way of adequately explaining it without watching it – so here’s a video clip of his usual mission rap which I filmed.
Hours later Sgt Siguenza and I are choppering back to Camp Leatherneck and Bastion, where in coming days I hope to be able to track down Fijians and Tongans serving under British command.