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Him in the Dust - Part 1 - 3. We Are Soildiers

Moderate profanity.


June 23rd, 2006

I can't believe it, I’m an Infantry soldier! I did it; I passed my 28 weeks specialist’s training. This was confirmed by a prestigious passing out parade, again in front of my parents. All the stops were pulled out. Even my dad, usually deaf of any feelings, had a tear rolling down his face and a warm hug to greet me with. My mum was almost hysterical with pride, kissing me until my face was wet, and Nanna, always the moderate one, said she was over the moon and gave me a little peck to seal her approval.

The last few months had been amazing and exhausting. My unit had all been to Wales to train in harsh terrain. I had passed my annual Marksmanship Test as well as my field craft, arms drill and fitness test. All with merit from my commanders. I was in dreamland!

But now it got serious. I was a soldier, and rumours were circulating we might not be on UK soil for long.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

June 24th, 2006

After the comedown of passing out we were awaiting our transfers. We knew it would be goodbye for some of the guys as it was very rare for a whole dorm to stay together. Depending on where you got sent you were allowed to either go home each night or live on base depending on your transfer options. I was hoping for somewhere down south so I could be near my family, but unless you put in a special request for emergency reasons, you got what you were given.

I was asleep on my bed when Jack came bursting into the dorm.

“I got the heads up guys, but it’s not common knowledge yet.” I awoke from my slumber and wondered what all the fuss was about. Everyone was huddled round Jack, looking at a scrap of paper he had in his hand. “Hey Seb, over here; you’re gonna be pleased.”

I got up off my bed and joined the scrum which had formed.

“Hans, Biden, Andrews and Green ! We got…oh my God. We’re staying here?” Bellowed Andrews.

“Huh,” I said, trying to get a look at the paper. Jack was grinning ear to ear, and I was nonplussed when I read it. “We got Catterick?”

“Sure did, comrade.”

I left the group and went back to sit on my bed. I was devastated. So far from home. Mum was really hoping I would come back. Even to Portsmouth. So was I!

“Fuck!” I whispered, wondering whether I should call them. I should, I knew I should. Mum would cry, and Dad would… who knew how Dad would react? I sure didn’t.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

After the excitement of Jack’s inside information, it was later confirmed by the army who was designated to go where and I was indeed staying at Catterick. Most of the guys had gone to watch the football as it was the World Cup. I would have normally gone, but instead I chose to stay in the dorm with my thoughts. How to tell my parents was now eating away at me. I had to make that call.

So I did!

“Oh, hey Mum. Are you busy?”

“Sebastian, it’s lovely to hear your voice. We still can’t believe our baby boy is a soldier, Wow, you must be so pleased.”

“Yeah, Mum, it’s great. How was the drive back?”

“Oh, not bad, though mind you it’s sweltering. Apparently it’s the hottest weather we’ve had since records began. Probably a bit cooler up where you are.”

“Yeah, Mum about that. Erm, well, I got my transfer digs.”

“Oh fantastic; c’mon, tell me.”

“Well, it’s here.”

“Sorry? What do you mean: here?”

“As in I got Catterick.”

“But darling, that’s miles away. Cant you get anything nearer?”

“Just the way it is, Mum, and I don’t want to make a fuss. I don’t have a reason to be nearer.” Shit that came out wrong. “I mean I can only get nearer if there is a need.”

“Well, there is a need. I need to be near my son. I mean, God, the other one is far enough away and now you?”

“Is Dad around?”

“He’s in the garden. Would you like a word? I can’t believe you are staying. Oh… this is… hold on let me get your dad.”

I heard mum put the phone down and a loud sob could be heard as she walked away. I rolled my eyes and tried to put on a brave face myself, but I felt her pain.

“Hey, son, your mother has told me you got Catterick. It’s a fine base, very modern.”

“Yeah, hey, Dad. Mum said the drive back was okay. Glad you got home safely. Look, will you talk to her? I know she’s really upset, wanting me to be nearer home, but….”

“Yeah, son, I know the drill. You get what you get. Listen, I’ll talk to her and explain. How are things up there. Did you get your digs yet?”

“No, still in the dorm. I’ll probably get a four share. I think it’s £32 a week. The rooms are small, and we’ll have a shared bathroom, but after dorming it will feel kinda quiet and much more private.”

“Better than private rent, son. If you need any help with stuff, just shout.”

“Nah, it’s fine, Dad. I’ve got savings now. Haven't really been able to spend any money.”

“Good lad. So uh, well, you be well and we’ll talk again. I’ll go speak to your mother. Do you want me to tell the family or are you gonna call?”

“Nanna and Robbie? Uh, could you tell them?”

“Sure thing. See ya, son.”

“Yeah, bye Dad.”

I pressed the red button on my cell and disconnected the call before throwing my phone on the bedside table.

“Bad day?” called Spinner from the door, walking over to his bed.

“Aren’t you watching the game?”

“It’s sweltering in the TV room. I had to get out and get some air.”

“Oh,” I replied, lying back on my bunk. Lukas came over and sat on Jack’s bed.

“Uh, you know, if you wanna talk or anything? You look sorta, well, like maybe you do.”

“About what?”

“Your posting? Or maybe the call you just made?”

“You were eavesdropping?”

“No, but I did wait outside for a bit, you know, to give you some space.”

“But you heard the call anyway...ahh fuck it, look, it’s fine.”

“Is it?” he asked. Fuck me; I had to wipe a tear away, and he was watching. “I’m not gonna invade your space,” he said, sounding compassionate, “but I do know a thing or two about being far away from family and surviving the emotions you feel when that happens.”

He got up and walked back to his bed, grabbing a mag as he fell onto it. I looked over at him and sighed.

“You wanna flat share?” I asked. Spinner grinned, looking at his mag.

“£32 a week?”

“Yeah, I was thinking Tank, Jack, you and me?”

“Count me in.” He didn’t look up.

June 25th, 2006

I had spoken to Tank and Jack about sharing rooms and they were up for it, neither of them wanting to pay the average £230 a month rental off base. Jack and I headed down to the Accommodations office and put in our applications.

It was to be two rooms with a shared bathroom and washing room. We decided to buy a washing machine and a tumble drier to put in the washing room to save taking our clothes to the base launderette. Money was easy, and there were no issues when talking about what we needed which was great.

I think I kinda took charge in all this which no one minded. I just said what I thought we should get and the other agreed. Tank and Lukas had agreed to share a room, which Jack had no problem with as we had been closest friends in the dorm. I was secretly glad as Tank snored a little and was quite loud at times. Jack was more a quiet lad and thoughtful in his personality. I already knew we would get on fine.

Our forms were processed in around four hours and we got the call that our rooms were ready. It was £64 up front and a damage deposit of £100 each. Again, when I told the guys, there were no issues, and I went back to the Accommodations centre and paid the deposits. From then the rent would automatically come from our salaries.

I took the bank forms to the guys and got them to put in their details and sign. Jack then offered to return them back as I had been running around a lot. The three of us packed up our gear from the dorm and said goodbye to the seven others who were still left in the dorm waiting to transfer out, and we took the 10 minute walk to our new rooms with Jack following 20 minutes later.

It felt like a new start even though we were on the same base. There was a certain amount of freedom we all now felt. But this was going to be the first time we would be looking after ourselves. Four 18-year-olds, fresh out of training. No parents to wash our stuff or sew buttons back on to our chinos.

We got to the accommodation and I used the key in our main door. Two adjoining rooms were right in front with the bathroom and washing room off to the left. There was a musty smell that greeted us—a mixture of young male sweat and cheap deodorant.

“Well, here we are, guys,” Jack said, going into all the rooms. “They look the same so take your pick.”

Tank opted to the room on the left, and gestured to Lukas...Spinner, to go in. Me and Jack went into our room and threw our stuff on the beds.

“Washing machine and dryer are coming in a couple days,” I said, starting to unpack.

“Cool, I have a bit to wash, but nothing urgent. SHIT!”

“What…what's wrong?”

“Iron, we need an iron… GUYS WE NEED AN IRON!” Jack blasted.

“YEAH WE WERE THINKING THE SAME,” Tank shouted back.

“Jack, they’re only next door.”

Jack just grinned.

“Argos?”

“Nah, Comet. Look, I'll sort it. I was thinking if we use this wardrobe to put our best dress stuff in, and then our normal clothes and stuff in these two?”

“And the cami uniforms?”

“Meh, we’ll stuff them in that cupboard,” I said, pointing. “Not like we’ll be needing those for a while.”

“We got classroom duty tomorrow, yeah?” Jack asked, pulling out his notebook.

“Yep, I can’t wait.”

“Your sarcasm makes me think you would rather be out with 30kg on your back in this heat!”

“You have a point. Any news on deployment? You seem to be in the know.”

“I’m just nosy. Anyway, nothing I’ve heard about. But that new guy in our dorm… oh what’s his name. Andrews?”

“Ben Andrews?”

“Yeah, him. He’s into all this political stuff and reckons there will be another deployment to Afghanistan as things are going to shit there right now.

“We’re ready, you know,” I said, looking at a worried expression on Jack’s face. “This is what we trained for.”

“Yeah, I know. It just feels like we’ve been let out of kindergarten to explore a motorway on our own.”

“Nice analogy, but hey. I got your back, and you got mine, and we got them next door, too.”

“Yeah, and they got us.” Jack bumped my first and we carried on unpacking.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


June 27th, 2006

It felt like it was getting hotter each day with no let up. Both Jack and I had found it hard to sleep the previous night so we sat up until 3am playing cards…this time for no money.

“God, what time is it?” Jack said ripping the sheet off his bare body. “I’m sweating!”

“Just gone 6am. You want a Pepsi? They're a bit warm.”

“Seb, we need a fridge and a TV. I can’t live like this.”

“I’ll get them if you want?”

“You sure; you wanna go halves?”

“Yeah, I’d like cold Pepsi, too, and something other than your voice in the evenings.”

“Hey, I am great entertainment, but yeah, we need a TV. Oh and judging by the sweat dripping from your armpits, I say we get a big fan!”

“I’m gonna go take a crap and shower. We can sort out the rest of it tonight after training.”

“Cool, I’ll jerk off while you’re in the shower.”

“Thanks for letting me know.”

“Man, it’s been like four days. I'm fit to burst.”

“Okay, Mr. Bluballs, you have 10 minutes.”

“I’ll need two. See ya in a bit.”

I chuckled and grabbed a towel from the drawer and went out into the tiny corridor and in to the bathroom, hearing that the shower was on.

“Who invades my space,” came Lukas’s voice.

“It’s just me. Sorry, didn’t know you were here. I need a crap. And I got that shower after you so leave it on.”

“Sure thing, don’t stink out the place.”

“Only roses,” I said, opening the window before undressing and sitting on the toilet.

“You got fitness with us at eight?” Lukas asked, pulling back the shower curtain.

“Yeah, same. Not that I’ve had much sleep. It’s too fucking warm at night.”

Spinner stepped out of the bath leaving the shower running for me. He grabbed his towel and started to dry his blond tight curly hair. I looked at his body, unable to help myself. He was small in stature, probably only five-seven. He had a natural athletic body with no signs of gym work or muscle training. He was just normal. His chest was defined, smooth, and arms straight with just a subtle hint of bicep definition.

“You finished gorping?” he asked, snapping me from my thoughts. “Footballers legs, huh?” he asked, dancing on the spot. I felt momentarily embarrassed and must have slightly blushed, but his footballer's comment probably saved an awkward moment.

“Sorry, I wasn’t staring so much, it was just where my eyes were when I was thinking.”

“It’s okay, we all look. Well, I do anyway. I’m looking at you right now.”

“Why?”

“Meh, to make sure my dick is at least the same size or bigger than yours. But with you on the toilet, it’s hard to tell.”

“Why, you can still see it.”

“Yeah, but I’m flaccid and you have a semi.” He said this seemingly without a care in the world. I looked down at my own dick and did indeed seem to be slightly aroused. I hadn’t realised it.

“Sorry, it’s morning… you know, wood, and stuff.”

“Whatever,” he cheerily replied, leaving the bathroom to me. I fell into my hands, mortified.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

36 of us lined up at the main gate to start our 15 mile fitness test. It wasn't a race, but we had to finish by a set time. Jack, Tank, Spinner and I all decided the pace would be 10 minutes 30 seconds per mile. We set our watches and waited until we were allowed to start. The commander shouted at us to go and we all left as a group with some immediately pulling ahead to start the loops. I knew from the Cadets that racing ahead first is never a good idea as your body will give up quicker, leading to an overall slower time.

“I called home earlier,'' Tank said, puffing as we ran in our small foursome group. “I reckon deployment is coming.”

“And you tell us now?” Jack shouted, making other runners look back.

I was much calmer. There were always rumours here and there. Sure, some came to fruition, but most of them stayed just that. Rumours!

“I haven't heard anything,” Spinner said, pulling out just in front of us.

“What makes you think this anyway, Tank?” I asked, calmly, looking at my watch. “Slow down Spinner.”

“Cos...cos we don’t have enough troops in Bastion and the people in government are calling for more. Anyway, that’s what my dad says.”

“Right. Okay, well, until we hear something I say we just stay calm.”

Tank looked at me. “Are you shitting me? I wanna go. This is what I’ve trained for. I wanna go dent some Taliban heads with my gun!”

I rolled my eyes and looked at my watch again. We were making good time and Spinner had fallen back to our pace now that things were quiet between us.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I called home that evening and spoke to my dad outside where I could be in private. It’s funny, but I had access to newspapers and could even go to the TV room if I wanted, but I chose not to through fear of getting wrapped up in…yeah, rumours. Yet I was calling my dad to learn any information he had, which of course was only rumours.

He said the papers and news had been slow to pick up on the escalating situation in Afghanistan because of other more trivial events. What he meant by ‘trivial events’ was his anger that the news and press seemed to be too interested in the reality TV show Big Brother, the World Cup and the heat wave. Even the ‘sensible’ newspapers, as he called them, only devoted a few columns to the war in Afghanistan. The government wants to keep the people occupied, he would say on that phone call. Something that stuck with me. I mean, sure, the weather can't change, but was the population being bombarded with distractions to take the interest away from what our armed forces were going through abroad?

I was nervous but excited all at once. I trained hard to be an infantry soldier and what was the point of 14 weeks Basic and then 28 weeks Specialist if I was going to only sit in a classroom? No, I needed to put all that training to use!

I was gearing up in my head for deployment and I wanted to make sure I was mentally prepared.

I came back into our living quarters after sitting outside alone for an hour talking to my dad. The sun was just about gone, replaced with just the warm air it had heated up during the day. The base seemed quiet now with just the last few boys coming back I suspected from some pub in the village judging by their slurred whispering speech as they walked past our block. I closed the door and went into our room.

Jack was lying in his underwear on his bed, doing a sudoku. “Hey,” he said as I sat down on my own bed.

“Hi, how’s that going?”

Jack chucked it down. “Crap. I’m just no good at them. Where have you been?”

“Just outside. I called home and then just sat until the sun went.”

“Stuff on yer mind?”

“My dad just filled me in on the stuff going on in Afghanistan, and I was thinking about what Tank said.”

“Hey, we might get Cyprus. You never know.”

“Hardly. We’re cheap gunners. Fresh for the deep end I say. And anyway, you don’t get an easy ride until you done at least two tours. My brother did Iraq twice; now he’s in Germany.”

“Well we are in a sad mood tonight, aren’t we? Would you like a back rub?” Jack said giggling.

“Sorry, man. Yeah, I should cheer up. But you don’t have my dad. He’s always serious and he goes on about the government, and the military being strapped for cash, and how much of a shadow we are compared to the USA. Bla bla bla.” I fell back on my pillow. “God, I’m glad I’m up here, actually.”

“Ha ha, he ain't that bad, is he?”

“Nah, he’s okay. It’s just my family, Jack. We’re all military. My dad is fanatical about the army. His dad was in the army too. It’s a Biden thing.”

“Wow, so you have a proud heritage. I’m the first in my family to be in the military. My dad said I needed a good kick up the arse. So here I am.”

“What did you do before this?”

Jack shrugged. “Played games and wanked.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

June 29th, 2006

The washing machine and tumble dryer came. It was like Christmas with the four of us queuing up to use the new appliances. We stood round talking in just our boxers as the heat was now inescapable in the late afternoon after drill and fitness. Today we carried 30kg of bricks in our backpacks round a two-mile stretch on the base in the blazing sun. Two guys on our route passed out from heat exhaustion and I felt I was close behind. Tank, on the other hand, had powered through and actually got the quickest time. I was in no fit state to match him. Lukas and James trailed me but still made good times.

“So how long is a wash?” Jack asked.

“You didn’t have a washing machine at home?” Lukas asked.

“Sure we did, but don’t ask me how the thing worked, that was my mum’s department.”

Tank nodded along with Jack, as me, Lukas and I looked at each other.

“It says how long is left if you look. Let me know when yours is done, Jack. I’m happy to go last. My underwear doesn't reek quite as much as all of yous!”

“So uh, can we talk about the elephant in the room?” Lukas asked, bringing us all out of laughter. He looked serious.

“How loud Tank is when he cums in the shower?” Jack said. Sending Tank into a fit of laughter.

“Hey, guys, let‘s be serious here and listen to Spinner,” I said. Probably killing the banter that was about to start.

“Afghanistan!” Spinner said, clamping his hands around the back of his head.

“What about it,” Jack asked, heaving himself up onto the tumble dryer.

“Guys, look. I’m gonna be really boring here but the history of going there don’t bode well for us guys.”

“People come home, Lukas,” I said, feeling he was starting to scare Tank and Jack.

“Do your history, guys. And even if you don’t, right now the war is going badly. We’re over stretched and lacking equipment. Yeah, I don’t mind saying that I’m shit scared.”

“Okay, c’mon, Spinner, let's be rational. This is what you trained for…what we all trained for.”

“You know I'm a medic, too?” Spinner announced but made it a question. “And I know I ain’t gonna like what comes my way.”

When no one said anything, he continued. “They’re like rats, the Taliban. We wiped them out in 2001, and they slowly started breeding again. And here we are again. We threw everything at them and only killed 680, I’m hearing.”

I grabbed Lukas’s arm to take him outside.

“We’re gonna get some air; you guys handle the washing. I’m sure you can cope with that. Lukas, walk with me.”

Outside in only our boxers, I took Lukas over to the block boundary and we both sat on the wall. He sat there rubbing the hairs on his legs, looking frustrated.

“You got something to say to me, soldier?” he asked formally. His irritation was obvious.

“Spinner, don’t do this,” I replied, putting a hand on his shoulder. He brushed me off and stood up. “Hey, come sit down, we need to talk.”

He shook his head and pulled a cigarette from behind his ear and a lighter out of the waistband. “Nah, you guys don’t wanna listen. You guys just wanna close your ears.”

“Spinner, sit down, I wanna talk about this…I wanna hear, but those two? I just think some people…some of us want to be told what to do and then just do it. They don’t wanna know about the bad stuff, you know?”

“And you? What about you, Seb? You bring me out here, why…because you wanna know?”

“I’m already informed, Spinner. I know what’s coming”

“Really? Women and children blown to bits. Five-year-old kids with half their tiny heads blown away, by us! They tell you all that…did your dad tell you all that?”

I sighed. “Graphic, Spinner! Graphic!”

Spinner took a long pull on his cigarette and waved his finger at me. “Reality, my friend… reality.”

He came and sat back down, seeming calmer after his outburst.

After a few minutes of silence, I turned to him. “You good?” I asked. This time, I said nothing else. Just waited.

“Truth is, Seb, I dunno if we know what we’re fighting for anymore.”

“We’re trying to put a country back together and get rid of terrorists. We have to believe if we wanna get that done.”

Spinner looked at me for a long time. “I’m scared,” he finally said, his lips trembling.

“I know.”

I gently pulled on his head and rested it on my chest while he gently wept. He slowly put his arms around me, seeming to hang on tight. I was surprisingly unemotional, but strangely enjoyed the contact.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

June 30th, 2006

I woke early. There were people, noises outside. Word filtered in about a probable deployment. There had been rumours, but now they looked to be coming true. Tank paced up and down outside. He looked a mixture of pumped, excited and worried. Rumour after rumour came round. People called other people. Lukas had been on his phone since 6am talking to people he knew. Jack was asleep through it all and I did my best not to wake him as we didn’t have to be in our first aid class till 7:30am.

“Anything?” I asked, meeting Spinner in the bathroom as we cleaned our teeth together.

“May come today but yeah, definitely, the shits just got real” he said, spitting out his paste.

“Uh, are you feeling okay today?”

“Not really,” he replied before starting to scrub his tongue.

“I’m uh…you know, I’m here if you…”

“What, to talk? Nah, I’m good. Gonna go sort my desert kit out, might as well be prepared.”

With that he left the bathroom. I just gazed at the door he’d just walked through, lost in my own thoughts about the early morning commotion. If we were to go, would I have time to call my folks?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was happening. Our unit got called to a briefing at 8am. We were shipping out. We were all given HIVE packs and told to call home. I felt alive, numb, emotional, scared and excited all in one go if that were possible. I looked around the room seeing my fellow boys in various states. Some shocked, some smiling, some looking like they were about to cry.

Our regiment, Yorkshire Regiment, was being wholly deployed which meant a massive logistics exercise. Equipment, vehicles, artillery, weapons and everything in between had to be organised.

With our packs we walked back to our living quarters and all called home. For me, my dad would provide good advice and get me to focus on this...and for the first time in, well, forever, I felt on the same level as him, and I actually found the conversation natural and comforting. Mum as usual was emotional and I tried not to spend too much time on the phone for her sake as well as mine. I needed to digest this and I needed to do that with the emotion taken out.

Jack was in tears to his mum so I left him alone in our room to be with his family. Lukas came out and found me sitting on the wall.

He gestured to me with a packet of cigs. I waved them away. “I don’t smoke, never have.”

“You okay?” he asked. He sat down on the wall with me.

“Processing,” was all I said, staring off into no particular spot.

“We stick together, yeah, the four of us.” Lukas shoved his hand in front of me, trying to make me focus.

“Always,” I replied, grabbing his hand and shaking it.

Christ knows how, but we would be out of here in five days!

NB. British accommodation for soldiers who live in barracks is Free. However, some larger UK military bases have private housing built on the base for military families or soldiers who wish to have their own private accommodation. It is heavily subsidised. and much, much cheaper than living off base in Private renting. I know this is not the case for my American readers and felt it needed explaining.

Copyright © 2021 James Matthews; All Rights Reserved.
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From the frying pan we call life, directly into the fire. We can only wonder what awaits our four boys as they journey into the unknown.

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WOW - this story is becoming increasingly difficult to read!  It brings back my own memories of the shit storm of Viet Nam!  Afghanistan is still a shit storm after all these years!  It's your excellent writing James that brings forth these emotions and makes this story so believable!

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4 minutes ago, KayDeeMac said:

WOW - this story is becoming increasingly difficult to read!  It brings back my own memories of the shit storm of Viet Nam!  Afghanistan is still a shit storm after all these years!  It's your excellent writing James that brings forth these emotions and makes this story so believable!

That is such a moving and lovely comment. Thank you. I'm sorry in one sense but glad you think I do it justice. That's all I set out to do with this.

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