The final lecture in our Lent series was given by Captain Abi Brown, a member of our congregation and serving army officer, who had recently returned from a six month posting in Iraq – her second, having been posted previously during the initial invasion back in 2003.
This again was a total change of subject area from the week before. A lot of the presentation was about practical things, explaining what the army is doing in Iraq, and the day to day life of our soldiers out there. She also covered the preparation that the troops are given to prepare them for their tour of duty, and how the army supports their personnel once they get back.
Perhaps the most interesting part of all the background is the realisation of quite how little we know about day to day life for our troops in Basra. Even with all the embedded journalists that have been placed with troops we still only get a snapshot of life – it is rather different hearing from an actual solider.
Abi is a Captain with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers known as REME, who are headquartered here at Arborfield, hence how she came to be part of our congregation. Her troops were responsible for the maintenance, servicing and inspection of much of the equipment that the army use in Iraq, in particular vehicles such as the Challenger 2 tank and the Warrior APC that are the mainstays of the British equipment.
However aside from listing the equipment, she really focused on day to day life.
She was, like the majority of the British force based at Basra Airport, where the force is under continuous bombardment from mortars and rockets. She showed some pictures of the damage that these attacks cause, and also the measures taken to protect the troops. For example she showed pictures of her sleeping accommodation – a mattress surrounded by breeze blocks and a ‘roof’ consisting of a steel plate covered by sandbags. Another real and present danger was the risk of kidnapping, so she was armed at all times, and was never allowed to move around on her own – that even extended to going to the toilet at night, people were always accompanied.
She made some interesting comparisons with how things were during her initial posting to Iraq during the invasion. Today the army is well equipped, and properly supplied – she said that this is a big difference from how things were back in 2003. Back then she refused to wear desert uniform until all her troops were similarly equipped – she never wore her desert uniform during the entire posting. The general impression she gave of the situation then was that the army were ill prepared for what they had to do.
She largely steered clear of political comment, although she did say that about eighty percent of her troops probably disagree with the reasons that they went to war, but on a professional level want to do a good job. Interestingly she says that their biggest worry now is that due to political pressures the troops will be pulled out too early, and not get a chance to do their jobs properly, the job being to bring the Iraqi army up to a standard whereby they can look after their own country without aid.
Her husband Adam was posted to Iraq at the same time as her, but was in a different part of the country. She did say that the only British soldiers not posted to Basra were some admin staff based in Baghdad, and the special forces. Adam was posted to Baghdad, and all she would say about what he did was that it was a lot more dangerous than what she did, and that for her own sanity she never spoke to him at all about the kind of things he did.
She also talked about what it was like as a woman in a largely male organisation, and in particular being in command of men. She has some support in this respect as she is assisted by the first female ASM in REME. She commented that as a woman, the relationship with the men is different – she actually said that perhaps the least successful women in the army are those that try to be like the men – she sees handling things differently as an advantage. The most interesting comment she made was that many of the men seem to regard her as a mother figure – indeed one of her men commented after a telling off that it was by far the hardest he had had because he felt like he did when his mother was telling him off. She also said that because she is a woman many of the men open up to her a lot more than they would to a male officer, which sometimes gives her more of a broad view than a male officer would get, when perhaps the men would not mention some issues. Having said that, there are still soldiers who have a problem with being commanded by a woman – she has one in particular with which she has had issues. As part of her training though, she was required to spend some time working in industry, and she said she had a much harder time being a woman in the engineering company to which she was seconded than she has ever had in the army. Although it is still dominated by men, women are in many roles all across the army.
The final part of the talk, she discussed how she and her troops deal with the loss of fellow soldiers, she lost her first within twenty-four hours of arriving in Iraq. She also here talked about her faith, and how the weekly Church services she attended were about the only escape she had from the continual worries of attacks on the base – the Church was the safest building on the base. Key events are Remembrance Sunday – the base has a memorial with a brass plaque for each soldier that has been killed – and whenever a fallen soldier is repatriated as many troops as possible attend the ceremony. Amongst all of this, she says that many soldiers do find religion – â€œmore than you would thinkâ€? she said – however that still doesn’t stop many of them having times when they find themselves asking why it is that situations like Iraq can happen, and why it is that certain people are killed and others survive.