Few UK forces share Bastion's luxury
MY journey to what seemed the furthest corner of the world began last Tuesday at RAF Brize Norton, near Oxford. After an eight-hour stop-over in the Middle East, myself, and approximately 40 others, boarded the Hercules C130 for the last three hours into Camp Bastion.
Wearing full body armour we made the rapid descent into the British base in complete darkness. It was Friday morning when I finally arrived.
It's a vast base, nothing like I've ever seen before. Television footage simply does not prepare you for the overwhelming scale of it. During the flight one soldier told me the site is the size of Reading.
Making my way through the arrivals hall we are briefed on what to do in the event of Indirect Fire, or an IDF attack. The alarm is not dissimilar to the air raid warnings heard in World War Two museums. I listen further as the troops that had previously disembarked the Herc' with me were told to carry a loaded weapon on their persons at all times. Shortly after locating my baggage I find out a Danish soldier has been killed by a bomb blast. Suddenly this feels real.
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I'm met by Sqn Ldr Travis Tonkin, a media operations officer who drives me and two other personnel to our new home for the coming days.
The accommodation is a large military tent next to that of the Afghan interpreters. At 5am I'm woken by their call to prayer, it swiftly reminds me I'm not in the comfort of my own home. The generators continue to whirr as I get four precious hours of sleep before my day begins in Camp Bastion's Role 3 Hospital.
Throughout the night helicopters buzz around accompanied by the occasional siren.
The temperature at night drops well below freezing. I was warned the winter here would be harsh. Snow and rain is forecast over the next week – a world away from the glorious sunshine bellowing over the base at 7.30am yesterday morning.
A hive of activity surrounds the barbed-wire enclosed base. Breakfast is served in a huge canteen that caters for 5,000 every day. The runway is 3,500 metres long – capable of taking a Boeing 747. Each day there are between 500 and 600 fixed and rotary wing flights moving in and out of Bastion.
Much of the base is Americanised with famous fast food outlets, coffee shops, embroiderers and even a beauty salon with a nail bar.
For many service personnel this will be their home for six months. For me just two weeks. Yet I'm reminded this is luxury with the majority of the UK forces stationed in Patrol Bases and Forward Operating Bases away from the confines of Bastion – outside the wire.
Over the next year the 9,000 UK troops currently in Afghanistan will reduce to 3,800 as the Afghan security forces take increasing responsibility for security across Helmand province. It is intended that the transfer of security responsibility to the Afghan government and removal of British troops in a combat role will be complete by the end of 2014.
What happens to Bastion once the handover is complete is still unknown but for now it houses some of the best trauma facilities in the world alongside thousands of dedicated service personnel.