The Battle for Hearts and Minds / by Dawn Webb

 

I know most visitors to my website are expecting to see my recent wedding work, but one can never hang up his old boots and let go of where he came from.  Therefore I apologise to those of you that are not wanting to see images from a war zone.  I didn't want it too be too military heavy, more important I was able to show the wider picture without the might of the military propaganda machine.  I found the faces of the people of Afghanistan far more important than generic 'war' type images.  It was us that invaded their country, to see one of our armoured personnel carriers bumbling through a back street as a young child looked on scared and fearful of what we might do is etched in my brain far more than guys firing guns at an invisible enemy.

I hope one day if given the opportunity I could exhibit my images in all their glory for all to see.....any offers out there please email me.

 

With the close down and withdrawal of combat troops from Helmand province in Afghanistan, I have sat and pondered over some of my best images taken as my time as a working photographer in the country.  With remembrance Sunday looming on the 9th November I also felt it a poignant time to never forget my days in Afghanistan where I worked as an Army photographer.

 

During Herrick 10 I read a headline that went like this 'If Gordon Brown cannot persuade a grieving mother that her soldier son's death was not in vain, what hope does he have of persuading the rest of us that our presence in Afghanistan is worth the price our troops are paying in blood?’

For a fleeting moment that week, I experienced a rare twinge of sympathy for the Prime Minister, who has been derided and humiliated for his error-riddled letter of condolence to Jacqui Janes.

While Brown the politician is deserving of criticism on every level you care to consider, I believed that Brown the man, as awkward, clumsy and insensitive as he appears, probably meant what he scrawled in haste to a woman whose 20-year-old son was fatally wounded in a bomb explosion. It was unfortunate for him that his lousy eyesight and handwriting, and the fact that the bereaved woman was allied to a newspaper that was gunning for him, combined to create a public relations disaster.

His office failed the PM miserably in allowing the letter to be sent, but it was no reason, I thought, to condemn Mr Brown personally. Yet the transcript of his telephone conversation with Mrs Janes has expunged the smidgeon of pity I had for him. He says he is "mortified", and so he should be – not because of the letter, but because of that call.  The conversation was his chance to redeem himself, to articulate his sadness at Jamie's death, and make amends for what Mrs Janes perceived to be a lack of respect for her son. Difficult as it might be, his decades in public life should have prepared him for making a decent hand of it.

I too lost several very close friends on Herrick 10, the bloodiest summer since the campaign begun and one of note was Captain Mark Hale of the Rifles.  Mark and I used to fly kites together on the beaches of Ballykinler on a Sunday morning back in 2003.  I remember advising him to get rid of that gastly yellow and blue Peter Lynn kite and switch to Flexifoil ( yep that was me 'the kite advisor). Mark could be seen getting dragged up and down the beach in his custom buggy, no mean feat for a man weighing it around the same weight as a small bungalow.  I was on my way to visit Mark in FOB Jackson, Sangin one afternoon with cameras in tow when I was about to board the helicopter when I overheard a conversation by two guys sat next to me that the ‘BGLO’ had been blown up by an IED!!!  What the fuck….Mark was the BGLO, i.e MARK HALE...so I quickly phoned the hospital to ask if this was correct and it was, my guts turned inside out and knotted several times as I tried to make sense of the person on the other end of the phone.  Now although I was sat there as a photographer, I was really a Devonshire & Dorset infantry soldier at heart ( as was Mark).  I felt lonely, I started to cry and guys didn't really know why, some stupid blabbing bloke sat there with his camera on his own about to board a helicopter.  If you know Mark you would know how much a mountain of a man he was, he was this giant with an unbelievable soft side - one of the good blokes, one of those blokes that we all looked up to.  Still I had to make the trip to Jackson anyway as HRH Prince Edward was inbound to visit the guys in the Rifles for a few nights.  Once I got to Jackson I sat at Marks desk, I saw where he trained at the gym, I saw his handwriting from documents he had written…..but he wasn’t there! Mark wasn’t there!  Even his stooped hat was there, a hat 3ft tall that we often where around FOB Jackson to liven the morale.  Mark lost his life because he was attempting to save another....enough said!  For me life and work had to go on, but for Brenda his wife and the girls back home the nightmare had only just begun.  

That summer we lost a lot more troops especially in the dreaded lanes of Sangin.  As a photographer I flitted around the province more than most as my job was to capture the entire brigade on camera.  I felt very exposed to the emotions and sadness that the loss of a comrade can bring, as I left one location I felt empty and then arriving at another as a casualty report comes over the radio that another soldier has been casevacced before even getting a chance to settle in for the night sickens you to the bone.  Morale was at all time low in 2009 yet this was never reported back here, the shortage of equipment and troops was at all time high and sitting in Bastion looking at how much kit the Americans had was a downer.  It was said amongst British troops that the US Marine corps had more helicopters in hangers on Bastion as reserves than we had in the entire British Army! …… yet we were making do with 6 helicopters at one stage.

I don’t want to come across as a whinger but times were tough, I have forgotten a lot of it and the good times do come through now and then and I guess looking back through my images I conjure up all sorts of feelings and emotional highs and lows.  Remembrance Sunday is my time to reflect and join my brothers in arms and tho think of those we have left behind on the battle field.

 

There was another heart stopping moment for me when I was sent back out to Afghanistan pre christmas 2010 with a journalist from the MoD to collate christmas messages for family and loved ones back home here in the UK in conjunction with GMTV.  These messages are formed some several weeks before christmas and edited for both print and TV.  We had been out for several nights visiting various FOBS (Forward Operating Bases) when we had returned back to Bastion to transmit back to the UK via satellite as we came across two young ‘fresh out of the factory’ soldiers from the Rifles sat awaiting to board a helicopter to Sangin.  Claire ( MoD journalist) interviewed the first guy as I photographed the second, I would carry a small selection of christmas cards which I would use as props to ‘fluff’ my images up for local newspapers.  So I have the Rifles soldier sat there filling out the card as if to mimic a real card writing shot.  Anyway…..transport 18 hours and were about to transmit those stories and images back to their respective local town newspapers when we had a call to STOP the transmit immediately as one of the guys had been killed in Sangin market by an IED!….He had been in theatre less that 2 weeks, was 18 years old and taken from us……to this day it still haunts me.  Yet to make matters worse his mum was sent the images that I had taken and asked for the whereabouts of the christmas card as it never arrived in the post!  Telling her it was only prop broke her heart, as she honestly believed her deceased son had written and posted a real card… it pains me when i recall the memories.

 

I am hoping that one day I maybe perhaps could get some of my images into some order and print in a book or get some published to help facilitate the missing links on what went on out there in that horrible sand pit of death.

 

Semper Fidelis.