Helmand, Afghanistan, Asharq Al-Awsat- British female fighters of various ranks are on the front line of military confrontation in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, where military operations are escalated by Taliban suicide bombers on motorcycles or in explosive-laden cars that lurk in the streets of Lashkagar and in the districts of Qandahar.
Asharq Al Awsat met a number of soldiers and officers from various ranks at the Bastion camp in the middle of the Helmand desert with help from Captain James Bellway, a former Merrill Lynch financial analyst who left the noisy city life to fly the British flag out of admiration for the military service. Captain James, like his female colleagues, is a graduate of Sandhurst [Royal Military Academy Sandhurst].
I arrived at Bastion camp from Qandahar, once Mullah Omar’s capital, onboard a C-130 Hercules. On board the transport plane, I was seated beside Captain Jo Smalley from the logistic support department. A graduate of English Literature, Smalley wore black sunglasses and a military uniform and assisted me with fastening my seat belt and putting on the safety helmet before taking off for the Bastion base. Security measures on board were strict and applied to everyone. The helmet and the 15-kilogram bullet-proof vest that suppressed my breathing “saves the lives of many soldiers on the frontline of the battlefield from the bullets of Taliban snipers,” were not to be removed even after takeoff.
The following day, Captain James Bellway and I visited the logistic support force where I had my second meeting with Captain Jo Smalley and a group of female soldiers who she works with in the middle of Camp Bastion. Some of them, Sergeant Fiona White for example, have been serving in the British army for 15 years. The determination to confront the harsh weather conditions of the Helmand desert where temperatures soar between 45 and 50 degrees was evident in the eyes of the soldiers. They continue to carry out logistic support missions and transport arms, ammunitions, water and food to their fellow soldiers and officers on the frontline.
Captain Jo Smalley states that she does not miss the green hills of England and the quiet, safe streets of London and Buckinghamshire despite the ongoing shifts and the brown tents that surround her. These brown tents serve as bathrooms and accommodation so that they are camouflaged against Taliban elements. Captain Jo Smalley enrolled in the British army ten years ago after graduating from Sandhurst. She told Asharq Al Awsat, “People are different here. We work as one team. When we left our battalion in Oxfordshire, the only thing we did not take into account was the weather and the high temperatures. Gradually we got used to it.” Despite the harsh weather conditions, the female soldiers manage to raise each others spirits by sharing jokes. Lieutenant Lydia Donoghue stated that the only thing that she likes about the desert is the fact that there are no traffic lights or speed cameras as she drives her military vehicle speedily to transfer equipment.
Sergeant Fiona White, like the rest of her colleagues, calls her family free of charge once a week for 30 minutes or corresponds with them via e-mail. She told Asharq Al Awsat that she has been in Helmand for three months and is expected to spend six months in Afghanistan like her colleagues. “What is nice about the service in Afghanistan is that you make friends everyday.”
Captain Zoe Reece Jay says that she misses her husband, an officer who serves in another battalion in the UK and who she sees once every five months. Captain Jay has been serving in the British army for seven years and most of her work involves preparing details of the logistic support required by the forces and implementing that on the ground. She stated that she never planned on being in the Helmand desert. On the contrary, as a young child, she dreamt of becoming a vet due to her love for animals, or at most a British police officer. Nevertheless, she enjoys life under the tough conditions and amid the dangers that surround her and her female colleagues who left the logistic support battalion in Oxford for the Helmand desert. Captain Jo Smalley admits that she became acquainted with military service and the British army through a weekly television program about the life of soldiers. However, laughingly, in response to a question posed by Asharq Al Awsat, she stated that if she could go back in time, she would prefer to marry a famous footballer and sit at home everyday as she watches him training and scoring goals.
Lieutenant Lydia Donoghue misses the countryside of Yorkshire. These British female soldiers deny being subjected to any forms of pressure or harassment from their male colleagues. On the contrary, they confirm receiving full support and assistance from their colleagues, especially their superiors.
Captain Ruth Earl from the mechanical engineering battalion in Helmand was an engineering graduate before attending Sandhurst. She has been serving in Afghanistan for three months and states that she misses Staffordshire where her family lives. Her basic duty along with a group of colleagues is to repair damaged vehicles. Outside her tent, there are some vehicles that are waiting to be repaired. She told Asharq Al Awsat that she counts the days and hours up to her two-week leave to see her family before returning to duty.
Lieutenant Fiona Forest, from the military police third battalion joined the service in 2005. She arrived at Camp Bastion three months ago. The duty of the military police at the British camp is to control and monitor army personnel. There are rare cases of petty theft, the disclosing of security information, inspections, arrests and arrests of Taliban elements before handing them over to the Afghan forces.
There are female pilots in the British army and women serve onboard warships but not on submarines. They also carry out 70% percent of the same duties as men including working with field engineers and artillery units. However, they are not allowed to join units that engage with the enemy such as the Special Forces, infantry, the Royal Naval Commandos and armor units.