Vascular, Violent, Valley – An Afghan Helicopter Assault

HAF is ON, Westy”…..bolt upright in my bed this statement was delivered from the crack of light in my dark room. It was a routine statement, but at 01:30am with a sleep deprived head it felt like I had a hangover and received ten swift jabs. It took a few minutes to register. After which I checked my body armour and equipment one more time, picked up my rifle and holstered my pistol. I then braced myself to walk out into the blistering cold early morning air, but my lack of sleep had added to my confusion as the weather had now turned to a more mild spring climate. The harsh winter period of our deployment was coming to an end.

Now Helmand Province, Afghanistan is not widely known to the Western public as being a cold place, I have served 3 months in the Arctic previously and was still slapped in the face by the unforgiving Middle East desert cold. Two places in my life I have experienced frost nip and the worst one was in Afghanistan. I would purposely doddle towards the tail of the CH-47 Helicopter embracing the hot exhaust air from its rear.

A HAF is a Helicopter Assault Force, this dark morning we were embarking on an ambitious HAF into the ‘Heart of Darkness’, a daunting target was often titled as such but we had heard this many times before so a pinch of salt was always taken. As a Platoon Mentor of 30 Afghan Special Forces soldiers I shepherded them onto the Chinook Helicopter…enjoying the warmth in the process.

My many experiences of helicopters made it a rollercoaster of emotions whenever I set foot on one – they excited me but always put me in a position where I had no control. As I entered the tail and gave the ‘thumbs up’ to the aircrewman I had one last glance over my shoulder, confirming I was the last man on…and in turn ensuring I was the first man off.

During April 2012 the Taliban had been on the run and retreating up a valley system of several enemy held villages. A US Marine armoured unit had been leading an assault to push through the villages systematically and flush them out. It was working and the Taliban would fight for a while before retreating to the next village to regroup and prepare to fight again. The Yanks continued their ground push through the series of villages until the Taliban were forced into a last stand. With ground forces sat off from the final village we made contingency plans for an aerial assault directly into it.

Excitement was growing with the trickle of intelligence suggesting the Taliban were there in high numbers and committed to fighting, with this being the last line in a series of villages they would have nowhere to go apart from into the open desert. The temptation of taking out a large gathering of the enemy coupled with it probably being our last proper scrap before heading home made this mission an eagerly anticipated one; every man prayed the helicopters, weather and desire from above (God, Allah and NATO HQ) would align to give us this chance to take it to the Talib. To the confused civilian I would offer this explanation…in our 6 months tour a lot of time is spent sweaty, dirty, exhausted and frustrated searching for an enemy. That enemy if deciding the odds aren’t favourable to him will disappear, blend into the community; then only when our back is turned he will attack. He will dig explosives into the ground to maim us instead of facing us man to man, use children as human shields. The opportunity to grab this coward by the scruff of the neck when cornered and give him smack around the face is not to be taken for granted. Of course it’s not all macho chest slapping and being gung-ho, it isn’t that at all actually but there is the more reflective side also. While presenting professional hunger to go out and do the job we remain mindful of the risk, we had made it most of the way through the tour….wouldn’t it be a blow to lose more men now, wouldn’t it be devastating to lose a limb at this late stage. Every moment with my intact legs was savoured. I mean, the post tour trip to Ibiza just wouldn’t quite be the same with one missing!! Risk versus reward…I guess if I returned feeling I hadn’t done enough, hadn’t taken the risk to make a difference then that pina coloda by the pool wouldn’t taste as sweet.

The village was called Fulad, split into two parts, North and South. It had an old Russian hill fort commanding a view over it and spanned a few kilometres in length. The interior was a standard collection of compounds with alleyways connecting them and high sandy mud walls. To the west of the Northern part was a large area of irrigation ditches and green ploughed fields, which would present a nightmare to navigate if encountered. A series of mountains occupied the other flank. My squadron was to land in the Northern part of the village…in the irrigation ditches and ploughed fields, obviously! Maybe it was such a genius idea that the Talib wouldn’t expect it but I’m sure they would adjust to the sound of a massive helicopter appearing in the middle of their sleepy village. We had been granted ‘permission’ from the restrictive command of ISAF/NATO (under the strain of the petty Hamid Karzid) to conduct a night time ‘break in’, allowing us the advantage of moving unseen once dropped off. With our superior training and night vision equipment this was appreciated, however, the average Afghan soldier has such a reluctance to use his NVG’s he may as well be blindfolded. When they did actually pull them down over their eyes they would wander around taking big exaggerated steps with arms stretched out, feeling around like playing a game of blind man’s bluff. I’ll be honest I tend to adopt an approach like a wacky comedy burglar with slow over extended paces but not as bad as those clowns. It was due to a lack of depth perception with the NVG’s but manageable with practice.

The night before the assault we gathered in our briefing room for orders, all aspects were covered for this complex operation. My group would be responsible for the eastern half of the village, about 15 UK/US troops and 60 Afghan soldiers. The force would be split between two Chinook heavy lift helicopters, arriving just before dawn. The US Marine armoured unit had one of its leaders called Capt David Pham. I would meet David on the battlefield at a later time and become good friends and it reinforced to me that this professional US Marine force would be ruthlessly well led and cause as much damage to the enemy defenders as possible. They would start rolling towards the village as we got airborne from our camp, this it was hoped would prompt the residing Taliban to rush in numbers to their defensive positions, towards the Southern tip of the village. Our success hinged on this, our plan of releasing the noisy tanks ensured the village would be alive with an alert enemy by the time we arrived, a risk compared to landing without alerting them. Both options were weighed up and of course if we just decided to turn up we could have the situation of the enemy being scattered and able to fire at the helicopters on arrival. So, we hoped the tanks would divert their attention because we were going to land smack bang in the middle of the village.

I didn’t get much sleep, it was an early start and my body clock wouldn’t allow an early night. Some thoughts occupied the mind but generally it was just going over my actions, ensuring I knew exactly what I had to do. It’s the moment when waking after a brief doze that creates strange thoughts, kind of like when you wake from a dream and can’t picture where you are or if it’s reality. Eventually I would shake it off and laugh that the reality is more alarming than most dreams, we’d actually be getting on a helicopter to go and assault an enemy village. Once I had carried out my ritual of checking my weapon and equipment I set off for the airfield.

Outside our camp we waited in lines on the airfield, it was flanked on one side with a mountain of watch towers and bare desert intersected with ‘Highway One’ on the other. Still pitch black I was already expending energy trying to get the Afghans to stay in their lines, it was important to maintain the order as it was vital they got on the right helicopter and in the right order because at the other end the Talibs wouldn’t be giving us a few minutes to sort ourselves out. This was one of the exasperating parts of working with the Afghans and I would work hard to not lose my temper. They would just walk off to talk to their mates in other lines, or sit with them and jumble up the order. Despite us telling them the importance they would say “It’s OK Whiskey we know, we will move when helicopters come.” But that was the problem, they would move but having not listened they would be clueless to where they should be and end up in the wrong place causing confusion. Their commanders were just as bad and hardly any use at all.

My first buzz of the day arrived along with the sight and sound of our Chinook CH-47 helicopters. It is, in my eyes a majestic machine, to many it may resemble a flying bus but to me it matched extreme power with grace and versatility. Its twin rotors made a distinctive sound that gave it its own personality and its bulky rear ramp would lower, inviting you in. It’s a pretty sensational feeling, walking towards the tail ramp with the powerful downwash from the rotors hitting you in the face, looking around at your fellow warriors willingly boarding this flight into the unknown. Men were going to die today, that we were sure of, the dedication of not allowing it to be your friend was the binding force that motivated us.

Once on board the deafening, shuddering Chinook I gave the thumbs up to the aircrewman and he raised the ramp. I took a seat closest to the ramp in order for me to exit the helicopter first on landing, a series of nods, thumbs up and positive smiles circled around the back of the craft; moments later the engines roared and I felt that ‘roller coaster’ surge feeling in my stomach as we lifted up and away…I imagined in my head the tanks starting their engines and the metallic, creaking noise carrying on the wind to the Taliban sentries, who would in turn wake the others. Would they be prepared I wondered, because ready or not…

I checked the orange backlight of my mini GPS watch – ’10 kilometres’, I could see the other helicopter as a dark silhouette in the sky behind us. We had no way of receiving an update on movements in the village so all I could do was run through the series of possibilities facing us on landing. I just hoped we would touch down without taking fire, in the air we were at the mercy of this machine and its vulnerability while hovering to land. I’ll be honest with you, despite the obvious concern for the events about to unfold there is an element of stimulation during the flight, a sense of ‘coolness’ and arrogance, mans primal instinct in its most pure state of preparation. Imagine a lion or gorilla, prowling around its foe with its chest stuck out, convincing himself he is superior and backing himself to win the battle. In this instance it isn’t macho bullshit, it’s natural emotions supplying mind and muscle with preparation…and stacks of adrenaline on call.

The flight to target is always subdued, it has to be due to the noise of the aircraft but you get the feeling it would also if there was no engine noise. Some guys’ sit head slumped forward on their rifle, some drop it back as if asleep, some look around, some stare like a man possessed. I loved to stare at the tail gate, in darkness or light that strip of the outside world transfixed me no matter how tired I was. Was this in anticipation or was it a physical need to picture what I was going to do when it eventually lowered. Either way I would spend the whole flight analysing what I was going to do when it did lower, what I would do in every different scenario while exiting.

One thing was for sure, the phrase ‘herding cats’ applied to every single exit I made with a a mass of crazy Afghan soldiers. The tailgate would have a 30% gap at the top allowing a view out, on some assaults you would see the sun rising, stunning colours hitting the desolate desert and mountains and many times I would tell myself “This is awesome”, not for any bullshit idealism of ‘losing myself’…I was sat around 30 men armed to the teeth so I knew exactly why I was getting to see that sight but I knew it was a beautiful way to go to war. Not this morning, as we had had permission to assault before daybreak – in total darkness.

There comes a point in this aerial tour that everything changes, and it evokes an emotion in me that I could never replicate or feel in any other situation. With the thunderous noise of rotor blades changing sound, the aircrewman turns around to me the closest man to him and raises one finger – “One minute”, that moment grips you by the chest, it means in one minute this helicopter is going to drop to the ground and that tailgate is going to lower, there is only one way to go and nobody on the back of this aircraft knows exactly what lies in wait.

It was a classic helicopter assault; arriving before dawn we hoped to catch the Taliban off guard. For this particular assault we would land in the middle of the village and directly in range of the enemy weapons.

“One minute.”

I passed the call down and like a row of dominoes you could see in the lowlight heads bob into line as straight as a die. Then in unison every man stood up, turned towards the tail and took a knee – lined up ready to move as soon as that ramp lowered. The aircrewman would then try and give more indications but we knew the score, the one minute was all we needed as from then it was like muscle memory. Soon the helicopter blades would change sound, the cab would shudder as it slowed and the ‘woca woca’ noise from the blades would go into slow motion. The floor would seem like it was going away from you, dust and sand would appear in the gap.

My GPS watch has our rendezvous programmed into it and despite it running down the distance to the RV at the same rate it has been the whole flight, it seems accelerated. It’s almost as if time is moving faster and the GPS is having a fit as it goes into 3 figures….900m… 800m… 700m. The direction arrow is spinning in all directions. Each man has taken a knee, facing the ramp, rifle firmly gripped, my NVG’s flicker into life and turn my world into a green glow of shadows. Suddenly the aircraft jerks and rears up, offering its tail end towards the ground, now we are waiting for the touchdown and the ramp to drop…..it feels like an eternity. Totally focused on the ramp I manage a smile, imagining the Taliban lined out to the south in defence, laying there waiting for the tanks. I imagine the pang of shock they get on realising there are two helicopters landing right under their noses but behind their lines. It was the ideal scenario, the perfect assault.

Except that the enemy aren’t lined out to the south, they aren’t facing the other way, and they aren’t waiting for the tanks. They are still in the village.

“GO”!! The ramp hits the deck and I sprint forward into a dust storm, I am wildly off balance as my feet connect with the humps of the ploughed field. It’s vital that I don’t hesitate or fall as there is a steady stream of men behind me and we all need to get clear of the helicopter. This is our most vulnerable moment, the Chinook even in the dark is a red rag to a bull; it is big, noisy, creating a massive signature from its dust storm and one definite bullet magnet.

Within seconds the enemy have located it and we start receiving a high volume of machine gun fire.

Screaming at the Afghans to move into a covered ditch I catch a glimpse of our fellow helicopter slowing to a hover on the other side of our field. ‘BOOM’… the unmistakable echo of an RPG being fired, soon followed by an explosion. Whether it was fired at our aircraft or the other one I don’t know but I was relieved to see it detonate in the field away to my left. It soon became apparent that our comrades weren’t going to land with ease, although I should have been scanning the dark tree-line to my front for the enemy shooting at us I couldn’t help but get drawn towards the ground to air battle commencing above me. A stream of tracer bullets from a Taliban machine gun were arching into the sky towards helicopter 2, in turn the door gunner was hammering the position in retaliation with 7.62mm automatic fire. It was a fierce trade off and the pilot, having been compromised had no option but to abort his landing. Any longer and they faced receiving a telling shot that would drop it out of the sky. As it banked away into the dark sky it dawned on us that we were now on our own. The sun hadn’t yet dawned on us so at least we had that advantage, even if I was surrounded by 30 or so Afghan Frankenstein imitators.

My next battle of the day wasn’t with the Taliban who had now set their sights solely on us once our helicopter had departed and we’d melted into the dark shadows of a tree-line. The Afghan soldiers were point blank refusing to move any further. When I ordered them to head towards the buildings they replied nonchalantly, “No Whiskey, we no move until it is light.” I was absolutely raging; we had been given the green light to take the risk of inserting under the cover of darkness to take advantage of our superior skills and night vision equipment. These soldiers were now telling me they wanted to waste our upper hand and sit idle until the sun came up, also throwing away our momentum.

With my anger levels at maximum there was another struggle going on to the south. The second wave were moving in to and in their part of the village and the story is taken up by my great friend and Royal Marine ‘Twiggy’ who was part of the second wave…

Second Wave

We were on a USMC Sea Stallion helicopter and we didn’t have faith or luck with them on this tour. They carried no under belly armour unlike the British Chinook so there wasn’t much confidence if we started to take fire; the floor we had our feet on would soon turn into a bean can from an old western. My task was to lead my group into a fire support position to enable an assault team to close in with support. Despite the vulnerability of the craft we were confident in our abilities and as I watched the bright glow of Camp Bastion disappear I looked around and was reassured by the focus on the faces of my brothers around me. As we approached target I had shiver down my spine at the thought of running ‘blind’ into the unknown. Something seemed off and I had the impression that we were stalling our route to target. It then became apparent that I was right.

I looked across at our Captain and the loadmaster was frantically trying to relay a message to him. This did not look good. The message was soon passed to me, “The first helicopter wave into the valley have come under rocket fire and are now in heavy contact taking machine gun fire. We are now orbiting to assess whether to abort our insertion and pull back to make a new plan.” I was extremely unhappy about the thought of withdrawing without a solid reason. The lads started become restless and we soon got more information that one helicopter had withdrawn under heavy fire but they’d managed to put one on the ground and inserted a team into the enemy positions. It was Westy’s team and about 30 Afghan soldiers and they were now totally isolated on their own, under fire and people were considering leaving them there alone. The 8 man British/American team were now in a valley in the darkness and surrounded by over 100 Taliban fighters heavily armed and occupying dug in machine gun nests. The deception had failed and they were in defensive positions ready to fight to the death.

I was sat near Jase a fellow Royal Marine and the lads were raging and a full mutiny was about to take place unless the decision was made to put us on the ground. With the atmosphere being acknowledged our commander leaned over and told the loadmaster to pass a message on to the pilot, “Our men are on the ground and in the shit, get us on the fucking ground immediately so that we can help them.” I remember looking out of the back of the helicopter and seeing the dark village absolutely erupting with gun fire from Westy’s team and the Taliban. The rear of our helicopter then also erupted with emotion as every man started shouting, “Get us on that fucking battlefield.” We knew it was going to be a hot landing and committed to fighting straight from the ramp if we needed to. There was no way we could live with leaving a team on its own against a heavily defended village of hundreds of fighters with nowhere to retreat.

“One Minute.”

We were going in. WE now started to receive incoming fire and I could see the bright zipping lines of tracer bullets flying through the sky next to us. The loadmaster shouted that there were enemy near the landing zone and we were going in hot. To say I had a spike of unbelievable adrenaline doesn’t do justice to how I felt. I was bursting to get on the ground. As we shuddered onto the ground we started receiving rocket and machine gun fire directly to the helicopter. The metal cab made a deafening noise as the bullets smacked into it. We were on the ground but couldn’t exit, the ramp hadn’t been lowered. The loadmaster was curled up in the corner, frozen with complete shock. We were too heavy to climb over the gap at the top of the tailgate and would’ve broken our legs on dropping down the other side.

We were sitting ducks and I just knew we were going to take a casualty, I just knew it…

Someone grabbed the loadmaster and screamed at him to lower the ramp. Once he’d been forced into doing so we scrambled in a mass gang to get clear of this bullet magnet. I sprinted as hard as I could and all I could see was green dust and the blur of sweat in my eyes. There was a hail of bullets, rockets and grenades being thrown at us and as I managed to reach the cover of a mud wall building I let out a quick sigh of relief. This was soon taken away from me with a swift blow on hearing the dreaded words being shouted out:

“Man down, man down, man down.”

Northern Village

Back in the northern part of the village we were getting information that Twiggy and the lads had landed on. This was a massive relief to know we weren’t alone. Our second helicopter which had aborted under fire had now landed in a field a little further away and they were making their way towards us. News had come through about the casualty on Twiggy’s helicopter. It was Corporal Brian Riddle and his dog Jonny, a US Marine dog team tasked to help us search for mines and explosive devices set to maim us. I’d become good friends with Brian just like the other American lads and was desperate to hear about his condition. He had taken the brunt of an RPG attack which had landed close to the helicopter tail gate. Brian had suffered deep lacerations to his legs, body and back and was bleeding profusely. The quick thinking of the lads and first class medical treatment from our medic Matt enabled him to be dragged back onto the helicopter with his dog Jonny and evacuated out of the area. He was critical but alive.

We had a long hard day of fighting ahead of us and it would require a full chapter to document it all. The actions of Brian and the men on Twiggy’s helicopter epitomised our band of brothers, despite being absolutely certain that they were going to face a wall of lethal fire and take casualties they didn’t just agree to go. They fucking demanded to go. Warriors and gentlemen of the highest order who will forever have my deepest thanks and respect.

The day was unfortunately to suffer further tragedy. One of our British teams had identified a suspicious mud compound that looked certain to have improvised explosive devices. They had called for the US Marine EOD (bomb disposal in crude terms) to come and exploit it. Whilst attempting to enter the area Staff Sergeant Joe Fankhauser USMC had stepped on a device and set it off. I vividly remember looking south at the precise moment that the device detonated and remember seeing a quick flash of light. It was followed up by a bone crunching boom and the vacuum caused could be felt in the chest. Even though I wasn’t close enough to assess what was going on, I had a deep sinking feeling that it was very bad news for our lads. My patrol fell silent as we contemplated the likely outcome of such a massive explosion.

Joe had immediately lost 3 limbs causing massive trauma and blood loss and was treated and evacuated by the British Marine and Para team. Jase was on hand to provide immediate lifesaving treatment and was followed up with Matt arriving to take over the efforts to save Joe from getting worse. Further treatment was given on the helicopter evacuation but on arrival at the medical facility SSgt Joe Fankhauser was tragically pronounced dead. Joe was 30 years old and from Texas.

Joe left behind his wife Heather and his sacrifice will never be forgotten.

Joe, Semper Fi Brother, Per Mare Per Terram, thank you for your service and stand easy Marine.

*****************************************************

L.G. West is a serving Royal Marines Commando, adventurer and author. Trampface is his first book, a true story which he wrote in-between solo world travel, serving his country and consistently giving his family and guardian angel nightmares. It is available on amazon in paperback and eBook or direct from the author – trampface@mail.com. https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07BJCJ7QX
His second book about living in the Calais Jungle migrant camp for 7 nights is also available.

 

New York to Naples – A Colossal Disaster!

In February 2014 something very exciting happened to Swansea City Football Club, they qualified for the knock out stages of the Europa League. As a man that had grown up dreaming about a big European game, our plum tie against the giant club Napoli meant one thing: a chance to have a mini trip to Italy with my mates on the booze. Watching the Swans on the big stage was a close second to this prospect of sampling some Roman culture.

My first problem was that the Europa games are played mid-week and I had to do some thinking about how I could manipulate some time off. I had been on call over Christmas and was owed a week’s leave, the Napoli week in question didn’t appear to have any vital training scheduled so I applied for the time off and received it.

The weeks leading up to Napoli I was getting badgered by my old mate, Shaun. It was his 40th approaching and the old goat was on some trans-American trip trying to relive his youth or kill himself or something. I had promised if I was able to make it out to meet him then I would, he would be in NYC the weekend before Napoli so I set him up with a place to stay with my friend Luiggi and took to searching for reasonable flights.

London – New York JFK – £300 return. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I glanced at Skyscanner whilst en route to London. It was the Saturday before Shaun would be in NYC and I was on route to a birthday party in London. This flight had just appeared far below any other prices I had been monitoring. Booked! I hadn’t even worked the plan out in my head but it meant I would have a weekend in NYC before the Naples trip. The logistics, once I studied them, although complex looked perfectly achievable to me in my inflated view of my own ability. “Yeeeaa, I’ll be able to crack that no probs.” I said. In a way I have to admire my own optimism and belief in myself, I honestly backed myself to be able to pull it off and in no way considered the fact that I am useless as soon as I excitedly step foot into an airport. I’d booked my Italy flights a month previous so had to weave the trips together, I’m laughing out loud just reading back the itinerary that I thought was achievable.

Sat 22nd – Heathrow – JFK – Arrive Saturday afternoon. (3 nights with Shaun and Luiggi)
Tues 25th – JFK – Heathrow – Arrive 0900, Wed 26th.
Wed 26th – 13:00 Depart London Gatwick – Rome – Arrive – Train to Naples.
Wed 26th and Thurs 27th – 2 nights in a Hostel with Swansea mates and the Match.
Fri 28th – Train to Rome and 2 nights Lone Wolf around the Italian capital.
Sunday – 2nd Rome – London Gatwick.

Simple, right???

I arrived in NYC without issue and had a good few days hitting the bars and wandering the city. The trip is a full story on its own and has been documented in a full chapter of a book about these tales. However, my final day in NYC forms a key part of my descent into complete disaster, which was also waiting for me with the lads suffering an equal epic in Naples. My complicated itinerary of travel started with one very simple task – catch my flight back to London. As it turned out it wasn’t that simple.

The day of my flight I had some time to chill out, it was later that night from JFK. In Manhattan, Shaun and I had found upon an open air rickshaw to take us across the city; not for any experience seeking reason but that no taxi would stop and we were desperate to get to Hooters. I had bought Shaun a massive bottle of Capt Morgan Black Spiced Rum for his birthday and he rightly pointed out that I’d necked most of it myself, that morning. The result was that come mid-afternoon I was a mess, Shaun was even getting annoyed with me. The pinnacle was when I’d rounded up all the Hooters waitresses and began singing to them along with the Beyonce song on the jukebox. To complete my embarrassment I was draped in an American flag that I was getting people to sign. I soon found I was running short on time and quickly darted out of the door heading for the subway. I then darted back to collect my rucksack I’d left behind.

A summary of the next few hours would go like this: I accepted some advice from a tube driver instead of checking the board myself, got into a fight with a Russian scammer who flashed his willy at me and ended up having this conversation with the little old lady sat opposite me:

Lady – “I say, where are you going on this line with that large rucksack?”
“JFK” I replied.
Lady – “Oh, are you checking out Coney Island before heading off for your flight?” she questioned.
“No, this train’s going direct… isn’t it?”
She chuckled before then displaying a look of concern.
“This is going all the way to Coney Island and then heading back… all through Manhattan and Queens before JFK”
“Shit” I whispered as I looked at my watch.

With all hope of making my flight now gone I made my way to Luiggi’s. I wasn’t even sure if he’d be home and the look on his face when he answered the door was a cross between confusion and imminent laughter. I explained the episode of the day to him and decided the only practical thing to do was sleep; with no plans in place I decided to start fresh in the morning. My slumber was briefly interrupted by Shaun coming back blind drunk, walking into my room and standing there laughing at me; he didn’t even speak, he just stood and laughed, hysterically.

Taking stock of the situation I deducted what was fact and what the options were. I had missed my flight to London and now also the connecting flight to Rome from London which was to enable my onward move to Naples, fact. Therefore I could either:

1. Stay in NYC for the rest of the week and get a flight on Sunday.
2. Cut my loss on a disastrous trip, get a flight home and save any more drama.
3. Try and get a flight from NYC to Naples at new extra cost.
4. Have a brain transplant to prevent anything like this happening again.
5. A combination of any of 1, 2 or 3 accompanied by 4.

I did consider throwing in the towel and going home but this was the Swans, the Swans in Europe for the first time since the 90’s, all the lads were going; I couldn’t miss this. I found a flight that would get me to Naples, which was the good news. The bad? It would cost £335.49 one way. Of course I would only need one way as I still had a return booked from Rome, which I had to get to after Naples! Added to this was the prospect of an 8 hour stop over… in Istanbul, meaning I would fly past Naples to then have to fly back. Throw in that because of the flight time, wait over and time difference I was going to lose the first night in Naples and only arrive the afternoon of the match. I clicked ‘Confirm’, picked up my already packed bag, necked the rest of Shaun’s birthday present and set off on my epic Euro adventure.

I was sat at the airport bar reflecting on things. My tendency in these situations is to not dwell on the matter and push it to the back of my mind, have a little laugh at it and carry on. The money is gone, the deed is done… why ruin what’s left of it by sulking. I then do some strange justification measure, working out the money I’d paid for the new flight and deducting costs that I would’ve incurred if I went with the original plan; so, I started justifying… No doubt I would’ve been in a flap when getting to Heathrow and then paid over the odds to get to Gatwick quickly… so let’s call that £35. I then would’ve had a few pints at Gatwick… £15. I’m gonna miss a full night out in Naples with the lads – £150. I probably would’ve snuck some soothing water bottle wine onto the original Kuwaiti flight – £20. Train drinking from Rome to Naples with three of the lads – £40. So the whole episode only set me back £75.49. I tip more than that in Hooters.

After a hungover meltdown in Istanbul airport I had finally arrived in Naples, been relayed a destination for the lads and was walking along the Port area from the bus stop. Passing a large castle on my left I wandered for about an hour looking for the prominent (and in no way common) landmark that Stuart had confidently advised me to find… a pizzeria with tables outside and an Italian flag!

Eventually arriving at the pizzeria… after about 20 false hopes I noticed it was next to a massive, bright white, highly visible and unique monument! I was greeted with jeers of “Waaaaaaaaaaaaa”. Feeling like a moron I was slightly buoyed by Luke, who I enjoy a generally harsh and unforgiving relationship with, saying “Fair play, Herculean effort to make it mush, I had you down as a no-show, a task beyond you like.” A bit of pessimism from his ending of the statement but definitely a positive comment, for him. I was soon to be delivered a pint and cheered up by some unanimous evidence that I was not the only bell-end failing at going abroad this week.

The ‘Slugs’ as we are collectively known as and assembled under in our Whatsapp group are a group of mates from Swansea that I have mostly known since school. Their 24 hours on this trip had so far, in chronological order, encountered this:

They had played a trick on our mate Davies – a recent 5-figure lottery winner – by hiding his plane ticket and then getting everyone to show them at the gate in an overt display to make him aware that he didn’t have it. Once letting on to him that it was a wind up, they then realised they had actually lost Davies’ ticket. Although Denty claims he gave it back and then Davies lost it there will forever be disagreement as they were all steaming and can’t quite remember.

Three of the lads Wayne, Hursty and Stuart had arrived on time at Gatwick airport, on presenting themselves to the desk they were informed that it was the wrong airport, they should’ve been at Heathrow.

The Slugs were threatened with removal from the aircraft when one of them ‘brushed up’ against a Janet Street-Porter lookalike, who then proceeded to moan at them non-stop. Denty then canvassed the rest of the passengers for a whip around to bump Street-Porter up to first class and out of the way.

On the first night in Italy and after being warned by the UK Government about the viciousness of Napoli fans, Denty decided to take off on a scooter with some local… not to be seen again until morning where he was still in possession of the scooter keys.

Stuart had a three hour bath.

Bryn had violently kicked a hostel door in as a result of being too stupid/drunk to operate it. A family upstairs had complained the next morning that they’d never heard so much noise in their lives. When confronted by the staff and the accusing family, Bryn and the lads’ reasoning angle to the accusation of “You kept us up all night” was “Like fuck did we keep you up all night, we didn’t get in until 4am.” closely followed up with “And anyway, what the fuck are you doing in a hostel with your family, you tight bastards?”… they had to pay for the door and were ejected from the Hostel and had to go and find another one. Bryn was not feeling too popular.

Hursty woke to realise he had lost his wallet, containing his match ticket and money. He already had the local Polizi on speed dial as this type of drama seemed to happen every time he went away. He had also lost his passport. On returning from his ordeal at the station reporting it he realised he hadn’t paid any attention to where the hostel was and spent an age locating it with the help of an expensive phone call to the lads. Back in the room he observed as Wayne woke up, rolled over and revealed a passport shaped crease on his face.

While laughing at these stories I had a sudden pang of worry as Hursty mentioned his passport; I rapidly started patting myself whilst half listening to him. “You alright Mush?” Hursty said. “Funny you mentioned your passport mate, I haven’t seen mine since the airport and I’m usually good at checking for it.” I replied worryingly. Feeling like an absolute tool I now had to announce to the Slugs that I’d lost my passport. That £75.49 I had whittled the extra episode expense down to, well double it back up on phone calls to the British Embassy.

Naples is a shit-hole. The Port area is quite nice in the sunshine, looking across to Mount Vesuvius, but Naples town is a shit-hole. Every building or spare wall is covered in graffiti, I can appreciate cool art in any form but this wasn’t art; it was just tacky gang land words. The good thing about this and most other continental European towns is that they sell beer everywhere; cafes, shops, souvenir stands, food carts, everywhere… I half expected a copper would be willing to flog me a can. The liberal attitude towards alcohol was well received by us though; we were travelling via police arranged coaches to the ground, well in advance of kick-off and would not be permitted a drink once boarding.

On approach to Naples Port I had dropped back slightly with Hursty and Davies, strolling along while (slugging a bottle of Peroni) taking in the clear spring day and panoramic of the bay. This serene moment was shattered by what I would relate to as a re-enactment of Pearl Harbour. I had clearly arrived in the epicentre; a large flat square of concrete, where I was witnessing the fall-out. There were groups gathered together assisting people flat out on the ground, people slumped against a fence, people wandering around on their own – looking like they were in some sort of need for help but if you asked them you’d never understand the response. People stood, looking up, screaming at no-one in particular and police and medical staff trying to maintain order. Brits abroad hey?! In honesty though it was good clean fun and everyone was having a ball; a real carnival atmosphere with plenty of singing. Soon enough we would be processed towards the coaches for an Italian job; one long ordeal of grim proportions.

The third time we went over the same dual carriageway bridge I started to get really frustrated. I was stood wedged between the other Swansea fans at the front of a coach and we had been moving for 2 hours… on a 20 minute journey from the port to the stadium. When we arrived we were channelled by riot police straight into the stand; not once did anyone check my ticket. Swansea were 1-0 down by the time we arrived and not surprising considering they had played nearly 30 minutes of the game without any support. When Swansea equalised, putting us in the lead due to ‘away goals’ we all went wild, wild, wild; full grown men jumping around in ecstasy. Our joy was short lived as despite an honourable display we ran out 2-1 losers, just to top off my 24 hours of despair.

The experience with the Napoli official coaches and the police left a large amount of disgruntled Swansea City supporters, except one bloke I spoke to, who said “Fuck it, I only came for the pizza and ice cream anyway”. It seems we suffered due to the fact that Napoli has a hooligan problem and as much as we weren’t a bunch of hooligans, the actions and treatment by the club and the police threatened to create a volatile atmosphere within us. Leaving us crammed on overcrowded buses for so long was also irresponsible and plain rude to a bunch of people coming to spend money enjoying their country. I’m sure there was a motivation to keep us from the ground to aide their home team also. It all seemed unjustified and just way over the top; they even took Stuart’s phone charger off him and confiscated it, animals!

Living by my mantra I was determined to not let the events spoil the remainder of the night, we debussed and headed for a pizzeria. Sat, around 10 of us at a large rectangle table we got stuck into the red wine; ‘the calm before the storm surely’ I thought. I was incorrect, soon after all but a few of the group headed back to the hostel. I was a bit disappointed to say the least but could understand with all the goings on in the last 24 hours. I had been through an epic to get here so decided to stay out with a few of the lads and we mingled with some locals. I won’t name and shame the early nighters… apart from Luke, I will take pleasure in exposing him. His justification of “I was tired from all of the travelling mush” drew an inquisitive look from me. Ha!

I was still without passport, come morning. I was also alone when the hostel cleaner booted the leg of my bed; the lads had set off for home. The rest of the Slugs all had families and responsibilities back home so the short trip was over for them. Not so for me and I had another two nights of leisure and maybe more if I didn’t resolve my passport situation. I was in two minds whether to stick around for the night in Naples or head to Rome, so I approached the hostel desk to enquire about an extension. Suddenly I was back in my meltdown state from the airport in Istanbul. Negotiating with this bloke was beyond my abilities at that moment so I just turned and walked off. “Sir… Siiiiiiir.”

The British Embassy were useless, to me anyway, very productive for O2, my phone provider though. I spent over 20 minutes talking to various people who obviously had a script and were in no way in possession of a free thinking or helpful brain:

“I’ve lost my passport, I think I dropped it in the airport.”
“OK, I will put you through to the department to issue a temporary one, it’s 20 Euros.”
“No” I said. “I just need you to enquire with the airport; surely you have a liaison officer?”
“The application is 20 Euros, do you have enough cash?” she replied. “It’s 20 Euros.”
“Yes, I have 20 Euros, but……”
“It’s ringing Sir, ensure you can pay the 20 Euros.”

A male voice answered and I explained the situation again.

“You need to come in, it’s 20 Euros for the process” he said.
“Are you lot on commission or something mush?” I snapped. “I need someone to check with the airport people, if it’s there then we are sorted.”
“You can go to the airport Sir, but come here first, make sure you have 20 Euros.”
I was getting nowhere so I decided to make a joke “I’ve got 20 Euros mush but the bus costs 1 Euro, will you take 19?”
“Can you walk Sir, it’s 20 Euros?”

I put the phone down and headed for the airport.

The weather was bright and mild but requiring a jacket and the one I had was a reminder of the disaster in New York. While at a karaoke bar with Shaun I placed my jacket in the corner for a while; it was a much loved tweed, Tommy Hilfiger blazer effort that was my regular choice to wear, until that night when somebody had stolen it from the bar. In its pocket it also contained my phone charger, headphones and a mobile charge unit I had borrowed from my friend. It cost me $80 to replace them at the airport and a grovelling apology to my mate. My jacket though, was replaced by a smart black one from Luiggi’s lost and found collection of items left by his regular couchsurfing travellers.

Finally, a stroke of luck; the airport police had my passport. I had placed it down on a bench and when I received a phone call from the lads I had stood up and walked off while talking. Pleased with the news, I set off for the train station to purchase a ticket to Rome:

“Certainly Sir, the 13:15 to Rome, that’ll be 20 Euros… aaaaand I need some identification.”
I had a little chuckle as I reached into my pocket and said “20 Euros, no probs… Passport OK?”

Typically, I had not booked any accommodation in Rome and on leaving the station I was greeted by the imposing sight of the Colloseum… covered in sheets and scaffolding.

Even though from the moment that I left London right up until seeing one of the wonders of the world resorted to a building site, it had been one blunder after another, I still managed a giggle on the plane home; and I still laugh about it now. On returning home I had more news of buffoonery to comfort me and make me laugh. Davies and Bryn had been in charge of the slugs train tickets to get home from London to Swansea… £80 each… between them they had also predictably lost the lot of them which they would have to pay to replace. Good old Slugs… good old glorious, useless, Slugs.

In one final act of cruelty and kick in the nuts, Bryn found the tickets the next day in his wallet. He then kept this fact hidden from Davies for six months allowing Davies to be wracked with guilt thinking it was him that lost them. Hahahahahahaha…

This Italian disaster will live long in the memory of this useless group of Swansea City fans.

*********************************

My book “Trampface: Homeless By Choice, a true story about living undercover on the streets is now available on amazon in eBook and paperback or direct from myself.

Knock Knock… it’s the Armed Police.

I’ve been on the shooters side of an automatic assault rifle hundreds of times in my life; there’s been a couple of hairy situations where there was a live person pointing one back at me but I can hand on heart say it was nothing compared to staring down the barrel of one from my living room window…

I was enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon lounging in my pants on my sofa and soothing the effects of a night out drinking in town. My living room was in low light as a result of my blinds being closed to protect my headache from brightness outside. The mundane Sunday afternoon TV was interrupted by the noise of my phone vibrating and alerting me of a text message. It was from Hannah, the girl that lives opposite and it contained an interesting question:

“Hi Lee, are you aware that the armed police are outside your house?”

This was not just a question but also a heads up about a fairly uncommon occurrence seemingly taking place. To be honest I didn’t really give it the attention or concern that it would turn out that it needed and I rolled off the sofa grumbling about the inconvenience of having to lean into my bay window and roll the blinds open. Hannah’s tip off about the armed police being “outside your house” led me to assume that they were in the general area of the busy main road to the front of my house but not specifically interested in my pad. As the slats of the blinds slowly opened I squinted to see what was going on outside and to my absolute shock I realised that they weren’t just in the general area… they were here for me!

The sight of two firearms being pointed directly at me from 10 metres away made me instinctively react and hit the deck. As I crouched below my window sill I muttered to myself, “What the..?” My mind began to race about why 2 police officers armed with a ballistic shield and guns were stacked up outside my window. I decided to peer over the ledge and confirm that I wasn’t still drunk and see if I could work out what was going on. Several cars had parked sideways across the road and cordoned off the area whilst a group of police officers were moving around behind the two armed response men. If I was in any doubt that I was the subject of their attention, their next act left me absolutely sure that I was. One officer called out to the commander in the rear, “One male in the bottom window, shirtless and I can’t see his hands.” The only thought on my mind now was, “I’m in real danger of getting shot here.”

I moved away from the window whilst keeping low and made for the upstairs in order to think and get a better view from the elevated upstairs window… plus I had more time to act if they had suddenly kicked the door in. My mind was absolutely racing and I struggled to find a reason about why they were here for me. I desperately tried to come up with a logical reason:

“Maybe someone in the neighbourhood has it in for me, maybe they rang the police and said that the bloke on the end is a marine and has a machine gun in the house.”

“Maybe I’ve dropped some equipment in the garden that looks suspicious or someone has seen my military equipment and thought it was dangerous.”

I then had a pang of complete horror as I contemplated the thought that I may have mistakenly brought back some unused ammunition or pyrotechnics from an exercise; maybe not spotted them in my kit and they would now be sat in my house ready to be found. I was certain I hadn’t but in this situation of panic I started to entertain the thought that if they came in and I did, I’d likely be on my way to a prison sentence. I convinced myself to have a peek out of the upstairs window, you know to make completely sure they were here for me. I slipped a hoodie on to save my dignity and slowly peered out of the window and down. The two officers raised their weapons towards my new position and said, “A second male in the upstairs window with a black hoodie on.” Shit, they were definitely here for me and now they thought there were two of us.

I had a quick chat with myself and weighed up my options. There was no back way out as my house contained an extension similar to a granny annex that currently had a lodger residing in. I couldn’t communicate through the windows and I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing. I’d been the guy kicking someone’s door in with a rifle in my hand many times, in training and for real… in no way did I want to be the recipient of a door kicking. There was only one thing for it, I had to walk out and confront them.

As so often happens with most people in a stressful situation, dark humour kicked in. I imagined the scene that would play out if I did actually have a stun grenade left in my house and decided to use it. Imagine the officers faces if they knew a Royal Marine lived here and I opened the door, rolled out a stun grenade and shouted, “If you want me you’ll have to come and get me.” I soon stopped laughing when I realised it was only a couple of weeks ago that 2 female police officers had been tragically killed by a grenade thrown from a house. The incident would no doubt still be raw and playing a big part in the emotions of the officers. “I think it’s best not to start throwing things at the cops Westy my boy.”

Resigned to handing myself in for a crime I had no idea I had committed I cautiously approached my front door. The sound of the metal mechanism of the handle seemed as loud as a shot being fired and I soon found myself stood in the doorway at the mercy of the armed police and dazzled by the lights of the response cars. I kept my hands visible to my sides and opened my palms whilst inching a little further out and said, “What’s all this about?”

One of the officers shouted a series of commands and questions at me:

“Keep your hands where we can see them.”
“What is your name and are you the property owner?”
“Is there anyone else inside?”
“Is there a residence to the rear of your property and do you know that person?” whilst pointing into the pub car park at the side of my house.

I said, “What person?” and the officer told me to advance before pointing into the scene of a man being robustly apprehended by a brace of coppers over a wall. A little light was now cast on the situation as I noticed the recent new lodger of my extension being handcuffed a few yards away from a massive, shiny, samurai sword! The bloke had gone haywire with it and had taken a swipe at his girlfriend with the sword. After she had legged it he had turned his attention to threatening the pub drinkers with it.

The lad was nicked and the officers lowered their weapons and we became relaxed. With the threat now dealt with I invited the coppers into my house for a chat. I explained that I was a Royal Marine and found it quite uncomfortable to be on the opposite end of a barrel, knowing exactly what the outcome could look like and we shared a laugh. As more coppers entered my house I was a little bit taken aback by a familiar face striding in; my cousin Steven!! I spoke to him with a little disbelief in my voice and said, “Mate, you could’ve told your mates I wasn’t some weapon totting lunatic.” He smiled and replied, “Yea I did see your name come up as the home owner but I haven’t seen you for a while and wasn’t exactly sure you lived here. Didn’t want to give them a false sense of security in case there was a bloke with your name that was a threat.” We had a laugh about it and I accepted his point.

The story hit the papers the next day and the main comment from people reading it was about the unlikely excuse the men in the pub would’ve given to their wives about staying out so long…”We were locked in the pub by the armed police.” Yeah right would be the reply.

The main drama was over but there was still more to come. I spent the rest of the day packing up the lodgers stuff and left a voice and text message stating he was obviously not welcome on my property and his belongings would be left outside once he was free to get them. Being a Sunday I had to drive back to my camp in Devon ready for work on Monday morning. I thought I’d have a little bit of time without him bothering me whilst he was banged up. I was wrong.

On the Monday night I received a phone call from my next door neighbour Dan, “Westy, your back door window has been smashed and there’s blood all up the walls. I can see a torch light on inside. I’ve called the police.” Brilliant.

The police had arrived and then Dan had passed the phone over to them. “Your lodger has smashed your window to get in and cut his hands and wrists open whilst doing so. There is a massive chunk missing from his wrist and blood has been spraying out all over your inside (white painted) walls. The male is now in an ambulance in a bad condition. Oh, and we had to smash the PVC door in with a battering ram.” When I questioned the need to completely break the door when access was able to be achieved I got the response, “Life in danger, we had to do it and are covered by law.”

So that was that, I had been subjected to the real possibility of surviving Iraq and Afghanistan to then being shot in my own living room. I’d lost a tenant who had then smashed my window causing the police to completely destroy the door and had my extension redecorated in jet streams of human claret. The bloke was sentenced and I’m sure that it was no coincidence that exactly two years later I suffered another incident of damage at my house whilst I was away.

On a tour of Afghanistan I received an email from a girl that was lodging in my house whilst I was away. ‘A man arrived outside the house around midnight last night and started banging on the door. I remained inside petrified and watched on as he took out a machete and chopped up your garden bench and skinned your bushy front garden tree. He then ran off shouting, “I’m Bruce Lee don’t f*** with me.” I will be moving out this week as I am scared for my safety.’

I’m not a betting man but, well, there’s really only one guess isn’t there? Oh well, at least nobody died in there… at least I didn’t have to go in there to find his blood all up the walls and the remains of a dead body…

That is a whole other story for another time!

A Lone Wolf in South America – Welsh Patagonia

They told me not to go to a Favela…
They told me not change money on the black market…
They told me not to go to Boca alone or at all…
They told me to wear my helmet on the bike ride…
They told me not to mention the Falklands…

They told me not to hitch-hike in South America but…here I am in Patagonia, with a blank sign, a black marker, two working thumbs, a desire to get to the Welsh town and I AIN’T getting on no bus!

Lone Wolf Adventure – **Birthday Boy Update**

T-shirt Tan Status – Beyond belief.
The Challenge – Hitch hike Patagonia to the Welsh Town.

I landed in Trelew, Patagonia…the main hub for transport in the region. Itself holding Welsh roots from the colonisation in the 19th Century; it wasn’t my final destination though. My plan was to make it to the coastal city of Puerto Madryn, where the Welsh first landed in Argentina. About 20 mins west of Trelew is a small village with very strong influence still. Gaiman has tea-houses flying Welsh flags and bi-lingual signs. I wanted to visit there also before heading to Madryn.

My guide book informed me that the tea-houses don’t open until 2pm so I had a few hours to kill in Trelew before getting a bus to Gaiman. I decided to visit the two musems of Trelew; one a dinosaur/archaeological exhibit and the other the story of the Welsh pioneers. Once inside the Welsh one the lady asked me where I was from and was delighted when I replied ‘Galesa’. I paid and walked around only to walk into a large room and be confronted by around 30 young kids on a school excursion. With the kids sat on the ground the lady then announced a ‘Hombre de Galesa’ and turned me into the centre of attention. I guess it must have been like being in a dinosaur museum and then a live T-Rex turns up, ha!

She asked me to teach them some Welsh which got me sweating a little as I’m not the best Welsh speaker around. When I explained that ‘hola/hello’ is ‘shwmae’ she looked at me baffled. I then said ‘bore da’ for good morning which she replied ‘Ahh yes I know that one’. Well why did she ask me to teach her some words if she only wanted things she already knew?? Haha. I gave them a few more words before shuffling off.

In Trelew there is a monument to the Falklands War so I stopped to look at it. It struck a chord with me quite heavily when I saw the names of the conscripts sent to the islands… Roberts, Lloyd and Rhys were present among others and it made me contemplate the fact that Welsh men from here were fighting Welsh and British men in the 1982 conflict. Being conscripts meant they were national service and had no choice, I wonder what went through their minds knowing they were fighting their countrymen of their own heritage. Crazy.

My trip to Gaiman was a disaster… all the tea-houses closed at 1pm rather than opened at 2pm like the book said so I spent an hour lugging my backpack around the tiny village before calling it quits as I had to make a move due to needing extra time for the hitch hike. I was pretty annoyed because I was really looking forward to speaking to the Welsh exiles in the village.

The plan was to bus it back to Trelew and then hitch from there but I thought, “May aswel give it a crack here,” and quickly knocked up a sign. On the outskirts of the village I stood for 30mins in the baking sun with hardly a car passing to even offer a ride… I must’ve looked that pathetic that 2 school girls sat at the bus stop 200m away approached me and said, “There’s a bus to Trelew in 10 minutes, it’s only 5 pesos and we can pay for you.” haha bless them.

Tail between my legs back in Trelew I wasn’t giving up, no chance. Gaiman was a ghost town and Trelew would be a better prospect so I set off for a petrol station on the outskirts of town. I tweaked my sign to say, “Visitando de Galesa, va Puerto Madryn.” Which translated into ‘Visiting from Wales’ and hoped that my Swans top would again prove lucky like in Boca. The wind was playing havoc with my flimsy paper sign and I had a little giggle at how ridiculous this was. I set up near the exit and there were quite a few trucks there, in honesty I hoped that the trucks wouldn’t offer me a lift but rather a real person or family travelling there. 10 minutes provided no takers but I noticed a few inquisitive looks and a slight pause before continuing.

I thought about it and when I’ve seen hitchers they are usually in spots were people are already on their way and I myself have contemplated it but feel it’s too late to stop… a change of tactic was required. The station had a café and most people were going in while their cars were filled for them, I thought that if I moved to the entrance of the forecourt people would see me when entering and be able to mull it over while having a coffee or snack.

Time was getting on and I didn’t want to be stuck there in the dark. Madryn was about 40km away so it was a decent trek and I’d have to call it quits for a bus sooner rather than later. With a sad look on my face I continued to present my sign to cars entering.

Within five minutes of my move a car approached me after pulling away from the café… the guy shouted across, “Puerto Madryn?” and waved me over. I grabbed my stuff and ran over. He put my stuff in the boot and cleared out some stuff from the back seat. His name was Diego and inside the car I met Jorge, a man of Welsh decent with his daughter Carla who looked Welsh. Also present was Carla and Diego’s baby (didn’t catch name). I couldn’t believe it, a Welsh family had picked me up!! Jorge spoke some English so we chatted and he told me all about the Welsh heritage of Madryn.

He recognised my Swans top and said, “Do you hate the English?” I replied, “At sport, yes,” but it seemed this was enough for him to start talking about the Falklands War. It was fine by me but I was shocked at how quickly the subject had been raised and he asked me if people in England cared about it. I was honest and said that before 1982 no-one really knew where it was, for a decade after they did but again if you asked the general 20 year old in the street in UK now they wouldn’t know. He spoke with Diego passionately about it. They then asked what I did for a living… I’ll be honest, I shit-out, they had been very kind to me and didn’t have the heart to tell them that I was a Royal Marine. So I said I was a barman… haha …kind of true as I spend a lot of time in bars, handling lots of different drinks!

Jorge started becoming a bit more friendly and asked if I wanted to go watch his son play football. He also told me about the late night clubs of Madryn full of ladies and when I said, “I’ll have to check them out.” he replied, “Yea, I’ll be with you.” He owns a clothes shop near my hostel so we are grabbing a pint later.

The family dropped me off right outside my hostel, I grabbed a photo with them and I thanked them for their hospitality.

Today was my birthday so I ran the 3 miles along the coast to an important part of the Welsh colonisation story. I’ve always believed we are the silent portion of the UK immigration and colonisation of the new world, with the Scots, Irish and English celebrated throughout America. The story here is fascinating, with the Argentine government wanting to put a stamp on Patagonia to ward off Chilean and English interest they made an agreement with a group of persecuted people from South Wales to come and inhabit the land. In 1865 they landed by ship and started the continuous colonisation until this day. The agreement was that the Welsh settlers would be granted the land and the freedoms to continue their customs and religious culture which had been oppressed by the English. All Argentina asked in return was that the Welsh would do so under the Argentinean flag in order to secure the area for the future.

The population is majority Hispanic these days but it made me laugh when the odd pale ginger person would walk past… clearly Welsh.

I got to see the caves that they built into houses when they struggled to survive the first couple of years and the point where they first set foot on the land as well as monuments erected to them. The lady in the museum was named Delia and spoke only Welsh and Spanish… amazing.

I’ve not inflicted a hangover on myself yet this trip, surprisingly but tonight that is all gonna change, I have bought a load of wine and vodka and announced to the hostel there will be free booze in the common area from 9pm. From there I am gonna indulge in a ritual known in the Royal Marines as the ‘Sunuppers’… if you think this involves drinking like an animal until the sun comes up then you are exactly right!! It’s been a hectic year with my deployment to Afghanistan and other trials but whatever happens, this birthday in a Welsh town in Argentina that I hitch hiked to will be a memorable one!!

I aventyrlig stravan… mission complete… awwwoooooooo!!!

 

Men Miss War and Hardship, Why?

A Tramp and a Marine; they aren’t so different.

“Well it certainly sounds like you are glamourising war”. This statement was delivered to me in the trendy surroundings of a Manhattan bar; it was followed up, over the noise of funk, by the lady’s partner saying “Sounds like you actually miss it?”

At the time it didn’t really register as something to be aggrieved about, in fact they had hit the nail on the head, in essence. It was only days later, whilst sat with a pint at JFK Airport, that the manner and delivery of their response resonated with me. I felt a surge of anger and shook my head furiously; I mouthed to myself through clenched teeth, ‘How dare they!’

This couple had been introduced to me by my New York friend and they had asked about my tour of Afghanistan, that I was now enjoying a break of leave from. They showed real interest to hear about it and initiated that American reflex of thanking me for my service. Their enthusiasm soon dwindled when I relayed some honest and emotive accounts of my time at war. I guess Hollywood paints a quite a different picture to the unfiltered daily routine of a Royal Marines Commando. I was extremely frustrated by their reaction, it was a delayed reaction but it hit me hard… not too different to the realities of the stories I’d told them.

I decided to write about it while sat at the airport bar, and released some energy in a passage. I couldn’t accept that they’d been so carefree and positive when they thought that the account was going to be what they expected and then recoiled in horror when I’d passionately explained my view on the events. What did they want me to do, say it was like a day out at laser tag?

You see the reason that I may have seemed overly enthusiastic about the story was because the male of the pair was right, I did miss it – a lot. The hard times, the unspeakable horrors don’t seem too bad in the face of nostalgia; the emotion of lost belonging. War is hard, men miss it. And after my time living homeless I can see why the homeless community miss the streets. I can see why it’s so hard for people to understand them.

So, you are probably thinking “What the hell do you miss about war? Most men long to come home, long to be rid of the arduous drain of war.”
Yes we do, we dream daily of the luxuries of home and our family and friends. If you speak to most homeless people they say the same of their desire for a home life, the comfort and normality. But, it’s the normality that kills you. The ‘complicated normality’ as I call it.

War is simple, in terms of ground theory. It’s brutally violent beyond most people’s comprehension but it’s unquestionably straightforward; to the foot soldier. The infantry mission is quite simply “To defeat the enemy through close combat.” Do not confuse straightforward with easy, the physical implementation of the warriors actions remains extremely difficult.

At war a man knows his focus for the day and absolutely nothing else matters. Stay alive, keep your mates alive; hopefully remove some enemy. And he is extremely good at it; unlike anything else.
When he arrives home and settles down from his nights out on the spree, he slips back into life – the boring, grinding, overplayed, mundane life. His life is no longer simple. It should be, as compared to war paying bills is nothing; just like cancelling memberships, deciding whether to go to your aunt-in-laws house party, what to get your mother for Christmas, if you should throw your old tee shirts out, what movie to watch, am I going to miss out if I don’t go to the pub with the lads, what I spend my war money on are all minor and insignificant things. But now they aren’t so minor, they are now major and an unexpected weight. He starts getting angry with himself for quibbling over these insignificant things. He can’t understand why they matter, but they do… “Why can’t it just be like Helmand? I knew what I had to do out there, I didn’t have all these options.” It’s all so trivial but he’s unable to cope with it. He tries to deal with them but they are all peeling into an ambush against him, one which will yield the dreaded response “Why can’t I just go back, I want to go back”.

The homeless man experiences a level of this. On the streets he meets hardship, a real actual battle. But again it’s straightforward. Find food and money (maybe for the addiction), find somewhere to sleep. Around those things he can share stories with his friends, enjoy small graces that we take for granted… an act of kindness, shelter from a downpour, a warm meal and shower. These things, like the man at war, take on a whole new level of happiness than when they are readily available. Therefore when they are experienced on a regular basis it leaves the man wanting, like he’s missing something. Why isn’t it the same, why don’t I feel fulfilled??

For both Tramp and Marine, he was understood when around his mates in the same hell. They had patience, support and love for each other. If they needed help when having a bad day, it was OK, it was accepted. The assistant at the Post Office who rolls their eyes at him because he needs help with a form only reminds him of his protection of closed ranks. He has learned to survive in crippling conditions, but is now reduced to being scorned at for requiring assistance with an admin task.

The Tramp and Marine both see the darker side of humanity, they learn that the human can be a ruthless and unforgiving soul; this makes him cynical. He loses the ability to easily trust other people, he reserves his faith for the people that have seen what he has seen; he takes comfort in their shared understanding. In contrast he also sees the best of humanity; the kindness of strangers buying a beggar food and the pure joy of a young Afghan boy turning on the radio you have just given him. It touches him, he treasures it.

When the daily responsibilities weigh down on the man, he seeks refuge; he longs to withdraw to the black and white hardship of his past. His experience at war or on the streets was special, it isn’t something most people could cope with, or excel at… survive even. He feels a pride inside about his handling of it. Normal life doesn’t give him the same reward, it doesn’t inspire him and give him the sense of value and accomplishment. So, his fight of days gone by has taken on a new front; and this one he isn’t prepared for. This isn’t an emotion unique to these men, we all experience the human response of ‘You weren’t there’… from telling the story of getting your sandwich pinched by a seagull, to feeling smug about being the only person in the office at 7am; it is constantly around us. Think about the poor person you mocked for missing a winning football match, or when Debbie broke her wrist on a hen doo.

We need to understand that this man of conflict can no longer be satisfied by materialistic things alone; if you give him a house, extra money and a job then it doesn’t appeal to him like it once did. He needs stimulation and a purpose, one outside of the rewards that regular society would normally revel in. He needs his friends, he needs to learn how to trust again, and he needs to learn the hard lesson of adapting once more to a deadly situation; one which will kill him in a far more drawn out fashion than gunfire or hypothermia will.

My experiences of living homeless and of going to war have both left voids to be filled. Sitting in an empty house does not fill it. That void needs to be filled and we need to help the man choose what it’ll be. For the time being, writing filled my void and as I sat with my pint at JFK, struggling with the echo of being called a war glamorist, I soothed my soul:

War, but Glory?

To accuse a man, of glorifying war? A man of war, for his words or his actions? Know that they both portray his thoughts, his reasoning and terms….for what he has seen and done. They will deceive, for the way you receive them, often, will defy the roots of where they lie within him, how he perceives them. How is man to describe war? To the non-combatant? How is it to be received? War is everything….war is everything, every emotion; squeezed of its very last drop. Is he to blandly describe a dropless emotion felt at war, when it is stronger than it’s felt in any other situation?

His despair was glorious, his pride also….his rage and his will……glorious. All, he will not tell, some is his, to remain gloriously his. Some he will tell, with the justice that he can, that he is devoted to.

War is everything,
In word and action,
War is everything; but,
Not for everyone.

LG West
New York City
June 2012

Book Launch/Signing and Charity Drive

Hope you can come and join us for a great cause as we are officially launching Trampface with book signing and purchases available.  Tramp 2 will be there aswel! There will be free tea, coffee and snacks available.  If you can bring a donation to help those less fortunate, please do so.  We will be collecting things such as clothes, joggers, hoodies, trainers and jackets as well as non-perishable food items.  Thanks for all the support along this journey and hope to see you Saturday April 21st!!

Book Launch Event on Facebook

Events

I have exciting news about a book signing/launch and how to buy a Trampface paperback direct from me. Please read below for details if you are interested.

I would feel embarrassed just having a book launch/signing for my humble self as the book has been a hobby not a profession. So I am going to co-ordinate it with a charity event. On 21st April I will park up my campervan in Swansea town (open to suggestions on places) and lay out some tables. Books will be available to buy and if you have one already please bring it along to be signed. We hope to have the one and only Tramp 2 Paul O’Dwyer in attendance. There will be free tea, coffee and biscuits. I will be running a ‘soup kitchen’ for the homeless and I will be available for anybody to drop off any packaged/tinned food that I will arrange to drop at a local food bank later (Suggestions please). I will also have some army rations to try if you have the stomach for it!!!! Kids welcome.

If you would like to come and buy a copy on the day could you please let me know with a “Book” post below, this is in order for me to have an idea of how many copies to purchase and bring. If you’d like to pre-purchase before the day then see below email details.

If you can’t make the event then you can get a copy from me direct if you don’t do the online amazon thing. To do this simply email me at trampface@mail.com with the following information:
Name
Delivery method (address to post to or in person)
Payment method (cash, bank transfer, paypal)
Signed to who (if you want)

Lots of Love
Tramp 1