No Going Back
Six months earlier
As I reached up high with my left hand, the tiny gritcovered edge my fingers grasped didn’t really feel that solid. Even if it was strong enough, I didn’t think I could hold my full body weight on just the fingertips of my left hand.
I looked down again at the small wire that I had placed in the rock face two feet below me, as protection should I fall off. The wire was connected to a piece of solid aluminium I’d jammed into a half-inch-wide crack in the rock face and clipped on to the rope that was tied securely into my climbing harness. It didn’t look big enough to stop a falling 13-stone marine. But I knew it would.
As I weighed up my next move, I knew that there was no going back once I left the secure hand- and footholds I was finely balanced on at the moment. Once I committed to my left hand I would have to push upwards and go for the top of the rock wall. It was all or nothing.
I was preparing myself to make the move when I heard a voice shouting up at me from 50 feet below.
‘Get up there, climbing ninja. It gets dark in a few hours.’
I looked down nervously, followed the way-too-thin-looking climbing rope as it snaked its way back down the steep rock wall, and saw Lisa at the end of it. She was staring up at me with her normal encouraging smile while holding the device that would lock the rope and stop me hitting the ground, should I fall.
That’s the problem with being married to a WREN, I thought. They have the same sense of humour as Royal Marines; they are, like us, firm believers in encouragement through taking the mick.
‘Lisa – I am trying to figure out the moves. Do you mind?’ I shouted back.
‘It looks easy – just reach for the left-hand hold and go,’ she replied, matter-of-factly, as if it was the easiest thing in the world. And then Beamer Boy, our completely daft springer spaniel, started barking up in my direction. It was his familiar ‘get up there so I can run around some more’ bark.
That only set off Fizz, our Rottweiler, who, like Beamer, was tied to the base of an oak tree. Soon the pair of them were joining in a chorus of barking encouragement.
‘OK, everybody shut up. I’m going,’ I said, closing my eyes and taking a deep breath as I turned back to face the rock, my nose only centimetres from the sharp granite.
Without really thinking I launched myself upwards. My left hand gripped the hold, I smeared my feet against the cool granite rock face and pushed upwards, reaching for the ‘thank God holds’ at the top of the climb. I pulled my body clear of the edge, rolled on to the open ledge that signalled the finish of the climb and looked down to where Lisa, Beamer Boy and Fizz Dog were standing.
Lisa was looking up at me with an expression that said: I told you it was easy, why didn’t you do that half an hour ago? The dogs were hopping around excitedly because they knew their tied-to-a-tree duty was almost over and we would soon be on the move.
It really was good to be on summer leave.
For the last four months all I had done was eat, sleep and breathe the preparations for my six-month tour to Afghanistan and the day I would be thrust into the fight against the Taliban. With the 20 or so young lads who made up 5 Troop of Kilo Company 42 Commando Royal Marines I had spent my days and nights on exercise all over the country, with little or no time for a personal life. We’d spent endless hours on the wet miserable rifle ranges in the north-east. We’d also endured long days in the vast rolling countryside of the Thetford Army training areas, taking part in Afghan-based scenarios designed to help us deal with potential situations we might face once out there.
At times it was hard and eye-opening but the lads had taken it all in their stride. I had watched them mature into Royal Marines with pride.
After all the hard work we’d put in, I should have been excited by the prospect of going to Afghanistan.
It was, after all, what I’d dreamed of as a kid back in my home town on the south-east coast of England, where all my mates and I wanted to do was play at soldiers down in the marshes. Back then we would set up make-believe ambushes in the woods behind my nan’s house, using water bombs as our ammunition, dreaming of the day we would be in a helicopter on an SAS-style mission to kill the bad guys. Now, it was going to be for real.
But with the daily reports of the constant battles from the army units we were due to replace I was beginning to have niggling doubts. What if we weren’t ready? What if I forgot what to do?
Since starting my leave, however, I had tried really hard to concentrate on having three weeks of non-marine time. The dogs had played their part in helping me; they were a great way of getting my mind off things. Fizz and Beamer Boy were a great pair of companions and loved going on Dartmoor for walks, which worked out well, given my passion for rock climbing on its testing granite tors.
Fizz was your typical Rottweiler, with her distinctive black-and-tan coat and docked tail. Now aged six, she had come to us as a puppy from a breeder in Manchester. Lisa had picked the most active-looking of the nine or so fluff-balls we’d found scampering around the floor next to their worn-out-looking mum. For Lisa it was love at first sight and to this day Fizz is still Lisa’s dog.
We’d had our fair share of abuse from passers-by over the years, people who didn’t have a clue as to the difference between a sausage dog and a St Bernard, but were convinced none the less that all Rottweilers belonged to the devil. But I was adamant then and still am now that it’s the way you bring a Rottweiler up that counts. Apart from the times when she was indulging her passion for chasing cats or squirrels, Fizz was the softest dog on the planet. Although, it has to be said, if someone was aggressive towards her she would snap back at them, which I thought she had every right to do. If somebody punched me I would punch them back. Of course, I still wouldn’t leave Fizz alone with just anybody and we normally kept her on a lead.
Beamer, our black-and-white springer, was just hyper, so hyper in fact it sometimes got really annoying. But you couldn’t ever blame him for that. His passion was for anything that was wet and dirty. For instance, he loved nothing more than floating around in the smelliest cattle trough he could find, with only his head and eyes showing above the water. He would normally do this, of course, when we were out on a long walk, didn’t have any towels in the van to dry him and when we had a long journey home. We had got him from an animal rescue centre in Somerset. After buying Fizz we’d decided that if we got another dog it would be a rescue; there were far too many of them that needed good homes. Picking Beamer up from the centre I knew we had made a good decision. I don’t think his fluffed-up tail has ever stopped wagging since. Our only regret that afternoon in the rescue kennel was seeing row after row of other dogs, wagging their tails, barking away, just wanting to be loved. If we could have we’d have taken them all with us. We were just heartbroken at having to leave them in their runs.
We’d had to lie slightly to the people at the animal rescue home before being allowed to take Beamer. They’d wanted us to prove that the dogs would be living in a stable home, that Lisa and I would not spend too much time travelling between our various work venues and that Beamer would spend no more than four hours or so on his own every day.
Our way of life in the military meant that we did everything but stay at home. But we also knew that Beamer would adapt just as Fizz had and that they would both have a fantastic lifestyle. In fact, I doubt that many dogs would refuse the lifestyle that our two hounds now enjoyed.
A couple of years on and the pair were now absolutely inseparable. We couldn’t even take one of them to the vet on its own, they both had to go, which always amused the vet. It was the same if I was in camp in Plymouth for the day. The two of them would have to come with me, as if they were afraid one of them would miss out on the fun. It was amazing how many well hard marines would knock feebly on the door of the gym asking to be let in when Fizz was propped against the see-through glass door, on self-appointed sentry watch. I would just shake my head and tell them not to be so scared. They always looked visibly relieved when they opened the door and tentatively walked past Fizz, who didn’t even bat an eyelid.
Both dogs loved travelling, too. All I had to do was ask who wanted to go for a drive and both would immediately tear down the garden path towards our waiting van. They would sit on the rear seat and stare out of the window at the passing countryside for hours on end. The previous summer, en route to a climbing trip to the Alps, Fizz had happily propped herself up against the rear side window for nine hours.
I had met Lisa ten years earlier in North Wales. She had just passed her course to become a Physical Training Instructor for the Navy and was studying at the Military centre where I worked as a rock-climbing instructor for the marines.
We had got on well and stayed in touch but it had taken a lucky phone call to get our romance going the following year. By chance we realised that we were both going to be in the same place one weekend, and from there the relationship that was to be my life soon began.
We had a lot in common from the start. My friends were already Lisa’s friends, and I could joke around with her mates and feel comfortable around them. Lisa was a Navy footballer and armchair Man. U. fan and I was a climber. Part of the deal when we married was that I had to get into football and she had to ‘get’ climbing.
It wasn’t too difficult for me. My passion for football had peaked as a youngster when I watched Ipswich, the team of my youth, beat Manchester United 6 – 0 at Portman Road back in 1978. It couldn’t get better than that, especially as both my dad and brother were Man. U. fans. But Lisa fulfilled her side of the bargain too.
Piling the dogs into the van and walking on the moors to find a rock to climb was now our weekend ritual. As long as we always made it home for Match of the Day in the evening then Lisa was happy. Our relationship was – and still is – built on trust and we didn’t harbour any secrets from each other. I still find it slightly amusing that, out of most of our friends who are married, Lisa and I are the only ones who have a joint bank account.
By the time I’d finished today’s climb, the sun was dipping over the eastern edge of Dartmoor. We jumped in the van and headed in search of a country pub, which we soon found down a quiet country lane on the Cornish Devon border. The dogs sat happily under our table in the beer garden, as good as gold as they waited for the leftovers from our lasagne and chips. This was probably the closest I got to doing nothing so I relished the hour or so we spent there.
Lisa and I sat chatting. As was often the case, we fantasised a little about where we would buy a house when we left the forces. Mid Wales was the clear favourite. We fancied a smallholding near the mountains where we could run a small B&B, I could offer rock climbing and mountaineering coaching and the dogs would have loads of free space to run around.
But lately America had been coming a close second. I wasn’t sure my potential outdoor business could make us enough money to compete with the ever-increasing cost of living in the UK.
As the evening closed in, we talked about other, more mundane and everyday things too. But every now and again I would stare into space and my mind would turn to Afghanistan and what was to come.
I had no idea how life-changing it would be.
As I sat in the small shack, the northerly wind was hammering the rain against the wall of the corrugated-iron shelter. At times, it was beating hard enough to almost drown out the firing from the range nearby.
On the battery-powered radio in the corner, BBC Radio Five Live was having a special debate on British troops in Afghanistan. It felt surreal listening to the presenters talk about the place in which I would be serving in less than a week.
The picture being painted by the debate was not good.
The lead item on the hourly news that day had been about the identity of the young Royal Welsh Fusilier who had been killed the day before. There was also an update on the crash a few days earlier of an RAF Nimrod just outside Kandahar – all 14 servicemen on board had been killed, including one Royal Marine.
In recent weeks I’d absorbed lots of reports of this kind, not just on the radio but also in newspapers. In particular, there had been a lot of in-depth reports from the parachute regiment we were due to replace at the end of their deployment, many of them focused on life in the so-called ‘safe houses’ that they were occupying in the more remote regions. Precisely what was ‘safe’ about a mud compound that was surrounded by religious fundamentalists with guns who wanted to kill everybody inside I had yet to understand.
The reports also explained how the Taliban were trying to wear down the lads by limiting their sleep pattern to a few hours per day. They said the threat from incoming mortars and heavy machine-gun fire was constant. There were also reports on the lack of food and water they were experiencing because of the problems with supply lines. It didn’t sound a fun place to visit.
I knew I’d joined the marines for all this but at the moment I couldn’t fire up any enthusiasm for it. I was worrying about other things. I knew that Lisa, along with probably every other family member and loved one connected to the lads about to deploy, would be reading the papers and listening to the radio too. From the detailed intelligence reports we got back at camp, I also knew things out there were even worse than the media reports suggested.
All the secret excitement I had felt about going to Afghanistan had gone. Inwardly I felt anxious and slightly scared. I loved life, I wanted to spend my time with Lisa and the dogs exploring the hills without a care in the world, but it was too late for that now. We were leaving in three days. The possibility of being killed was now very real.
I knew time would stop while I was out in Afghanistan. There would be no dwelling on things, no wondering about life back home, no more taking the dogs to work with me or sitting in the pub with Lisa or planning our weekend to fit some climbing in. I would have to become totally focused on the job at hand. No privacy, no rest, no respite from the constant threat of being dropped right in the middle of some real nasty shit.
Added to that, I was now responsible for 20 lads and I knew I had to get on with it and concentrate on getting them – and me – back in one piece. No distractions; just get the job done.
As I looked around at the lads that made up 5 Troop they too were hanging on every word that came from the radio. Some of them were more or less straight out of training, one even from only the previous week. The youngest of them was just 18, nearly 20 years younger than me. I felt too old for this shit, but that, I suppose, was the whole point of being a troop sergeant; I had the experience to look after these youngsters. After 32 weeks of what everyone tells us is the hardest military training in the world, I felt fairly confident they would produce the goods when we needed it.
But again I had my niggling worries. Are they really ready? Will they really cope with life on the front line?
Scanning their young faces again as they listened to the radio I began to see the apprehension spreading across their faces. Not good. Only one thing for it, I decided, and stood up.
I knew we still had another 40 minutes before it would be our turn to practise our last sessions of live firing on the wet peat bogs outside. But a quick half an hour of troop fitness training wouldn’t go amiss in the meantime, I reckoned.
‘Right, outside everyone, time for some morale-boosting exercise,’ I shouted.
As I pulled on my waterproof camouflage jacket, I didn’t see too much movement; in fact, only one of my marines had made a move to go outside.
‘Any time today, ladies,’ I said in a louder voice.
‘But it’s raining, Sergeant,’ Tim, one of my keenest and youngest marines, piped up.
‘Well, I’m sure the Taliban will understand and let us shelter indoors when it rains out there,’ I replied in my most sarcastic of sergeant voices.
‘But it doesn’t rain in Afghanistan, does it?’ said another marine.
I shook my head in disbelief.
‘I guess geography is not your strong point then?’ I looked once more around the room. ‘Move it, NOW.’
Saying goodbye is never easy. Saying goodbye and not knowing when you will be back is the worst feeling in the world.
I looked at Lisa and knew she was holding back the tears. I didn’t think my attempts at the steely Commando face were working too well either.
‘Pack it in or you’ll have me crying in a minute,’ I said, trying to smile, but it didn’t make either of us feel any better.
Even Fizz and Beamer knew something was up. They somehow sensed that the packed bags outside meant I was going away. Neither of them raced to get their leads as they normally did when I opened the front door. Both just sat upright in their beds looking at me. I bent down and shook both their heads in turn.
‘Fizz Dog – you are in charge, be good – no chasing squirrels, all right?’
She just continued to look at me with her sad big brown eyes, a confused expression on her face.
‘I hate this,’ I said, shaking my head and holding Lisa for the last time.
I held her for not nearly long enough. I kissed her quickly as tears rolled down her face, and turned straight for the door. I walked out into the early-September morning without looking back.
ONE DOG AT A TIME. Copyright © 2009 by Paul Farthing. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.