AFGHANISTAN DIARY: Archant reporter Alistair gets kitted out for tour of the country

PUBLISHED: 19:00 27 July 2009 | UPDATED: 09:11 02 June 2010

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THIS week, Archant reporter ALISTAIR NELSON is out in Afghanistan to experience life on the front line. He is touring the war-torn country with Armed Forces Minister, Bill Rammell MP, and is keeping a diary of the experience. And here is his first instalment.

THIS week, Archant reporter ALISTAIR NELSON is out in Afghanistan to experience life on the front line.

He is touring the war-torn country with Armed Forces Minister, Bill Rammell MP, and is keeping a diary of the experience.

And here is his first instalment.

Friday July 24

DO YOU have your own body armour? Not a question that, if I'm honest, I get asked regularly as a reporter in sleepy Saffron Walden.

But the lady on the other end of the phone from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) wasn't joking and on Tuesday booked me an appointment for a "fitting".

So here I am on a train travelling into London and in two days' time I'll be on a plane to Afghanistan, without doubt the most dangerous place on the planet.

It all started on July 17, when my editor told me Armed Forces Minister and Harlow MP Bill Rammell was off to visit the war-torn country and had invited Archant to send someone along.

A hesitant indication of interest was enough to book me on the first flight out of RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire on Sunday, but not before I had been kitted out in armour.

My appointment is at the Regent's Park Barracks in north-west London. Formerly called the Albany Street Barracks, the 19th century complex is set among trendy cafes and posh houses, and is just a grenade's throw from London Zoo.

The first piece of body armour I try on feels loose and surprisingly light. So I ask the soldier behind the desk for a smaller vest, and this time it's a snug fit.

There are two non-uniformed men working in the kit store and, after I'm happy with the fit, the second man proceeds to put Kevlar plates into pockets on the front and back of the blue vest. I now realise why it didn't seem so heavy when I tried it on and when he hands it back it feels more substantial.

I can't help thinking how small the plates are compared to the size of my body and I notice that the one on the front is off-centre to cover my heart. I feel a slight rush of fear as it begins to dawn on me just how dangerous this assignment could be.

I ask the kit man if the plates can stop a bullet and he assures me it can. Then I ask him if he's ever had one returned with a bullet hole in it and he says no, so I feel a little more confident that I'll be returning alive.

My first stop was at the MoD building in Whitehall where I was met by one of Mr Rammell's staff, a woman called Beryl who gives me a VIP pass and ushers me through the vast security system and into the heart of the country's defence. We walk straight through the building and out the other side where Beryl informs me that a car is waiting to take me to the barracks.

I'm introduced to my driver Kevin (who is actually the minister's driver, but today Mr Rammell is at his constituency in Harlow). As it turns out the car is not just for me - two others from the party of six will be joining me to get kitted out for body armour as well - so I take the front seat and wait for the others to arrive.

Before long I'm joined by Mr Rammell's special advisor, Andy, and we head out into the midday London traffic.

After we are fully kitted out with our body armour and helmets we head back to the MoD to meet some more of the minister's travelling party and get briefed about our trip.

Chris Higham, a former soldier and now a military advisor to Mr Rammell, talks us through some of some things we can expect (mainly heat and sand) and what to pack for the journey. Mr Higham is the only member of the group who has been to Afghanistan before, so his insight is invaluable and his enthusiasm for the country is infectious.

MoD press officer Darragh, who will also be travelling with us, briefs us on our itinerary. Just in case the Taliban subscribe to the e-edition of the Saffron Walden Reporter I can't say too much in advance about where we will be going. However, it's safe to say that we'll be travelling around a lot, and areas such as Kabul and Kandahar will feature.

I'm also told that a forward operating base (FOB) and a military hospital are on the agenda, so I should see the reality of war in Afghanistan. There will be plenty of opportunities to meet soldiers who have fought on the front line.

Although I haven't met Mr Rammell in person, I have spoken to him on the phone and I look forward to spending more time with him. The war in Afghanistan is continuously in the press especially because of the number of troops who have died their recently and the controversy over helicopter numbers. His job is not an easy one, so it will be interesting to see he goes about his work and how he interacts with the soldiers who have been sent to war by his Government.

As I leave the MoD building and head for the tube carrying my body armour and helmet, I am both excited and nervous about what lies in store for me in this war-torn country. It is hard to digest that I'm heading into a war zone, or as they say in the MoD, into "theatre".

This is a rare opportunity to experience, in some small way, what life is like for a soldier on the front line. I just hope I can do that experience justice.


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