It's almost ten years since I handed in my kit and ID card and walked out of the camp gates of RAF Lossiemouth for the last time. In my 17 years in the RAF I'd been to some varied locations; Bosnia, USA, Canada, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Falkland Islands, The Bahamas as well as various other parts of Europe. I'd also met some well known people; Prince Andrew (Doh), Nancy Pelosi (now you know who she is!) and, best of all, Kid Creole AND The Coconuts......
I occasionally get asked if I miss it, yes, but not the bits you'd expect. I'd do it all again, some of it a little differently but I left at the right time. I'm lucky that I left relatively unscathed, physically and mentally, some did not.
Anyway, on a less somber tone, I was recently looking through the newspapers coverage of the 'Millies'. For the uninitiated, it's an awards ceremony for Military personnel held in The Banqueting House at Westminster, in which awards for various categories are given. The associated stories of bravery and dedication are inspiring and well deserving of recognition. A cynic (yes me) might question why such luminaries as Judge Rinder, Alexandria Burke and Grant from Eastenders feature in the winners photos, but I guess we all have jobs to do! (please see footnote).
If I had to list the parts of military life that I missed, it wouldn't be anything worthy of a Millie Award, it would be much more mundane. It's unlikely that Liam Payne (yes, he was at the Millies) would have his picture taken with me for getting the Playstation 1 high score for Cool Boarders during an 1998 eight week Bosnia detachment or, John Barrowman (yes) giving a thumbs up for leaving a Las Vegas poker table with more chips than when I started (reading that bit back, he actually might)!
With this in mind, below are three alternative awards and winners that illustrate the less glamorous side of military life but evoke the fondest memories.
1. The Inappropriate Humour In The Face of Excessive Officialdom Award
Al Udeid Airbase in Qatar was a huge military facility owned by the Qatari Government but leased and administered by the US Air Force. The RAF had a large contingent here as Tornado GR4 operations over Iraq were flown out of the base. On one particular day the crew bus driving aircrew to the flight line accidentally reversed into another vehicle causing a minor dent in both. In the UK, this would have been a fairly minor incident; nobody was hurt and there was only minimal damage. But this was Al Udeid....base regulations stated that any accident was to be reported to the US Military police. It was, and when they turned up 30 minutes later they insisted that it then had to be reported to the Qatari base police. It was, and when they turned up one hour later, still nothing had been reported and the two vehicles were still waiting to be moved so everybody could get on with much more important tasks, like getting aircraft airborne in support of operations.
Some 90 minutes later, when the US and Qatari police contingent got around to inspecting the accident scene, they discovered that somebody had secretly painted a body outline - as per US detective dramas, on the tarmac between the two vehicles. This was not well received by the US and Qatari Police and the Squadron boss was summoned by the base commander for a 'one way' conversation.
To this day I don't know exactly who the quick thinking artist was, but definitely one of the RAF ground crew. A moment of pure comedy genius which tickles me even now. This award is for you, whoever you are!
2. The Religious Intervention In the Face of Human Suffering Award
Another Al Udeid Story, although from a later period to the one above. One of the unifying features of any military base was that the back of any male toilet cubicle door (cannot vouch for the female ones) was covered in graffiti. Some of these doors were works of art that Banksy would be proud of and would read from top to bottom like a modern day Bayeaux Tapestry. For example, at the top, someone would write/scrawl/scratch "USAF are W*****S", underneath it carried on "Yes, from your mum". And so it went on for the full height of the door, for the reader, it could keep you entertained for a good while (ah, the days before WiFi). The 'Powers That Be' at Al Udeid did not take kindly to such offensive literature and decided to paint over the back of all cubicle doors with black paint. Graffiti gone.....for a while; then it started again, this time scratched out of the fresh black paint to leave white writing, like a photo negative of the previous door. "USAF are W*****S", and off it went again. Two weeks later it was back down to the bottom of the door and undoubtedly, various 'mums' ears were burning.
The response to this from the Base Commander was to remove all of the cubicle doors from the toilet block. A bit of a shock on the first morning but needs must, so everybody carried on. A copy of the Daily Telegraph and no eye contact with the stranger in the cubicle directly opposite saw me through the morning routine.
Toilet door salvation came in the form of the RAF Padre who was so so incensed by the lack of doors (and maybe a broadsheet newspaper) that he reportedly burst into the Base Commanders office and demanded the doors back. That was quite a move, even for a man of the cloth to face up to a senior officer in such an abrupt way. The doors were up the next day (and even more importantly, the graffiti) so this award is for you, Padre!
3. The Best Bribe Of A Public Official Award
One of the more fun features of military life was known as 'Adventure Training'. The general idea was that taking part and planning outdoor activities was beneficial to an individuals confidence and military skills. The general rule was that it had to be 'hard' in some way, for example, downhill skiing was only allowed if there was some cross country involved. It came to pass on a flying training course I was on, that we managed to organise a sailing expedition from Miami to the Bahamas and back under the guise of 'Adventure Training'. Well, we were all very excited by this and off we went, initially to Washington DC by RAF VC10 transport plane (which was delayed as it didn't work) and then onto Miami by internal flight. The sailing itself was not quite as much fun as we thought, choppy seas and busy shipping was the norm and most of us suffered from debilitating seasickness the whole 48 hours it took to get to Nassau in the Bahamas.
The plan was to overnight in Nassau (I'll admit, that bit wasn't to hard), then set sail to return to Miami the next day. As we departed the harbour there was a loud bang and on returning harbourside it was discovered that the boats propeller had sheared. A phone call back to the boat hire agent in Miami resulted in them sending a spare by air that we could pick up from the airport the next day. Another night in Nassau (if you must), then two of my course mates took a cab to the airport to pick up the part, the intention being to leave harbour later that day. When they returned they had bad news, the necessary part had been 'quarantined' by customs and would not be released any time soon. Another phone call to the boat hire agent revealed they were very surprised this had happened and did not have another. The only remaining course of action was to fly us back to Miami in two days time.
It would be irresponsible to suggest that one of the course mates returned from the airport with $50 less than when he went but another two nights in Nassau were required (it was tough), no more seasickness and back home. You know who you are and this one is for you!
Well that's it for this blog entry. A quick disclaimer before I go - I do mock celebrities a bit but I certainly recognise that their involvement in such awards gives light to the charitable causes that help Servicemen and their families. I also have the utmost respect for the ordinary people who give up their time to help those in need; The Royal British Legion, The Poppy Appeal, Help for Heroes and Combat Stress to name a few. Thank you for all that you do.