Ben reflects on his Christmas in Afghanistan
It was an honour to be able to work alongside the Military, and to provide intelligence and operational support that had real impact. It was a chance to understand the importance of the work we do in an environment that few get to experience.
It was by no means easy: GCHQ is not a military organisation, and stepping off a military aircraft to find yourself in the middle of Afghanistan is not a common occurrence for most members of staff. Fortunately, we prepared well, there is little time to think about it as the operational tempo of the Military is high, and as key members of the team we were expected to play a full part immediately.
We all lived and worked together, and the bonds formed helped us to make it through the long days, early mornings and time away from the family. I spent my first Christmas as a married man away from home. Although every day, including Christmas Day, was a work day, it is hard not to miss your closest family, especially when contact home is limited and the camp you’re in serves no alcohol! But Christmas lunch was pretty special: the first and only time I’ll have it served by soldiers and marines in full combat uniform and Santa hats.
It is impossible to convey how much letters (or blueys as they’re called in theatre thanks to the blue paper the free post mail arrives on) and parcels mean. They raise morale, even if they do take weeks to arrive, may have melted or be broken by the time they reach you. All of these things add to the colour and richness of the experience, something that we in GCHQ are privileged to have been able to share with our military counterparts.
Memories of deployment
At the heart of GCHQ's support to the Military are our staff. It is a team effort to gather, analyse, translate and report intelligence, but when it comes to keeping the Military safe in warzones, the delivery of intelligence is often done by a single person.
Putting a Signals Intelligence expert in the field can both improve understanding of what the Military need, whilst protecting the use of intelligence. This is a lesson learned in World War One, and it is still valuable today.
In recent conflicts, GCHQ's staff have volunteered in numbers to deploy to warzones to help keep the Military safe. 90 GCHQ staff have received the medal for service in Iraq, and 156 for service in Afghanistan.