Phil reflects on volunteering for Afghanistan and what he gained
Working for GCHQ may mean that you have the Civil Service label but it does open up a wide scope of opportunities to work in different jobs, learn new skills and if it’s something that interests you, travel and work in different locations.
I’ve always been interested in seeing what difference our intelligence makes at the "front end" , who uses it and how it can be improved and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to experience some of this, working alongside the Military, learning about their work and the difference made by GCHQ’s support.
Hot and cold gear bought and packed as my tour started in the summer and ended in spring, I was ready to catch my plane at Brize Norton. For a military plane I was expecting something monstrous and uncomfortable; in reality it was a surprisingly comfortable flight in what was essentially a commercial airliner, albeit with a military paint job. Once we eventually landed in Afghanistan I was transported in a Landrover. The drivers were soldiers, whose job it was to ferry other soldiers and civilian folk like me around. These guys were in their young 20s and were putting themselves at great risk on a daily basis, but were always professional and happy to help. On one such journey we hit a dense patch of fog on the outskirts of the city and the driver was unable to see beyond the end of the bonnet. Without any hesitation the co-driver jumped out of the vehicle and guided us through the streets, almost blinded by the dense fog, to ensure we reached the relative safety of the camp.
The camp I called home for 6 months was pretty large. Protected by a wall of giant sandbags it had most things that you would need in order to be fairly comfortable. Sleeping accommodation was pretty basic, a small air-conditioned pod with a window, bunk bed and wardrobe, but what can you expect? In contrast, I found my working conditions an improvement on Cheltenham, I had AN OFFICE! Not such a big deal you may think, but coming from an open plan environment in the doughnut, it made a nice change to have the luxury of your own space, albeit windowless, bland and fairly tatty. Windows are over-rated anyway, especially when your office is close to the portaloos that are emptied bang-on breakfast time every morning.
My colleagues were all military, had a fantastic "can do" attitude and impressed me with their level of subject matter expertise. Work was pretty intense, hours were long and there wasn’t much "down time", but every day was interesting in it’s own way. You knew you were doing something that was important, providing intelligence to help keep troops safe, and were lucky enough to be working in an environment where you could see a direct outcome. One of the interesting elements was our interaction with other nationalities. We were working together as a coalition, so we needed to be able to share information to help protect each other’s forces.
By the end of my tour I was pretty fed up with my office and ready for the openness offered in the doughnut. I was also fed up with the routine of the canteen's menu, and needed to get back to having some freedom of movement. I felt that I’d made a worthwhile contribution, both to my British forces colleagues, but also to the wider coalition.
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.