Steve prepares to support forces in Iraq
When operations in Iraq began in March 2003, I was one of the first GCHQ officers sent overseas to help keep our forces safe. I had spent the previous months preparing myself in case I needed to deploy. This involved doing a huge amount of background reading and getting my head around the situation. More personally, I entrusted a colleague with a letter to my wife should I not return.
Given the developing situation, GCHQ had been contingency-planning for all eventualities. A group of staff had been given specialist training alongside the Military to prepare should they need to deploy. We were taught everything from battlefield first aid to how to put on a gas mask. As civilians we don’t carry weapons but as in theatre it’s likely we will be in close proximity of them we were familiarised with how to handle a gun correctly and make it safe should the need arise.
On reflection, my preparations had, I suppose, started much earlier. In 2001, there was a major military exercise held in the Middle East involving UK forces, and I was asked to go out to support it. Practicing providing intelligence from the back of a vehicle in a location that was remote, hot and dusty was a total contrast to Cheltenham.
When I did finally deploy, I was as ready as I could be. Although not a picnic, I was reasonably lucky. I was based in the relative luxury of a headquarters where I provided intelligence and advice to the UK’s most senior military commanders.
There were many highs and lows whilst I was away. The highs were simple things, like receiving goodie boxes (mainly chocolate) from my loved ones back home. The lows were in contrast serious; in a conflict loss of life is sadly inevitable. The nature of our capabilities meant we were sometimes amongst the first to learn of UK fatalities. Overall around 9,500 British service personnel and civilians deployed over the course of the war. There were many heroes amongst them, and some sadly never came home. I was just a civil servant from Gloucestershire who was, and still is, proud to have served his country and GCHQ.
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.