So … It might surprise some of you to learn that I spent a period of time in Afghanistan. We’re talking a few years ago now, back when I was an adventure-seeking twenty-something. Now, I’m just a ‘boring’ thirty-something. I make it sound like that’s a bad thing, but it’s not. I quite like spending my winter evenings cuddled up with my other half on the couch, half-working on the iPad, half-watching whatever rubbish reality TV show I happen to be obsessed with at the time.
But, once upon a time, I really was an adventure-seeking twenty-something. One of my adventures took me right into the heart of Kandahar, Afghanistan. I wasn’t in the military. I was a NAAFI girl. An EFI girl, to be exact. Expeditionary Force Institutes.
Let’s Set the Scene …
I was already working abroad with NAAFI, so I decided to take a six-month secondment with EFI, heading out to Afghanistan and scaring the hell out of my mother. I stayed for over nine months, without R&R, and I got a medal for my time out there. Arriving in October, it meant that I spent Christmas in the “sandbox” (as we called it), working in my little NAAFI shop and trying to put a smile on the faces of the soldiers from around the world that I would see on a daily basis. I wanted to make a difference. I mostly wanted to get the medal and prove to myself that I could do it, but I wanted to make a difference too.
As a youngster, I had wanted to join the Navy, and I even got as far as HMS Rayleigh in Plymouth. It wasn’t long before realised that a regimental life wouldn’t suit me for long. There were certain aspects of it I loved, but early mornings and being told what to do? Nope, that’s not exactly my thing.
At school, I always wanted to be a writer, alongside having an interest in the military, and I even went through a brief spell of wanting to be a war journalist. I don’t even know if I knew what I wanted to be, or what I wanted to achieve with my life, but I did know that I wanted to make a difference where I could. I also knew that I wanted to have stories to take with me into “adulthood”. Stories that, one day, I could tell my grandkids, should I ever be blessed with them.
It was a weird kind of Christmas, that Afghan Christmas.
We were in the desert. That was pretty odd. I come from Kent in England, so you can imagine the shock to my system. It was dry and hot during the day, but oh-so-cold and frosty during the night. That wasn’t something I planned for as I ordered the thickest, most winter-worthy Santa outfit I could find. Walking around Kandahar all day, collecting ‘pogs’ (the military version of money out there) for Help for Heroes, I almost passed out from the heat. Thick leggings, black winter boots, and a thick and heavy, sequinned Santa outfit really wasn’t the smartest decision I could have made.
It was a beautiful day though, with cheer and merriment despite the fact that we were, quite literally, in a war zone. I don’t remember whether or not the alarms went off, warning us of incoming rockets and mortars. I don’t remember any of the bad stuff at all. All I remember is the good stuff — the laughter, the mistletoe, and kisses-on-cheeks as we went about our day to try and put some festive cheer on sandy faces.
This year will be my 31st Christmas on this amazing planet …
My Afghan Christmas will ALWAYS be the one I remember the most. It will always be the one that makes me smile the most. It will always be the one that warms my heart the most. A completely random bunch of strangers from all around the world — all nations, all races, all ethnicities, and all religious beliefs — came together and they smiled. They VOLUNTEERED to come together and smile. Together, they laughed. They gave each other gifts, some highly inappropriate (thanks, Mum!), some that made them laugh so much, they thought they might not ever recover from the laughter-stitch in their sides.
The simplest of gifts made them cry. Something as seemingly insignificant as a handwritten Christmas card from loved ones was enough to bring light to the very darkest of days, and tears to the most strong-willed of eyes. A piece of tinsel worn as a belt or flashing Christmas earrings that Nan bought in Poundland meant more than a Michael Kors watch or a £1k+ Gucci handbag.
I love Gucci handbags, but I love that I have those memories more. Memories of a time that seems so far away now, especially when many of the troops have now been pulled out of the country. I see those war-pieces on the news and I’m filled with a sort-of nostalgic sadness. I had the best time of my life in that place. That place made me. It sorted me out. It put a lot of things into perspective for me. But, at the same time, that place is tinged with so much sadness. So much death. So many goodbyes that I/we just never got the chance to say.
It was a funny time in my life …
A time that makes me smile and laugh, remembering the weirdest of memories, and the most bizarre situations. It’s had long-lasting repercussions on me, however, in a wide variety of ways. I’m still incredibly unnerved by fireworks. (Understandable.) Remembrance Day always hits me overwhelmingly hard. (Also understandable.) And, about this time every year, my TimeHop reminds me of awe-inspiring moments that I can’t believe I was even a part of in the first place, with amazing friends that I’m still in contact with today, many years later.
My Afghan Christmas will always be my best Christmas ever.