Remembrance service in Kabul

“I was there at the height of the conflict” - Remembrance Services in Kabul

Commander Jane Allen was mobilised and sent to Iraq in 2003. She recalls what is was like working as Media Ops officer.

My grandfather was a big influence on me; he served in the Territorial Army in both world wars. I had wanted to join the Royal Navy as a child but the Women’s Royal Naval Service, known as the Wrens, had to be shore-based in those days and that put me off. But even though I went on to work in advertising and exhibitions, I saw something about the Royal Naval Reserve – which I didn’t know existed – and relished the idea of being able to ‘do’ the Wrens part-time.

Jane in her Royal Navy uniform.

Jane still works full time for the Royal Navy, currently as the lead for WRNS100, the centenary of the Wrens.

I joined as a rating during the Cold War in 1980, and trained as navigator’s yeoman, looking after charts. But reservists in those days – male as well as female – would never have been mobilised. All that changed around the time of the second Gulf War in 2003, when RN Reservists, for the first time since World War Two, went out to a combat zone. Since then use of Reservists is commonplace, there’s been a shift of emphasis and we’re treated as regulars now.

“This was why I’d been a reservist all those years.”

For me this meant I’d been a reservist for around 26 years before I was deployed, aged 49, to Iraq. I’d been working in civilian life as an IT project manager when I got the call to go.

I spoke to my husband, a former Royal Marine who had just retired from his diving job, and he reminded me that this was why I’d been a reservist all those years, so off I went.

I was to be a Media Ops officer attached at a strategic level, advising the UK general who was second-in-command.

In Iraq, most of our 7,000 troops were in the south, around Basra, but I was based in Baghdad, working very closely with the Americans, who had overall command of all the multinational forces.

We worked with the Iraqi government, military and police, and with officials from our own Ministry of Defence and other offices. An unwitting action by UK forces down south often had consequences up in Baghdad.

A remembrance service in Baghdad.

Jane during a Remembrance Service in Baghdad on Armistice Day, 11 November 2006.

Remembrance in Afghanistan

I was there at the height of the conflict, when numerous Iraqis were being killed. The news was grim every day, with American soldiers dying as well as Brits. In one month alone US forces suffered more than 100 fatalities.

So the Remembrance period felt especially poignant that year: there was a multinational Armistice Day service on 11 November, and knowing their losses, we invited US personnel to join us for our own Remembrance service the next day.

“I took a secure phone call from Basra and learned there’d been a serious incident.”

Afterwards, because of the time difference, I was able to join the general’s team and sit down in front of the TV to watch the service live from the Cenotaph in London.

Seeing HM The Queen laying her wreath, after holding our own service, and having been to something similar the day before… it all felt very real, so many lives had been lost that year. 

US and UK soldiers at Remembrance Service in Baghdad.

Jane with US soldiers at the UK Remembrance service in Baghdad, 2006.

And then something happened that really brought home the meaning of Remembrance: a pipe broadcast ‘Op Minimise’, which my work as a media officer told me could signify casualties for our troops in the south – and sadly, that’s exactly what it meant. I took a secure phone call from Basra and learned there’d been a serious incident: British fatalities and serious injuries.

Jane at a Remembrance service in Kabul

Jane with the Royal Navy padre in Kabul, 2013, preparing for the service held every Sunday to remember those who had been killed that week.

And now I remember that November every year on Remembrance Sunday. I can’t help but wonder if the families of those casualties had been at a Remembrance service when the incident happened, so that on this day of all days, four families would be getting that dreaded knock on the door. 

My next deployment was in 2013, to Kabul. By then, NATO and UK fatalities had seen a marked reduction and Afghan Forces were in the lead, suffering on average 50 losses every week, and these were announced in a service held every Sunday. Every week.

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