Red In The Sand, 2004 - 2013

"We had already been rocketed twice today. The first attack had been at 3 a.m. at Basra, the attack siren waking us out of bed to lie on the dusty floor."


This is an extract from True Colours: My Life as the First Openly Transgender Officer in the British Armed Forces, by Caroline Paige, publishing by Biteback Publishing


6–8-foot-high sand berms surrounding them. The berms were man-made walls of defence, residues of the 1980s Iran–Iraq War ramparts, bulldozed into place to form a protective perimeter around the runway. The Iranian border was close to the east, and the surrounding desert was deformed with such ramparts, the debris of war strewn amongst them, rusting wreckage slowly decaying back into the ground.

We were here to provide an emergency evacuation measure for potential casualties, a combat air ambulance. To have the best possible chance of survival, seriously injured casualties needed to be evacuated off the battlefield and received at a medical trauma centre as soon as possible, and certainly within one hour of injury, a period known as the Golden Hour. There weren’t enough helicopters in Iraq to base one with each patrol, so one operating base would cover many different ground units, and not just UK ones. This patrol group was on a mission out of range for a helicopter on standby to recover casualties to the closest combat trauma centre within the hour. The reaction time and flying involved for the round trip would take considerably longer, degrading survival chances. Forward deploying a helicopter and medical team with the patrol meant cutting out the time to get there. It also meant the patrol could operate further out into the desert, if the trauma centre was still reachable inside the Golden Hour. In a couple of days, this patrol would be back inside the range for home-base emergency cover, but we would remain with them until that happened.

We chose our landing position carefully. The powerful rotor down-wash of a Merlin helicopter would easily damage the patrol’s camouflage netting, communications equipment and low-profile tents. Kat closed the aircraft down and we were greeted outside by a young Lieutenant. His warm welcome extended to a warning.

‘Stay alert, we have indications of a possible attack...’ – he paused,

seemingly as he realised the cockpit crew were women – ‘ weapons and armour at all times. You’ll best help cover from the berm.’ He pointed at one of the desert mounds adjacent to our aircraft. Our helicopter was a sitting duck on the ground, especially being outside the berms. We had already been rocketed twice today. The first attack had been at 3 a.m. at Basra, the attack siren waking us out of bed to lie on the dusty floor. The second attack came just a couple of hours later, as we were taxiing our aircraft.

‘Incoming rockets... Red! Red! Red!’ the air traffic controller shouted over the radio.

In the background of his warning we could hear the distinctive cyclic warble of the attack siren. We had just seconds to move: with flight-speed on the rotors, it was safer to go than to shut her down and seek hardened shelter – the big sky and small moving target theory.

‘Are you happy if we bring the aircraft inside your perimeter?’ I asked the Lieutenant, assessing the gap where the old broken runway cut narrowly through the berms. ‘It’s a bit of an easy target out there...and gives your position away.’ He agreed, though he clearly wasn’t anticipating the whirling dust storm that followed. The only way to move our fifteen tons of helicopter was to start her up and taxi. Pulling in power lightened the aircraft on its wheels, making it possible to move forward, but doing so was always a trade-off, with the rotor downforce stirring up anything loose. The only consolation was that their vehicles and tents were already full of sand. The smiles returned when they saw that the first items offloaded were the bulging grey-fibre mail bags we had brought them. I walked a short distance outside the berms to see if the aircraft was hidden any better now. ‘Well, better than before!’ I reassured myself. The main lower fuselage couldn’t be seen, but there was no escaping the topside, the tail rotor, or the main rotor head, doing a great impression of a giant, five-frond palm tree.

Around us, off-duty troops were resting beneath camouflage nets draped from their vehicles’ sides. Throughout the scorching heat of the day I kept abreast of the intelligence scenario and attended various command briefings with the troop commanders. Kat had developed a throat infection and took shelter in the shade of the aircraft. The crewmen made sure the aircraft received her post-flight and pre-flight maintenance checks. Eventually the declining sun began to dull the day and our thoughts turned to food. We broke out the ration packs and small disposable hexamine-block burners.

‘Chicken and mushroom boil-in-the-bag pasta tonight!’ teased Tim.

The medics didn’t have additional duties to perform here, unless someone became ill or hurt, so Tim had kindly appointed himself chief cook. It didn’t smell much like chicken – mushroom, perhaps. Its bland ‘one taste fits all’ flavour was enhanced only when our chef pulled out his ‘secret ingredient’, a packet of curry powder. There wasn’t much out here to test the sensitivity of the nose, just machine oil, or the smell of coconut from liberal use of sun cream.

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Watch our interview with Caroline Paige

Watch our interview with Caroline Paige