Two years on…

Hoover Dam

Two years. Has it been that long?

Lots of things have happened since – Went through a rocky relationship and learnt a lot more about myself. Finished my bond with the military and decided to pursue my love for the visual arts. It’s been quite a journey.

The past two months have been especially grueling. Starting up a business is tough, but pales in comparison to dealing with people. It’s been an exercise in patience and tact, and makes me realise how much I’ve taken for granted the professionalism, discipline, and precision I’m so used to in the military.

Still, I’ve never been happier to be doing something I love. There are days when it gets incredibly lonely, when it feels like no one else understands what I’m going through, and that’s when that survival training kicks in, to pick myself up and to tell myself to keep going, keep focusing on what needs to be done, and that I’ll eventually make it out – and I often do. Writing helps me cope too, and I guess that’s why I’m back here.

More posts to come… but not too many I hope.

Turning the Page

Today marks half a year since I’ve been back from Afghanistan. I’ve moved on to a new appointment at work and have been living a much more productive life. I’ll come back to this later.

I was today sadden by news of the death of 5 young men from the camp I was previously deployed in. The young men fighting in Afghanistan are at the peak of their physical health, have their whole lives ahead of them and friends and family awaiting their return. All soldiers gave some, but these 5, and countless others before them, tragically gave all.

Nevermind what the leaders, the press, and the people who hand you medals tell you. War is fundamentally ugly. It is man at his most violent, seeking to eradicate the other party simply because they can’t see eye to eye. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people – and modern technology makes it easier to do a whole lot of that in a really short time.

I also bumped into an old friend today and he asked if I had a hero’s welcome when I returned, yet all I could think of was the work we did there. It was mundane and boring work. There was nothing heroic about what I did. I just did what I had to – my duty, and hoped I’d make it back in one piece.

I survived Afghanistan, but it wasn’t because I was a hero.

I was lucky.

It’s an oft cited cliche about how war vets tend to harp on people not understanding because they haven’t been there, but it’s true. I don’t expect people to understand either, so I tell them what they want to hear. It’s easier to tell the partial truth – that it was a great experience and that I learnt a lot serving, than having to explain the moral dilemma of making decisions that would take somebody’s life or living under the constant threat of being shot at. I don’t blame them, these were extreme conditions and it’s hard to empathise.

But there are lessons to bring back from my experience, and they tie in really well with what’s expounded on this blog – Inspiration and Chai – Regrets of the Dying

I urge you to read it.

If there’s anything my experience in deployment could be translated into for those who haven’t been there, it would be this – Life is precious, fleeting and fragile. Let’s not squander our time, health and relationships.

I have been a happier man since I’m back, and I wish you the same.

I end with a quote from the Inspiration and Chai blog entry – “Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness.”

Quiet at Night

Life has been good to me since my return to Singapore, and I’ve been keeping myself really busy trying to do things to be happy – making new friends, strengthening old bonds, picking up new sports and getting better at my old ones.

Yet last night, I felt a strange emptiness hit me. I’ve got my schedule all planned out but I felt tired and lost. That’s when it dawned upon me that I’ve been so caught up being busy and ticking off to-dos that I forgot to recharge.

I spent so much time getting lost in the din of the city that I forgot to listen to myself. The fix came in the form of a quick bike ride, and now I’m back and ready to go again.

Except this time, I’m taking it easy.

The End is the Beginning is the..

It seemed only a while ago that we stepped foot in Afghanistan as wide-eyed newcomers.

Everything felt strange and foreign, and the thought of living in an area of conflict and its imminent dangers hung thick in the air.

Time has since worn down the rough edges and we have settled into a routine, familiarised ourselves with the people and surroundings, got used to dealing with ever present threats (the trick is to look out for it, but not think about it too much) and dare I say, grown rather attached to this dusty, arid and now freezing environment.

Our deployment has come full circle.

Our replacements arrived today and are now bunked in with us. We had to clear out some of our comfort items the past few days to make way for them. The room where we’ve anchored our humble existence for the past months now seem just that little less familiar. Soon it will feel foreign as we pack up more of our belongings to ship back, and then it will cease to be ours.

The next team will take our place and we will be shipping home.

To many, it would seem like the end – but like a good book, life’s chapters don’t stand alone, they build up the plot and lead strongly into the next. I wrote in the beginning that I had faith that this deployment would be a wonderful experience for me. It has been. Now I’m looking forward to whatever comes next.

I  have no qualms that my last month left here would be just as meaningful.  I’m just hoping now that I could facilitate just as great a start to those about to pen their own chapters here.

Godspeed fellow authors.

Colours in the Sky

Most people opt to stay indoors in inclement weather and on chilly nights, but not the photographer. To him or her, it’s the perfect time to head out to shoot.

Onlookers must have thought they saw a lunatic walking around at midnight in the thick fog and cold with camera and tripod in tow, but I saw something else – and now I’m sharing it with you.

The colours in the pictures resulted from the various light sources used on base. Tungsten lights emit a warm yellow glow, some fluorescents glow green while others slightly blue. All these light sources were diffused and reflected in the thick fog to create a surreal technicoloured scene, just begging to be captured on camera by a crazy enough photographer with a fetish for frostbite.

So I did.

Lest We Forget

I was a little shaken sometime back by the news of French soldiers being shot at by their Afghan counterparts (link). It’s not the first time such has happened, and I have a feeling it may not be the last.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

We can rave all we want about how it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country, but these guys died for someone else’s country, on foreign soil.

I’m not about to launch into a tirade on the evils and hypocrisy of politics, nor preach about how we’re all global citizens and need to play our part in this war on terror. I leave that to the policy makers and leaders of the men they have sent into battle, and each and every one of us who may one day have to serve, or have a close friend or family in the same situation.

I just ask that we not forget, that in war, men will die – Young men with dreams and aspirations, friends and families. There is a price to pay for the decisions made, all will give some, but some may end up giving all.

Perhaps the most haunting thing about the image when I reviewed it was that the names and dates were clearly visible, and that many of them had given everything at an age when I once thought I couldn’t get enough of life.

First Snowfall over Singa-Inn

The first snowfall for the season in our base here in Afghanistan came down hard, blanketing everything in almost 8 inches of snow overnight. It was a welcome change from the rain and dust combination that usually results in some pretty muddy conditions.

Here you can get a sense of our living conditions. It’s sparse but we’re comfortable. Everything gets used and recycled in an operational environment like ours. The walkways are made from the wooden pallets scavenged from cargo drops. Even our flag post (right) was put up with metal posts and bits of duct tape. The main container with the lights on is the pantry we often refer to as Singa-Inn. It’s short for Singapore-Inn of course, but what it really is is a focal point for after-work camaraderie and heart-warming home cooked meals.

The blanket of snow has thinned out since this picture was taken, but the resulting melt water and subsequent refreezing have resulted in icy pavements that have claimed quite a few victims. I was no exception, and was lucky to walk away with only a sore bottom and a bruised ego.

For the photography enthusiasts – I often tell people that the camera doesn’t really matter, but this is one instance where it did. It was necessary to push the ISO to a relatively high level of 6400 even when shooting at f2.8 at 1/30s, and if you’ve got an older camera you’d either be stuck with a pretty grainy low-quality image or just plain outta luck. This is due in part to the low light levels in the base, as well as the need to freeze the motion of the snow as it falls. A longer shutter speed would have rendered the snow an indistinct blur instead.

In this case, the 5dm2 + 24-70 f2.8 lens combination came through nicely. It also handled the heavy snowfall and the rigours of shooting that night pretty well. But then again, my older 350d has seen worse and it came through shining too so that was kind of expected.