Sailor Heidi swaps ships for soldiering in Afghanistan
Just as the sun was setting on Checkpoint Salaang in Helmand province, machinegun fire was heard coming from a neighbouring compound.
Soldiers with 1st Battalion, The Rifles, were brewing tea and preparing their evening rations when they heard the familiar sound of an AK-47 assault rifle being fired. Almost instantaneously, they grabbed their rifles and body armour. They then moved to take positions along the walls of CP Salaang. Already sitting on top of the barrier, with her rifle aimed and ready to fire was Able Seaman Heidi Telford.
“The lads told me to get on the wall. I didn’t know what was going on at first. The only thought that was going through my head was ‘Don’t come near me!’”
The 21 year old from Plymouth is serving on Operation HERRICK 14 as part of the Female Engagement Team in Nahr-e Saraj (South). In many parts of Afghanistan, women are not permitted to talk to or associate with men outside of their immediate family. This hinders male troops from engaging with half of the country’s population. Heidi, along with other FET members, works to bridge these cultural divides.
It’s a far cry from what Heidi had planned to do. Two years ago, while attending college and serving as a waitress at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Devonport, Heidi, decided she wanted to travel the world and meet different people. So, following in the footsteps of her father who’d served in the Navy for 23 years, she signed up.
Able Seaman Telford was formally trained to be a chef aboard ship. During her first deployment, she served in the galley aboard the Her Majesty’s Ship Portland. It was during this deployment that her Commanding Officer recommended her to be assigned to the next Female Engagement Team going to Afghanistan. That is how she found herself on top of a HESCO wall defending the small checkpoint alongside the soldiers from 1 RIFLES.
As a member of the Female Engagement Team (FET) Heidi says she enjoys being able to greet local Afghan women and does her best to assure them she means no harm.
“They’re quite scared at first, but once they see me and see that I’m a female, they start smiling.”
Able Seaman Telford lives and works alongside the men of 1 RIFLES. Like them, she carries a rifle, goes on patrols, fills sandbags and mans a sentry post for several hours while wearing body armour and enduring temperatures of 50 degrees.
Sgt Alex Miller works with the Military Stabilisation Support Team in NES(S):
“She just mucks in with everyone else. She wants to do an excellent job out here. She’s very enthusiastic about doing it.”
Heidi admits the lifestyle she is now embracing is quite different than the one she was used to when she was serving at sea.
“I find it very hot and stressful. It’s different sleeping on the ground and tasting dust in my mouth. But even though it’s hard, having the guys around really helps. They’re good and look out for me. I’d be lost without them.”