Photographer David Cotterrell’s diary of the weeks he spent in the company of military medical staff at the main field hospital at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan appears in the Guardian today.

The soldier is wheeled across. I watch from a distance with a telephoto lens. By the time I have walked past the quartermaster’s office to the entrance, the ambulances have arrived. As always, a crowd of some of the NHS’s most highly paid and skilled consultants are waiting in DPM clothing.

He is taken to Resus. Awake, in pain and bloody. The doctors adopt varying roles. One doctor stands with a nurse and an administrator at a lectern taking notes of every observation. Others direct the x-ray team, manage the unwrapping of the field dressings, check the vital signs, look for internal bleeding and try to calm the soldier. He is young; I suspect, a Commando.

His right leg has been bandaged in three field dressings – each one can absorb a litre of blood. His foot is unwrapped and clothes are cut away. It strikes me that all the kit fetish that follows the FOB [forward operating base] postings is discarded. The boots, the webbing, holsters and DPM are cut into pieces, and deposited into a black plastic bag for incineration.



Two Afghan children and their dignified elderly-looking father appear from the ambulances. I am struck by how beautiful they are. The son has shrapnel to his face and is in pain. The daughter has a wound to her leg and looks like aliens have abducted her. She is wide-eyed and confused. All three are covered in a thick layer of desert dust. I leave them as they are stabilised in Resus, unable to face another operation so soon.


We descend in darkness to Kandahar and as the ramp opens we feel the aircraft spinning around. A majestic sight comes into view. The open ramp of a C17 is waiting, framing an illuminated strategic team. The C130 backs up to its larger sibling until 50 yards of ashphalt separates the two worlds of tactical and strategic care. […]

Standing on the runway between these two great transport aircraft, I watch the stretchers being ferried across, illuminated by an honour guard of ambulances and Toyota pick-up trucks. I feel a strange sense of calm as the patients, strapped into the stretchers and protected by an assortment of Day-Glo equipment, are received by the C17 strategic CCAST [combat medical technician] team. I feel that some of the tension has passed away. They are crossing a threshold on the runway between combat and care. Their guilt about leaving the friends and duty, which appears so present at Bastion, seems to be left in the Hercules. As the stretcher crosses the halfway point between craft, it crosses a threshold. The gravitational pull of home overtakes the longing for the immersive FOB community. Powerless to resist, there is no shame for the soldiers. Their injuries answer any inquiries. The comfort, care and cleanliness of the civilian world beckons.

Read the full extracts here

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.

Peace: Rupert Brooke