Letters sent by a Birmingham nurse to her family while serving in Afghanistan now form the focus of an exhibition on the conflict, writes Vicky Farncombe.
While schoolgirl Nicole Davies-Griffith settled down to enjoy Holby City in her Birmingham home, in a military hospital thousands of miles away, her nurse mother was waking up to another 12-hour shift patching up amputees in Afghanistan.
A volunteer with the Territorial Army’s 207 Field Hospital, Claire Davies-Griffith took leave from her usual job as an A&E nurse at the Queen Elizabeth hospital, Edgbaston, in September 2010, to serve for six months at Camp Bastion.
The contrast between her life and that of her family – husband Chris, aged 57, son Matthew, aged eight, and Nicole, aged 12 – was captured in a series of love letters they wrote to one another.
And now those letters have formed the basis of a new film being shown at the Imperial War Museum North, in Manchester.
For Mrs Davies-Griffith, as well as showing the sacrifices soldiers make – leaving their loved ones to bring peace to Afghanistan – the film is a gentle reminder that it is women as well as men who are out there, fighting on the front line.
She also hopes it puts paid to the old-fashioned stereotype that the TA is just a “weekend drinking club”.
“I’ve been with the TA since 1993,” said Mrs Davies-Griffith, of Selly Oak.
“Ever since the second Iraq War in 2003, I knew I would one day be deployed. I could have left then but I wanted to stay.
“Watching 9/11 was the turning point for me. I knew I didn’t want my children, particularly my daughter, to grow up in a world where the Taliban could ever gain control. They treat women worse than dogs.
“For that reason, I’ve always wanted to do my bit,” said the 47-year-old.
The Welsh nurse was picked to feature in the exhibition because she was one of the few soldiers who still communicates via letter.
She said: “Most people communicate via email or Facebook these days so the Army noticed that I was sending and receiving a lot of letters.
“My husband and I have always written each other letters. It’s just what we do.”
What makes her letters so poignant is that they intermingle horrific reports of blown-apart soldiers with mundane requests for favourite British snacks and instructions on what to buy the children for Christmas.
“I saw so much trauma,” she explained. “Double amputees, triple amputees, gun shot wounds to heads and chests.
“A shift didn’t go by without a major trauma. We were supposed to work 12 hours on and sleep for the next 12 hours, but a night would rarely go by without us being called from our beds.
“I had to put up some sort of defence. The first time was the worst. It knocked me off my feet. I thought: ‘How am I going to do this day after day?’
“But we hit the ground running and I soon learnt to deal with it and package it away.
“The letters helped me get my feelings down on paper. I couldn’t talk about confidential operations but I could relay my emotions,” she said.
History teacher Chris said: “The letters were just Claire. She would tell us a bit about what was going on but then there would be just everyday things, like she wanted me to send her over some pretzels or she’d say what to buy the children for Christmas.”
For Mrs Davies-Griffith, the letters from her family kept her going when the combination of homesickness and stress at the never-ending horror, threatened to engulf her.
“When they arrived, I’d put them in my pocket,” she said. “I’d carry them round with me all day until I got back to my corner of the tent. Then I’d take them out and look at them.
“I’d wait until I was on my own to read them because I knew they’d bring tears,” she said. “My eight-year-old son was the worst for writing so when I got one of his, I knew I’d be very emotional.
“When I came home, we were so up-to-date with each other, it was like I’d never been away.”
The family have been filmed reading out their letters over a backdrop of footage from Afghanistan. The images have then been projected so they form a 360-degree screen around the museum’s main exhibition space.
“When we saw it, we just thought, ‘wow’,” said Mrs Davies-Griffith, who is now back working at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. “It wasn’t just the words of the letters, it’s the emotions you can see on our faces. The images and the music is very emotional.”
On a personal level, the film has brought the family even closer together. It’s also helped Mrs Davies-Griffith come to terms with the traumas she witnessed.
“I always knew what I had, we’ve always been a very loving family – never going a day without a hug or a ‘love you’ but it’s made me even more aware of what I have.
“I don’t fight little battles anymore, especially with the children,” she said.
l Service and Separation: A Volunteer Nurse in Afghanistan will be at the Imperial War Museum North, in Trafford Wharf Road, Manchester, until Sunday, September 4. Entrance is free but donations are welcome.
For more details, visit www.iwm.org.uk/north