From Kelso to Kabul and back

Ian Aitchison and his family in Stichill.

Ian Aitchison and his family in Stichill.


Sitting in the Stichill home he shares with his wife and children, Ian Aitchison savours the view out across Kelso and the surrounding green hills.

It’s a far cry from the sun-baked brown and dusty terrain and ever-present danger of Afghanistan, where he has spent the last seven months as deputy chief of the NATO ISAF Joint Command Public Affairs Office.

Ian has perhaps become better known to the readership of The Southern as Union Jack. Security concerns meant we were unable to divulge his identity until now.

However, safely back on home turf, Commander Ian Aitchison, Royal Navy, to give him his correct title, is happy to talk about his time in Afghanistan, where he played a pivotal role in the formulation and deliverance of all public affairs strategy for the international coalition still engaged against armed and violent insurgents.

The Borders is certainly a far cry from life on an operational military base in a conflict zone, where Ian went armed every day and always had to be alert to possible threats.

He grew up on his family’s farm at Lochton, near Birgham, where the Aitchisons have farmed since 1903 and readily admits he would have happily spent his life farming.

But that was not to be and so, after university and a year on the family farm, he found himself entering Britannia Royal Naval College, at Dartmouth, in September, 1992. His subsequent career in the ‘regulars’ was spent aboard helicopters training for anti-submarine operations.

When he left the regulars in 1998 and joined the ranks of the Royal Naval Reserve, he moved into his present role as a public affairs officer.

It was actually while in the reserves that he met his wife, Jeanette, who was also a media operations specialist.

In 2012, Ian took redundancy from his civilian public relations job as head of communications for Europe and Africa with the world’s largest shipping company, Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha (NYK), to establish his own public relations firm, providing global strategic communications support to NYK as a consultant.

But when the Royal Navy was looking to mobilise a senior public affairs officer, Ian volunteered.

And so it was 21 years to the day that, in September last year, he found himself back at navy stores drawing service kit ahead of his deployment to Afghanistan.

Having served in Bahrain on previous operational tours involving both Iraq and Afghanistan, Ian says there were various reasons he volunteered to return to uniform.

“When the marines deployed to Afghanistan at the start of the conflict in 2001, I was there with the RN Battlestaff in Bahrain to see them coming down the ramp of the Hercules at Bagram airbase.

“Having been in at the start, this was a nice way for me to finish that off and come full circle if you like,” he told us. “Professionally it was also a great opportunity to add to my experience.”

Ian says the challenge of operating at the ‘top of your game’ every day with equally committed professionals made it an unforgettable period.

“It was phenomenal. The great thing was the challenge and the most memorable period was during the recent election. It was quite momentous. They’ve got over the first hurdle and the next one is this weekend with the run-off election.”

Despite the mind-numbing poverty, Ian is convinced the international coalition’s efforts are paying dividends and that ordinary Afghans are now seeing the benefits.

“We’re definitely making a difference – you just need to look at the number of new schools, improved levels of health care, the drop in infant mortality rates.

“And the election saw a palpable sense of excitement and pride among ordinary Afghans about being able to vote. People wanted a choice to say they don’t want extremism and violence, and want to make a better life for themselves. But it’s a very different culture – you can’t simply impose western values, so we’re assisting them in coming to their own solution.

“The job’s not finished, but we’re setting the conditions for winning. It will take more effort and a long time yet, but a lot of blood, sweat and treasure has been put into it to move it forward.”

Ian is now mulling over several options for his future, including the possibility of a fuller role with the navy.

His family are naturally delighted that ‘Daddy’ is home. Ian managed to keep in regular contact via mobile phone, Face Time and email – Jeanette emailed him photographs of Isla and her big brothers, Henry and James, every week.

For their part, Jeanette and the children had got used to having Ian at home after he took redudnancy.

“So him going away again took a little bit of getting back into that routine,” she said. “When you’re on your own, the routine has to be pretty slick at home.

“I think the most difficult thing is that you’re always on duty. I’ve found that when Ian walks through the door I can feel myself physically relax.

“And so I’ve never felt totally relaxed for all those months he’s been away because you know if anything happens, it’s all down to you.

“At least now I can put my feet up a bit more!”




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