In the heart of Iraq, surrounded by concrete and dust, one New Zealand Army soldier is protecting his Anzac counterparts and nurturing a garden he has made.
The New Zealander is deployed to Iraq with Task Group Taji Rotation Four, a combined force of New Zealand and Australian Defence Force personnel who are training Iraqi Security Forces to fight against ISIS.
For six months he will be based at the Taji Military Complex just north of Baghdad, providing force protection for the men and women of the task group.
“Basically, we’re here to protect both the New Zealand and Australian soldiers we’re working with, as well as other coalition forces including the British, Americans and the Iraqis who we’re training,” he says.
“We make sure everyone goes out safe, and everyone comes back safe.”
As part of his role, he takes every opportunity to build relationships with the Iraqi soldiers.
“We’ve learnt some Arabic and some of the Iraqis speak a bit of English,” he said. “When we’re not engaged in training we have conversations with the Iraqis, as you would with anyone.
“We show each other photos of family and friends, and sometimes they’ll tell you, ‘This is my brother’, or ‘This is my cousin’.
“Sometimes they show you photos of their brothers or cousins who have been killed in action. Many of the Iraqis have had a rough time, but they’re often the soldiers who work hardest. They want to make a change.”
As Task Group Taji Four prepares to commemorate Anzac Day, the New Zealander feels he has a personal connection to the Iraqis.
His family has a history of military service in the Middle East dating back to the First World War.
“My great-grandfathers fought with the Anzacs at Gallipoli, and my grandfathers and grandmother served in World War II,” he says.
“I’m aware of that lineage. There’s a bigger picture beyond me and it gives significance to what I’m doing.
“I’m quite proud of it. I want to do a good job, I want to do the best I can, and I want to then be able to pass on that legacy to future generations.”
During his down-time, he has worked hard to create a unique and tranquil retreat for himself and his neighbours in the Taji compound, building a garden in the dust next to his accommodation.
“New Zealand is pretty green and here it’s just dust, dust, dust,” he says.
“Early on I thought I needed to make the place more liveable, like those song lyrics ‘always take the weather with you’.”
The garden had been a fun hobby to do outside work hours, he says.
“Everything from trimming the lawn, to picking off the dead-heads, to making sure everything is watered.
“Getting the flowers was an experience. I asked one of the shop owners on base whose English is pretty good for plants and he offered me roses.
“I still don’t have any roses, but I have a huge array of other flowers.”
The garden has made a difference to life at Taji for the soldier, as well as his neighbours.
While he is looking forward to going home, he is in no hurry.
“I’m missing people, missing family, missing friends but the lifestyle here isn’t too bad,” he says.
“We are actually enjoying ourselves. I’m sitting here in this really nice garden, and we’ve been eating some delicious food.”
The soldier and his colleagues from the New Zealand and Australian defence forces will return home in mid-2017.