Front Line Judo at Club Camp Bastion

Camp Bastion Judo Club officially opened its doors on an operational base in dusty Afghanistan in mid-January with 12 eager servicemen and women attending the first session, writes Donna Richardson.

This is the first known official British Judo club to be formed in an operational theatre that is aimed exclusively at serving personnel, including civilians and coalition forces.

Judo was first introduced to Camp Bastion by Tony Higgins from Wales’ Deeside Judo Club, who coached a class focusing on groundwork. This ended when Tony’s tour finished.

The new club, founded by Samantha (Sami) Smithson, is very much a beginners class aimed at opening up judo for all.

Sami is a Squadron Leader (Sq Ldr)  in the Royal Air Force (RAF), serving as a Personnel Officer. In her current role she frequently deals with the media who visit Afghanistan. She is also the current Chairwoman of RAF Judo for the British Judo Association (BJA).

“Judo gives service personnel something to keep their minds active while away from their friends and families,” said Sqn Ldr Smithson.

“We have over 4,000 British service personnel in Afghanistan at the moment and the idea was to give some of those serving the opportunity to try a new sport, one that could be linked to core military skills and also to maintain fighting fitness.

“The challenges will be getting people time away from their busy schedules to attend the club.”

While on active duty for six months at Camp Bastion, the former GB international player decided that establishing a club was the best way to introduce the sport to other service personnel.

While Sqn Ldr Smithson will return to the UK in May, it is her intention to hand the mantle over to another qualified coach, Charles (Chappy) Chapman, a corporal in the Army who runs the Larkhill Judo Club back home. Under  Cpl Chapman’s watch the club will continue until at least June.

The first session attracted three RAF personnel, six serving in the British Army and two servicemen from the Estonian Army. A UK Ministry of Defence civilian media adviser also joined in.

Two of the club members are women serving in the British Army, with one of them a reservist looking to grade in the couple of weeks up to 6th Kyu. She is one of four Army personnel hoping to achieve this, along with two RAF personnel and the civilian beginner. All seven hope to have attained 5th Kyu before the end of Sami’s tour in May.

Lance Corporal Man Yiu Wong who works as an Air Transport Liaison Officer at Camp Bastion says:

“I always look for opportunities to try out new sports and luckily judo is not totally alien to me as I met and practised with other judokas through the style of Jiu-Jitsu that I practise in.  

“It was always in my mind to hone my judo techniques and when the opportunity to do that in Camp Bastion presented itself it was a no-brainer.

“I am really enjoying the training and gaining a lot from it. Having been told there are opportunities to represent the Army in Tri-Service competitions and even the possibility to travel to foreign countries and competing with other nations has certainly given me a lot of incentives to carry on with judo when I finish my operational tour!”

Warrant Officer Nev Smith who is a Physical Training Instructor in the Royal Air Force added:

“I thought I would give judo a go because learning a martial art is something I have always wanted to do.

“As you can imagine it’s a tough sport but very rewarding and having the chance to learn whilst in Afghanistan has been excellent.

“It is yet another experience added to a long list for me to take away from this operational tour.”

Since service personnel must be ready to react to any operational demands or situations at any time, they fight in their uniforms rather than judo gis. This is proving practical as the camp is drawing down from Afghanistan with Bastion set to close in 2014, meaning lots of kit is being transported home.

However, unlike the more “hardcore” US Marine Corp martial arts experts who fight in sandpits, they do have basic mats – a staple requirement of any judo competition.

Sami added: “In my role as combined services team manager and chair of RAF Judo for the association, I have been trying to encourage more grass-roots participation in judo and in particular running BJA sponsored beginners courses.

My intent is to run the club here in Camp Bastion along a similar track, encouraging everyone to grade before I leave.

“I am also keen to establish how they can continue with their new sport when they return to their normal duties away from Afghanistan.”

This is not the first time Sqn Ldr Smithson has been involved in judo in an operational theatre but it is the first one aimed at active servicemen and women.

When she was in Afghanistan in 2006 Sqn Ldr Smithson ran a coaching programme in Kabul for the Afghan Judo Federation, coaching the sport to local people including children in schools and orphanages. She also trained Afghan coaches in a three day “coaching the coaches” package at the Kabul National Stadium.

She said: “I would love to have continued with a similar project this time but I am not sure my operational commitments will allow that.

“In the meantime, I am hoping that the Camp Bastion Judo Club grows from strength to strength.”

About Sami Smithson

Sqn Ldr Smithson started judo at the age of four. She joined her father’s club, Bredakwai in Accrington, where both of her parents, Phil and Eileen Smithson were judo coaches. They ran the club for over 40 years and also managed the North West ladies team.

After winning her first national title as a junior in 1990 she then later went on to gain her Great Britain (GB) senior international honours at the under 52kg category. She represented the Senior GB Team on several occasions both international ‘A’ and ‘B’ tournaments.

The highlights of her international career were bronze medals in both the US and Canadian Opens in 2002 and being selected for the European Teams when the GB team won a silver medal in 2003. 

Sqn Ldr Smithson still proudly represents the RAF in competitions as well as managing and coaching the Combined Services team. 

 During her 14 years in the RAF, she has led the RAF ladies to nine inter-service titles and has many individual accolades to her name – too numerous to mention.

Her cousin Sean Smithson is also an active judo player in the Army plus both her grandfathers fought in World War two.

She said: “I was always attracted to military life and the RAF has supported me wholeheartedly during my judo career. I have had some fantastic experiences and opportunities.”

Photos by Sgt Dan Bardsley