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Barlow salutes forces' sacrifice
Gary Barlow has told how his trip to Afghanistan to visit British forces put The X Factor into perspective and said their "sacrifice is off the scale".
The Take That star - who has just stepped down as a judge on the talent show - undertook his journey in October for a TV special to be screened over the festive season.
During his two-day trip to Camp Bastion, he performed with a makeshift band made up of military personnel.
In the ITV film, Gary Barlow: Journey to Afghanistan, he says that no matter how much footage of life in Afghanistan he had seen, nothing had prepared him for the reality.
He said: "Through your life with film and TV you feel like you've seen war. You feel like you know what it looks like. But you don't. You just don't. It's not real any of that stuff. This is."
The musician said that his first-hand experience had opened his eyes to the difficulties faced while serving in the country.
He said: "I understand what's going on now, I understand how the army works as a team. It is so brilliant to see it. It makes me feel safer, it really does.
"It also makes you appreciate the unbelievable courageous job these people are doing for us all. I'll be tucking in to my Christmas dinner and this will be another day here. The sacrifice is off the scale."
His visit - between live X Factor shows - was arranged amid tight security and Barlow had not even told his mother where he was going.
There had been concerns he may not make it back for the next edition of the show if he was held up in any way.
Before setting off, he told the cameras: "I'm in the middle of the biggest TV show on telly. It's all glitz, glamour, lights, all the rest of it. It's going to be a big shock, it's going to be a big change. This is where the showbiz ends and the real business begins."
After arriving he enlisted a number of performers, with his first recruit being Lance Corporal Shaun Fowler, a Reservist in the Royal Logistics Corps and guitar player.
The 45-year-old from Peterborough, who normally works as a builder, said he was "honoured" that Barlow had given him a new instrument for the concert.
He also signed up Sergeant Mark Evans, an air traffic controller who was a dab hand on the ukulele, as well as Flight Lieutenant Collette Knill and Senior Aircraftman Jonny Marenghi.
The concert, performed on a stage made out of the back of a truck, was almost cancelled due to a sandstorm. The entire audience had to be evacuated after the first song due to security concerns.
Flt Lt Knill, who sang a duet with Barlow in the concert, said: "This whole week has been an absolute whirlwind. It has been a dream come true."
The 26-year-old from Chacewater, Cornwall, added: "I mean who comes out to Camp Bastion for three months and thinks, 'Oh I know, I will go and sing with Gary Barlow'? It just doesn't happen in a normal person's world."
After the show SAC Marenghi, 21, said: "That was the biggest audience I have ever played in front of. It was unbelievable. My mates are speechless and my mum was massively speechless. She is really proud of me."
Barlow said that his most emotional moment of the trip was visiting the memorial site at Camp Bastion.
"It wasn't even an appropriate time of day, I felt, to be there," he said. "But as soon as we were near the memorial, it just felt like there was no time. Time stopped for a second. As an outsider just going there it was so real, definitely the most emotional part."
Major Richard Jones, Barlow's MoD liaison in Camp Bastion, said: "It is huge morale for the guys. They were hugely grateful that people have gone out of their way and made such an effort to come out. It is something they love and they accept the fact that it is outside of the normal comfort zone."
The film's executive producer Lee Connolly said: "When we first started negotiating with the MoD we started with about 68 people that we wanted to take with us. We took 12 in the end. We just all had to roll our sleeves up and get involved. That's how we made it happen."
ITV's director of entertainment and comedy, Elaine Bedell, said: "It has been a very, very long time in the planning. We've been talking about it with Gary for two years. We never gave up hope - we always thought it would happen, we just weren't sure when.
"There are lots of logistical problems with filming in Camp Bastion. We only had 48 hours on the ground and then Gary had to get back for X Factor.
"Camp Bastion is full of extraordinary men and women who are doing extraordinary jobs. And on top of that it turns out that an awful lot of them have got extraordinary music talent as well."
:: Gary Barlow: Journey to Afghanistan is to be screened by ITV at 9pm on Monday December 23.