The military emigrants: ‘I’ve lived in Canada and in a hole in the ground’
On a tour of duty to Afghanistan, two Irish members of the British army talk to Ciara Kenny about life as soldiers and their reasons for joining up
‘I wouldn’t talk about it in the pub in Dublin’
“I have a long family history in the military,” says Conor, a 25-year-old from Dublin. “My great grandfather was a member of the Royal Irish Regiment of the British Army during the first World War, and fought in the Battle of the Somme in France and Passchendaele in Belgium.
“My granduncle joined the Royal Tank Corps in the 1930s before the second World War, lying about his age to get enlisted. His stories about becoming a troop sergeant, fighting Rommel in north Africa and escaping as a prisoner of war in Yugoslavia had a huge influence on me.
“I started thinking seriously about a career in the army while studying business, economics and social studies at Trinity College. I never had any real desire to pursue economics or finance as a career, and craved a challenge.
“During my final year I applied for the British Army Officer Academy at Sandhurst in Surrey, and was offered a place for the following year.
“With the 12 months I had free, I decided to do something mad and went to live in Japan, playing rugby for Yokohama, working in Irish bars and travelling the Far East.
“The main draw to the British Army is that they get involved, which Ireland’s neutral status doesn’t facilitate. In a world where conflicts are no longer national but cultural and ideological, the concept of neutrality is rather outdated, I believe.
“For the whole of 2011 I trained for 18 hours a day, Monday to Sunday, learning my trade as an officer and how to deal with every conceivable scenario. The course is divided into three terms: the first covers basic soldiering skills; the second works on planning and command skills; and the final term puts it all into practice. Tactical situations are simulated, ranging from attacking mountains to counter-insurgency and riot control.
“I was accepted into the Royal Dragoon Guards, one of four regiments with Irish connections. I chose them because of that, and because their tour to Afghanistan was coming up. Half the regiment is from Yorkshire and the rest from Ireland, mostly from the North, although there are about 50 guys from the South who have joined up for reasons similar to mine.
“I chose an armoured regiment, and did my troop leader course with 82 tonne Challenger-2 tanks for six months.
“Last October, my squadron was deployed to Afghanistan for Operation Herrick 17. We are part of the Police Mentoring and Advisory Group, mentoring and training the Afghan National Security Forces so they are ready to police the country after we withdraw in 2014. The Royal Dragoon Guards has about 500 guys here, but there are many other regiments of the British Army with us, not to mention the Danish, Americans, and Estonians, to name a few.
“Myself and my troop of 15 lads go on patrol with about 60 Afghan police every day. I keep the Afghan commander by my side and mentor him during operations, which could involve clearing an area of insurgents or searching compounds for weapons and drug caches.
“More recently the focus has been on intensive training with the Afghan police. We give them lessons in weapon handling, first aid, literacy and the rule of law.
“At the beginning we were working up to 18 hours a day, which was tough. As a commander I had to start planning for the next day’s patrol as soon as we got back to base. But there’s great camaraderie between us and we have fun. When you are living in a tent and sleeping beside the same people day after day, you get to know each other very well.
“During the first half of the tour we regularly came under fire from insurgents. It was challenging at times. We unfortunately had one very serious casualty caused by an improvised explosive device, which resulted in life-changing injuries for a colleague. I won’t easily forget that day, as I was in the same blast, just three feet away.
“My close friends are supportive of my career choice, but I wouldn’t talk loudly about it in the pub when I’m home in Dublin. Every now and again people question me, and I can understand where they are coming from, but most people are just curious about what I do.
“Since joining the army I haven’t slept in the same bed for more than three months. It is great to have the opportunity to see so much of the world. All the moving around isn’t ideal for maintaining a relationship, as I have discovered over the past year, but that’s just another challenge I will work around.
“I try to get home often, and have brought a few friends over to the formal army dinners so they can experience my life. I talk about what it is like to be in the military, but it is hard for them to understand without seeing for themselves.
“We expect to be back in the UK in the next few weeks. I’ll have some time off on post-tour relief to go home to normality in Dublin for a while. Perhaps one day I will return there to live, but right now it’s not even an option.”
‘In Afghanistan, you can be away for months’
“I had a good upbringing but was a little wild as a kid,” says Chris, a 32-year-old from the midlands. “When I finished school my mother suggested I join the army, but the Irish Defence Forces turned me down because I was too short. I saw an ad for the British Army on UTV, and 12 years later here I am out in Afghanistan.
“I joined the Irish tank regiment of the Royal Dragoon Guards with two guys from the North. We were based in a town called Münster in Germany for the first five years and travelled regularly to Poland for training, living off the back of a tank for weeks at a time.
“It was a lot of fun, as I got to do what many men dream about when they are boys. I saw a lot of Germany too, and the nightlife was amazing. It was a great place to spend my 20s.
“In 2003, we got called to northwest England to cover for the fire brigade who were on strike, so I became a fireman on a 1950s fire engine for a few months. After that, in 2004, we were sent to Iraq for the first time.
“The story of Ken Bigley [a civil engineer from Liverpool who was captured and killed by Islamic extremists in Baghdad]] was big in the news, so it was a daunting time. I’ll never forget going to call my mum the night before we flew out and seeing some of the biggest army lads you can imagine crying on the phone to their mothers.
“When you are on training in another country, you are only a flight away from home. But out in the likes of Iraq or Afghanistan, you can be away for months without regular contact with family and friends.
“Relationships often break up under the strain of it. We call it ‘getting a Dear John letter’ when your girlfriend breaks up with you. I got mine for the first time in Iraq.
“In these situations we talk a lot to the lads beside us. We help each other through. Each regiment has a priest or padre who we can go to, and there are doctors and psychologists too if needed. There is a very strong support network.
“I’ll be heading back to the UK in 10 weeks. We’ll spend a week in Yorkshire winding down, making sure there are no underlying problems personally or professionally after the tour. After that, I’ll have a few weeks off to go back home to Ireland and get Afghanistan out of my head. You live two different lives doing this job – your army life and your civilian life.
“It is rewarding work. I am a radio instructor, and I enjoy teaching. I don’t think I would have had that opportunity if I hadn’t joined up. I would probably still be a barman.
“I’ve been to Canada several times to train other soldiers, and had the opportunity to do a lot of travelling. I’ve ridden horses through the Rockies and gone swimming in a glacier lake. I’ve been to Mexico on holiday during RR time, and prayed with 13,000 military pilgrims in Lourdes. But I have also lived in a hole in the ground in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. The bad does come with the good.”.
Growing numbers of Irish in the British army
The number of Irish recruits joining the British Army has more than tripled over the last decade, as a result of improved relations between the two countries, the economic downturn in Ireland, and limited recruitment by the Irish Defence Forces.
In the 12 months to February, 77 people from the Republic signed up to the British Army, a slight drop from 89 the previous year but a huge increase on the 2002 to 2006 period when an average of just 24 Irish recruits joined per year. Dozens more are joining the Navy and Royal Air Force every year.
There are now more than 400 men and women from the Republic serving with the British Army. The Irish Guards and the Royal Irish Regiment attract the most Irish to their ranks, but the Royal Dragoon Guards, which also has strong Irish connections and traditions, has about 50 soldiers and officers from the Republic.
This article appears in the Life pages of The Irish Times today, and on the main website here.