'Lots of the writers I admired - Dostoyevsky, Orwell, Vonnegut - had served in the military. It was something men just did in those days. I wanted to experience what they'd gone through'

 

Q&A:DERMOT, private first class, French Foreign Legion talks to EOIN BUTLER

Tell us about yourself.My name is Dermot, I’m 24 years old and I’m from Balbriggan. I didn’t always want to be a soldier. In fact, when I did my Leaving Cert in 2003, I wanted to study journalism in DIT. But I missed out by 10 points.

So you decided to try something less cut-throat instead?I worked for a while in insurance first. Then I did three-and-a-half years at one of the State’s largest banks. But by 2008, my feet had started to get itchy. My friends were all heading out to party on Bondi Beach. I decided to do something completely different.

Basically, you absconded from a cushy banking job in 2008 and joined the Foreign Legion . . . It wasn’t Anglo-Irish by any chance?No, it wasn’t Anglo. To be honest, a love of literature influenced my decision as much as anything else. Lots of the writers I admired – Dostoyevsky, Orwell, Vonnegut – had served in the military. It was something men just did in those days. I wanted to experience what they’d gone through at first hand.

What did your friends and family think?Oh, they were all up in arms. They thought I’d get eaten alive. I didn’t tell my work colleagues at all. I got a big send-off in the Porterhouse, but I never said where I was going. I was afraid that, if I did, I’d arrive home a few weeks later with egg on my face. I think the word got out on Facebook after I left.

What were your impressions when you arrived for basic training?Walking up to that gate, handing my passport to a Chinese corporal and waiting for him to return with it . . . Nothing could have prepared me for that. I think they suspected I was an IRA man on the run from the Columbians or something. But once I stepped through the gate, the slate was wiped clean. I was just another head, just another pair of boots.

Do you know anything about your fellow recruits? Is it impolite to ask?It’s fairly well understood in the Legion that you don’t ask about a man’s past. But once you get to know someone you’re bound to pick up titbits here and there. The majority are economic migrants from Brazil, Madagascar or the former colonies. They’re mostly looking to get EU work permits after five years. Occasionally, you’ll come across a guy with a weird tattoo or something. The odd joke might get made. But it’s like any job, you just use tact and a bit of common sense.

What was induction training like?The first month was intensive. We were taken to a place called The Farm and brought on progressively longer marches every day. You might get two to three hours’ sleep a night, with your boots locked up in case you thought about deserting. The food was very basic. By the end of the month we had lost between eight and 14 kilos each – but we’d learned a large repertoire of French marching songs.

Did you speak French at this stage?No. In fact, one of the reasons we got hammered so hard was because 90 per cent of us didn’t understand even the most basic commands we were being given. Once you get to your regiment though, the training is far more technical and there is time to become fluent in the language. It’s very civil here. It’s almost nine to five.

You’re about to be deployed in Afghanistan. Is this your first posting outside of France?No, I did four months in Djibouti around last Christmas. But that was non-combat. Afghanistan will be my first combat operation, which is to say I’ll have my bulletproof vest on me from the moment I step off the plane. I’m in the Second Engineer Regiment so we’ll be doing a lot of mine and IED clearance.

Is it anything like the film ‘The Hurt Locker’?Yes, but remember The Hurt Lockeris Hollywood. Three guys running into a neighbourhood on their own shooting at baddies? We don’t do that. We have rifles, but they’re slung over our backs when we’re on patrol. We’re surrounded by infantry so we don’t really have to worry about coming under fire. Our main tool is the metal detector. Also, a lot of the Taliban’s homemade devices are too unstable to disarm, so we’ll be carrying a lot of C-4 and small squares of plastic explosives. Instead of trying to move them, we’ll just blow them up.

What are your plans for life after the Legion?Well, I’ve got three more years to serve. And, as much as I’m enjoying the experience, there’s not a chance in hell I’ll sign up for one day over that. I’ve been a Legionnaire for two years, but I’ve never really felt like a soldier. I’ve only ever wanted to use this as a platform. I know mine detection isn’t a skill too many employers are looking for these days. But I might become a teacher. For a guy who got a B3 in his Leaving Certificate, my French is pretty decent. But there are three years to go. The plan will change and change again before then.

Read Dermot’s blog at www.bankstobattlefields.blogspot.com