The Mission: the Irish Army goes to the Golan

This month the 48th Infantry Group of the Defence Forces took up duty on the Golan Heights. A new series follows their months of preparation and their experience in the perilous buffer zone between Israel and Syria

Archive Video: The 48th Infantry Group departed on April 7th for United Nations duties in Syria. Peter Murtagh has been shadowing them since their training began in February of this year. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

On April 7th the 48th Infantry Group of the Defence Forces took up duty on the Golan Heights, providing military support for UN observers in a zone between Israeli-occupied Syria and Syria proper.

The UN mission on the Golan Heights has become fraught with danger since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria. Substantial parts of the zone have been overrun by armed groups opposed to the regime of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

The 48th, who took over from their Defence Forces colleagues in the 46th Infantry Group, comprise 130 men and women: 14 officers, 115 other ranks and a chaplain.

The deployment of Irish troops follows many months of preparation and training. Since early February Peter Murtagh has been behind the scenes, following their planning for the mission and training exercises at Finner Camp, in Co Donegal, and at the United Nations Training School Ireland, in the Curragh, and in the Glen of Imaal, both Co Wicklow.

This is the first instalment of his series, The Mission. It continues next week and will conclude with a report from the Golan Heights.

 

Practise until you can’t do it wrong

The 48th Infantry Group meet collectively for the first time just after 10am on Monday, February 9th, 2015, at Finner Camp, in south Co Donegal. It is also the first time they meet their commanding officer, Lieut Col Mark Prendergast.

When Prendergast enters the auditorium of Finner Camp the men and women now under his command are in their battle fatigues, ready for the start of two months’ predeployment training.

They do not applaud Prendergast’s entry to the room; nor will they applaud his speech and exit. That’s not the Army way. But they listen intently to every word.

He speaks without notes, and stands in the same place for the duration of his 20-minute speech, a quietly delivered tour de force. He tells them why he is talking to them, what he expects of them and what he feels they should expect of him.

“The purpose of this talk,” Prendergast begins, “is to give you my intent for the predeployment training, so that when we are engaged in predeployment training you know exactly what my guidance to you is; what I require of you as a junior leader, as a commander of a group and as an individual soldier.”

He says he wants “simple things to the highest possible standards”. “There is an expression: amateurs practise something until they can do it right. Professionals practise until they can’t do it wrong. That’s the level of competency I expect during predeployment training. You will practise until you can’t do it wrong.”

Prendergast’s office in Finner, where he is also the officer commanding the resident corps, would be the envy of many a chief executive. Beyond its window, looking south across the parade ground and rolling farm fields, lies the mountain range that concludes with majestic Benbulbin overlooking Sligo Bay.

But inside, on the pale-yellow walls of the office, there is nothing. Not a single photograph of family or career to indicate a personal or professional high point, no moment of pride to be relished and shared. “I deliberately put nothing in the office,” he says, “because I want people to judge me professionally, form an assessment of me, for what I’m doing now. Not what I told them I did – that I did this 15 years ago, I did that 20 years ago, I was there and there. That’s irrelevant. “

Prendergast judges himself as he wants others to judge him and as he will judge those who serve under him. It is clear, simple and fair, and part of his adherence to the Defence Forces leadership philosophy, which is known as mission command. “It’s all about allowing people make decisions . . . They have to be able to make the right decisions. The person who will have to make a life-or-death decision won’t be able to ask me, if that moment arrives.”

Doing the small things so often that doing them wrong becomes impossible.

 

Even the hardened begin to wilt

On an icy cold morning later in February, sleet is sweeping in off the Atlantic and whipping up the side of a bluff behind Finner Camp. Standing there, 30 or so members of the 48th Infantry Group push themselves to the limit, doing the small things over and over.

A corporal shouts orders. Those obeying include all ranks from private to captain. There are no concessions to status here.

Up. Down. Up. Down. Other arm. Other leg. Again! Again!

Cpl Billy Fanneran, gunner and qualified physical-fitness trainer, has to roar to make himself heard above the gale.

“Down!”

And instantly they crouch, folding their bodies in on themselves, pushing their knees up into their chests, arms clasping their shins for balance, making themselves as compact as possible.

The wind glues their clothes to their bodies, as though they’ve been vacuum-packed into them. Exposed flesh turns pink. There is no protection on the elevation overlooking the Erne estuary and Donegal Bay, the highest point in the camp.

“Get up! Up! Up!” shouts Fanneran, and they leap, arms raised, like springs uncoiled.

Then it’s down again for more press-ups, in a variety of awkward positions.

“Lower the hips! Lower!” urges Fanneran. “Up down, up down, up down. Twenty! I want 20.”

The soldiers do it laughing, grimacing, cursing and spitting. But mainly laughing, straining under the effort, cursing softly under their breath and gasping for air. Shirts pull free from trousers; their bodies look raw.

Burpee exercising, it’s called, together with plyometrics. A mix of high-intensity, strenuous exertion, performed in rapid succession, with the aim of enabling the soldiers to unleash explosive bursts of energy at will.

They do this on the Finner bluff for 45 minutes, until even the hardened begin to wilt. Several of the soldiers slump on the mossy grass, gasping and retching.

And in the howling wind, blue skies giving way to sleet and rain, and blue once more, you wonder: why?

It’s so they are as ready as they can be if that moment arrives when, under major pressure or even under fire, they have to act fast to save themselves or a colleague in mortal danger. A different exercise shows why.

 

Rescuing a Mowag

A Mowag – a box-like armour-plated troop carrier with eight wheels, known after its manufacturer – is trapped, or bogged as they call it, in an imaginary ditch. It’s actually sitting on the largely disused runway beside Finner Camp, but it could be on a dirt track on the Golan.

The people inside – a driver, a gunner, their section commander and seven colleagues – have been told that their disabled vehicle is under fire. The disabled Mowag’s roof hatches are locked down, and they’re relying on a second Mowag, whose hatches are also locked down, to get them out.

The second Mowag – the troops call them cars – draws up behind the crippled one. It stops about a metre behind the bogged car and sounds a long beep of its horn.

Nothing happens at first. Then the hatch door on the back of the disabled Mowag springs open and a soldier in battle dress emerges in a burst of energy.

Around the nose of the second Mowag the soldier unhooks a heavy-duty towing sling and places it on the hitch of his disabled car. He dives back into the disabled Mowag, struggling to pull his feet inside. As he does so a colleague leans out and puts a holding pin into the hitch so the sling won’t snap out. A third soldier inside the disabled car slams the door the moment the hitch is secure.

The frantic but focused task is accomplished in seconds. The two cars are now umbilically linked. There’s silence for a moment as, inside the stricken Mowag, everyone takes their seats again, strapping themselves in as if on a plane. The silence is broken when the disabled Mowag gives two beeps of its horn, signalling that they are ready for towing. The mobile vehicle pulls the disabled one to safety.

The first time they do this exercise it takes 15 seconds. The second time it’s 30 seconds. Not so good. But they do it over and over again, and they continue to do so before and during deployment.

Perfection doesn’t come easy, but practice makes as near perfect as you’re going to get. Because this is what it’s about; this is what the boss told them it was about: doing the simple things and doing them well.

Doing them so often, so well, that they are incapable of getting them wrong.

 

Life in the buffer zone

The 48th Infantry Group deployed to the Golan Heights on April 7th as part of Undof, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force.

Since September 2013 the Defence Forces have provided Undof with an armed rapid-response force capable of intervening to aid UN personnel if required and of imposing itself on adversaries if attacked directly. Undof has 789 troops, many of whom are UN observers. The main Irish component of Undof, 130 strong, is known as the Force Reserve Company; it must be capable of deploying a quick-reaction force with 15 minutes’ notice.

The civil war in Syria has meant that the Undof operation is under threat, making this mission potentially the most hazardous of the 16 UN missions, in 15 nations, in which Ireland is involved.

Israel’s presence on the Golan dates from the Six Day War, in June 1967, between Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Syria. At the time Israel’s border in the area was the eastern shore of Lake Galilee and a line extending from it, more or less straight, north to Lebanon and south to Jordan. West of this line lay Israel; east was Syria and the strategically important Golan Heights, a commanding position from which Israel was vulnerable.

During the Six Day War Israel captured about 70 per cent of the Golan. In the Yom Kippur War, of October 1973, Syrian forces initially recaptured much of the southern Golan but were pushed back by Israel.

Undof was set up in March 1974, when Israel and Syria agreed the Yom Kippur ceasefire. Israel’s occupation remained in place, and in 1981 Israel formally annexed the land, a move illegal in international law. Between the boundary of the Israeli-occupied Golan and Syria proper, however, both sides agreed to respect a UN-patrolled buffer zone.

This strip of land, about 75km long and never more than 10km wide, in the north-central area, is sandwiched between two lines, the Alpha Line to the west and the Bravo Line to the east. The buffer is known formally as the Area of Separation. It is under Syrian jurisdiction and policing. It contains several dozen towns and villages that are home to thousands of civilians.

Each side has agreed to a maximum numbers of troops and military equipment that it will station in each of the zones. It is the job of Undof inspectors to examine 500 locations and count, with clockwork regularity twice a month, the military hardware each side stations within the zones, to ensure the agreed limits are being kept.

But the civil war in Syria has changed everything. The war is raging to the east of the buffer zone, and within it are armed insurgents, while the Bravo Line has ceased to exist in any meaningful sense. All UN posts along it have been abandoned, as have many on the Alpha Line. The job of the Force Reserve Company, Ireland’s 48th Infantry Group, in this situation is to give military clout to the rest of Undof when called on.

He had been beheaded

At the United Nations Training School Ireland, in the Curragh Camp complex in Co Kildare, the officers of the 48th Infantry are being given a taste of what they can expect on the Golan Heights from two colleagues who were on earlier UN missions there.

One, who spent 18 months as a UN military observer, describes an incident in which two Scandinavian colleagues were travelling in a vehicle with a liaison officer from the Syrian army. They approached what turned out to be a Syrian rebel checkpoint. When the rebels realised that a Syrian officer was in the back of the car they showed no mercy.

“That lieutenant, about 28 years of age, was taken on the spot – and showed up on YouTube 48 hours later.” He had been beheaded. “This is the type of mentality and the kind of vicious violence that has spiralled out of control in that area.”

He describes how UN military observers would be sent to observation posts for one or two weeks at a time and for that time be left more on less on their own, “totally unarmed”, with just “two or three other guys”.

The officer says that some Syrians he got to know were “very friendly guys, very nice guys”. “And then one day a crowd came up and took out four of these guys and shot them dead at the back of the building. One guy escaped, but he was later captured, and he showed up on YouTube . . . He would have been better off being shot.”

The Area of Separation is supposed to be demilitarised but is far from it, according to the officer. UN personnel have been kidnapped, he says. In this officer’s 18 months as an observer on the Golan three observers had to return home and another five decided to leave because of things they had seen.

“There’s no shame in that,” he says. “I’m just saying to be aware that this kind of thing does happen, that some people may come across it and that we all need to be aware of the knock-on effects.”

 

Vaccines, fitness records, will

Each soldier’s involvement in the 48th Infantry Group is recorded in a series of forms that must

be filled out and stored before he or she can be deployed. On their first day in Finner Camp as a unit they devote most of a morning to checking that all are complete.

They include the “single administrative document”, a stiff yellow form with a mugshot stapled to it, detailing the soldier’s career and essential personal details.

A soldier’s file while on deployment will include:

AF717: A certificate of fitness, noting the soldier’s height, weight and body mass index, proficiency at push-ups and sit-ups, time taken to complete a 3.2km run and a 4.8km run (or, if over 40, a 4.8km walk), and time taken to complete a 10km march carrying a 15kg rucksack.

AF245b: A record of clothing issued to the soldier, including laundry bag, overcoat, shirt types 18a (khaki) and 18g, and vests.

AF721: What ordnance and equipment has been issued to the soldier, including sleeping bag, rucksack, helmet, canteen and bottle.

AF722: A record of the soldier’s medical vaccinations.

LA30: A red hardback ledger containing medical records and dental details.

AF43a: A record of the soldier’s military career and training.

The Defence Forces also keeps a copy of a soldier’s will, if made before deployment.

 

‘We are their fire brigade’

“We are here to prepare ourselves to be the force commander’s reserve in Undof,” Lieut Col Prendergast

tells his troops at that first address. “We have to support the people that are also deployed in Undof, be they unarmed military observers or be they our colleagues within the military armed force in Undof. We are their fire brigade. We have to be able to get to them, to assist them, when required. That’s our function; that’s our end state.”

The lieutenant colonel lists what he wants from the troops and emphasises four things: drills and training, honesty, moral courage and understanding of principles.

“When we talk about trust we need honesty. It’s not the mistake that will cause trouble. It’s the cover-up. It’s the fact that your ego doesn’t allow you to admit that you made a mistake. That’s when the problems start. Mistakes are tolerated. They’re a fact of life. Well-intentioned mistakes are a fact of professional life.

“We need honesty. We need people saying what’s going on, because without it we can’t develop trust. We don’t need people covering things up, pretending it didn’t happen, walking away, turning the blind eye.

“We talk in terms of the values of this organisation. One of them is moral courage. You can’t have moral courage without honesty, without trust. So as junior leaders I need you to tackle issues. Deal with them. Be straight. And if something has gone wrong so be it. Just deal with it. Tell people.

“So let’s be honest in all our endeavours in predeployment training. And let’s be honest in our effort: no short cuts, no cutting corners, no saying, ‘That’s well enough, it will do, we’ll get by with that.’ If you think you should be doing it more, if you think you should do it better, work together. Communicate. Be honest.

“Training is all about learning tactics, techniques and procedures. I also want you to understand principles. I want you to have a level of understanding that will deal with uncertainly. Complexity. Things that we haven’t anticipated will develop during the mission, and you’ll need to be ready to deal with them.

“We train for what we know; we educate for what we don’t know. So I want you to study, read, analyse, discuss. Some of us enjoy reading and developing information from that. Others are much better when they get that information from discussions. Whatever works for you, develop that knowledge, develop that understanding.”

And what should they expect of him, he asks. Competence, fairness and predictability, he answers.

“I will display my competence to you in my decisions and how we interact, but I will challenge you to show me yours, to show me what you are capable of doing. If you believe I can do my job and I believe you can do your job, we will work very well together.

“Fairness. Every decision that is made by us as a group will not suit everybody” but “will be made for the good of the unit and mission accomplishment, not for the needs of the individual . . .

“There will be no favouritism. There will be no rules for one group and not for another. It will be fair, and if you perceive it not to be fair, I tell you now: challenge it. Say, ‘Hold on a minute: how come?’ Ask those questions, because it is my intention that this has to be fair.

“The next thing is predictability. There’s nothing worse than wondering how the chain of command is going to respond to a certain series of events, requests, etc. You need to be happy in your mind: ‘This is how it’s going to go.’ Predictability has to be there. It is consistency, it’s based on fairness and it’s based on that relationship between us where we have trust.”

This speech is not for the benefit of The Irish Times, he tells them. “This is for your benefit, and I’ll keep talking to you, and we’ll keep communicating, but you work through your teams. You let me know where you’re coming from as well.”

So focus on the end state, to ensure that we have the capabilities to respond to the order when it comes, he tells them. “That’s what we’re here to do. Focus on that.”

And with that he walks out, lingering at the door to chat with his staff officers and his number two, Cmdt Paul Kelly. The men and women under his command file out and disperse into groups assigned to various training tasks. All have one aim in mind: getting mission ready.

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