The Defence Forces' 53rd Infantry Group is completing its Mission Readiness Exercise (MRX) in the Glen of Imaal in preparation for United Nations deployment next month to southern Lebanon.
"We've had a number of weeks of intensive training culminating in the MRX and assessment by the Military College," the unit's commanding officer, Lieut Col Stephen Ryan, said yesterday at the Co Wicklow training camp. "So far, everything's going well."
The 53rd Mechanised Infantry Company and Contingent Support Group comprises 190 personnel, with the core – some 84 troops – coming from 3 Infantry Kilkenny, known in the Defence Forces as "The Bloods", of which Lieut Col Ryan is commanding officer also. The next largest contingent, 21, is drawn from 1 Brigade Artillery Regiment in Cork, with other sections making up the 186 total from various units throughout the Defence Forces.
Infantry make up the bulk of the group with 109 personnel; additional soldiers coming from artillery, cavalry, transport, signals, engineers, ordnance and other sections. The average age of the troops is 34 and there are nine female soldiers – four officers, nine non-commissioned officers and one private.
They include Kilkenny brother and sister, Sgt Ruth Comerford and Pte Matthew Comerford, serving together overseas for the first time. Sgt Comerford has been on overseas UN duty twice before; Pte Comerford on one previous occasion.
While together in the 53rd, they will not be serving in the same platoon, however.
“I won’t be commanding him,” said Sgt Comerford with a laugh looking at her brother, who appeared grateful.
Also among the 190 and serving overseas for the first time is Lieut Ciara Sheehan from 1 Field Artillery Regiment, who enlisted in the Defence Forces from school eight years ago and last year graduated in law from NUI Galway while serving in the Army.
A former adjutant with her home unit, Lieut Sheehan will be a TOC (tactical operations centre) watchkeeper while in southern Lebanon. She’s looking forward to the challenge.
“It’ll be good to experience a different environment, what it’s like to work with different nations and see what impact you can have on the ground,” she said.
For Lieut Col Ryan, this will be his eighth overseas posting with the UN and his fourth to Lebanon. On a previous occasion, in June 2009, he and a colleague, Company Sgt Mitch Bohane, since retired, witnessed the aftermath of an attack on a Spanish patrol in which six soldiers were killed by a car bomb.
While unexploded ordnance belonging to the Spanish patrol was going off in the aftermath of the bomb, the two aided the wounded and helped rescue the injured. The Spanish government subsequently awarded Lieut Col Ryan and Sgt Bohane the Spanish Cross of Military Merit, with distinction.
Next month’s deployment will see the 53rd take over from the 51st Infantry Group of the Defence Forces, currently deployed in southern Lebanon. Like them, the 53rd will be based at At Tiri from where they will monitor the Israeli Defence Forces’ 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon, patrol the so-called Blue Line (effectively, the Lebanon-
border), support the Lebanese government in maintaining a presence in the area through the Lebanon army, and assist the local population.
The terrorist group Hizbullah has used southern Lebanon to launch rocket attacks into northern Israel and presents a persistent threat to UN multinational forces in the region. But the 53rd will also prepare for Ireland to assume, from the Finns, overall command of the area patrolled in November. Finland currently is the lead country but in November, Ireland takes over when 109 Battalion will be deployed with a complement of some 300 troops – a significant extension of the Lebanon commitment.
Preparation for the deployment began in home units, followed by five weeks' training at Kilworth in Cork and the MRX in the Glen of Imaal. It involves mock patrols under attack, ambushes, dealing with improvised explosive devices , chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear training, field exercises involving likely scenarios the unit could face, battle inoculation and live fire exercises.
Staff officers with the 53rd will be working closely throughout the deployment with their Finnish colleagues in headquarters at At Tiri.
“We get on well with them,” said Lieut Col Ryan.