The Mission: ‘Never bring the missus to the airport’

48th Infantry Group converge to have everything cleared before heading to Golan Heights

Detail of a map of the Golan Heights for  Undof, the UN peacekeeping and observer force.

Detail of a map of the Golan Heights for Undof, the UN peacekeeping and observer force.

 

Six months of detailed planning, training, and organising all the complex, and at times competing, imperatives of mission converge in late March in two huge semi-permanent tents, erected on a vast concrete stand in a corner of Curragh Camp.

Known as MoveCon in the jargon of the Defence Forces, this is the place through which everything - absolutely everything - that is being sent between Ireland and any of the overseas missions must pass.

It is, in effect, the Defence Forces’ own customs clearance, airport bag check-in and import/export operation.

It was to here that the members of the 48th Infantry Group converged for two hours, from 9am to 11am, on March 27th to deliver their luggage and meet as a unit for the final time before their deployment to the Golan Heights as the Force Reserve Company with Undof, the UN peacekeeping and observer force there.

“Can’t wait,” says Pte Sean Herley from Louth, summing up more or less precisely everyone’s mood as they stand in line waiting to go through the process. They are on the cusp of mobilisation and there’s an air of de-mob giddyness in the queue.

To pass muster with Customs and all the weight and security strictures of air transportation, MoveCon has to be real. It’s not just a case of arriving there and dumping your kit bags in a pile for slinging onto a plane by someone else, at some point later.

As the officers and men queue by the entrance to the first warehouse-style white tarpaulin tent, Stella, a five-year-old half Labrador, half springer, and her handler, both of whom are classed as full-time customs personnel, scamper up and down the line, sniffing and checking that nothing improper is in any of the bags.

Then it’s into the first tent, a marquee large enough for any good country wedding. On the left side there is a row of tables behind which stand military police, all smiles and wearing surgical gloves.

Bags are plonked on the tables and opened, the contents fully removed in some instances, but more usually given a thorough search as the MPs’ hands rummage. Out come socks, underpants, toiletries, books, iPods. . . all the usual personal stuff someone going away for six months might pack. What the MPs are searching for is anything that shouldn’t be in there.

Such items are enumerated in a pre-packing advice leaflet that lists, in 68 bullet points, forbidden items. The list includes everything from the obvious (grenades) to the curious (eye glass repair tools).

Once bags are passed - and if an item isn’t approved, too bad, it doesn’t go - troops are shepherded out the back of the tent, wheel right, and into the next tent.

This is a truly vast structure called the Rubb Hall. It’s about the size of a football pitch and has a high, bow-shaped top to it. Along one side of the interior is a row of nine 20ft containers of the type seen in shipping ports, and also a portable office.

Opposite are three LTAVs - Light Tactical Armoured Vehicles - each painted UN white. Two have heavy machine guns with close reconnaissance surveillance lenses mounted on their roofs.

The soldiers come in, each lugging a full rucksack and a separate kitbag. Between them they may not weigh more than 40kg.

They are weighed first together to make sure the 40kg limit isn’t exceeded, then separately to make sure the balance isn’t, say 35k and 5k. The weight needs to be evenly spread, ideally 50/50 between the two.

Each soldier presents himself and bags to a bag check-in desk where a colleague records on a laptop spread sheet their name, service number and the weight of the bags. MoveCon is run by J4 (logistics) and a swarm of logs personnel, all highlighter vests, steward everyone along through, seeing that everything runs smoothly.

Cpl Daniel Ryan is one of several soldiers clutching a hurley (others have guitars and there’s at least one bodhran). Photographers love the soldier with the hurley.

“Ah Jayzus,” says one of the logs shepherds, “can you not get a more original image!”

But it’s a ‘must have’ standard - like the kissing-the-baby snap at the airport on arrival home.

There are two open-ended 20ft containers at the exit of the Rubb Hall, each divided in half by an internal mesh wall. A logs yellow vest takes the rucksacks and stacks them neatly at one end of the container, floor to ceiling, row after row; kit bags go into the other container.

Behind the mesh wall in one container go the guitars, hurleys (at least 10), the bodhran and other odd shaped items.

The same space in the other container is gradually being filled by Lt Jane O’Neill’s engineers and the Mowag mechanics.

In the middle of the Rubb, Pte John Siggins mutters and curses softly under his breath, working up a sweat as he empties a large red tool box, with spanners and wrenches clattering onto the concrete floor.

Siggins is a Mowag fitter, one of the mechanics on whom the others will be depending to keep the Mowags running.

“Got to lose 5kg,” he says, laying out a row of monkey wrenches, according to size, largest to smallest, making sure that if he leaves this set behind, he has another full set in the box.

He pulls out a tray of sockets and the power bar onto which they fit.

Eeeney, meeney, miney, mo. . .

He counts them all out and counts them all back in again. Several times. Muttering. Quart into pint bottle time. Somehow, he gets them all in, every socket, every wrench, and somehow at 57kg he gets it past the weight watchdog.

O’Neill and her colleagues empty four large wooden boxes, trying to pack them so their total weight allowance, 160kg, is spread more evenly between each. She’s clutching a water treatment manual as she chivvies her colleagues.

“As long as they’re all getting on I don’t care which goes in what box,” she says.

It takes the full two hours but by 11am they are all done: every soldier, every officer, bags and equipment checked and checked in.

The containers are closed and locked, ready for moving to Dublin Airport for the off on April 7th - a small advance party leaving a few days before.

The few days left are for time off: down time with the family before the big goodbye. Most soldiers say their goodbyes at home, not at the airport. “Never bring the missus to the airport,” says one officer with the certitude borne of experience.

When they’re gone, personnel support services are there to help with any family worries that might arise in the vacuum.

The main party of the 48th gathered in McKee Barracks in Dublin, early on the 7th, all in civvies but wanting to get at it.

They took off in a chartered plane knowing that, mid-way through their Golan mission, there’d be time off for a family holiday for those with children. A different sort of break for those without.

What’ll you do? I asked one young soldier.

“Hotel with the girlfriend. See ya. . .”

Tomorrow: Peter Murtagh reports from the Golan Heights on two days with the 48th