Keynote of Army elite is controlled aggression
BEFORE the news this week that an elite unit of the Army was travelling out to join the UN mission in East Timor, the public could have been forgiven for not knowing we had our own version of the SAS.
The Army Ranger Wing (ARW) is a fighting machine on a par with all international special services units. In the movies, Rangers are the blackclad figures who abseil down the side of exploding skyscrapers wearing gas masks and rescuing grateful hostages from the clutches of terrorists. In the movies.
Almost half the 100-strong membership (all 100 volunteered) will be deployed with the UN in East Timor where they are likely to patrol jungle or mountain areas, liberating refugees or attacking the Indonesian militias.
And just because the Rangers haven't seen much action of the Die Hard sort in their 20-year existence. it doesn't mean they aren't prepared. Aged between their mid-20s and early 30s, they operate under an excruciating training regime to become skilled in all possible military disciplines: parachuting, combat diving, sniping, navigation and martial arts as well as physical and electronic surveillance.
Another of their roles is VIP protection. When Prince Charles visited Ireland a few years ago, the Rangers holed up in ditches around Delphi Lodge in Co Mayo a week before he arrived. The story goes that the prince came across one who had been dug in for four days. "And I thought I had a bad job," he is said to have quipped.
The ARW was formed in the 1970s and 1980s against a background of increased international terrorism such as the kidnapping of politicians and the hijacking of aircraft. The conventional skills of the Defence Forces would be no match for this type of crime and so in 1980 the ARW was formally established.
Until now, the most that had ever been sent abroad on a mission was 24 when they took part in the Unosom mission in Somalia.
They regularly undergo training with their counterparts in Germany, Sweden, France and the UK. Their rather tame motto is:
The cleanliness of our hearts The strength of our limbs And our commitment to promise.
Theoretically, the ARW is open to all members of the Defence Forces, but with a failure rate of 85 per cent only the strongest survive. The annual selection process involves a fourweek course during which participants are stretched to the mental and physical limit.
The course includes 14 Do-or-Die tests which eliminate those with phobias such as fear or heights or water or claustrophobia. If successful, there is a six-month basic skills course where candidates are placed under further scrutiny to root out any exhibiting Rambo tendencies. "Selectors will be watching out for anyone who is too gung-ho," said an Army spokesman. The ideal candidate will be able to turn on the aggression when appropriate, but even more importantly has the ability to just as quickly turn it off.
Rangers are obsessive about packing the equipment required for long-distance patrolling and about cleaning their state-of-the-art weapons which are the tools of their trade.
They can spend days and weeks in ditches when on a surveillance or reconnaissance mission - sleep deprivation is a large part of the training - and must ensure that they do not leave any trace of their presence behind. The latter requirement involves some rather complicated hiding of bodily waste.
Super-fit - in training they can be expected to run up mountains carrying five-stone backpacks - Rangers often appear quite laid back when off duty because their heart rate is considerably slower.
It is not unknown for them to shake off a hangover after a few hours' sleep by going on a 10km run and they are said to have unusually high sex drives.
The job requires total secrecy, and a Ranger will not be found down in his local bragging about how he blasted the target with his Remington. Because of this, the tight-knit group often socialise together.
Despite the specialist nature of their job, many Rangers remain modest about their activities, calling their girlfriends and wives the real heroes. These Ranger widows have to put up with their men being called out at any time of the day or night, thus developing their own particular range of endurance skills.