Fusiliers on the frontline

TA soldiers from the fifith fusiliers in training at Catterick Garrison.
TA soldiers from the fifith fusiliers in training at Catterick Garrison.

LAST week’s repatriation of the bodies of six British soldiers killed in Afghanistan was a stark reminder of the dangers of serving in a war zone.

To someone sitting in the safety of a home in Northumberland, the risks and hardships involved in taking on the Taliban in its homeland are difficult to comprehend.

Perhaps even harder to take in is the fact that some of those fighting for our country are volunteer soldiers with everyday nine-to-five jobs to go back to once their tours of duty are over.

They are people like you and me, except they give up their spare time to train for possible deployment to Afghanistan or other danger zones.

Ten per cent of all British soldiers serving in Afghanistan are members of the Territorial Army (TA).

The 5th Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers is made up of reserve soldiers from as far north as Alnwick and as far south as Doncaster, and has a base in Ashington.

Like other reserve units up and down the country, it has been asked to supply a selection of its troops for deployment to war zones including Afghanistan.

Lieutenant Christopher Evans, 24, from Morpeth, will be taking a year out from studying architecture at Northumbria University for the upcoming six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.

“My family are concerned about me going to Afghanistan, as you would be, because it’s a tour of duty for them as well as us as we are there for six months, but they all understand that is what we do the training for.

“I am taking a year out from studying then going back.

“It’s like training to be a firefighter and never putting out a fire. I am looking forward to going because I have been training for five years so it will be good to finally put all the training into practice in a real situation.

“That is why we are all part of the TA, and why we do all the training. We are working up to being mobilised and supporting the army.

“If we weren’t prepared to go out there, we wouldn’t be here. We joined the TA to support the troops on tours of duty, wherever they might be, and deployment is why we are here.”

The Fusiliers were formed from the amalgamation of the Royal Northumberland (Fifth of Foot) and the Royal Warwickshire (Sixth of Foot) to become the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in 1968.

While the First and Second Battalions are full-time soldiers, the Fifth is comprised of volunteers drawn from all walks of life.

Directives by the Ministry of Defence have stated that at least one in 10 servicemen on operations must be from a volunteer unit, and some of the soldiers will soon be joining their regular army comrades in Afghanistan.

Training for that dangerous role is already well under way, with gruelling field exercises which test their tactical awareness, patrolling skills and endurance to the limit.

Being volunteers means serving in a war zone is not compulsory, but the mission has still been enthusiastically embraced.

Captain John Marcon, 33, from Pegswood, works as a commercial business manager for Network Rail.

He joined the TA 15 years ago and was mobilised to Iraq in 2003 as part of Operation Herrick.

“We went to Kuwait and spent a short time there before we went across to Iraq, just outside Basra, where my primary role was doing convoy escorts around Basra and dealing with prisoners of war,” he said.

“We were there ensuring the medics who were dealing with casualties were safe, as well as Iraqi civilians and anyone else who got involved. We were providing protection and security for the medical staff.

“I couldn’t do my day-to-day job without doing this.

“I sit at a desk all day and this gets me out and about and I have been to all sorts of places I would never have been able to go.

“A lot of people really don’t understand how the TA works, we have an operational commitment, we are there to provide support to the regular army and to support the army on operations.

“Some do it for the money, some do it for the travel and the training. The people you make friends with are your best mates.”

On any given weekend the Fusiliers and Riflemen might find themselves shooting on ranges, carrying out section attacks, marching miles in full kit – known as ‘tabbing’ –and preparing for every eventuality.

While I was there, they were called on to deal with the fall-out from a simulated explosion.

Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are one of the biggest threats they could face, should they be deployed to the conflict. They are the faceless enemy that has resulted in the deaths of countless British and foreign soldiers and civilians.

The training is designed to prepare the soldiers for possible deployment to a war zone where weapons like these may be in operation, and how to deal with the resulting situation if they come across an already exploded one.

At the weekend the troops each took on different roles to get the casualties to safety, secure the area, search for any further IEDs and deal with the Press.

Despite the threat, there are scores of TA soldiers still willing to go to war for their country.

Nine years ago Sergeant Major Andy Stewart, 41, from North Seaton, Ashington, was a platoon commander in Iraq, guarding Basra palace.

He says he wouldn’t hesitate about returning to a war zone if he got a request to be mobilised.

The higher level teaching assistant at the Grace Darling Campus in Newbiggin said: “We were in Iraq as a protection force. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, but it was certainly an experience.

“I have also been on detachment to Jordan for five weeks with the regular army during the school summer holidays as they were after people to support them.

“In my day job I’m looking after small children Monday to Friday so it is completely different being in the TA. It is a good mix.

“I couldn’t be in the TA and not expect to get mobilised. My family support me in doing it.”

As well as preparing for possible deployment to war zones such as Afghanistan, the soldiers are also in training to help out with a job closer to home at this year’s Olympics.

Captain Chris Hall, second-in-command of Z Company, said: “For many young people, given the current economic climate and the difficulty in securing employment, the TA can offer great opportunities to develop valuable skills and, of course, discipline and self-confidence.”

Anyone interested in what the Territorial Army has to offer can find out more by calling 0845 6008080.