Volunteer soldiers from Leeds have been training in Denmark as their regiments prepare for a bigger role in the nation’s Armed Forces. The Yorkshire Evening Post went to Scandinavia to hear their stories.
As gap year destinations go, Helmand Province in Afghanistan wouldn’t be the first choice for most young students.
But rather than spend his time back-packing or working at his local restaurant, Tom Waterson found himself battling Taliban insurgents alongside Royal Marines from the 40 Commando infantry unit between years at university.
As a member of the Army Reserve, Lance Corporal Waterson went out on the six-month warzone deployment as a 20-year-old while still at university having done much of his training alongside his school studies.
Four years later, he is one of the near-20,000 part-time soldiers across the country combining a commitment to the Army with regular jobs ranging from prison officers to receptionists, marketing and IT workers to call centre staff.
“I was a boy soldier, I was sworn in on my 17th birthday. I wanted to try out for a regular career while I took my A-Levels,” says the 24-year-old, from Belle Isle, Leeds.
“It was a really good way of testing the water for a regular career while not doing it full time. It is great beer money for a student, I never needed a proper job.
“Afghanistan was very enjoyable, I got a good sun tan. It was a good way of putting my training into practice alongside regular soldiers.
“That was in 2010, I was 20. My family supported me all the way through. Most of the regular soldiers didn’t realise I was a reserve until I told them. There were a few contacts [with the enemy] but the training kicks in and you deal with it.”
Rather than become a full-time soldier, Lance Corporal Waterson chose to stay a reservist and pursue a civilian career.
He now works as a security guard and has designs on a career in military contracting or law enforcement, boosted by the skills gained during his Army Reserve training.
He speaks to the Yorkshire Evening Post during a 15-day training exercise near the town of Oksbøl in western Denmark, part of the 27 days reservists must put in every year.
He is joined by more than 100 volunteer soldiers from his regiment, the Queen’s Own Yeomanry, a light armoured reconnaissance unit with a base in York whose role is to gain intelligence on the enemy and local environment. The regiment was until last year part of the Territorial Army, previously derided as a modern day ‘Dad’s Army’ or ‘Weekend Warriors’ due to the age and the perceived lack of professionalism of its members.
But since the TA was renamed the Army Reserve last year its regiments, such as the QOY, are battling to reinvent themselves and attract new recruits.
As part of controversial cost-cutting plans, the number of trained regular soldiers at the Army’s disposal is set to drop by 20,000 from around 100,000 by December 2018, with the manpower of the Reserve rising from 19,000 to 30,000.
In the coming years the role of the Reserve will expand and they will work more closely with the rest of the Army, meaning there will be more opportunities for those that join.
Rather than individual reservists being attached to regular regiments fighting in the world’s trouble zones, entire squadrons of 100 to 130 will now be expected to deploy and will be expected to be as well trained as their full-time counterparts.
£2 million was spent on a television advertising campaign to persuade thousands to sign up as part-time soldiers, while regular soldiers who leave are being urged to join. Military bosses are working with employers trying to sell them on the benefits of releasing staff for training, including skills that would cost thousands of pounds to acquire on ‘civvy street’.
As well as a series of financial incentives, training trips such as this one to Denmark (another to Cyprus is planned for next year) are part of the package designed to woo potential new recruits.
There is still a long way to go to reach the recruitment target, and earlier this year the National Audit Office said the restructure, which has involved thousands of redundancies, “comes with significant risks”.
According to Lieutenant Colonel Tony Maddison, the commanding officer of 150 Regiment Royal Logistics Corps, which has a base in Sheepscar, his unit is “well on the way” to meeting its target but still needs a 20 per cent uplift by 2018.
He said those joining the Army Reserve would have the chance to make “mates for life” by joining a tight-knit group, with opportunities to compete in different sports and visit foreign countries.
There is, he says, a chance of being deployed to a warzone for those who join. “Currently, and I am not a betting man, if you look across where the deployments are there aren’t that many at the moment but there are an awful lot of things going on in the world that would suggest there is a possibility they could deploy.”
During the 15 days of training in the sandy grasslands of Denmark, reservists are drilled by expert full-time soldiers as part of a system where each Reserve regiment is paired with a regular Army counterpart.
When the YEP visits 150 Regiment, whose role is to move combat supplies and equipment to the front line, its soldiers are taking part in an exercise in northern Denmark where they help defend Danish sovereignty from attacks by a notional enemy.
They spend 24 hours a day either on the road or in position, preparing for a possible attack. They sleep under ponchos propped up on the grass, with their 15 or six-tonne logistics vehicles covered by camouflage nets that protect them from infra-red cameras.
Among them, with only four hours sleep from the previous night under her belt, is Lance-Corporal Linda Glover, 43, from Osmondthorpe, Leeds. A receptionist in her civilian life, she is a chef in the Reserve but speaks to the YEP while looking out for the enemy from under the camouflage net. “This is the first time I have been abroad, it is like home,” she says. “I am hoping to stay in [the regiment] up to my time, which is 50 years of age. My husband is an ex-regular so he knows all the Army stuff.
“If people haven’t got anything else to do it is good. I wish I had gone when I was a lot younger. I joined when I was 39. I have had about four hours sleep at the most, but I am all right. I cope with it.”
Captain Tim Miller, from Cookridge, combines his reservist role as troop leader with the Queen’s Own Yeomanry, in charge of four armoured 4x4 vehicles, with working for his family soft furnishings firm.
A commissioned officer since 2010, in November he will be leading a trip to Morocco for a training exercise to ensure his troops have the right expertise for battle. “Before it used to be more individual replacements and they are looking at ways of going out as full units which is a massive change for us. We will get training with the regular regiment which will follow what we are doing going forward.
“A lot of guys have deployed before anyway, my sergeant has been on four tours. For a lot of them it is what they love doing. They love their civilian lives but when an opportunity arises to deploy or go somewhere like Morocco, they jump at the chance.”