Bound for Syria: 130 troops ship out
FAMILIES bade an emotional farewell to 130 Irish soldiers who ship out to Syria for one of Ireland's most challenging peacekeeping missions.
The 44th Infantry Group, drawn from 17 counties, was formally reviewed at Stephens Barracks in Kilkenny by Defence Minister Alan Shatter, Chief of Staff Lt Gen Conor O’Boyle and Environment Minister Phil Hogan.
The 44th Infantry Group will now replace the 43rd Infantry Group on the Golan Heights along the Israeli-Syrian border for a six month tour of duty.
The mission is considered one of the most challenging undertaken by Ireland given the backdrop of the Syrian civil war with the 43rd Infantry Group coming under artillery fire last December.
Mr Shatter said the Syrian mission is the latest chapter in Ireland's half century of UN service.
"We have a very honourable tradition of supporting the UN in the cause of peace and security and this deployment sees that proud tradition continued," he said.
The deployment was an emotional day for some.
Sgt Jason Crowley from Laois will see his wife, Sara, take care of their two young children, Jack (3) and Aisling (18 months), while he is overseas until September.
Force second-in-command, Cmdt Robbie Kiely, is also leaving two youngsters at his Limerick home and paid tribute to Defence Forces partners for their critical support to soldiers on overseas duties.
The 44th's two youngest soldiers - Privates Martin Donoher (20) from Laois and Sara O'Neill (20) from Kildare - will both celebrate their 21st birthdays on the Golan.
"I don't think any of us guessed where we would spend our birthdays. We don't know yet whether it will be a joint party but we were both born in August," Private O'Neill said.
She is keeping a proud family tradition alive with her father, CS John O'Neill, a Defence Force veteran of numerous UN missions.
There is also a hint of celebrity with the 44th Recce commander, Lt Angela Lyons, a Camogie All-Star.
"It's tough missing most of the season but I will have two hurleys with me," she said.
For others, the Golan deployment is nothing new.
Good friends, Sgt Declan Higgins and Sgt. Brian McGahern from Cork, have served on 10 different overseas deployments over their career.
These include the Lebanon, Kosovo, Liberia, Chad, Sierra Leone and Sweden.
"Sweden was definitely the most dangerous of the lot," the two sergeants laughed.
The 130-strong group is commanded by Lt Col Paul Kennedy and is largely drawn from Southern Brigade personnel.
The unit will serve under the UN’s Disengagement Observer Force (DOF) which also features detachments from Fiji, the Philippines and India.
Troops from Japan and Austria were also due to deploy but they were withdrawn by their Governments amid concern over the escalating violence in the Syrian civil war.
The Irish troops have undergone rigorous training which special instruction on what to do in case of a chemical attack.
The 44th Infantry Group will be headquartered in Camp Faouar where their predecessors operated from since last September.
The Golan Heights has been the focus of a 40-year ceasefire between Israel and Syria but remains one of the potential flash-points in the region given its strategic location and the fact the Syrian civil war has been raging just across the border.