Saturday 22 July 2017

Sweat, guns and early starts... the day I sampled life as an army recruit

Irish Independent reporter Emma Jane Hade gets to grips with Instructor Pt Stacey Kehoe during a fitness session as part of the 17 weeks basic training for new Irish Defence Forces recruits at Stephens Barracks in Kilkenny
Irish Independent reporter Emma Jane Hade gets to grips with Instructor Pt Stacey Kehoe during a fitness session as part of the 17 weeks basic training for new Irish Defence Forces recruits at Stephens Barracks in Kilkenny
Irish Defence forces recruit Ciara Moffett and Irish Independent reporter Emma Jane Hade pictured during the 17 weeks basic training for recruits at Stephens Barracks in Kilkenn
Irish Independent reporter Emma Jane Hade during a fitness session as part of the 17 weeks basic training for new Irish Defence Forces recruits at Stephens Barracks in Kilkenny
Emma Jane Hade

Emma Jane Hade

I managed to muster just enough strength to wheezily join the chorus of "Yes, Sir!", before the army officer walking down the two lines of recruits instructed us to jog maniacally on the spot.

One day last week, I found myself among a group of 40 young army recruits, all aged between 18 and 25, who are in their sixth week of training with the 3rd Battalion of the Defence Forces in Kilkenny.

The group of 38 men and two women spend almost 16 hours a day taking instructions - scrub this, tidy that, run there, jump that and eat this. But despite the intense nature of the beast that is basic military training, recruit Ciara Moffatt enthusiastically declares that she "loves it".

The 21-year-old rises at 7am, six days a week, and her head doesn't hit the pillow until after 11pm every night. But the Bray, Co Wicklow, native takes on each day with vigour and enthusiasm.

I, however, struggled to share the same passion when I joined the recruits on a wet afternoon for a gruelling physical training session.

Beads of sweat trickled down my brow as I struggled through press-ups, running drills, squats and lunges alongside the new recruits.

"They arrived on July 29 and they are currently in the second phase of training. There are four phases," explained Lieutenant Oisin Moore.

He has been tasked with the "overall responsibility for the administration for the recruit platoon".

"I would make out their training programme for the week and ensure they are sticking to their syllabus of training as laid down by the Defence Forces, so the training for recruits is standardised across the whole country," Lt Moore said.

In the first phase, which lasts two weeks, the soldiers in training are taught "basic stuff to get them ready for basic army training". But this can be the toughest part, according to Sergeant Jason Walsh, who is second in command of the platoon.

"In my own experience, the first night is the hardest thing," he said. "Because you are going in to a room with seven or eight people you don't know. You are not sitting at home in your own bed with Sky in your own room and mammy bringing you dinner."

The recruits rise at 7am. Breakfast is served in the cookhouse and at 8.15am, they return to their dormitories where they undergo inspections to make sure their uniform is perfect and ready for the day ahead. Their accommodation is also inspected and must be in pristine condition. If it isn't, this is one instance where a soldier may be disciplined.

"If someone came out with dirty boots on morning parade, the Orderly Sergeant might say 'give me 10 press-ups'," said Sgt Walsh. This is then logged in their "corrective action cards", which is recorded on a weekly basis.

"Back years ago, there wasn't anything like that," he added. "Some say it is for the better, others for the worst. But I think it is fair."

From 9am, the young recruits then begin instruction. This includes weapons classes, as well as arms and foot drills. The painful physical training classes usually kick off around 11.30am.

The recruits have lunch at 1pm before an afternoon filled with more instruction. Then it's dinner at 5pm.

The young student soldiers have the evening to prepare for the next day, before enjoying supper at 8pm which rounds off their daily intake of approximately 4,000 calories.

In the coming weeks, this group will participate in overnight exercises away from the relative comfort of the Marble City barracks.

As well as being physically daunting, the 17-week initial training can be mentally draining. It has a "robust nature" and it can be shocking, Lt Moore admits. But this is all part of recruits' "military socialisation".

"A soldier has to be able to work in a challenging and robust environment so the training has to reflect that."

Women were few and far between around the Kilkenny base when the Irish Independent visited. Defence Minister Simon Coveney recently announced his intention to change that, as women account for just 6pc of Defence Forces personnel.

Recruit Moffatt is determined that her gender will not mean she is treated any differently.

"Once you have your uniform on, we are all the same. I don't think there should be a difference - we are all equal," she said.

European karate silver medallist Karolis Jevdokunnas hails from Lithuania, but Ireland has been his home for the past six years. He is following in his father's footsteps, who served with the Lithuanian army. He hopes to eventually become an army ranger.

Meanwhile, 25-year-old recruit Lee Aust enlisted as he wants "to secure a future" for his six-month-old infant daughter.

"The sky is the limit for you in the army," according to the young father.

The Defence Forces is currently recruiting 350 new members and is expecting at least 10,000 applicants by the September 4 closing date.

'Recruits' is on tonight on RTE One at 9.35pm and on Tuesday at 9.35pm

Irish Independent

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