Sunday 24 September 2017

Women lead the charge as Defence Forces gear up for Golan Heights

Members of the 55th Infantry Group pictured during training exercises in preparation for the deployment to the Golan Heights. Photo: Mark Condren
Members of the 55th Infantry Group pictured during training exercises in preparation for the deployment to the Golan Heights. Photo: Mark Condren
Tom Brady

Tom Brady

Last year she was the face of the military in a very successful recruitment campaign for the Defence Forces.

Now she is about to become a platoon sergeant with an Irish peacekeeping group being deployed in one of the most sensitive areas in the world - the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel.

Sgt Valerie Cole (31), from Annaduff, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim, will serve for six months with the 55th Infantry Group in the Undof (United Nations disengagement observer force) mission.

It is not everybody's idea of a perfect location in the sun.

But Sgt Cole says she is "really looking forward" to her deployment in April and describes the Golan mission as a challenge she has always wanted to tackle. She was also the central figure in a promotional video used by the Defence Forces in 2016.

But yesterday, she was relying on her training and experience, including an overseas stint in Chad in 2009, as she put her platoon through its paces at the Glen of Imaal in the Wicklow mountains.

The exercise is part of three weeks of field training at Kilworth camp in Cork and the Glen, during which commanders and soldiers are put through scenarios based on potential threats they could encounter in the mission area.

The programme ranges from anti-ambush tactics using advanced weapon systems, to coping with simulated explosive and air strikes, to detailed planning and traditional peacekeeping methods.

While almost a third of the 130-strong group are first-timers overseas, Regimental Sgt Major John Murray (57) is undertaking his 15th mission abroad, including nine tours of duty in Lebanon.

While he says the challenge presented by the Golan is similar to his first peacekeeping mission in 1981, the young soldiers in the 55th infantry group are better educated and have broader skill sets.

Members of the 55th Infantry Group pictured during training exercises in preparation for the deployment to the Golan Heights. Photo: Mark Condren
Members of the 55th Infantry Group pictured during training exercises in preparation for the deployment to the Golan Heights. Photo: Mark Condren

He is from a Newbridge, Co Kildare, family with a strong military tradition, his grandfather having removed the British flag from Parkgate military barracks in Dublin while serving under Michael Collins at 22 years of age, as the youngest sergeant major in the State.

The officer commanding the group, Lieutenant Colonel David Cowhig, says it will deploy in an area that is stable at the moment, although developments elsewhere in Syria are carefully monitored.

The primary responsibility is to act as the Undof force reserve company, which includes a small and highly mobile quick reaction force.

The force is also currently carrying out contingency planning to re-occupy some of the posts lost in the past but he cannot say if those plans will be implemented during his deployment.

Members of the 55th Infantry Group pictured during training exercises in preparation for the deployment to the Golan Heights. Photo: Mark Condren
Members of the 55th Infantry Group pictured during training exercises in preparation for the deployment to the Golan Heights. Photo: Mark Condren

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Mary Carroll is currently in charge of the 54th Infantry Group serving with the Undof mission in the Golan Heights.

She is the first female Irish officer to take command of an overseas unit and also the first woman to command armed troops in the history of the mission, which has existed since 1974 in response to the Syrian-Israeli war.

But she thinks it is regrettable in 2017 that "my appointment is newsworthy at all".

Nine of the 130 soldiers deployed with the 54th Infantry Group are women, and she says she is filled with pride when she sees female colleagues acquitting themselves so well in a challenging environment.

Members of the 55th Infantry Group pictured during training exercises in preparation for the deployment to the Golan Heights. Photo: Mark Condren
Members of the 55th Infantry Group pictured during training exercises in preparation for the deployment to the Golan Heights. Photo: Mark Condren
Poster girl: Sgt Valerie Cole, of the 55th Infantry Group. Photo: Mark Condren
Poster girl: Sgt Valerie Cole, of the 55th Infantry Group. Photo: Mark Condren
Lt Col David Cowhig in charge of the 55th Infantry Group. Photo: Mark Condren
Lt Col David Cowhig in charge of the 55th Infantry Group. Photo: Mark Condren

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News