Wednesday 20 November 2019

A 21st birthday with a difference – in Syria

Martin Donoher and Sarah O'Neill
Martin Donoher and Sarah O'Neill

Ralph Riegel

IT will be a 21st birthday party with a difference for Privates Sara O'Neill and Martin Donoher.

The pair are the youngest recruits among 130 Irish soldiers who bade an emotional farewell to their families yesterday ahead of a tour of duty in the Golan Heights area of Syria.

"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," said Pte O'Neill, from Kildare, who will share the party with Pte Donoher, from Laois. Sara is keeping a proud family tradition alive with her father, CS John O'Neill, a Defence Forces veteran of numerous UN 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.

They will now replace the 43rd Infantry Group on the Golan Heights 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.

Good friends Sgt Declan Higgins and Sgt Brian McGahern, from Cork, have served on 10 different overseas deployments over their career.

These include Lebanon, Kosovo, Liberia, Chad, Sierra Leone and Sweden. "Sweden was definitely the most dangerous of the lot," the two sergeants laughed.

The unit will serve under the UN's Disengagement Observer Force which also features detachments from Fiji, the Philippines and India.

Irish Independent

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