Wednesday 21 March 2018

Brains count for as much as brawn in the army of today

Mental manoeuvre: Soldiers have to deal with more than just combat training in today's army
Mental manoeuvre: Soldiers have to deal with more than just combat training in today's army

The army recruitment slogan promises "a life less ordinary'' -- and that is certainly the way Military College is turning out for cadet Bartley McFadden.

In the morning he might be studying law or history in a sedate lecture theatre. In the afternoon he could be learning to use a rifle, climbing rocks or crawling through trenches on an assault course.

Cadet McFadden, who has been at the Military College on the Curragh for nine months, is one of a growing number of graduates who are ditching desk jobs for careers in the Irish army, navy or air corps.

The 26-year-old from Donegal has a degree in Computers and Electronic Engineering from Trinity College, and worked for the telephone company Ericsson for four years before he joined up.

More than 2,500 young men and women have applied this year for just 30 cadetships in the defence forces.

The majority of those accepted for the rigorous training programme at the Military College are now graduates.

Former stockbrokers, barristers, teachers and engineers are among those who have been recruited to become soldiers in recent years.

So why are more graduates joining up? The obvious answer is that there are more graduates in the general population than there were two decades go. So the growth in army numbers with third-level qualifications is part of that trend.

But Colonel Pat Phelan, Commandant of the Military College, says there is also a deliberate policy by the Defence Forces to recruit more young people with third-level qualifications.

Col Phelan says: "The Defences Forces need young men and women with academic skills and the mental agility required for military leadership, creative thinking and innovation.

"The nature of the work in the Irish Army and other defence forces is increasingly complex,'' says Mark Hearns, an instructor at the Command and Staff School, the unit at the Military College that provides courses for senior army officers.

Soldiers have to show greater technical competence in order to handle sophisticated equipment. They also have to be trained to handle the cultural and political nuances of the countries in which they may serve.

On foreign peacekeeping missions, soldiers are not just encountering regular armies. They may have to deal with militias, guerrilla groups, refugees and displaced civilian populations.

"Showing cultural sensitivity is immensely important in the work of our defence forces,'' says Commandant Mark Hearns, a fluent Russian speaker who edits the Defence Forces Review.

Bartley McFadden says he was surprised at the amount of academic work that is included in the cadets' training.

"People here are not like jarheads at all. As part of our course we study subjects such as languages, military law and history.

"I have been particularly interested in learning about the law of armed conflict and international human rights. We also learn principles such as the importance of leading by example and esprit de corps.''

As part of their academic programme, the cadets also study psychology, politics and economics.

Language skills are a useful tool for those in the defence forces, according to Col Phelan.

"You cannot expect soldiers to learn the language fluently, but it certainly helps if they can speak a few words when they are on a mission. If you are in a country where Arabic is spoken, it shows respect to the local people if you can speak a few words of Arabic.''

The Military College is not just training cadets to become officers. It also provides on-going career training for members of the defence forces right up through the ranks.

At the college, senior officers are prepared for promotion and kept up to date with developments in international military strategy.

One of the units of the college is the UN Training School where members of the defence forces are prepared for peacekeeping duties.

Army staff and others are trained for some of the dangers of foreign missions, including how to deal with hostile checkpoints, and how to cope in a hostage situation.

For a cadet like Bartley McFadden, the change in lifestyle was dramatic when he went to Military College.

"When you come from civilian life, you have to adjust to the fact that you are losing a lot of freedom,'' says Bartley McFadden. "That is necessary to build discipline. It does not take long before you feel a sense of camaraderie, however.

"We stay in the college during our training. I have my own room on a corridor with seven other cadets.''

On a typical day the recruits get up at 6am and they might not be finished their study until after 8pm. They often have lectures in the morning, including weapons instruction, and go out on training exercises in the afternoon.

When they arrive in the college cadets undergo an intense programme of physical fitness training.

"I was not super-fit when I arrived. When you come here the programme is arduous. They start with gym work and running and then gradually build it up so that you are doing Battle Physical Training. That involves going on assault courses in full gear, carrying a large weight.''

"It can be hard work, but it doesn't feel like that to me. One of the attractions for me is that you are always doing something different and learning something new.''

Irish Independent

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