'Shooting is one of the most relaxing things you can do' - When Niamh Horan met the Army's elite Ranger Wing
It's all about mental strength and showing vulnerability in Ireland's elite special forces unit, writes Niamh Horan
Inside the Irish military training camp on the Curragh plains, a handful of men have gathered. They have survived a gruelling 10-month course - with a failure rate of 94pc - to become part of Ireland's Special Operations Forces. The unit is Tier One, on a par with the SAS, and covers the most extreme challenges, from free-falling out of planes at 25,000ft to sensory deprivation.
Now, as members prepare to deploy to Mali - one of the most dangerous missions in the world - they give an insight into the mindset they use to meet those demands. The following is extracted from a series of interviews with members of the unit in order to protect personal identities.
Failure is not an option
"In 1519, Hernan Cortes led 600 Spanish soldiers to conquer the Aztec empire. Upon arrival, Cortes turned to his troops with a single order: 'Burn the boats!' When there's no exit strategy, you have no choice but to succeed.
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"I drove up here before the course, sat outside with my wife and said 'I am going to do this.' Once I was on the course, there was no way I was leaving.
"You see the fittest, biggest lads, the rugby builds, standing beside you on day one and the next morning they're all gone. Failure was never a thought for me and it's the same for every guy in this room."
Machismo doesn't cut it
"Everyone has been on their knees at some point and everyone has seen others at their weakest because we train for extremes. So there is no room for macho-ism in this unit. And it won't help you pass the test. We jump out of planes with lads who are afraid of heights; we climb up the side of ships; we fast-rope from helicopters - one of the most dangerous things you can do - so you want your unit to know what you are afraid of so they know when you will be apprehensive and they might need to step in.
"Vulnerability bonds you with others because it makes you aware that you are stronger at certain points and can help others when they need it and they will do the same for you.
You will overcome any fear if you want something badly enough
"I had a fear of heights when I came on to this course. Then came the moment we had abseil 40ft off a water tower. It's a confidence test. When you go after a goal it is either something you want or it isn't. I had devoted a year of my life training before this, sacrificing family time, social events and holidays all for this.
"There are moments when you will have to ask yourself if you are going to quit because of one wall. Is this the obstacle that you are going to let define you?
"For me, it wasn't. I chose to push that little bit further and do what was asked of me. If you want something bad enough you will go for it. If you don't, the cracks will start to appear, and you will allow those insecurities to manifest and they will ultimately make your decision for you, altering your final outcome."
Quitting brings momentary relief... then massive regret
"The three letters you never want to utter are 'RTU'. Return To Unit. It means you quit. There's no going back. I remember one day we had hiked a long and gruelling trek - at times we can carry up to 60lbs on our backs across 60km hikes within 17 hours with very little sleep.
"On this particular day, we had made it to the very top of the hill when a guy quit. The Directing Staff (DS) turned to him and said 'Okay… but you do know we still have to get down off the hill'?
"So he actually walked with us to the end and completed the task. If he had just stopped to think about it for a moment it could have been different. He was expecting someone to come up and take his gear but that doesn't happen. He felt terrible afterwards. Usually, as soon as someone quits, they feel a moment of relief and then, in the next instant, regret. The majority of people who quit try to reel back on it. But there's no changing your mind once it is done."
Another recalls: "I had a candidate RTU on me after he got lost for four hours in terrain. At last light we picked him up. There was relief when we pulled up but then he knew it was the end of the road for him and that's when he broke down. I asked if he wanted to take a minute and sure enough, he did.
"He got out and he screamed and shouted and kicked the wheel and then we joined the main group. I have seen people pass tough physical tests and then quit in the downtime or in the middle of a lecture. It can come when you least expect. It might just be because they were worrying about what's coming the next day, it's not always physical stress.
"One guy came in the gate, stood there and his hand went up and said 'RTU'. Five minutes in. Everyone is different. But the number one reason people quit is down to their mind. We get all sort of reasons but it all comes back to that."
Emotions help - just make sure they drive you towards your goal
"You have to have some emotion to get yourself through it. To grind your teeth and get on with it you have to get angry or mad or whatever you need. But it's about making sure you have the right emotions to get you through. I have seen men throw up, I have seen tears. It happens to a lot of men when they are at breaking point. I've no problem admitting I broke down at the end of the camp because I knew I was within a few kilometres of the finishing line. We call it 'the walk home'.
"There is that element of acceptance and it's at that stage that the unit has embraced you as a new member. It's a brotherhood. And when you come in that gate, you are told 'go back home, grab your gear, let's go'.
Make friends with discomfort
"Mentally prep yourself for bad days and times. Say 'okay, this isn't the ideal situation right now but I will get through it'. Become friends with discomfort. We get athletes here who are fitter than anyone, they lay out their kit and their energy gels but then they can't cope mentally when the going gets tough.
"We don't have a personal support team following us around like endurance athletes or refill stations every couple of miles. In this unit, for the most part, you are your own support team. We can try to encourage you but if you are giving up on yourself, then that's where we stop. We can't help you.
Mindfulness comes naturally when you are immersed in a task
"Meditation and mindfulness are popular now but we practise it without thinking. People think shooting is frantic but it is one of the most relaxing things you can do. You are concentrating on one thing, your breathing naturally slows and your sight is fully focused on the target."
Never make a big decision on an empty stomach
"At the end of the first week when I was feeling the pressure, I would tell myself 'Okay, don't make a decision until you get to a meal time.' If I had a bad morning, I would say 'don't make a decision before breakfast', after that it was 'don't make a decision until lunch' and then dinner.
"The rest of the time I created small 'look forward to' moments. When we were out on the hills it could have been something as simple as looking forward to resting for an hour, eating the ration pack or putting on a warm top and hat. You need little motivations to get you through."
A good support network is vital
"It is a very family-orientated unit. When we are on the job we know we have a great support network at home so we don't have to worry and we can focus on the task at hand. They are the unsung heroes in this unit to achieve what it needs to achieve. Without their support we wouldn't be able to do it. Special Forces don't want to break you - they want you to pass the limits in your mind
"There is no one in here trying to break anybody. We are trying to get the best out of individuals. To push them to a point that we think they are able for. We want people to excel and that comes from putting them under pressure. It's not about trying to change anyone or making them submit. We want them to become a leader. As Directing Staff, although we can't interact with candidates, deep down we want them to pass. Each one of us have walked in their shoes and know the pressures they face."
Don't let gender hold you back - eventually some woman will break the mould
"We get women on the course, but none has passed… yet. Women try and are very much welcomed, but there are a lot less women trying probably because that's a reflection of the gender ratio in the army… women only make up 7pc. We are inclusive and very much want to increase the numbers but it takes a lot to overcome previously held societal norms. Women on this course are treated as a candidate and are just the same as anyone else. There is no special treatment. It's up to them to pass it.
"There is a girl who just set the best time for a physical test on a battle run that is weighted. She set the best time and bet all the guys beating a record goes back years. She could try out for the unit in the future and pass the course."
The latest round of candidates begin training for the Special Operation Forces tonight.