I love politics (I do realize that there aren't many people like me) and a history buff who also likes nothing better than watching a live comedy.
Published August 17th 2012
"Become a weekend Warrior"
Join the Territorial Army
There is something quite obscene in sending one man to a land he might never have heard of to kill another man who he has never met and has no argument with - but such is the way of the soldier. Arguably it's a strange thing for me to write considering I am a reservist in the Territorial Army, but then as far as I'm concerned I'm really only a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and not the army. A regiment that in two World Wars has been the home of those borderline conscientious objectors who have found the concept of war disgusting yet were not prepared to sit and home and do nothing while others gave their lives for their liberty.
Though Britain isn't likely to be invaded by German panzers any time soon, I was none the less keen to give the TA a go and the joining the territorial branch of the RAMC seemed to offer the best of all worlds. You learn some useful medical skills, outdoor survival and field craft, they make you physically fit, and they teach you how to use a rifle. Sadly gone are the days when the Red Cross was respected by warring nations - now in the age of smaller unconventional wars even medical personnel have to be armed for their own self defence.
Following massive cutbacks and "restructuring" of the army the government is now intent on recruiting 15,000 more Territorial Army soldiers to fill the gaps left by the regular army who have been ignominiously sacked. Not requiring permanent barracks Territorial Army soldiers are very much cheaper than their full time colleagues they are also apparently more motivated being generally older and more mature with a full time job to balance with their TA career. This upgrading of the TA and their more prominent role in the Army is a seismic shift from the "beer club" TA of twenty years ago when the chances of any TA solider being sent to a war was very minimal. The Iraq War and the call up of TA troops changed everything. No longer was it just weekends of camping and then drinking in the very cheap TA bar, reservist soldiers were expected to do what they had been trained for and if many answered the call to arms many more suddenly left the TA never to return. Joining is thus a decision not to be taken lightly and there is a very real possibility that one day you could find a brown letter on your door mat asking you to report to a barracks at a certain time for deployment training and then on operations
1. Joining up
For obvious reasons most TA soldiers join a unit that is near to their home. Yet even if the unit you are interested in is 40 miles away (as in my case) the TA will pay travel expenses. After making a phone call you will be invited round for a brief interview with a senior officer. I had served for two years previously in the TA yet I was still slightly intimidated by the interview. But then it's not meant to be easy. The army isn't easy, it can be fun and you meet some excellent people but it's not easy by a long way. 2. What Unit?
Depending on your age, civilian occupation and interests the TA has something for everyone. If you're a young fit male who wants to be in the forefront of the action you might consider the infantry that have units pretty much everywhere, with the Parachute Regiment and the Territorial SAS being the most elite of them. Or if you are less aggressive, then you could consider the Royal Signals who operate all the army's radio equipment. The Royal Logistics drive the lorries and get the army from A to B while the Royal Engineers build the bridges for the lorries to cross on. It is obviously beneficial if you have skills in your civilian job that are transferable to the TA. That said many join the TA just to be trained to do something completely different and in some cases, senior managers of companies join the TA as mere private soldiers just for the experience of having to take orders rather than give them!
3. Rates of Pay
The army says it doesn't welcome people who join the TA just because they are going to get paid, but then the rate of pay for a common soldier is so low I actually don't think anyone does anyway! The most physically demanding job in the TA is the infantry yet because it requires little intelligence they are the worst paid with a regular army Private Soldier taking home around 17,000 per year. TA soldiers get paid exactly the same rate of pay as the regular army which works out about 40 per day for a private soldier. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to then calculate that a basic soldier is paid less than minimum wage per hour!
The higher up the ranks you go, the more you are paid pay, what more to encourage soldiers to keep their skills up to scratch the army offers an annual bounty which is payable on completion of 19 or 27 full days (dependent on the unit you join) training, as well as one annual camp of two weeks. The bounty payment increases the longer you are in the TA. The first year its 424 pound until after 5 years it goes up to 1674 pound. You might never see some soldiers attend the weekly training evenings at the TA except when it comes to the bounty payment and they are then in a rush to get on a two a two week camp or a two week course. That said a two week camp with the army is generally very enjoyable. I remember spending one week of the camp on a tough military exercise yet during the second we did all sorts of exciting adventure sports like sailing and canoeing that was all paid for by the army.
4. Weekend One
Once you apply to join paperwork and background checks will seem to take forever. However remember in a few months you will be using a weapon with live ammunition on a firing range and as such they need to understandably make sure that you aren't likely to suddenly flick a switch and turn into some madman. All things going well, once you have been cleared and issued your uniform your first hurdle is undertaking weekend one - the first phase of basic training that everyone has to go through, regardless of what unit they eventually join.
Two full days that will be non-stop and you will remember as a blur as they push you to see how far you will go before you start crying for your mum. Expect to be shouted at endlessly, made to feel as small as a snail and get almost no sleep as you go to endless lectures and classes "There are 147 jobs in the army - women can't do three of them" was for some reason one of the few things I remember along with "This isn't the 1970's - your haircut is out of fashion. YOU HEAR ME - GET IT CUT!"
5. Weekend 2-6
If you aren't handing back your uniform after Weekend One, then you have 5 more weekends to look forward to, that though not as tiring, are still pretty intense where you will be expected to become proficient in weapon handling, first aid, nuclear, biological and chemical warfare, drill and field craft to name but a few. What will get you through all of it are your fellow recruits. They are in the same boat and as the weekends roll on, you will undoubtedly develop a bond with them. By missing a weekend however, will mean that you will be back squadded and join the next training cadre. This is potentially quite a blow to your morale, as while once you looked forward to the next weekend with your friends, you now are alone with a group of strangers.
Weekend 6 is the final weekend of your initial training where you will spend the two long days outside in the field putting into practise all you have learned. At the end, you will be given a certificate and then as a bit of fun its traditional for the cadre that's just passed to then produce a short comedy sketch (that invariably pokes fun at the training staff) for the benefit of the next training cadre that has arrived at the barracks to commence their weekend one.
6. Two Weeks at Pirbright
If you join a London unit the chances are the final two weeks initial training will be spent at Pirbright Infantry Training barracks near Aldershot in Surrey. Unlike the 6 weekends, this is a 2 week course at a regular army base with regular army instructor and could easily be the toughest two weeks of your life - endless PT sessions, field craft, shooting etc plus a visit to a "gas chamber" where you will enter wearing a gas mask but then be asked to remove it in a CS gas filled room. At the end, all the recruits can invite over family and friends for a passing out parade before going home and literally passing out on a bed.
7. What next?
Though at Pirbright you have ended basic training, training never ends in the TA. You will return to your respective units and then go on numerous courses as you begin your trade training. I.e. driver training in the logistics corps, medical training in the R.A.M.C etc.
The TA is a challenge and can eat heavily into your spare time if you let it, but man or woman, young or not quite old the TA is still one of the best things you can do in life. Though the pay is awful and the equipment you're issued with is made by the cheapest supplier the main reason people stay in the TA is that team spirit that is religiously encouraged by the army. The can do mentality and the looking after one's friends.
For years you could go to work with the same person on the train but never really know them, yet during one weekend on an army camp when your cold, wet, exhausted and hungry and just can't go on, a total stranger yet one who wears the same uniform might pick up you up even offer to carry your kit and help you onward.
That's your friend and invariably in the army it's a friend you will have for life.