Pride of Army medic as he leads his unit to Vatican
A first as lifesaving NI Army detachment given VIP treatment during visit to see Pope
A senior Army medic has explained how much it meant to him to lead his unit for an audience with the Pope in the Vatican.
This week 204 Field Hospital was the first Northern Ireland-based unit to have a papal audience.
They attended the event in full dress uniform, were seated in a VIP area in St Peter's Square among 30,000 pilgrims, and were even formally welcomed over the intercom system before the arrival of Pope Francis.
204 commanding officer Colonel Mark Sheridan said at one stage they were within 30 feet of the Pope, and described the moment as "incredible" and a "life memory".
The Belfast-based consultant said that it meant to great deal to him as a former Christian Brothers student.
"It was incredible, I would say it was one of life's memories," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"The atmosphere was electric.
"We were in the VIP area up beside the Pope - just 30 feet away from the Pope - and there were 30,000 people in the square.
"I have never seen anything like it in my 30 years in the Army."
He added that as far as he was aware, his is the first Army unit from Northern Ireland to attend an audience with the Pope. Colonel Sheridan (below) said the initiative came about following a suggestion from one of the unit's padres, and was backed by the entire unit.
"We are a very mixed unit and there was nothing but enthusiasm from everyone when the idea was suggested," he said.
"It had special significance to me, as a former Christian Brothers boy."
The unit, which is based at Hydebank in south Belfast, is made up of a range of medics, from surgeons to nurses, as well as some from a non-medical background.
They have served in Afghanistan, Iraq and during the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone.
Colonel Sheridan said the unit will experience its "committed year" next year, when it will essentially be on call for duty.
That duty could be anywhere in the world serving in a humanitarian crisis, peace keeping or on a battlefield.
Colonel Sheridan has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and said those experiences taught him skills that he now used every day as a consultant in Belfast.
During the trip to Italy the unit visited the Second World War battlefield site at the monastery of Monte Cassino, where in 1944 the Allies fought a bitter and costly engagement with the Germans before liberating Rome.
They also toured a number of older battlefield sites in the country from ancient Roman times.