Lest we forget: NI veterans on their personal experiences and why the day is so important
Ahead of Remembrance Sunday tomorrow when the nation honours those who have sacrificed their lives to protect our freedoms, NI veterans tell Kerry McKittrick about their personal experiences and why the day is so important.
‘I will be at the Cenotaph to pay my respects on the day’
David Potts (31), a delivery driver, toured Iraq and Afghanistan with the Army. He and his wife Natalie live in Belfast. He says:
I joined the Irish Guards regiment of the Army as a school leaver in 2003. It was really my only option at the time because I didn't believe I had any other prospects - I'm from the Shankill Road and I would have ended up on the street.
I did my first tour of Iraq when I was 19 and then another in 2007, and I toured Afghanistan in 2009 and 2011. I left the Army in 2013.
I felt that I'd served long enough, and I wanted to come back home and settle down. I had a girlfriend at the time - she's now my wife.
We could have got married and she could have become an Army wife with quarters in England but she was having none of it.
Leaving was a bit of an adjustment, trying to get used to being back on civvy street. I was quite lucky in that I had a job lined up so I was able to go straight into that but a day's work in civvy street is different to a day's work in the Army. I would say it took me about a year to settle in properly.
If I hadn't joined the Army I wouldn't be the man I am today. It gave me basic life skills, taught me how to deal with people and to work as a team. I think the skills I got have really set me up for the future. And I made friends for life - I was best man for two of my former colleagues.
For me, Remembrance Day is about the sacrifices that the Army has made over the past 100 years.
I think it's particularly relevant over these last couple of years because we were in the middle of the First World War a century ago.
It's really important to remember the sacrifices that people made back then, and also in recent times.
I will never forget the friends that I lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I'll be at the Cenotaph to pay my respects on the day."
‘It’s a reminder of the others out there who are still recovering’
Adam Conlon (37), from Belfast was a captain in the Army and served for eight years. Now an after dinner speaker and leadership coach, he lives in Bath with his wife Hannah. He says:
Remembrance Day is a powerful way to reassure people that they will never be forgotten. It's a reminder that there are others out there who still need help and are still recovering from the service they gave. It's really important. I spent eight years in the Army and absolutely loved it.
The adventure and the travel suited me down to the ground.
But it wasn't until someone had suggested joining the Army to me that I even considered it.
After attending St Bride's Primary School and Methodist College I went to the University of Durham, and after that the natural progression seemed to be to London — everyone else went there and I just followed the crowd. I looked into various office-based jobs but none of them seemed very real to me. I ended up becoming an outdoor activity instructor and loved it.
After the Army was suggested to me — I’d never considered it as I think in Northern Ireland we have a strange view of the Army — I went on a three-day visit to find out what it was like and suddenly I was surrounded by like-minded people who really enjoyed all the things I did. That was my first ever experience with the Army — they would have you up at six in the morning doing press-ups to give you an idea of what it was like. I loved it and loved the idea of all the adventure and all the travel.
The only person in my family who was in the military was my uncle’s dad who was in the Royal Engineers. He always spoke really fondly of his time and told me about all these crazy adventures he had. I did get raised eyebrows from my parents but they kind of knew that it was the right decision for me — they could see how excited I was about it.
I went to officer training at Sandhurst military academy. You spend a year there but it’s so hard it feels like two. I was brand new to the whole thing — I didn’t know any of the terms or anything. I can see the advantage of having been a cadet or in the Army Reserves before joining up. The first five weeks were particularly hard — they really push you and sleep deprive you so that once you’re broken, they can build you back up.
While you’re in officer training you go and spend time with different regiments and at end of your training you get interviewed by the heads of those regiments to see if you’re a good fit. I joined the Royal Artillery — I liked the variety it offered as you essentially change your job every two years with them.
I first deployed to Cyprus with the United Nations to help patrol the border out there. That was very interesting because I got to work with all the different nations. Then I came back to the UK before going on my first tour to Afghanistan where I was in charge of about 40 men. We took three large guns around Helmand province to provide fire support. Afghanistan is an incredibly beautiful country but our first tour was in the winter — the temperature was below freezing and there was snow. Most of the time we just lived in a trench beside our vehicles instead of going back to base.
It was a real privilege to do a job like that for real and to feel that you’re making a difference. You live in very close quarters with everyone else so you all get very close and I don’t think you would get that feeling anywhere else. I don’t think you would get the chance to work with such incredibly brave people — I certainly didn’t feel brave all the time.
I did another tour in Iraq after that. This time my job was to direct artillery rounds through the air so they didn’t hit soldiers or helicopters or anything they shouldn’t, all while getting shot at. This was during the summer in at least 50 degrees heat, with at least 20 kilos of body armour on your back. It’s probably the toughest environment I’ve ever been in. Nothing builds camaraderie like spending tough times together.
I was in the Army for eight years altogether and ended up a captain. When you’re an officer you start moving away from being with the soldiers and your job becomes more deskbound. I didn’t join the Army to sit behind a desk so for me it was a natural point to go. I was 30 years old and I could figure out the next part of my life. It was a tough decision as I was doing a job I absolutely loved but I knew it wasn’t going to get any better.
I struggled after I left the Army. You don’t realise how much it’s your identity — when people asked what I did I told them I used to be in the Army instead of what I was actually doing. I thought I should take a sensible job for a while and I did — I took a job in human resources in the Royal Household, based at Buckingham Palace. I thought it would be a good fit and even my boss was ex-military.
But I didn’t like London and I didn’t think the job was for me, even though they were exceptionally nice when I left.
I decided to have yet another adventure so I started crewing on superyachts. I did a lot of mopping of decks but it was great to move away from a big institution, away from everything I’ve ever known.
I came back a couple of years ago with my girlfriend Hannah and we got married in the summer. I’ve been working as an after dinner speaker and leadership coach. I also volunteer for disaster relief projects — a lot of ex-soldiers do that as we can sleep and live absolutely anywhere. I’m not long back from the Caribbean. I like to use all of these experiences I’ve had to help others.”
'It's good that people are reminded of what their grandparents went through'
Robert Monty (38), a management consultant, served all over the world with the Army. Originally from Belfast, he now lives in Darwin, Australia, with his wife Laura and their 10-month-old son, Alfie. He says:
I went to Methodist College and then Queen's University where I was involved in a lot of sport. I played rugby and rowed, but I didn't have an idea of what to do afterwards. One day I was on a boat setting out buoys for a race with one of my professors when he asked me what I wanted to do with my life.
I said I might join the Army and he told me to go for it - it had been the best three years of his life.
I went backpacking for a while after university and then came home to find my dad had the forms ready for me, as he was tired of me bumming around.
I joined a Scottish regiment - the Troubles were coming to an end by then but I really didn't want to serve in Northern Ireland.
I was posted to the Falklands and then Cyprus before doing two tours in Iraq.
I did a lot of training in places like Oman and Belize before finishing up with a tour in Afghanistan.
There were no surprises when we were deployed. I would say my group had a pretty lucky time of it as far as deaths and injuries went.
It was textbook long periods of boredom separated by short periods when it got a bit noisy.
I served for 11 years and met a girl in the Army while posted to Germany.
Laura was in the military police before accepting a transfer to the Australian Defence Force. I had to choose between the military and her so I decided to get a real job.
I had an overwhelmingly positive time in the forces. It was incredibly hard work at times but I got to travel the world and meet my wife.
It was an interesting change for me to go from being Belfast born and bred to joining a real institution which has a lot of rules.
I had spent some time at a desk which is what you do as an officer but there was still a big transition when I left and it does take time to build a new career.
I don't let my time in the military define me, though.
I'm not a traditionalist, but Remembrance Day is an opportunity to think of the unbelievable death toll from the UK and other countries, of young men who wouldn't have necessarily joined the military.
It was a long time ago but it's an important thing to remember, that level of civic duty, the sacrifices people made.
It's good in today's society that people are reminded of what their grandparents and great-grandparents went through."
'I'm aware of the friends who served alongside me and are no longer there'
Kingsley Donaldson (45), who served in the Army for 16 years, is director of the Causeway Institute for Peace-building and Conflict Resolution International. He lives in Belfast with his partner Helen and daughter Charlotte (1), and has two sons from a previous relationship. He says:
People see us with our poppies and medals in our uniforms but they don't see the survivors' guilt behind all that. On Remembrance Day I think of family who were called up in the Troubles and I'm also very aware of those friends who served alongside me and are no longer there.
I enjoyed my time in the Army and I'm fiercely proud of my service. I was interested in joining up from a young age. My father, uncles and brother all joined so there was no problem at all for me following in their footsteps. I was an Army cadet while I was at school and I wanted to go straight in but they said 'No, we think you could be an officer and you should go to university'. So I went through the Officer Training Corps at Queen's University and then joined the Army Reserves for a couple of years. I was deployed to the Middle East and while there they asked if I wanted to stay.
I joined the Royal Tank Regiment and was moved into a specialist area focusing on weapons of mass destruction. I stayed in the regular Army for 16 years and one day.
I decided to leave when I realised that the chances of fighting were more or less over. I had finished commanding my regiment so it was time to go and do something different. As you progress you become a 'Whitehall warrior', as they push you into the Ministry of Defence. I finished as an advisor to the Army chief, a lieutenant-colonel.
I left just over two-and-a-half years ago and it's a strange thing to do. Military skills are very useful in the new world I live in, but I recognise that some of the old-fashioned ways we had in the Army are not appropriate in civvy street. In the Army if you say something has to be done in a certain way by a certain time, then it will be done. I'm learning that doesn't happen in the real world.
Remembrance Day is a strange experience for me, as I remember on a number of different levels. I'm secretary of the Northern Ireland First World War Centenary Committee so there's the enormity of the First World War.
And then there are those friends and loved ones of recent times. You can have some intensely personal thoughts in a collective space."