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The teenagers with the Taliban in their sights


Standing to attention: Junior soldiers (from left) Alan Hutton, John McBride,Darrell Bell, Ryan Ward, Aaron Elliott and Matthew Thompson

Standing to attention: Junior soldiers (from left) Alan Hutton, John McBride,Darrell Bell, Ryan Ward, Aaron Elliott and Matthew Thompson

Lieutenant Colonel Stephen O'Cock

Lieutenant Colonel Stephen O'Cock

Standing to attention: Junior soldiers (from left) Alan Hutton, John McBride,Darrell Bell, Ryan Ward, Aaron Elliott and Matthew Thompson

He looks too young to be away from home, let alone preparing to take on the Taliban. Indeed, if anything, his army uniform only serves to highlight his youth.

Just 17 and at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate, Darrell Bell, from Newtownabbey, even admits to feeling homesick sometimes “but as soon as I ring my mum I feel better”. Yet when he talks it is with the confidence of a man.

There is a job to be done on foreign soil and Bell believes he is the person to do it. Army life is a family tradition and nothing would make him more proud than to serve alongside his father, who is already in Afghanistan. Still, you can’t help but wonder what Bell makes of the frequent news reports of fatalities from the war? Does he, too, watch the slow, sombre procession of military coffins through Wootton Bassett and think of the ultimate price he may have to pay some day? Certainly, it’s a thought foremost in my mind as we chat on a sunny day in England. Darrell, though, is full of the unquenchable enthusiasm of youth. He says: “My dad's out in Afghanistan at the moment with the Army and my grandfather was in the UDR, so I'm carrying on the tradition. I'm looking forward to getting out there. I think it would be great if I ended up out in Afghanistan with my dad. I'd like to serve with One Royal Irish.”

And he adds: “In my spare time, I like to watch shows like Ross Kemp in Afghanistan.

“In the classrooms, we get shown episodes of Band of Brothers, then afterwards our teacher will ask us questions about certain scenarios that appeared in the show and we'll talk about how the soldier handled their particular situation.”

Darrell tells of the preparation and training young soldiers go through: “We regularly do field exercises, preparing us for the real thing. When we do them, we have to believe that we're in that situation. The welfare services at Harrogate are really useful and life here is great. My friends here are better than the ones at home. I get homesick sometimes, but as soon as I ring my mum I feel better. I sometimes look at people going to college who are older than me and they earn £40 a week. I'm never short on money and I've always got nice clothes. I'm also looking forward to getting a car.

“At school, teachers didn't pay much attention to me. Here, if you're having trouble with something, they sit down and help you with it.”

For many, considering a career in the Army is a decision that isn't taken lightly. It's easy to be humbled by some of the reports that have come back from these battlegrounds. Gallant stories of heroism from young men and women serving on the front line in a war against terror — with many paying with their lives — make the achievements of celebrity footballers and businessmen of today look small in comparison.

So what is it that makes young men, some of them too young to drive, too young to vote, too young to go into a pub legally, but not too young to die for their country, want to sign up for a life in the Army?

At the Army Foundation College in Harrogate, Corporal Rab McClurg (23), from Portavogie, is well aware of the dangers that the young men and women who attend the college will face if they are selected to serve.

“I've lost a few friends,” he says, his eyes glancing towards the floor. “I've been in Iraq once and I've done two tours in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, I was involved in gunfights on a daily basis. The first few times you get into a situation where people are firing at you it's scary, but the rest of the time, although it sounds weird, you just feel quite normal. When you lose friends you don't really feel it at the time, but when you get home it really hits you.”

The idea behind the college, which has been running for 10 years and is built on the grounds of an old military training facility, is to take kids at a young age and introduce them to the Army way of life.

For a year, they will live there and be put through their paces, learning and developing their skills as they go, as well as being physically trained.

Rab, who once attended the college, tells of his new role as a permanent member of staff: “I get great job satisfaction. It's nice being in charge of a group of 12 kids and having them hang on your every word. They listen to everything you tell them because they know that some day it could save their life. There are three kids from Northern Ireland in the group I look after, and I think it's a bit of a breath of fresh air for them to hear my accent.”

The strains of being away from Northern Ireland in such a discipline orientated institution means that young soldiers from here may feel homesick, sad or lonely at times. In recognition of this, the college has a selection of welfare services available. One which many of the people here prefer is Sandes café on the campus, which is run by Jim and Maryjane McCracken, a husband and wife team. The café doubles up as welfare centre, where Jim and Maryjane lend a friendly ear to anyone who's having problems, or just wants to chat.

Maryjane says: “We both take the welfare of soldiers here very seriously. For the young ones from Northern Ireland, we sell things like Ulster fries and soda bread. The soldiers from Northern Ireland can't get home as easily as the students who live on mainland Britain, so it's a home away from home for them.”

John McBride (17), from Newtownards, is one of the young men who have chosen Harrogate College over returning to school. “From the age of seven I took a real interest in the Army and I've wanted to join ever since,” explains John. “My parents recently moved to South Africa, but I actually stayed behind because I wanted to go here so much. I don't really get homesick. When I go back to Northern Ireland I just stay with my grandparents. I prefer the type of education I get here. When I was at school, I didn't like sitting in the classroom. Here I can learn things by actually doing stuff. I can re-do my GCSEs at Harrogate, and at the moment, I'm doing an apprenticeship in IT. My parents were a wee bit sceptical when I said I wanted to go here, but they backed my decision all the way.

“I'm not really worried about going into a combat situation in the future. People have their own views on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in the Army you do what you're told to do, regardless of politics. If we pulled out now, we'd only be putting our own country at risk.”

Another person who's harboured ambitions of being in the army from a young age is Matthew Thompson (16) from Garvagh. He says: “My dad was in the Army, so I've always wanted to join too. My dad's proud to see me following in his footsteps.

“At the moment I'm studying English, Maths and IT. I think I learn more than I would at school because there's a relaxed atmosphere in the classrooms here and the class sizes are smaller. We get paid about £1,000 a month as well, so it's nice to be earning money at the same time. None of my friends at home earn that.

He adds: “In the future, I'd like to become a sergeant or a corporal. Besides that, it's just nice to spend most of the day outside, instead of sitting in an office somewhere doing office work.”

Lieutenant Colonel Steve O'Cock runs the Army Foundation College. He’s an Englishman who’s served in Northern Ireland. For him, getting the best out of the young people, many of whom come from poverty or a tough background, is something very personal to him. He explains: “The college is something that I'm very passionate about. It's the best way that a young person can join the Army. When we take people from a difficult background, we try to teach them life values and try to give them a decent shake of the stick. There are 1,334 student soldiers on the site, 320 military personnel and 400 civilians. A large proportion of those who come here do so because they don't want to stay in school. There are also ones who went back to school to do their A-levels and decided to drop out because they didn't like it. We have an intake in January as well so these people can join.”

Steve adds: “Around 5% of the people here will have come from a social care background. About 80% finish the course. When we see the changes they've made when they graduate after a year and watch them march off the square, it's a source of great pride. We also organise a trip each year to battlefields in France. We visit three cemeteries — a British one, a French one and a German one. The aim of this is to bring home the seriousness of war.

“A fair proportion of people who we accept are from Northern Ireland. It's great to see, because I've served in the UDR and the Royal Irish Regiment, and I know how good the Ulster soldier is.”

Belfast Telegraph