This means war for volunteer soldiers

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LAST week’s repatriation of the bodies of six British soldiers killed in Afghanistan was a stark reminder of the dangers of serving in a war zone.

To someone sitting in the safety of a home in Northumberland, the risks and hardships involved in taking on the Taliban in its homeland are difficult to comprehend.

Perhaps even harder to take in is the fact that some of those fighting for our country are volunteer soldiers with everyday nine-to-five jobs to go back to once their tours of duty are over.

They are people like you and me, except they give up their spare time to train for possible deployment to Afghanistan or other danger zones.

Ten per cent of all British soldiers serving in Afghanistan are members of the Territorial Army (TA).

The 5th Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers is made up of reserve soldiers from as far north as Alnwick and as far south as Doncaster, and has a base in Ashington.

Like other reserve units up and down the country, it has been asked to supply a selection of its troops for deployment to war zones including Afghanistan.

Lieutenant Christopher Evans, of Morpeth, will be taking a year out from studying architecture at Northumbria University for that upcoming six-month tour of duty.

“My family are concerned about me going to Afghanistan, as you would be, because it’s a tour of duty for them as well as us, but they all understand that is what we do the training for,” said the 24-year-old.

“Not seeing active service would be like training to be a firefighter and never putting out a fire. I am looking forward to going because I have been training for five years, so it will be good to finally put all the training into practice in a real situation.

“That is why we are all part of the TA and why we do all the training. We are working up to being mobilised and supporting the Army.

“If we weren’t prepared to go out there, we wouldn’t be here. We joined the TA to support the troops on tours of duty, wherever they might be, and deployment is why we are here.”

The current incarnation of the fusiliers was formed by the amalgamation of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers (Fifth of Foot) and the Royal Warwickshire Fusiliers (Sixth of Foot)along with two other regiments, in 1968.

The regiment’s 1st and 2nd battalions are full-time soldiers, but the 5th comprises volunteers drawn from all walks of life.

Directives by the Ministry of Defence state that at least one in ten services personnel on operations must be from a volunteer unit, and soldiers based at the TA’s Ashington headquarters will soon be helping meet that quota.

Training for the mission is already well under way in the form of gruelling field exercises to test the tactical awareness, patrolling skills and endurance of those involved to the limit.

Because they are volunteers, serving in a war zone is not compulsory for TA members, but the mission has still been embraced enthusiastically.

Captain John Marcon, of Pegswood, works as a commercial business manager for Network Rail.

The 33-year-old joined the TA 15 years ago and was mobilised to Iraq in 2003 as part of Operation Herrick.

“We went to Kuwait and spent a short time there before we went across to Iraq, just outside Basra, where my primary role was doing convoy escorts around Basra, and dealing with prisoners of war,” he said. “We were there ensuring the medics dealing with casualties were safe, as well as Iraqi civilians and anyone else who got involved.

“We were providing protection and security for the medical staff.

“I couldn’t do my day-to-day job without doing this. I sit at a desk all day, and this gets me out and about. I have been to all sorts of places I would never have been able to go.

“A lot of people really don’t understand how the TA works. We have an operational commitment. We are there to provide support to the regular Army and to support it on operations.

“Some do it for the money, some do it for the travel and the training.

“The people you make friends with are your best mates.”

On any given weekend, reserve fusiliers and riflemen might find themselves shooting on ranges, carrying out section attacks, marching miles in full kit, known as ‘tabbing’, and preparing for any eventuality they may face.

While I was there they were called on to deal with the aftermath of a simulated explosion.

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are one of the biggest threats they could face should they be deployed to the conflict.

They are the faceless enemy that has resulted in the deaths of countless British and foreign soldiers and civilians.

The training is designed to prepare the soldiers for action in a war zone potentially littered with IEDs.

Their training required the troops to take on different roles to get the pretend casualties to safety, secure the area around the simulated blast and search for any further IEDs, as well as dealing with the press.

Despite the threat of death in a far-off land posed by improvised bombs, there are scores of TA soldiers still willing to go to war for their country.

Nine years ago, Sergeant Major Andy Stewart, of North Seaton, was a platoon commander in Iraq, guarding Basra Palace, and says he wouldn’t hesitate about returning to a war zone if he got a request to be mobilised.

The 41-year-old, a higher level teaching assistant at the Northumberland Church of England Academy’s Grace Darling Campus in Newbiggin, said: “We were in Iraq as a protection force.

“I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, but it was certainly an experience.

“I have also been on detachment to Jordan for five weeks with the regular Army during the school summer holidays as they were after people to support them.

“In my day job, I’m looking after small children Monday to Friday, so it is completely different being in the TA, which is good. It is a good mix between the two.

“I couldn’t be in the TA and not expect to get mobilised. My family support me in doing it.

“The TA gives you the freedom to go and do others things, whereas the regular Army wouldn’t,” he said.

As well as preparing for possible deployment to war zones such as Afghanistan, Northumberland’s TA soldiers are also in training to help out closer to home – safeguarding this year’s Olympics.

Captain Chris Hall, second-in-command of Z Company, said: “For many young people, given the current economic climate and the difficulty in securing employment, the TA can offer great opportunities to develop valuable skills and, of course, discipline and self-confidence.”

For details of what the TA has to offer, call 0845 600 8080.