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From Dublin to Damascus, an Irish soldier’s journey to Syria – 6 months, 182 days, 3230km

“I love my job and wouldn’t exchange it for anything in the world; but it has to have a purpose of peace, which I have found in the An tArm. If this ceases at any point I would have to quit.” 

From a Dublin 8 area born and breed soldier, we discovered what spending six months in Syria in a UN mission was like.

“I want to be a soldier when I grow up” is one sentence parents hear often whilst raising children.  Minister of State at the Department of Defense Paul Kehoe would agree with that. Indeed, the Defense Forces personnel is to reach 9500 people, counting on the new enrollments and the end of careers in the army, it’s a total of 800 new recruits who join the different corps of the Irish Army every year.

But on November 11th,2018, we commemorate the anniversary of the signature of the Armistice marking the end of the First World War and brought to light the men and women of the past and present Irish Army. A hundred years later, one Irish soldier speaks up on what being part of the army is like in 2018.

(The interviewee has asked to remain anonymous, to respect their wish, we’ll refer to them as James) 

As we walk into the café, a strong thirty minutes before the interview, our guest is already sitting at the bar, sipping a cup of coffee (black, no sugar we asked). Surprised though very happy, we set up our material.

It’s 9.00 am and the caffeine intake is starting to kick in though we’re guessing we won’t be needing it given the intensity of what James is saying.

He is a tall man in his late twenties, with strictly short brown hair and the clearest blue eyes; we can tell he’s trying to relax but his gait is still very military; after all, he’s just come back from duty overseas.

Where were you and when did you get back? 

James:“My battalion was deployed in Syria, on the Golan Heights, and when got back from there almost two weeks ago. We were deployed as part of the UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force) mission by the UN. It was my first tour overseas for six months long mission”.

supplied by Óglaigh na hÉireann

How do you prepare for such a challenge? 

James:“I enrolled when I was eighteen, so it’s been my job for quite a little while now. The preparation is mostly about technicality and the fact that you have to be able to rely on yourself, your equipment and your squad at all times. First of all, there’s a lot of physical preparation, training usually in Wicklow. Sports plays a great role because it allows us to prepare both mentally and physically. Then there’s the technicalities, about the country you’re going to, the other nations who will be there under the UN flag, the civilians, etc… and then you have practical field exercises. It’s a twelve weeks programme once you’ve been selected to go.”

What’s a typical day in the life of an Irish Peacekeeper overseas? 

James:“I can’t really tell you that nothing is left to chance. We landed in Damascus than to get up to the Golan Heights with another mean of transportation; once we got there the first thing to do after choosing a bunk was to test the weapons and artillery because a patrol was planned on the following day.  When you’re on patrol you are on 24/7 alert. Life at camp is a little different but let’s say the 20 seconds shower is one of my favourite part of the day.”

On a personal level, what has been the most rewarding part of your first tour of duty to UNDOF? 

James:“I would say the fact that I and my fellow soldiers actually contributed to putting this mission in a strong position for the future peace that the beautiful country of Syria has earned. Also, my whole group came back from this mission which is not always the case for the soldiers, from all over the world deployed in a country like Syria.”

“Although a soldier by profession, I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace,” said Ulysses S. Grant, 18thPresident of the USA.  

James: “I love my job and wouldn’t exchange it for anything in the world; but it has to have a purpose of peace, which I have found in the An tArm.If this ceases at any point I would have to quit.”

It is a dangerous job so why this career?

James:“It’s in my blood I guess; the men and women of my family have been part of the army for the past five generations if I’m correct. And I never really envisioned anything else, any other job for me than being in the army. It is still a choice, I am not part of the army because it’s a tradition, because my relatives were. I’m serving my country thanks to my ancestors and because I’ve been inspired by them.”

Has that first tour changed the way you see your career in the army? 

James:“I wouldn’t say it has changed my vision, but I understand some things better now. For example, why one soldier’s number of tours overseas is limited. They take a toll, though reasonable, on a soldier these missions.”

You said earlier that your family history inspired you to enrol, so I believe the duty to remember is close to your heart?

James: “Well yes, very much and especially in 2018, a hundred years after World War I. I know my great grand-mother was a nurse on the battlefield and so was my grand-mother during World War II. My great grand-father died in France and was buried there. As for my father, he’s just retired from the army and works with a charity that helps soldiers deal and heal from PTSD. You said it is a family story.”

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