Reality check for troops

VIDEO In a fortnight they will be embarking on the toughest challenge of their young lives. This small band of Ipswich volunteer soldiers are swapping life in Suffolk for life in a battlefield.

Grant Sherlock

In a fortnight they will be embarking on the toughest challenge of their young lives. This small band of Ipswich volunteer soldiers are swapping life in Suffolk for life in a battlefield.

In the latest report on their journey to Iraq, GRANT SHERLOCK watched them undergo their final stages of training.

WEIGHING heavy on their minds is the recent death of a soldier in training.

On the same American army base where they are undergoing their final combat readiness exercise, an accident in one of the British army's state-of-the-art Mastiff vehicles left one soldier dead and another seriously wounded.

If they needed an example of what dangers the task ahead of them brings with it, they had a stark one.

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Ipswich's TA troops could not escape the reality of the situation.

If deaths could happen in training, the chance of things going wrong in Iraq - where they face committed and unpredictable opponents - was clearly higher.

That was the reality that was hanging over their training as they spent three weeks in Bavaria as they are readied for life in Iraq.

The TA soldiers - who signed up for this six-month tour last year and left Ipswich in January - are now just three weeks from their expected deployment date.

The army demanded they reach the standards of regular army soldiers and they have all reached those levels, now all that awaits them is deployment day, which is expected in mid May.

To the last, they told The Evening Star they were ready for their time in one of the world's most dangerous battle zones.

“There's an eagerness now to just get on with it,” Lance Corporal Andrew Brown said.

“I feel confident that we're going to be perfectly fine out there.”

Matt Finch, an 18-year-old private from Grundisburgh, added: “We're putting everything we've learnt into practice in training. They are throwing absolutely everything at us.

“I feel comfortable enough now in my training that I can go out now and do my job.”

For the past three weeks the troops from 202 Transport Squadron, which is part of the Territorial Army's 158 (Royal Anglian) Transport Regiment and is based at the TA's centre in Yarmouth Road, Ipswich, have been put through their paces like never before.They have been moved from their temporary home at the British Army's base at Gutersloh in Germany and instead undergone the final stages of their training at the imposing Hohenfels base run by the United States army.

Hohenfels boasts the latest army training equipment and facilities and is seen as the most realistic preparation for troops preparing for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Spend a few hours on the base and you quickly become aware of the sheer might of the US arsenal. Fighter jets fly overhead and Apache attack helicopters hover nearby. Add to that the occasional sound of a mortar bomb exercise and the sight of a mock Iraqi village and you get a feel for how far the Americans have gone to recreate the reality of a war zone.

There are six volunteer soldiers from Ipswich, three from villages nearby, one from Norfolk and three from Essex who form the dozen-strong Ipswich contingent who have volunteered to spend six months in Iraq.

Among them are supermarket workers, construction workers, truck drivers and an optician's lab technician. Their lives in Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex could not be further from what they will face in the searing heat of southern Iraq.

They are: Tahnee Hearn; Andrew Brown; Dan Coote; Gabriel Naimhwaka; Bradley Hambling; and Chris Roberts, all from Ipswich; Matt Finch, from Grundisburgh; Paul Campbell, from Newbourne; Nicole Tonner, from Onehouse, Lisa Jones, from Bressingham, Norfolk; Chris Gilbert, from Braintree, Essex; and Paul Southernwood and Moses Millard, who are both from Colchester.

Prior to this tour their TA training has seen them give up Tuesday evenings and occasional weekends. Only two - Dan Coote and Moses Millard - have been into what the army calls “operational theatre” before.

After leaving Ipswich in January they spent a fortnight at the army's Reserves Training and Mobilisation Centre at Chilwell, near Nottingham, before being sent to Germany for further training.

They have joined the ranks of the 2 Logistic Support Regiment and will be responsible for delivering supplies and guarding convoys to British troops based at the airfield outside the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

Private Hambling, 23, said he was “a bit nervous” about the fast approaching deployment date but said the group felt ready to head to Iraq.

“They're saying just take each day as it comes,” he said. “Every scenario is different out there.

“I'm just keen to get out there now.”

Lance Corporal Campbell, 28, said he had seen a change in the Ipswich group as their training had progressed.

“Some of the lads have definitely changed. They've got a lot more confident in training,” he said.

“It's a team effort and we all have to work together. Guys might freeze and you need to be there to say 'get on with it'.”

Send a message of support to the Ipswich troops by emailing or write to The Evening Star, press House, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP1 3PA

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