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Taking action ... with the TA

PUBLISHED: 17:45 14 October 2001 | UPDATED: 10:40 03 March 2010

IN the wake of America's devastating tourist attacks, and with aggressive air strikes now under way, the US has taken no time in drafting in its committed Home Guard volunteers.

IN the wake of America's devastating tourist attacks, and with aggressive air strikes now under way, the US has taken no time in drafting in its committed Home Guard volunteers.

Here in the UK, our Territorial Army equivalent has spent recent days on an annual exercise to put their own military skills to the test. Debbie Watson spent a day with the Ipswich regiment in Long Marston.

OPERATION Silver Beaver has been in full and methodic swing for several days now.

Berengaria and Androvia are already at war, the UN has received its call, and hundreds of men and women are primed for action.

There is little doubting the magnitude of this objective.

After several hours in a motorway convoy, I am ushered into the confines of the designated camp by my vigilant escort, Captain Joe McGivern. Security is meticulously tight and there are no illusions about the professionalism of the armed men and women who patrol their territory with pride.

They have worked hard to be here at this very moment.

They have trained and studied, trained and rehearsed. This is their annual test of supremacy.

In fact, beneath the blackened camouflage paint, and beyond their layered green standard-issue outfits, each and every one of these competent adults could easily be a member of Her Majesty's full-time Army 'regulars'.

The reality is very different.

The reality, despite this fastidious and authentic display of patriotic team-ship, is that Operation Silver Beaver is entirely fictitious.

Its intention is to collate hundreds of staunch volunteers from all walks of life – volunteers who have given themselves dutifully to the challenging part-time 'hobby' that is the Territorial Army.

Take David Ashley. David is 38, a father, and a property professional with Bradford and Bingley.

But today he is dressed head to foot in military uniform, his face is masked by paint, and a rifle sits at his side. Today, this is Major Ashley.

"Being in the TA is like having the best of both worlds," said David. "You get to experience a lot of the lifestyle that the regulars have, and you get to learn all kinds of new skills. But, away from this, you still have a '9 to 5 job', and a life beyond military."

David, who has now been running the Ipswich branch of the TA for a year, confesses that he has always been 'fascinated' by the military.

He once contemplated a life in the regulars but recalls that he had still yearned for the survival of his civilian life.

"As a youngster I was in the Army Cadets for quite some years, so I suppose that must have captured my enthusiasm," added David.

"Then, when I was working, I saw an advert for the TA, joined at Chelmsford and kept working my way through the ranks until I got this position in Ipswich."

This 'rank system' is not dissimilar to the progression route in the genuine Army itself, and, contrary to most perceptions of this volunteer lifestyle, it does warrant payment.

Most recruits step into the realm of their regional Territorial Army as a Private, and at that level they will be entitled to a wage of £26.31 a day. In time, a Private could eventually step upwards to the position of Sergeant and then to Major.

David suggests that this progression system, and the potential for payment, tends to make for a very committed individual within the TA. Though in the early recruitment stages, drop-out is still a big problem nation-wide.

"The longer you are in the TA, and the more you work your way up the ranks, your dedication certainly becomes greater, and I suppose it stops being merely a hobby."

He said: "For some people that will become far too much of an obligation because of their full-time job, and so unfortunately, we do tend to lose about a third of our recruits every year.

"For those who stay with us, the rewards are very high, and as exercises like this one prove, there are a great many opportunities in creating a social and professional role for yourself within a completely new circle of companions."

Here in Long Marston, Silver Beaver is helping Ipswich recruits to unite in exactly that kind of 'circle'.

TA members from all over the country are in the process of a 14-day annual exercise which is set up in the most precise and authentic manner to help the men and women test their skills under combat.

Each one is a specialist in their own right. On joining their chosen squadron, they have opted to take up a particular internal 'career' and throughout the year they will be able to add to their own qualifications and professional abilities.

"We can train people in things which are completely and utterly unrelated to their usual working week," explained troop staff sergeant Richie Head.

"When someone comes along to our Ipswich squadron, they have the choice of being drivers, radio operators, store personnel, chefs, mechanics or clerks – among other things.

"It's a great way of getting some very worthwhile training in fields that they may never have previously thought about."

In fact, many of Ipswich's TA recruits will happily tell their own stories of how their part-time 'hobby' helped equip them for a particular career in 'Civvy Street'.

In Richie's case, his role could be said to complement his 'normal' work as an LGV (goods vehicle) instructor in Ipswich.

"I've been in the TA for 14 years now, and I've found myself doing all kinds of things which I never dreamed I would do," he said.

"I 'reccie' routes to a specific location, and I do spend quite some time driving because I use the DROPS vehicle (demountable rack off-loading pick-up system). But on the whole, I see my job in the TA as very different to my usual work."

More and more, hardened recruits like 31-year-old Richie will readily refer to their TA trade as their 'job'. It's an interesting description, given that this essentially starts out as a hobby.

"I think a lot of people get to a point where this becomes like a second job – but not in a bad way," he admitted.

"The more you get involved in the system, the more time you give to this, and the more you become passionate about what you do. It's pretty addictive, and at the end of the day, we're not here to do a half-hearted job."

Richie's summary cannot fail but bring the reality of the Territorial Army home. He knows that this is far more than a casual part-time source of socialising.

"This isn't just the boy scouts that we're in here," he insisted. "This is about people training to assist in a real war. And yes, from my own point of view, I would be happy to go and I would feel that the TA had really helped me to serve. I believe it is something that far more people should do."

In fact, that desire to assume a 'war role' at some point in the future, is not a pre-requisite of joining the TA. It is a potential which volunteers are most likely aware of, it is something very timely given the new military involvement of Home Guard members in the US, but it is not always the driving force in new recruits.

Moreover, new members are likely to crave the activity, the adventure, the team-building, and the skill-gaining which will collectively offer them an unrivalled sense of self-worth and fulfilment.

It is a hobby without barriers, and one which will mould to your own commitment and needs.

"Where else would I get to do something so very different to my civilian job, and to feel that I am doing something so physical and so important?" asked Wickham Market's Wendy Bury.

She has been one of Ipswich's female members for some four years, and by day she works in the customer centre at BT in Martlesham.

"I love this," said the 34-year-old. "It's really challenging, and although it takes up a lot of my time, I find it rally rewarding.

"There's no doubt that women in the TA seem to be on a slightly different learning curve to men, but the opportunities are all there for the taking – I wouldn't be without it now."

It is exercises like Silver Beaver which help to bring that enthusiasm so clearly to the fore.

It is these meticulous, professional and finely-tuned manoeuvres that will enforce the great passion and commitment which TA recruits so obviously feel for their posting.

To them, this is well beyond a hobby, well beyond a fictitious 'role play' – this is a test of their physical, mental and social aptitudes, and they wouldn't have it any other way.

Weblink:

www.army.mod.uk/ta

nThe TA Centre in Ipswich (on Yarmouth Road) is always anxious to receive new recruits for its volunteer regiment.

You must be between 17 and 40, medically fit, and have no serious or pending civilian court actions. You must complete a selection weekend, various training weekends (where you will pick up skills in weaponry, first aid and patrolling), and finally you will take part in a two-week camp.

Volunteers are required to attend Wednesday evening parades, six weekend camps a year, and a two-week exercise like Operation Silver Beaver.

You are paid for each of those according to your ranking, will receive a travel allowance and full uniform, and accrue a bounty according to your time served.

The TA is fully understanding that in some cases employers are not happy to allow their staff time out for camps. This remains a big issue within the organisation, although more companies are now being lenient toward the service requirements.

For more information, contact one of the full-time members of the TA Centre staff on Ipswich 258477.

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