As Remembrance Day approaches, Leeds Student considers what life in the army is like for young people. We spoke to an ex-soldier who has served in Afghanistan and a student involved in the Officer Training Corps about their experience.
We are a generation affected by war. In recent years we have seen British troops enter Iraq and Afghanistan, been involved with NATO during the Libyan conflict and as Syria’s civil war continues we have no idea whether it will finally end in some kind of intervention from our troops. Military intervention in others countries is a controversial idea; do we sit back and let their government sort it out themselves, or do we intervene out of consideration for common humanity? There’s also the issue over whether the UK can afford to take such a financial risk, especially as the government plans to significantly cut the military’s size and funding. Over the years we have seen so many planes return with soldiers who have died in battle, protecting citizens of far-away countries. It is a harrowing career choice and the failure is often a fatal, yet the British Army has a high level of recruitment from people as young as 16 years old. The opportunities that the army offers are endless as soldiers not only serve their country but learn trades that can be used in other fields for the rest of their lives. The Officer Training Corps (OTC) is an organisation which works in Universities across the country to raise awareness of the employment opportunities the military offers, with one of the largest regiments here in Leeds. Leeds Student was given the opportunity to talk to a member of this organisation, as well as an ex-soldier who spent seven months in Afghanistan.
Adam Nightingale described his own experiences of life in the army and on tour in Afghanistan. He explained his reasons for joining “I was able to see the good things the army did in the world. The only help some places receive is from the military, because it’s just too dangerous for anyone else to go.” Nightingale joined the Territorial Army (TA) as a student before joining the army after college. In 2009 he was sent to Afghanistan, based in a small camp called Roshan Tower in Musa Qala, Helmand province. He explained, “It got very hot, sometimes hitting over 50 degrees, which meant patrolling with 120 pounds of kit became very emotional. There was no fresh food. We lived off rations and had no refrigeration so the bottled water was for the most part at luke-warm.” It is a way of life that many people living in the UK haven’t even considered as being a reality for some people, yet soldiers in Afghanistan live it daily. “During the tour my regiment lost seven men,” Nightingale told us. “I was lucky enough to not see them die personally, but I did witness several fatalities within other ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces) and ANP and ANA (Afghan National Police and Army) personnel.” Despite the hardships of being so far away from his home and family, Nightingale said “During the seven months there I made some of the best friends I think I will ever make. One of the best things about the army is the relationships you develop with the men you are fighting beside.”
According to its website, the Leeds University Officer Training Corps “is a gathering of like-minded people who want more from university life than pure academic studies. Our training is military-based, focusing on developing the leadership potential which hides inside every one of you.” The OTC is a branch of the TA, with 18 divisions across the United Kingdom, each with their own cap badge and stable belt. Members of the OTC are known as Officer Cadets (OCdt) and are classed as ‘Group B’ members of the Territorial Army, meaning that they are paid when on duty but are not trained or liable for mobilised service. Their main aim is to give university students “a unique opportunity to challenge themselves” within the close-knit community that is their regiment. At the end of their time with the OTC, graduates are not expected to join up to the actual army and students are free to cut their contract at any time during university. Lilly Ingleby told Leeds Student about her time within the OTC, as well as the pros and cons of the society. “As a fresher,” she said, “the OTC is amazing. You are almost guaranteed to make the closest friends you’ll ever make at University. The socials are always great fun too!” She joined the OTC in her first year at University, admitting she joined because the £36.50-a-day wage was better than just getting a bar job. She also noted that “the travel opportunities were brilliant”, as the society offers cheap travel opportunities for outdoor activities such as skiing and skydiving. Although she enjoyed her time in the OTC, Ingleby said that it was “not that necessary for a military career; the OTC is more about portraying a positive military experience.”
Although the OTC is often seen as nothing more than a fun society that creates a sense of community through exciting socials, demanding training and community projects, it has not always had good press from university institutions. In 2008, University College London’s students’ union passed a motion that condemned the Labour Government for “waging an aggressive war overseas” in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although the ban only applied to the union, it created an immense amount of controversy. Officer Cadets from nearby Peterborough were verbally abused when seen in their uniform, despite the fact that the OTC had no connections with the actions made by the government at the time. The University of East Anglia (UEA) Union also tried to create a recruitment ban for the Cambridge University Officer Training Corps, Cambridge University Air Squadron and Cambridge University Royal Naval Unit. ‘Concrete’, the UEA student newspaper, reported that recruitment was based around “deliberately exploiting the fears many students have of increasing fees and low levels of graduate employment, and is both misleading an unethical”. Despite the often negative press, the association is usually seen as providing students with unique opportunities, an active lifestyle, and a busy social life. The MOD website states they give “students the opportunity to learn a little bit about the military and a lot about themselves”, without having the pressure of military life.
Indifference towards Remembrance Day is prevalent, and few people’s everyday lives are directly affected by the anniversary. We see soldiers leave behind their families to go and fight on the other side of the world, yet Remembrance Day passes with nothing more than a minute’s silence. Ingleby said the OTC’s attitude towards Remembrance Day has completely changed the way that she views November 11. She told Leeds Student, “unless you have family in the military you don’t realise how big it is. Through the OTC I met people who had gone to Afghanistan… one friend only got back last week. It’s made Remembrance Day really touching. I now have so much more respect for the military and what the families have to go through.” Nightingale also said that his experience in the military completely changed his attitude towards Remembrance Day, saying, “I actually knew the men I was remembering. To me they weren’t just names, but real people. People who had bought me a beer, played Xbox with me, and introduced me to their families. It’s also given me a different perspective on how I viewed the casualties from earlier wars because I could relate and better understand their experiences, if only in a small way.”
words: Charlotte Prince