The new model army

Staff Sgt Andy Stewart and Katie Beresford
Staff Sgt Andy Stewart and Katie Beresford
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Bispham High schoolgirl Katie Beresford, 15, isn’t into Middle Eastern and North African affairs, the fall of Gaddafi, or just how many direct hits our defence budget has taken, under the “friendly” fire of Whitehall cost cutters, in recent days.

Katie, of Cleveleys, just wants to join the army. Ideally the Royal Artillery.

She is one of record numbers of teenagers turning up at the Army Careers Office on Cookson Street, Blackpool, to ask about signing up at a time when the Ministry of Defence is making 5,000 redundancies in the Army, 3,300 in the Royal Navy, and 2,700 in the RAF.

It may not seem to add up but the army is still actively recruiting 16 and 17-year-olds.

Katie, who’s nearing her 16th birthday, hopes to join the next batch of recruits to join others from across the country at the next selection process in Scotland.

“This is all I’ve wanted to do since taking part in an activities day at Fulwood Barracks,” she admits.

Come 16, if she passes all the relevant pre-entry tests, she will go through selection, and training, to one of countless career opportunities ahead.

The North West is a rich recruitment ground for the army.

The Fylde has an army base at Weeton, local territorial army reservists, Combined Cadet Forces at three local schools. along with historic links with the Royal Navy, and RAF, a network of Sea Cadet and Air Training Corps units, and ongoing military significance at BAE Systems. Blackpool is also the veterans’ capital of Britain.

Katie, whose grandfather used to drive a tank, admits: “I don’t really know that much about what’s happening in the world, but I know this is a good career choice.”

She’s breezed through assessment and basic skills with Colour Sergeant Andy Power, and now faces a rather daunting quiz on global issues, the army, and current affairs, set by recruitment Staff Sergeant Andy Stewart, a combat medic of 27 years’ standing.

“Nobody stipulates that kids have to know what is going on in the world, but it’s a good test of the calibre of the recruit and their willingness to go away and source the information and be willing to learn.

“Some don’t know who the current Prime Minister is, let alone where the army is serving.

“The economy is driving numbers up, too. Blackpool has some real issues. It’s an employment blackspot and has a lot of social deprivation. It’s an eye-opener to a lad from the Cotswolds – as I am.

“But I see some first rate candidates. I stress the army’s not a last resort, or a bottomless pit. We need the best, no other career offers such diversity.

“And we’re still actively recruiting. That’s the party line. We have figures to reach each year. It’s about protecting and serving your country. There’s no better job.”

Katie’s mother Julie has turned up to give moral support. “I worry about where Katie could be posted but it’s what she wants to do and I would not stand in her way.”

Army careers advisor Sgt Stewart has lost some promising recruits because parents saw red. “We try to involve parents early on. Some react badly to news that their son or daughter wants to join up. I point out worse things happen on the streets in this country.”

Armed forces are haemorrhaging from savage cutbacks, scrapping fighter aircraft and aircraft carriers along with RAF trainee pilots and one in 10 squaddies. Ministry of Defence officials are petitioning the Treasury for extra funds.

Former Royal Green Jacket and Iraq veteran, Fylde-based based author Steven McLaughlin, who is signing copies of his book Squaddie at Blackpool’s Waterstones on World Book Day (Saturday), warns: “We’re being incredibly foolish and naive in stretching ourselves dangerously thin and making a mistake in trying to second-guess the future.

“History teaches us you can’t always predict the shape of future conflicts, and that new enemies will always emerge.”

The optimism of young would-be recruits reporting for training duty flies in the face of swingeing cutbacks. Global events may signal the need for a U-turn, the civil unrest sweeping the Middle East and North Africa has implications for security, as well as oil reserves, well beyond borders.

David Cameron may send British troops into Libya as peacekeepers, and has ordered chiefs to draw up plans for a no-fly zone, with RAF Typhoon war planes playing their part, the very Typhoons, part-built in Warton, held by the Audit Commission to be too costly, and unable to fulfil attack potential until 2018.

With HMS Ark Royal scrapped, along with Harrier jump jets, bombers rather than fighters, the Typhoons could take off from Britain’s most valuable strategic base Cyprus or other NATO bases in the Mediterranean.

Katie admits she needs a crash course in current affairs to add to the obstacles she will face to joining the army at 15 years and seven months old.

Sgt Stewart reckons she has a valuable secret weapon on her side: “Quiet determination. It will take her far. And the training will help her shine. Take it from me, if I was starting out today, at Katie’s age, I’d be here, I would do it all again.”

jacqui.morley@blackpoolgazette.co.uk