More than 80 men and women, most of them Army reservists from across Lancashire, spent two weeks in Italy on a training exercise. Reporter LAURA WILD joined them and spoke to Fylde coast troops about the realities of military life...
“Did you think you could come to a battlefield and not run?” Colour Sgt Spencer Cooper bellowed, “You’re in my world now!”
I wasn’t exactly taking part in the Army exercise, I was there as an observer, but to observe I had to run to keep up with the well-trained reservists battling through grass taller than me in the blazing Italian sunshine.
The ‘advance to contact’ phase of the training exercise I saw was part of a 15 day trip to Northern Italy with the Lancashire-based 4th Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, which includes soldiers from across the Fylde coast.
The purpose of the Exercise Roman Star was for army reservists to test themselves against the high standards of full-time soldiers as part of their annual foreign exercise.
But for me it was a rude awakening.
Over the course of the fortnight the 80 soldiers were practicing everything they would do in real-life scenarios and they were put through their paces by Italy’s tough 7th Infantry Regiment and 32nd Tank Regiment.
They set up camp in a field in the middle of Spilimbergo, north east of Venice. They had to sleep two-by-two in ‘bashas’, military slang for a primitive shelter comprising of little more than camouflage sheet attached to a couple of posts erected in the ground.
Many of them managed just four hours sleep a night and had to survive off water and army ration packs.
As I caught my breath, the sound of gunfire echoed around. It was a sound I had never heard before, it was fast and sounded like something from a video game.
Thankfully the bullets weren’t real, but that didn’t take away from what these guys were doing. They treated the whole day as if it was real life, as if it was war.
Their aim was to find the enemy and destroy them.
They had got information to help them track them down and find their location during a night ambush the night before. And in near 30C heat they managed to take down the enemy in three different locations spread across the acres of the Italian range.
I didn’t dare complain about the heat, as sweat pumped down my face and dripped down my neck, because I was just wearing a T-shirt and light trousers. The troops running by me were wearing their full army kit, heavy boots and 20kg on their back. Some carried rifles and others machine guns, which weighed 20kg too.
As an onlooker everything looked precise, the aim was to get things right, but while they were firing blanks it was also a time to learn from any mistakes.
It was hard to imagine that back home these guys work in very different roles - I met a butcher, a court worker, an exhaust manufacturer and a geophysicist.
They didn’t just had to run carrying incredibly heavy kit, they had to look, observe, have their wits about them and most of all listen, because at the end of the day, one wrong move could mean they were dead. The thing that stood out the most was the passion, these lads and lasses, who are all away from their families, are the best of friends who have some of the best banter I have ever heard but, when they need to be serious, they are.
They have full time jobs at home and they give up their home comforts and their luxuries to train and be the best.
Sgt Jason Hinsley - ‘I was sent to war zone’
Sgt Jason Hinsley was in his late 20s when he was deployed to Afghanistan.
He had once thought about joining the regular Army but signed up to the Army Reserves and for him it has proved to be “the best of both worlds.”
And being a reservist didn’t impact Jason’s experience of Afghan, because he was put in charge of a patrol in the war-torn country.
The 31-year-old from Warton, who works as a software development manager, said being picked for the role was “unusual” He added: “I was a section commander in the reservists I got mobilised to Afghanistan for Op Herrick 13, normally when we go with the regular counterparts we would be stepped down in rank and responsibility so that we can prove our worth. In Afghanistan I was actually put straight in as a section commander leading a team of 8 to 12 people on patrols through Afghanistan.
“When I first signed up I started as a private and just joined for the experience, I never once thought I would be out in Iraq or Afghanistan in the thick of it.”
“There are a lot of reservists mobilised and who do various roles working with regulars but usually we get stepped down in responsibility so that they can see that we can do the job. It is quite rare. I got thrust straight into it.
“They work on recommendations from my own unit and my own chain of command in order to pick people for vacant roles.”
Jason has been a reservist for 11 years. He attended Carr Hill High School and Sixth Form in Kirkham, near Preston, before studying at Staffordshire University.
“Originally I was looking at joining the regular army but when I got into the TA I realised I had the best of both worlds, a civilian job, my own life as well as the extra skills, the excitement and challenge you get from being in the TA,” says Jason.
“In the week I’m at a computer at a desk running a small team of software developers, when I’m out here I’m in charge.
“I’m the administration of a platoon of 30 guys, looking after food, ammo, and anything that happens when we are out in the field.”
In 2003 as a Lance Corporal Jason was deployed to Iraq for Op Telic 3 and in 2010 he went to Afghanistan for Op Herrick.
“Afghan was quite challenging. I saw some not so good things. It’s a really hard environment, high tempo of work, very challenging and demanding, you see your friends get hurt and things, there’s obviously a bad side of it.”
Lance Cpl Toby Townsend - ‘Going abroad is different’
Lance Cpl Toby Townsend was just 19 when he signed up to be an army reserve and now he loves it so much, when he isn’t working as a physical training instructor he tries to recruit others.
The former Kirkham Grammar School pupil, from St Annes, has risen through the ranks pretty quickly.
“I just had an interest in military life,” said the 21-year-old, “I did the cadets and I had an insight from that to go and do it and get paid. I was at school at the time and I thought that the TA was the best option.”
The trip to Italy was Toby’s first foreign exercise.
He said: “I am second in command of my section, I am in charge of the wealth of the troops. I was promoted at 19.
“This is the first overseas exercise I have done, its different. Here we have been working alongside the Italians, it has been a refresher school.
“The advance to contact phase was good. I was part of the machine guns, we carried around all the ammo until the very last minute.”
“You get on with it, you’re there to do a job and get up and go.”
Toby said the troops have to be good at swapping their ‘banter’ head for their ‘serious’ head.
He said: “When end ex I take that head off and put the other one back on.”
Toby’s dad Lee, 53, was in the Navy and he said he family supports him 100 per cent.
Speaking about the Italy trip he said: “Words cannot describe it, there’s so many different things to do, it’s great.
“The whole thing has been great, that’s why I joined the infantry, to fight, working as a team and seeing all the training put into practice.
“Although we are a battalion we don’t work together all the time we have to gel and mould into a section together and deal with stressful situations.”