A Holiday Like No Other

With the annual Armed Forces Day having been recently celebrated, and the commemoration of those who have served, it seemed relevant to write upon an interesting experience with a military aspect.

Whilst at university, I joined the Officer Training Corps. Defined as a reserve unit, it’s purpose is to five students a taster of army life and train future officers for the Reserves or Regulars after university, though there’s absolutely no pressure to join. Students undergo Reserve Officer training and learn a huge amount – from how to correctly wear uniform to basic weapons handling.

And it can be extremely difficult to explain to friends. From the ration packs to carrying the bergens, the camps with little sleep and being physically pushed, it can seem a bit like an alternate universe. 

Descriptions of being practically glued to our weapons wherever we go – yes, including the bathroom – so that it nearly begins to resemble an exceptionally heavy metal baby, do nothing to facilitate understanding.

And the fact that, regardless of current events, I won’t be deployed suddenly on a mission also makes some friends question the point of it entirely.

After my descriptions of the rifle saga and bergen fun, the question of why I joined is raised. The truth is, there was no complex thought process over it. I’d heard of how much fun it was from family friends and, for me, that was enough to join. Though I have no military aspirations, I have been curious about the whole environment since young, growing up with stories of my family members who have served.

It proved to be a great decision, and virtual training sessions throughout the winter lockdown were moments of respite from stifling online university learning. 

The onset of summer and the easing of restrictions also granted us Summer Camp. 

Each (COVID-free) year summer and winter camps are held, where it’s a chance to learn new skills and experience a more immersive military environment for a few weeks. 

I spent two weeks at one summer camp and had an amazing time. Considering the extent to which we were far behind due to missing out on training lessons because of the pandemic, the staff expertly brought us up to scratch whilst catering to restrictions. 

The fortnight was challenging but equally enjoyable. Once we passed the various tests including weapons handling, navigation and basic first aid we had the opportunity to use the essential skills in the field.

The field was where we gained an insight to life as a soldier, learning to live outside and from the little comfort of what was compacted into the huge bergens we carried. Camouflage cream had to be applied regularly as we patrolled and carried out the various exercises. We also learned about section attacks, which involve dealing with an enemy once the location has been identified.

It was certainly tough. Our reactions to insects became increasingly blasé as we crawled through seemingly never-ending expanses of land and bog. The lack of washing and days old uniform made it a far cry from our pampered lives. 

We were also tired from the huge amounts of physical exercise and limited sleep. Each section member took it in turns to do night sentry. Trying to stay awake for two hours in the middle of the night was gruelling and uncomfortable, especially in prone position laying down. The sensation of being tapped on the helmet, to quickly crawl out the sleeping bag and into the look-out point, haunted many people. There were multiple panicked semi-asleep people stumbling in the middle of the night to find their rifles days after we returned.

Despite such tiredness it also proved an interesting time for self-reflection. Though hardly the SAS, it was certainly an experience which laid-bare the characters of ourselves. Our ability to trust and rely on each other was crucial, regardless of if we even chatted with them in daily life.

Our time in the field came to a dramatic end with a huge, coordinated effort of a section attack amongst platoons. With smoke grenades and the ringing sounds of gunshots (albeit blanks), our exhaustion was combatted by rushes of adrenaline. The ear defence worn also created a dream-like quality which contributed to the sense of surrealism. Following our 1am start to prepare for the attack three hours later, it was in a dazed way we filtered off the range around eight in the morning once the attack ended to the stirring sounds of the bagpipes playing.

It was an experience I’d recommend to anyone. I’d encourage as many people as possible to join the OTC and grab opportunities such as this. In addition to being paid, the opportunities for self-development and enjoyment make it well worth the tiredness, which is quickly forgotten. The friends made and the utter craziness of it all cannot be paralleled by any other university society. If not for that, then the breakfasts served each morning are also reason enough.

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