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 theme.

The University Officer Training Corps can be hard 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.

However, it is quite a straightforward thing. Essentially a university version of cadets, it’s designed to give students a taster of army life and facilitate the journey for those who wish to go to Sandhurst, although it’s not compulsory and there’s absolutely no pressure to join.

Each year summer and winter camps are held, where it’s a chance to learn new skills and experience the 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 as a result 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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