Young guns: Britain’s young soldiers

Author: By Terri Judd

But one inconsistency jars with this familiar warrior-like image. The streaks of camouflage cream cannot mask the startling youth of the faces, the softly chubby jawlines that have yet to require a razor, or the odd rash of teenage acne.

Crouched in a shallow trench, 17 year-old Junior Corporal Luke Campbell appears oblivious to the biting wind as he relates the tortuous path that has led him to this British Army training ground. A persistent truant from the age of 11, he came home at 13 to find that his mother had packed his bags. Living on the streets, unable to read or write, he eked out a living any way he could ? and fathered the first of his three children when he was just 15. A year later he walked into an army careers office.

“There were only two choices for me. Join the army or go to jail,” he recalls, adding with a burst of passion: “People always think bad of me and I am going to prove them wrong. People always say, ‘You are not going to make something of yourself,’ and I am.” Indeed, two-thirds of the way through his year-long course at the Army Foundation College, in Harrogate, Yorkshire ? where many of the youngest recruits are sent at 16 or 17 ? JC Campbell has proved himself among the best of his intake, promoted to a trainees’ non-commissioned rank. On top of all the physical achievements, he has gained the equivalent of an A to C pass in GCSE maths and literacy.

While the college takes many youngsters from comfortable homes, the staff explain that it is often those from terribly deprived backgrounds who shine out, flourishing with their first taste of encouragement and a sense of self-worth. “The people in my platoon and the staff are the only people in my life who have trusted me,” continues JC Campbell. “No one I know at home would give me their keys to get something out of their car. It is just like the family I never had before.”

Nearby, Junior Soldier Chris Lockwood, who had been shunted from one care home to another since the age of 11, nods his head in agreement. “You do five- or six-mile ‘tabs’ [fast marches with full kit] and it is hard but you all stick together ? they are family not just friends,” says the youngster who dreams of being an Army Air Corps helicopter pilot. “I didn’t think I would make it in the first six weeks but I have. I always wanted to do it but I needed somebody to push me.”

Asked what he now values in life, JC Campbell blurts out earnestly: “Discipline and integrity. And self-respect. But the only way you get respect is if you earn respect and respect others.” At this, a flicker of a smile crosses the watching face of the officer in charge of his training. Without prompting, the teenager had just listed three of the six core values that are drummed into the junior soldiers at Harrogate. The other three are selfless commitment, loyalty and courage.

JC Campbell will need all of them when, having completed phase-two training a few miles north at Catterick, he joins the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment, this December as it prepares to deploy to Afghanistan, where its sister regiment suffered nine deaths and 57 wounded in the summer of 2007.

Just a few weeks ago, two Harrogate graduates lost their lives in Helmand, south-west Afghanistan. Corporal Sean Binnie, age 22, of The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland, died going to the aid of the Afghan soldiers he was mentoring. Rifleman Adrian Sheldon, age 25, from 2nd Battalion, The Rifles, was killed by a roadside bomb.

At any point during their training, Harrogate’s junior soldiers can opt out ? most specifically in the weeks before their passing-in parade, the day JC Campbell saw his mother for the first time in four years.

Lieutenant Colonel Steve Ocock, the commanding officer at Harrogate and a man who has served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, is acutely aware of the responsibility he has to these teenagers, who were just eight or nine when the World Trade Center was attacked and who could be serving on the frontline from the moment they turn 18. “Clearly we do spend a lot of time on the realities of war because it would be morally wrong not to,” he says. “We need to make sure they understand the profession they have chosen. We will make calls on them which are unique in society and, therefore, I have to make sure we are doing all we can to lay the foundations of their military character.”

A quarter of the annual intake of 1,344 teenagers arrive with no academic qualifications whatsoever ? and a large number require learning support. By the time they leave, 85 per cent have achieved maths, literacy and IT skills to the equivalent of an A to C grade GSCE, with the remainder gaining D to E, results 30 per cent above the national average.

But the recruits ? who start on a monthly salary of £875 after food and accommodation ? also learn some of the harsher realities of their craft on military manoeuvres, including survival skills in the iciest of temperatures. “I remember the second exercise. It was 12 o’clock at night and we had hailstones hitting us in the face and my legs and knees were killing me. I can’t describe how horrible it was,” explains Junior Lance Corporal Hollie Jenkins, age 17, who is hoping to train as an avionics technician with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), adding in her rapid-fire Welsh lilt: “I like the PT. I have got my 1.5-mile run down from 13.10 mins to 11.27 mins. I am determined to get to 10.5 mins. I have been working my bum off.”

Their backgrounds may be diverse but these junior soldiers greet the challenges with a dedication that flies in the face of the commonly accepted view of today’s PlayStation generation. Some insist they have been driven from birth to take up an army career; others fear there is little else out there for them if they fail; yet more are honouring a family tradition.

“It is a complete broad brush,” explains Sergeant Major Keith Langan, of the Royal Signals. “The last intake you had everyone from [footballer-turned-actor] Vinnie Jones’s son to the bloke with flip-flops and an ASBO.”

For Sam Astwood, it was his grandfather, a Warrant Officer at Dunkirk, who inspired him to join the Light Dragoons. On a bright, blustery morning on Ilkley Moor, the junior soldier appears in his element as he bellows encouragement, punctuated by laughs, to a fellow recruit dangling high above him on the other end of a climbing rope. It is part of their leadership and initiative training, which emphasises unstinting trust and the principle that no one gets left behind.

But his mood quietens as he explains that his grandfather told him how proud he was of him the night before he died a few weeks ago. His eyes brimming, he turns away bashfully and mumbles: “I will do it for him”.

His climbing tutor, former Parachute Regiment Sergeant and Falklands veteran Chris Jackson, argues that this generation is no different from his own: “I see the similarities between the optimism and effervescence of young soldiers then and now.”

With its seven tennis courts, nine football pitches, six squash courts, swimming pool, go-cart track, gym, athletics tracks and high rope frames (currently out of action because a protected bird is nesting in them), the college turns “Minis into Range Rovers”, in the words of Charles “Wally” Walbrook, Warrant Officer Class 2.

The year is punctuated with expeditions ? diving trips to Cyprus, arctic adventures to Greenland, cricket in Barbados and skiing in Italy. For youngsters, some of whom have never left their hometown, each activity is laced with lessons in self-reliance, pushing their boundaries and respect for other cultures. A recent rugby tour to South Africa took them to the townships and an Aids clinic.

AFC Harrogate could easily be mistaken for a modern boarding school if it were not for the sight of youngsters in uniform marching in step between buildings, greeting officers with ram-rod straight backs, and cutting salutes to berets sporting cap badges of regiments with proud histories. Even the bricks and mortar are a reminder of horror and heroism. One mess is named after Corporal Bryan Budd VC, of the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, who in 2006, at the age of 29 ? and months after teaching at Harrogate ? posthumously earned the highest honour for gallantry fighting in Afghanistan.

Such sobering lessons are reinforced on trips to the Normandy beaches, where D-Day veterans describe what it was like to pull the charred remains of their friends from tanks. The junior soldiers are then taken to the cemeteries and told to find a grave that bears their name, their home town, or their cap badge.

“When they see the guy was only 19 they start thinking: this is a big thing I am part of. You see a very different group of people coming back on the coach than the one that went out,” explains Captain Chris Brown, who joined the college to teach military studies months after returning from Helmand. He takes pupils, some of whom can barely find the UK on a map of the world, and teaches them about past and present conflicts, NATO, the United Nations, the law of armed conflict, banned weapons, the Geneva Convention and their duty to maintain the moral high ground against a less scrupulous enemy.

It is Capt Brown’s job to explain the cause behind the current Afghan conflict ? though it will be the junior soldiers’ section commanders who give a practical reality to the theory. In a college where the SAS bestseller Bravo Two Zero is the most borrowed book in the library, it can be difficult to break through ideas of the invincibility of youth. “It is the corporals with the recent, edgy experience who will explain: ‘War is not glamorous. I have seen my mates shot and there is nothing cool or sexy about that’,” says Capt Brown.

Like his fellow officers, Capt Brown says that the most startling aspect of the job is watching how new recruits transform from shuffling, bad-mannered, baggy-jeaned children with attitude ? often tearful and homesick in the first few weeks ? to become confident young adults, brimming with pride. “I absolutely commend them,” he says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with such passion at 16. They are unique, their personalities are outstanding and they always make me chuckle. You can see soldiers growing inside them ? the banter, the way they take the mick. The names they call each other are names from past generations. There is always a Lofty.”

“It gives you faith in the youth of today. To see them march off the square during the passing-out parade and have them look you in the eye as confident individuals is awe-inspiring,” says Lt Col Ocock, adding that his only regret is that more youngsters from ethnic minorities are not applying.

Set up in 1998, the college is already seeing some of its graduates return as non-commissioned officers, many of them decorated for gallantry. Of course, as 25 year-old Royal Artillery Bombardier John Buck explains, it was tougher in their day: “We had itchy army blankets. We didn’t get issue duvets.”

The bedding may be softer but the dormitories are still just as regimented. Youngsters, some of whom had to be taught to wash when they arrived, maintain pristine lockers ready for inspection, toiletries lined up like infantrymen on parade. “I take my washing home sometimes but I always have to re-iron my clothes after Mum does it,” explains Junior Soldier Richard Taylor, age 17, who is to join the REME. “We had 48 in our platoon but seven have dropped out. I am proud I stuck to it.”

Junior Lance Corporal Jenkins, meanwhile, may have a teddy bear on her bed but the colourful, girly scrawl on her noticeboard is an aide-mémoire to marksmanship principles and preparations for battle. And in the corridor, a poster bears Rudyard Kipling’s famous verse: “When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains / And the women come out to cut up what remains / Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains / An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.”

For the officers and the non-commissioned officers, who may only have a matter of months between the brutality of conflict and a role effectively mothering a group of children, it is as rewarding as it is challenging. A couple of weeks ago, one male officer approached a female junior soldier in the library to commend her on a piece of classwork only to have the young girl burst into tears and flee. Fearful that he had said something inappropriate, he asked a female corporal to investigate.

She returned to reassure him that the teenager had simply been overwhelmed by the praise. At 17, it was the first time anyone had ever told her she had done well.

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