Every soldier has a unique reasons for enlisting. Ask some, and you will understand.
Whether it was to escape a broken home as a boy soldier at 16, a childhood friendship pact to go together, a result of the recession, a dream to fly, a failure by our education system resulting in no other viable alternative, a need to provide for a young family in hard times, a sense of duty, family tradition, the desire for travel and tough physical exercise, childhood ambition, a want of comradeship, a love of adrenaline rushes, the good pension or a wish to lead men, every soldier signed up with a reason. Rarely will you find one who will tell you the reason he applied was because he whole heartedly agreed with the political decisions of our current government in power and a desire to act upon their every whim.
Soldiers are not allowed to speak out if they disagree with the war. Soldiers cannot take part in anti-war demonstrations. Soldiers are given the phrases we hear them sometimes ineloquently deliver to waiting television cameras as they alight from coaches within their garrisons at the end of a six month tour. They mean what they say in the sense that they believe it. They are not stupid however, they know exactly why they say what they say; to retain unity in their ranks, a belief in a common purpose – a belief that these deaths are not in vain. From the Oxbridge educated Captains with first class degrees to the Generals who worked their way up from scratch, the army is instilled with the belief that no matter where they go, they go together. As one.
These men and women are husbands, wives, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, boyfriends, girlfriends, fiances or fiancees. They have best friends, a dog perhaps, a dodgy uncle, a smelly cat, an irritating ex and a nosy nextdoor neighbour. TA soldiers have normal civilian work colleagues (you never know, Alan who fixes the photocopier may exchange his tired shirt and trousers for a salad suit and sniper rifle at the weekend) and your local GP or hospital nurse may have been out in the field in Afghanistan applying tourniquets to soldiers who have just had a limb blasted off by an IED. They laugh, they joke, they cry and weep. They are trying to stop smoking, leave an abusive partner, or restrain an expensive desire for Jimmy Choo shoes. They are not politically motivated. Without question, they will go wherever they are needed.
If we were at war with a huge super-state tomorrow, these are the people we would hide behind. They are the ones, like those brave men and women who protected our country so valiantly in the two World Wars, who would sacrifice themselves for our freedom. They did not choose to go to Iraq, they did not ask to go to Afghanistan, but they willingly fly in at a moment’s notice to obey their commanders in battle. They are but humans, not heroes.
Do not sit in the ivory tower of your air conditioned, open plan office (third floor, past the kitchen, cubicle on the left), reclining back in your adjustable chair, leaning on your wrist support (there to prevent an RSI, of course) and criticise our Armed Forces to your colleagues, when they are doing their jobs to the best of their ability. Mock the politicians’ greed as you will, but do not denounce the men and women who put their lives on the line in the name of our country. Unless you have been in the heat of battle, adrenaline surging through your veins, making decisions faster than you can normally think, you can never understand the real reason our troops do what they do. They do it because they are born to do it, trained to excel at it and desire more than anything never to let their colleagues down.
As the guest of honour at my sibling’s officer graduation said… “look at the man on your left, then look at the woman on your right. They are the reason you fight”
Support our troops, even if you do not support the war.
Unless you hung around an army barracks’ front gate with your knickers conveniently already draped around your ankles at 1.20am on a Saturday morning in order to bag your man, you probably did not go looking for a military partner. In my case, coming from a military family, I thought I knew what to expect. How terribly misguided of me. My parents had climbed the hierarchical ladder to such a height that when I was born they could organise their lives to suit themselves. Dating my other half was a shock to my system, not eased much by the sugar coated glossy half-truths he sweetly fed me at the beginning of our relationship. It did not sound that bad. We managed our first tour well, as it was in the “exciting” honeymoon period, letters were exchanged and packages sent, long (alright that is a lie, sometimes incredibly brief due to minimise cutting off comms) telephone conversations in the evenings meant that time passed quickly. I was not used to him being around twenty-four hours seven days a week, so the total emptiness of his absence was not felt so keenly. I can do this, I thought to myself. This life will not be as bad as my mother keeps trying to tell me it will be.
I will never walk away from him, because he is my best friend, my confidante and my soul mate. But, by god, sometimes I want to. I curse the military more than I ever cursed any girl who tried to steal an old boyfriend, more than during any childhood argument with my little sister after she had borrowed and broken a prized possession. The Ministry of Defence (known in my house as “the f*cking army”) is my other half’s other woman. In fact she is worse than that. She is his controller, his dictator. She owns him. He spends more time with her than with me, and if we are about to make plans she will come along and royally fuck them all up for us. Dealing with this is difficult for both parties, as the desire to rant and scream at him for something beyond his control is sometimes impossible to resist. “Please don’t shout at me, I want to be with you as much as you with me.” “I’m not shouting at you, it’s not your fault, I’m angry at the army.”
So what pearls of wisdom can I offer to anyone who has found themselves in this situation after falling in love with one of these men in green?
The army will ruin your life. The army will ensure you have no partner at Christmas, no partner on Valentines Day. Your birthday will not be spent with your other half, you will learn to rely utterly on your friends and family. Forget anniversaries, genuinely, forget they exist. You cannot be the kind of person to take offence when no card or flowers arrive on your special day, because if you are, you are in the wrong relationship. You have to handle the household bills, the council tax, mechanical problems with the cars and DIY. You must be strong for others and be able to handle both his family’s problems and your own, as he will often not be around to help. You are basically a single woman and will be for the rest of your life, strengthened in the knowledge that in spirit he is with you the entire time in everything that you do. How often I lament that I have heard him say “I would be with you if I could. I am so sorry.” more times than I have seen him walk through the door. Expect to have to trust your partner implicitly. You will not know where he is ninety percent of the time, or who he is with. He feels the same about you, an open honest relationship is the only way long distance (for this is essentially what this relationship is, even if he lives an hour away) will work. Want to make romantic plans for a weekend away? Forget it. Well, do not forget it, but be prepared for these plans to have to be cancelled last minute, as She in her infinite wisdom has decided he is needed for some task. Often these tasks appear meaningless, he may, as my partner is this weekend, be in fact sleeping in a bush. Invest in travel insurance. Brush up on your GCSE German. You might end up visiting or even living there. Play the Afghan card, even when he is just on exercise in Britain. The Afghan card will get you access to all his billing information to perform tasks for him when he cannot, in my experience subtle crying (a little tearful sniff here and there) on the telephone to companies is a far more successful way of getting what you need than rudeness. Try not to snap at him when he cannot go somewhere or do something. He is missing my graduation, this is not his fault. Patience must be your strongest virtue, kindness and the ability to bite your tongue the closest second. He may sometimes lie to protect you from worrying. A discussion between you about this is recommended, if he feels he should omit facts when he is on tour, then this is his prerogative and you must respect it. PTSD. Be aware of the symptoms. Be aware that he may not ever be able, or wish, to recognise that he has it. Know that there are some things he may never wish to share, and that at the same time he might serve his years blessed in that he does not experience anything awful at all. You do not know and will never know more about the Army than he does. Do not listen to the idle gossip of other military wives and girlfriends. Do not get involved in tour-time wife and girlfriend mass hysteria. Believing blindly that they will come back in one piece is the only way to get through a tour. Listen to the news, but do not become absorbed in it. LIVE YOUR OWN LIFE. Have your own career, your own dreams. If you invest too much in his life and his work and dreams, your own happiness will suffer. Treat him as an equal, not a superior, but understand that his job involves a certain amount of flexibility. Keep your friends close and your family even closer. You will need them.
I would not wish this life on anyone. The reason I have this path ahead of me is because the love of my life chose this career for himself nearly a decade before we met. He is my best friend and I support him fully, as he does me in my chosen career path. However, if he did not support me, if he was not my best friend I would be running for the hills.
This is going to be hard but you have decided to stand by him (or her!) and deal with it. This is, therefore, the mentality you must adopt and it is one you cannot let falter, for both of your sakes.