Soldier under Training (SuT) Donna Jones is a Territorial Army (TA) soldier training to be a Vehicle Mechanic with 119 Recovery Company, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME). She is currently undergoing Phase 1 Training, which for TA soldiers spans two courses. The first of these takes place over 6 weekends and is known as “Trained Soldier Course (Alpha)”. In civilian life SuT Jones is a hairdresser and beauty therapist – so what does she make of training becoming a soldier?
I knew a little of what life was like in the Army, so wasn’t going in totally blind – my years spent in the Army Cadet Force as a kid had given me a good insight. But that was a long time ago – I’m now in my mid-30s. When I sat my A-Levels I intended to to go straight into the Army – I passed the basic fitness text and selection, but for some reason I never made it any further. One day I came home from school and told my mother that I was going to work in the beauty industry instead. But it has always been at the back of my mind to join, and as I am now too old to join the regular Army, the TA was the next best thing.
I arrived at the Regional TA Centre, my home for the weekend, on Friday night at 2000hrs. The driver from my unit left, leaving me behind along with another new SuT. We were given keys to our accommodation blocks and told to return at 2130hrs. By that time I’m normally snuggled up in my PJs and dressing gown!
I was the first female to arrive in the block. The Regional TA Centre is used solely for training, and it was beyond basic. The bunks looked like they had seen better days and the whole place was in dire need of a clean. The first girl arrived, and she was just as nervous as me. We unpacked our gear and put it away in our lockers – which didn’t actually lock – just as the second girl arrived. We heard her coming – she was loud and Scouse, and didn’t stop talking. But we didn’t have much of a chance to talk as we had to go back out for 2130hrs.
We were told to line up and stand to attention. We did so, for 45 minutes, in the rain. And the wind was blowing us around because the sea was just a stone’s throw away. I have never been so cold before in my life. Eventually the Sergeant came out, called out our names and sent us into one of the classrooms. This was much welcomed by everyone. Here we had a 90-minute lesson on the British Army. He was just going to dismiss us when the fire alarm sounded. we all looked round at each other as the Sergeant informed us what to do. Once out of the building we had to run a mile to the main gates and again stand there. For 30 minutes this time. My teeth were chattering and I was so cold that it hurt. I nearly started to cry – not that anyone would notice, as by this point we were all soaked through. I am such a wimp when it comes to being cold.
Finally he dismissed us to our blocks. But not before another fire alarm. This entailed running to the edge of camp, and standing there for 20 minutes or so – freezing again. I appreciated the hot shower when we got back. We hung our uniform in the drying room overnight and we climbed onto our bunks. We were the only 3 females on this course out of about 30 males. We girls chatted in our block for ages, the 3 of us all a bit too excited to sleep…
“I have never heard such a small man shout as much”
We were up with the crack on Saturday, making sure our uniforms were ironed and boots clean before we left for a quick breakfast. I’m only used to eating a small breakfast and grabbing a cup of coffee, but breakfast today was a full English. Being female and watching what I eat, it was like a girl’s worst nightmare – but something told me that I’d better eat well to keep me going. Thank God I did. As I later found out, a solider needs more calories than a civilian, and by the time lunch came round I was starving again. This is no place for a girl on a diet!
We spent the morning doing drill in the pouring rain, again freezing, before going in for a hour to do some classroom work. Everyone was glad of the warmth and the chance to dry off a bit. By this time i was starting to feel a bit flu-like, the aches were setting in and I could feel my boots rubbing away at my ankles. I was so glad to get them off when we went to do some physical training (PT) just before lunch. It’s surprising how much you can fit into a morning when you get up at sunrise!
PT was an endurance run in the rain, but I surprised myself by not coming last. Although running in just shorts and t-shirt was like torture, I just wanted to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. At one point I started to walk on the way back from the half way point and one of the instructors ran after me screaming “Run, Run!”, trying to egg me on that bit more. It worked. By the time we got back I was totally knackered. We had a brief introduction to Army circuit training, which is a bit different from circuit classes I’m used to attending. Lifting pallets and sand bags, and moving the gym horse were all included to see if we had any strength. I wasn’t completely useless as I do some weights work at home. Also I think years of rock climbing has helped.
I was so glad when it was time for lunch. I was so hungry I had the biggest lunch I’ve had in a very long time! After lunch things were a bit easier. We had more lessons – this time on the morals of the British Army, and there was a bit of time for everyone to introduce themselves. I was surprised at how far some of the recruits had come, and they came from all walks of life too. Afterwards we had a practical demonstration on how to iron uniform, as some people hadn’t been shown how to do it at their units, along with sorting out berets! All the staff were really friendly and made lots of jokes, which helped to put our nervous group at ease. When we were asked questions during lessons there weren’t many hands going up, and we were all a bit quiet and softly-spoken when answering. I think we were just nervous of saying the wrong thing – and possibly a bit shy too.
We spent the next few hours outside again, on the drill square. The rain was on and off all afternoon. We started with the basics – standing to attention, standing easy and trying to keep in time with each other just marching up and down in a straight line. I have never heard such a small man shout as much as the Drill Sergeant barked his orders at us, shouting for us to start again and count our steps out, all the time waving his stick around.
We carried on with drill for the next 3 hours. We were soaked through and quite a few of us were wondering what the hell we were doing there. There was a lot of moaning coming from the squad, but no matter how much the cold was killing me I didn’t complain. But it wasn’t all bad, there were some laughs as a few of us had a go at giving out the orders of command. The scouse girl who was so loud had little difficulty with this but everyone laughed when she shouted out the commands in a scouse accent that was so thick hardly anyone could understand. Even the Drill Sergeant laughed.
We broke up at 1750hrs and had 10 minutes to freshen up before dinner. That’s 10 minutes to get out of wet gear, warm up and put on clean, dry uniform. It was then that I put on more layers, just in case we spent the evening back outside again…
After dinner we went back to the classroom for another few hours of lessons. We were briefed on personal hygiene in the field, safety and security. Just towards the end of the lesson we had another fire alarm, so it was all out and running to the gates of the camp, then standing to attention while they did the roll call. I was glad I’d doubled up my layers. Thankfully after this we returned to the classroom where they dismissed us for the evening.
Some of the group were heading off to the Mess for a hour, but all I wanted to do was get in a hot shower and sort my kit out for the following day. One of the girls was great at ironing kit so she took charge of our clean dry uniform while I took to bulling boots, which I’m quite good at. We were all in good spirits – just tired out. It wasn’t long before we all hit the sack. The other two were out like lights, but I was shivering, teeth chattering, so I got up and put an extra t-shirt on over my thermals. I was definitely coming down with something.
“Starting to feel more like a team”
On Sunday we were up with the lark again. This morning was a bit easier. We were ready faster, and we all checked each others’ uniforms before we left. Even after only a day and a half we were starting to feel more like a team. We had been warned today that we would have a uniform check, so we wanted to look as perfect as we could be.
After another huge breakfast we went to the classroom for a hour. Then it was outside for more drill and inspection. There was a lot of shouting and it was cold. It wasn’t much above freezing. Finally the Drill Sergeant reached me for my inspection. He looked me up and down but pulled me up on one tiny thing, some fluff which had stuck to the back of my beret. But overall I got off lightly compared to some of the lads. I think us girls did a good job of inspecting each other, compared to them.
We did some more drill – turning on command and fall out. This went on forever, or so it seemed, as everyone was a bit fed up because it started to pour down again.
We were dismissed to go and clean our blocks – which none of us were expecting! So we shared the duties of brushing and mopping. The place definitely looked cleaner as we were leaving than it did when we arrived.
Then it was more PT for a couple of hours. I managed the gym work and circuits but the endurance run I wasn’t up to as I seriously thought I had the ‘flu’. I had a temperature and had been taking paracetamol since waking up. So I was dismissed and sat to wait for the others to return.
After lunch we had more classroom work, which pretty much took us up until the time came to leave. I think we were all quite relieved when they finally dismissed us. We were tired and exhausted, and aching all over. I was never more pleased to see the driver from my unit!