Army Reservist Private Belinda Houghton (25) from Blackpool is currently serving with 4th Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment as part of the United Nations Forces in Cyprus (UNFICYP) mission.
Leaving my family in Blackpool and my nurse training in Lancaster behind as I started my journey to Cyprus was difficult, but I was also filled with a lot of excitement. This is my first operational tour with the Army Reserve but it is exactly the type of stuff I joined to do. I only joined 18 months ago and can’t believe this opportunity was open to me so early in my career.
When I stepped off the plane at Akrotiri airport in Cyprus, the heat that greeted me was pretty impressive. In excess of thirty degrees Celsius and with a humidity of around fifty percent. It didn’t take long for me to start sweating, but I was used to it.
Over the last seven weeks I have been training across the United Kingdom in a record breaking summer heat, so I know how to deal with the sun. In the Army this deployment to Cyprus is known as a ‘sunshine’ tour and I can see why.
We left Akrotiri and moved up to the United Nations Protected Area at the old Nicosia civilian airport, which will be my working and living accommodation for the next six months. The United Nations barracks has room for approximately 250 people to live and work out of. There are British, Argentinean, Hungarian and Slovakian soldiers who I work and live alongside every day. The best bit is that I have my own room.
Self-reliance is something I learned growing up in Blackpool and at University in Lancaster. As the eldest sibling with three brothers I’ve always been responsible and able to lead, which is great as this is something that the Army really respects and expects of its people. Almost everyone here has their own single en-suite room. You can get good wifi in them. Some even have TVs and DVD players. There are even washing machines and driers in addition to a free daily laundry service.
I knew this would be a place that I would love when I first got off the coach and saw the beautiful Cypriot countryside, the 50 metre swimming pool and glorious sunshine setting over the Kyrenia mountains to the North. Plenty of places to relax, or go exploring and running on my days off. Overall, I was very happy with my first impressions of Cyprus.
On our second day in Cyprus I was up early for my first physical training session at 6am. We train this early because it gets too hot by 9am. It really is that hot! I am a qualified life guard in the Army Reserve and had to supervise the entire team as they undertook their swimming test. I actually have life guarding duties for everyone on camp, including for the partners and children of personnel who are based here for two years. It is a great responsibility but very similar to caring for patients in the National Health Service as a nurse at home. I am very much a people person and love helping people, which goes some way to explain my fondness of the Army. I actually hope to join the Regular Army as a nurse.
The rest of the week is taken up with induction training including fire training, ranges, driver training and swimming tests. It is all essential stuff, though, as we have to ensure that we meet the United Nations standards for everything. Safety is paramount and I can understand that it is better to train too much than not enough.
Having finished training by the end of our first week I started my first full week of guard duty. A steady start but it will get better. My first round of night shifts played havoc with my body clock. It reminded me of my student nurse training back in Lancaster. I want to sleep when I’m awake and am awake when I need to sleep. Whether looking after ill patients in the National Health Service or checking vehicles before they enter the United Nations base, both have their rewards such as the beautiful sunrises each morning. Also, they will not last forever and then I’ll be on more adventurous stuff, getting out on patrols along the length of the ‘Green Line’ which refers to the buffer zone that separates the Republic of Cyprus in the South and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the North.
I actually belong to a department called the Mobile Force Reserve. Among other things it provides the security to the peace negotiations between Cyprus’ political parties which are hosted on United Nations camps here in Cyprus, to maintain impartiality and security for both sides to get on with their business. You could say that the Mobile Force Reserve are like the United States Secret Service but without the ear pieces and tailored suits. We do have respectable looking armoured cars, though, which are called ‘Tactica’. Interestingly, they are actually a British made vehicle used by Argentina in Cyprus and driven by Argentinean soldiers who are part of the United Nations here with us. The Mobile Force Reserve is actually made up of British, Argentinean and Slovakian soldiers. They and I are commanded by a British Major and we all get along really well. I may need to learn a little Spanish, though. We’ve even managed a BBQ or two already, with many more planned for our next six months on this wonderful island.
By the time September and our change of command with 36 Regiment Royal Engineers arrives, everyone is well settled. The Sun shines brightly on the day of the transfer of authority parade. As the United Nations anthem is played and all of us stand to attention, the flag of the 4th Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment slowly rises in line with the height of the midday sun. All I feel is a great deal of pride and joy. What an experience; what an opportunity.