Army Reservist Private Belinda Houghton (25) from Blackpool is an Army medic currently serving with the 4th Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment as part of the United Nations Forces in Cyprus (UNFICYP) mission.
Oh my goodness, time has really flown by. It is hard to believe that I have been here almost two months already and that is almost a third of the tour over. I feel like I haven’t even seen or done anything yet and soon I will be deciding about where to go on holiday when I get back home next year.
The last few weeks have been really busy with patrolling and preparation for our military skills competition. I am the only girl on the team of eight Infantrymen but I surprise them and myself at times with my ability to just get stuck in to it all.
Balancing my daily work routine of guarding and patrolling whilst managing to get time to fit more military and physical training in is exhausting, but in a fun and motivating way. I found that although there are real physical elements to everything we do here, the more I do the more I want to do.
I love that my job allows me to get out most days into the sprawling open countryside around the United Nations Protected Area (UNPA), where I am based in the West of Nicosia. The area surrounds the old Nicosia Airport and has largely open fields now used by authorized farmers to graze their animals. One of my many responsibilities is to ensure that no unauthorized civilians are entering these areas without permission, as the lands are either contested or administered by the United Nations and therefore out of bounds.
Illegal hunters, unauthorized farmers and even opportunistic quad bikers will sometimes deliberately stray into them as they are fertile grounds for prey, soil and off road tracks. As for the authorized farmers, I actually have to count the number of sheep in their fields to ensure that there are only the correct number herded there. The jokes about counting sheep in your sleep are endless, as you can imagine. Quad bikers, taking full advantage of the very inviting and almost bespoke ‘all terrain’ nature of these areas, can often be seen blazing a trail at breakneck speeds.
When we catch them, we ask them to leave. Most understand that they need special permission to be there, but occasionally illegal farmers or hunters will protest that they do not need permission and refuse to move. Illegal hunters especially are stubborn because they are armed and we are not. The anxiety and tension in the air can at times be cut with a knife. Not that they would use their weapons against us but trying to get an armed person to do something they do not want to do, when you are unarmed, can be really tricky.
But we are trained for exactly this type of ‘person to person’ engagement, and so we negotiate with them professionally and courteously. This will generally elicit the same response, and so we can talk effectively to them about the constraints on the movement of non-authorized individuals, in a grown up discussion, which they almost always react positively to.
Funnily I have many of the same types of conversation with patients that I see as a student nurse back in Lancaster. I love the human interaction that both jobs provide. People are just so diverse and interesting but essentially human. Just like our famers and hunters here in Cyprus, patients at home often have to be negotiated with in order to get the best results for them in their recovery. I think many people could see this as stressful and tiring but it is a genuine pleasure to help if it pays off for them in the end. You just have to believe that they really do appreciate your help even if they do not show it immediately.
There are a number of abandoned buildings and houses in my patrolling area so we will routinely get out of our vehicles and have a look around to ensure the properties are empty, and that wild dogs are not using them. Would you believe I am at far more danger from a dog with rabies than I ever am from anything else? I have Armies north and south of me and the real danger is a mad dog!
As the military skills competition approaches I find myself training harder and harder. I must at least be as capable as the men in the team, although we all have different roles and strengths. I am the team’s combat medical technician which is a grand term for a battlefield paramedic, of sorts. In the simulated helicopter crash that will be one of the testing events in the competition I will be the subject matter expert when dealing with casualties, triaging them into the correct medical category based on their injuries and then ensuring that this information is relayed as effectively and efficiently as possible to the team commander.
We actually use a system that is not too dissimilar to the one I use as a student nurse. It allows me to quickly assess and categorize each casualty in order to ensure that the individual requiring life-saving treatment gets it according to their need and in relation to the needs of the other casualties. The parallels with my civilian work really allow me to play to my strengths.
The other events in the competition include cross country driving, command tasks, which are effectively practical puzzles that we attempt to solve as a team (think ‘of 90s quiz show The Crystal Maze) and shooting. It is all good fun but also intensely competitive. We compete against the other United Nations contributing forces from Argentina, Hungary and Slovakia.
To give you an idea of how competitive it is, we had a football tournament a few days ago with the same nations and you would have thought the World Cup had come to Cyprus. It all makes for really great banter and allows us to cooperate and communicate on a level that we all understand. Not everyone here speaks fluent English and the British personnel do not necessarily speak fluent Spanish, Hungarian or Slovakian but we do all understand ethos, team spirit and performance. Maybe I could get the nurses at home to get stuck into these types of events when I get back. Anyway, the football ended as it always does with Argentina knocking both our teams out. No ‘Hand of God’ this time, more like feet of Messi!
I will let you know how the military skills competition goes.