“If we come under attack and you are in extreme pain, do I have permission to give you morphine?” asks the heavily armed lieutenant. Never before have I had to do less thinking before answering a question.
Once my unequivocal willingness has been established, our group is taken to the Warrior armoured vehicles – basically tanks – and we begin our journey from Basra airport to the British military’s logistics HQ in southern Iraq. The group consists of military personnel, yours truly and an intrepid group of employers there to see how their employees are benefiting from the experience, having been called up as members of the Territorial Army (TA).
It’s the middle of the night at the Shaibah Logistics Base, about 15km out into the Iraqi desert, and the tension is palpable. Two days before, three mortar bombs hit the airport in an attempt to put the runway out of action. Pictures of British troops allegedly beating Iraqi protestors have given insurgents just the right incentive to up their activities against the occupying forces.
The Foreign Office, meanwhile, has strongly advised against all travel to Baghdad and the surrounding area, and the southern provinces of Basra and Maysan. The security situation is highly dangerous. “We urge all British nationals in Iraq to consider whether their presence in Iraq is essential,” it warns.
Would you choose to send an employee to such an environment? Probably not. But the employers I’m with in the Warrior armoured vehicle didn’t have a choice – their staff were mobilised because they are in the TA.
The idea that TA officers are just ‘weekend warriors’ is a thing of the past. They now make up 25% of the Army and no-one doubts their importance in the effort to rebuild Iraq. However, employers back in the UK face the task of filling valuable workers’ shoes while they’re on the front line.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) tries to soften the blow of losing staff for up to nine months by telling employers they will come back with hugely enhanced skills that they can apply to their work, such as teamwork, leadership and management.
Lieutenant colonel George Lowder, of the First Battalion the Royal Scots (the Royal Regiment), the commanding officer of the Rear Operations Battle Group, believes TA input is essential to the Army effort.
“They provide much needed additional resources, and bring valuable, different skills,” he says. “In return, employers get back an improved individual who will bring different skills that employers need.”
This is the company line, but does the Cassino company of the Fourth Battalion Parachute Regiment (4 Para), who are all TA soldiers, agree?
Lance corporal Charlie Harrison, who works as a building contractor back in the UK, is in no doubt of the benefits his work in the TA gives him back home. “We have to work as a team here – if you are not doing your job properly then people can die,” he says.
Major Duncan Southall, the officer commanding 4 Para and a Leicestershire Constabulary police sergeant by day, agrees.
“The guys have to work long hours and, on occasion, do unpleasant things,” he says. “Some of the young guys have grown up in the past few months. They will be taking new skills home, such as management of people from all sorts of backgrounds as well as leadership,” he added.
On a personal level, Southall has responsibility way beyond his day job – commanding 117 soldiers. He says he has learned valuable new leadership skills as well as diplomacy, having dealings with a huge variety of people – from Iraqi civilians to British prime minister Tony Blair.
Benefits all round
How do the TA officers feel about leaving their positions open back in the UK for months at a time?
“No-one is indispensable,” adds Southall. “The person who took over my job is getting new experience and skills – so he is benefiting, Leicestershire Constabulary is benefiting and so am I.”
Most of the soldiers share Southall’s positive attitude, but that’s not to say the return to work is always smooth.
Sergeant Neil Alvy, a forklift examiner back in the UK, sounds a note of caution: “Here, you have to get on with the job and you take that attitude home with you. The skills you get are very well recognised in the TA, but whether or not they will be back home is a different matter.”
After seeing 4 Para at work, are the employers that have come all this way convinced that the MoD and the soldiers are right about their new skills?
Major Southall’s boss, Leicester’s superintendent, Mark Wilson, is very impressed.
“Having been here and seen what he is involved in – the threat levels and the planning involved – I think he will bring back invaluable skills,” he says.
And Superintendent Trevor Watson, head of HR at Durham Constabulary, agrees. “I would be surprised if anybody who comes out of this arena doesn’t come back changed, having learned stuff that can be of use to their employers,” he says.
Eric Sinclair, product support manager at Thales Air Defence, said the discipline the soldiers displayed would be a great asset to the modern workplace.
“Look at the pressure they are under to get the job done. That ethos would be invaluable if you needed something done,” he adds.
However, some of the employers fear the adrenaline rush of the soldier’s life might be difficult to replicate back home.
“Here they have a level of responsibility they might not be able to have when they come back – will this frustrate them or will it be a catalyst for someone to do more to get ahead?” asks Sinclair.
In addition, how do employers measure the skills their employee brings back?
“It would be really helpful to have some type of template to say what someone has done and what skills they have gained,” says Sinclair. “Even just a debrief, transposing military skills into a business context, then our personnel department could see how what they have done fits in.”
While the Army is working hard to align its learning programmes with civilian ones, it will remain up to the individual to arrange an explanation for their employer, according to captain Johnny Longbottom, the escort officer for the MoD’s Employers Abroad programme.
According to Longbottom, a soldier can request a civilian version of their “post-operational report”, but employers are not entitled to demand a copy.
“We have to take the soldier’s wishes into consideration, as some people don’t want their employer to know what they got up to,” he explains.
And while no-one doubts the valuable contribution TA soldiers make to the Army effort, it’s difficult to offset this against the problems involved in filling the gaps left in the workforce back in the UK.
“We can’t just pull staff out of a hat. We had to rearrange the portfolio and when he comes back we’ll have to arrange it back,” says Greg Zagni, regional manager of Grainger Trust, one the UK’s largest residential property owners.
That said, as we board the Merlin helicopter that will take us out of the base and back into Basra, the overwhelming feeling is that we have been among a group of people right on top of their game and who will bring a richer set of skills back to their workplaces when they return in April.
Hopefully, this will be some consolation when staff break the news that they’re heading for the front line.
The Volunteer Reserve Forces
Members of the VRF are civilians who train for their military role in the evenings, at weekends and for a two-week period each year.
In times of need, the government can mobilise them for full-time military service alongside the Regular Forces.
There are 40,000 members of the VRF, of which 86% are in the TA, with the remainder split between the Royal Naval Reserve, the Royal Marines Reserve and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force.
How many reservists?
Since January 2003, approximately 12,500 reservists have been mobilised for full-time service, mostly in Iraq.
As of January 2006, there were approximately 823 reservists mobilised to support operations in Iraq.
According to research conducted in November 2005, one in four (24%) of employers of reservists are unaware that compulsory mobilisation exists.
How the Army is made up
- 105,000 regular soldiers
- 36,000 voluntary reserves
- The Reserve makes up 25% of the total of the Armed Forces
- The Medical Reserve makes up 63% of the Defence Medical Services
What law governs mobilisation?
- The Reserve Forces Act 1996 (RFA 96) provides the powers under which reservists can be mobilised for full-time military service.
- The Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act 1985 (SOE 85) provides protection of employment for those liable to be mobilised, and reinstatement for those returning from mobilised service.
Personnel Today would like to thank Captain Johnny Longbottom, Major Duncan Southall, Captain Frank Boyle and the men and women of 4 Para for their help and protection during our time in Iraq. Thanks also to 1st Battalion the Royal Scots (the Royal Regiment) for their hospitality.
Military manoeuvres, www.personneltoday.com/33011.article
Employing reservists, www.personneltoday.com/29315.article