Brave Defence Forces personnel admit “leaving is never easy”
With an equal mixture of pride and anxiety, the families of 130 Defence Forces personnel gathered under grey skies in the Main Square of Athlone's Custume Barracks for a special ceremony on Monday morning of this week ahead of their six month deployment to Syria on peacekeeping duties as part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).
The members of the 60th Infantry Group, three of whom are female, are being led by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Dwyer, and include 14 personnel from Westmeath and seven from Roscommon.
In his address to the departing Defence Forces personnel, Defence Minister Paul Kehoe spoke of the “personal cost” to families of being parted from their loved ones for extended periods of time. “Without your commitment and dedication, Ireland’s strong tradition of service overseas, under the auspices of the United Nations, would not be possible” he said.
One of the families who will have their lives impacted by the separation that serving overseas entails is the family of Corporal William Fitzmaurice, who lives in Bealnamulla with his fiancée, Claire, and their adored one-year old son, Noah.
Although he has already completed six overseas missions, Corporal William Fitzmaurice admits that this one will be “very different.”
“It will be very hard to leave Noah, and I'll probably be facetiming every night to get a look at him,” laughs William, who is the fifth generation of the same Athlone family to serve in the Defence Forces – four of whom were called William! Two of his brothers, Darren and Sean, are also serving members.
Dressed from head to toe in a khaki outfit, little Noah Fitzmaurice was the essence of cuteness in Custume Barracks on Monday as he hopped and skipped around the dining hall where a sumptuous spread of food had been laid on for the departing troops and their families.
“There is a very strong Army tradition in our house, and I joined up when I was 17 years old so next year I will have completed 21 years of service,” says William Fitmaurice, who grew up in Battery Heights, but whose parents, Willie and Debbie, now live in The Strand.
William and Claire are planning to get married next year, and he admits that the financial incentive is “the added bonus” for most of the soldiers who enlist for overseas service, although he adds that it is also “a great experience and a great honour” to embark on peacekeeping duties in some of the most troubled parts of the world.
Sergeant Sarah Tobin from Monksland will be saying goodbye to her daughter, 19-year old Kelsey, and her partner, Niall McHugh, when she heads off to Syria on October 1 to work with the Medical Unit of the 60th Infantry Group, and like many of her colleagues, she is also no stranger to overseas missions having already been to the Lebanon on three previous occasions, and once to Kosovo.
“Leaving is never easy,” admits Sarah, who is one of only three female members of the Defence Forces in the 130-strong group who are being deployed to Syria. “But once you get to your destination and get stuck into the work, you just learn to keep yourself busy and to support your colleagues in every way possible.”
Coming from an Army background – her Dad, Patrick, was also a member of the Defence Forces – Sergeant Sarah says she “grew up around the Army” so it was no surprise when she enlisted 14 years ago. In Syria she will be working as a paramedic, and as such she will be part of a team who will be responsible for the medical needs of all her colleagues.
The advances in communications technology in recent years have been “a Godsend” for Company Quarter Master Sergeant, James O'Reilly from Baylin, as it allows him to keep in daily contact with his two sons, 12-year old Jack and 9-year old Stephen, and his partner, Aisling, (who is also a serving member of the Defence Forces based in Galway) via social media apps like WhatsApp, Skype and Facetime.
James works in the communications section of the Defence Forces, and will be responsible for a team of technicians who will oversee all aspects of the the communications network for the 60th Infantry Group during their deployment in Syria.
The Baylin native said during his first overseas tour the only way of keeping in contact with loved ones at home was by letter, and it could often take “up to a month” for a letter to arrive in Athlone from the Lebanon. “Now with things like Facetime I can talk to the boys every evening, and it really means so much to be able to hear about their day to day activities and to be able to see them as well,” he says.
Having served in East Timor, Liberia, Kosovo and the Lebanon on previous missions, James says the trick is to “get into a good daily routine straight away” before the homesickness gets a chance to set in. “Each overseas tour is memorable for different reasons, but the East Timor tour is the one that stands out for me as I was one of just 33 personnel and we were on foot patrol in the jungle which was a bit unusual in itself,” he says.
With very confined living quarters, James O'Reilly says soldiers become “very close” when they participate in an overseas mission.
After 29 years in the Defence Forces and five overseas missions, Company Quarter Master Sergeant in charge of stores, Benny O'Connor from Athlone's Mitchell's Terrace, is looking forward to his sixth tour in Syria, but says he will obviously be sad to bid farewell to his partner, Michelle, and his two sons, Sean (23) and Ruairí (17) for six months.
“At least there has been a big improvement in communications,” he says, recalling that when he went on his first overseas tour to the Lebanon he had to rely on writing letters to his loved ones. “The postal system was so slow that we had to write a number on the top of every letter and the reality was that letter five could arrive home before letter one and then your family wouldn't have a clue what you were talking about,” he says.
While instant communication has allowed members of the Defence Forces to keep in daily contact with their families while they are on overseas duty, Benny O'Connor describes it as “a double edged sword” because bad news from home reaches personnel almost immediately, and sometimes before the necessary support mechanisms can be put in place.
“When we go on overseas duty we have great craic, but we are also there to support each other in times of crisis,” points out Benny. “First you get to know someone and then bit by bit you get to know the name of their wife or partner, and the names of their kids and their birthdays, and if something goes wrong at home you are there to support them, and that is very important, especially when you are so far away from home.”