Today’s armed forces depend on regular and reserve forces working closely together, shouldering equal responsibility; and when on operations, with equal risk. In fact the role of the reservist is growing.
The RAF have more than 1,300 volunteer reserves serving around the world; more than a hundred of whom are mobilised supporting operations in Afghanistan and in Libya, which represents 11 per cent of current trained strength.
At RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, the arrival of a Tristar earlier this week - carrying troops returning from theatre and some ‘walking wounded’ attended by an aeromed crew - was just another day’s work for the medical, movements and RAF Regiment personnel at RAF’s largest station.
Among those on hand to talk about the dual life of a reservist were NHS nurses, a Royal Mail postman, a Centre Parcs employee and a Sainsbury’s manager.
Squadron Leader Colin Mathieson’s day job is as a commercial director for a car sales website. For 24 years, as a reservist he has doubled up as a Medical Support Officer with 4626 Squadron.
In that time he has deployed many times, the last being to Lashkar Gah during HERRICK 13. He said:
In my normal job, the work I do is all about organising things and writing budgets, which were just the skills I needed for my deployment.
As a Medical Support Officer, his task was to take a critical look at the clinical provisions and infrastructure in Afghanistan, working alongside personnel from the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the MOD:
I visited all the districts in Helmand province, which probably meant that I got out and about more than a normal RAF officer would.
Having pieced together the evidence, Sqn Ldr Mathieson’s recommendations were written into the Helmand plan, setting the direction and priorities for development in the Province up to 2014.
Speaking about the ‘Uniform to Work Day’, he said:
I’m a keen supporter of ‘Uniform to Work’, but, as I work from home, I suppose only the postman and the milkman will see me in it. I’ll probably wear it going to Sainsbury’s.
Three of the movements officers turning around the Tristar at RAF Brize Norton this week are all reservists from 4624 Squadron. Paul Kenny, a deputy manager with Sainsbury’s, the Royal Mail’s Ben Prentice, and Gloucester Rugby Club Community Manager, Gary Little.
Fully trained movements officers have the sorts of skills that are always in demand from all around the world. Ben Prentice explained:
We get tasked to go to all sorts of exotic places to load and unload aircraft. I’ve been to Nairobi, Canada, and Norway.
They all agree that the challenge of the work, and the opportunity to do something different, is what attracts them to being reserves. Also, they say that it is one of those areas where maturity and having ‘a few years on the clock’ are actually seen as a valuable thing.
The guys in the RAF Regiment’s 501 Squadron say the same thing. Reservist Corporal Mike (Digger) Gardner, who has just received a Non-Commissioned Officer leadership award - the first reservist gunner to do so - has, like many of his colleagues, plenty of experience of deploying to theatre; his last being a six-month tour to Kabul, ending last November:
We provided Force Protection around the city, we went out on patrol, mentored the Afghan troops and provided escort duties,” said Cpl Gardner.
Rather than deploying as a full squadron, reservists from 501 Squadron embed with regular RAF Regiment squadrons in ones and twos, going through the pre-deployment training with them to build relationships before being deployed. Cpl Gardiner added:
Because we are reservist corporals, we do tend to be a little bit older than the others. You often find the younger guys coming to us for advice about life, even little things like how to get a mortgage, because they haven’t done all that, but we have.
And sometimes they find it easier to off-load to us than to their own corporals - they call us ‘Corporal Dads’.
Lance Corporal Mark Armstrong, who teaches children in a pupil referral unit (where all the students have been either excluded or expelled at some stage), finds that his experience as a reservist helps him deal with difficult classroom situations:
The principles are the same,” he said. “I know that if it kicks off, I can sort it out. Being a reservist gives you moral courage and the ability to think straight under pressure.
All say that they decided to join the reserves in order to ‘give something back’, and to do something they can be proud of.
Corporal Shaun Gibson talks with an Aussie twang. His father was in the British Army, and later moved to Australia and joined up there:
We’ve had members of our family in battles ever since there have been battles,” he said. “I wanted to do my bit to serve Queen and country and all that. It used to be that regulars would tar all reservists with the same brush. If they met one who wasn’t that good, they’d assume all auxiliaries were rubbish.
It’s not like that any more. In fact often when you join a team of regulars, being a bit older, the boss soon realises that he can rely on you to get on with things and be professional. That’s very satisfying, and one of the reasons we do this.
If you like the idea of doing your bit too, the RAF Reserves are recruiting, See the RAF Reserves website at Related Links for more details.