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Last Updated: Monday, 17 March 2008, 09:21 GMT
RIR soldiers begin Afghanistan tour
By Lisa Costello
BBC News

Soldier in Helmand
The RIR soldiers are bound for Helmand province
More than 500 soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment have begun to deploy for a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.

The first left from Tern Hill Barracks in Shropshire where the regular soldiers are based, over the weekend.

They marked St Patrick's day in desert fatigues leaving for Helmand province.

Anyone who doubts that military life could ever be a substitute for a family should have stood in the parade ground of Tern Hill Barracks in Shropshire this weekend.

The lads of the Royal Irish Regiment, both regular and reserve, are facing six hard and dangerous months in Afghanistan, but first they had to get through the Shamrock Stakes unscathed.

This St Patrick's Day regimental tradition involves eight-man teams racing chariots they've built themselves - anything from a bathtub on quadbike wheels, to an ambitious replica of a Harland and Wolf Crane - while being pelted with eggs.

Oh, and did I mention that they gird their loins for this adventure by being woken at dawn with 'gunfire'. Gunfire in this particular context being a noxious brew of tea and Jamesons whiskey.

No-one is under any illusions about what lies ahead in Afghanistan. Many of the regular soldiers of 1 Royal Irish are on second tours of duty in Afghanistan.

Corporal Trevor 'Speedy' Coult from Belfast is a Military Cross winner with tours of duty in Iraq and Helmand province under his belt.

I volunteered to join the TA but not to go to Afghanistan and I think that's the same for all the guys - we're here because we swore an oath
Captain Peter Drennan

"In terms of context and fighting it will probably have quietened down slightly but it's going to be just as rough. It's the same place we're going to - but we're ready for it.

"It puts pressure on your parents. My mother's hair's falling out at the minute. The death toll used to prey on my mind - but I'm looking forward to it to be honest with you."

Captain Peter Drennan from Ballymena is a Reservist with 2 Royal Irish.

His appetite for the theatre of war isn't as strong but he says that he made a commitment as a part-time soldier which he has to honour.

"I've been away before so I've an idea of what I'm up against but its my first time in Afghanistan.

"I volunteered to join the TA but not to go to Afghanistan and I think that's the same for all the guys - we're here because we swore an oath. I think my mum's a bit upset about me going but I just hope and pray nothing happens anyway."

RIR soldier
The troops underwent intensive training before their deployment

Many of the mothers have come to Shropshire to say goodbye in person as have wives and children.

The parade ground, with its rows of pushchairs and cheerfully bantering guests, looks for all the world like the scene of a particularly large and unruly wedding reception.

That's until the St Patrick's Day Parade starts and the four companies of the Royal Irish fall out for inspection led by the regimental mascot Irish wolfhound Brian Boru and already dressed for deployment in their desert fatigues.

Suddenly everyone remembers they've come to say goodbye.

Its different when its your children. When you marry a soldier you expect - you know what you're going into. Children are a completely different experience.
Wife and mother of soldiers

Gail Meeley from Belfast was there to see both of her sons off in the deployment. She's spent years as an army wife and mother but even she still finds goodbyes hard.

"You do worry, because it's twice the worry isn't it. They are a close regiment - but it's never easy when they're going away."

Hugh Benson who's quartermaster of 1 Royal Irish has been in the regiment for 36 years, but even he scores a first with this tour as it will be the only time he and his three sons - also Royal Irish - have been deployed together.

Asked whether he'd ever wished his sons had done something else, he said: "Always. Doctors, lawyers, anything, but this is what they've chosen."

His wife Jenny said it was very different being an Army mum to an Army wife.

"It's different when it's your children. When you marry a soldier you expect - you know what you're going into. Children are a completely different experience.

"But hopefully with three of them all in the one spot they'll all look after each other - and God willing they'll all come home again."

Everyone involved with the regiment seems to derive a real sense of family from their colleagues whether soldiers themselves, or wives, parents and children.

It's to be hoped that will be some comfort to them in the six months ahead.

In their last tour of Afghanistan the Royal Irish lost three men and 12 were wounded.

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