More than 100 TA Reservists from the South West are coming to the end of a summer they'll never forget; the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to proudly serve their country and help to make the London 2012 Olympic Games safe and secure.
The soldiers, from two West Country based units - 6th Battalion the Rifles (6 RIFLES) and The Royal Wessex Yeomanry (RWxY) - were mobilised to support the Defence contribution to the London 2012 Olympic Games, a deployment they’ve known about and have been training for, for a long time.
In all, more than 18,000 military personnel - including 1,600 Reservists - have been on duty during the London 2012 Olympics.
The military's role has been to provide the extra capability and manpower support that the police and the Home Office need to safeguard what has been the greatest peacetime security operation seen in the UK. It has been a huge and complex tri service, multi-agency operation built on existing joint operations that routinely ensure UK security, with the military working alongside civilian agencies and authorities.
6th Battalion the Rifles
For 80 members of 6 RIFLES - South West England’s 500-strong TA infantry Battalion - this has meant swapping their civilian lives as teachers, students, office workers, website designers, fitness instructors and security consultants to help perform a vital role as part of the Venue Security Force at the London Olympic Park itself.
Reservists’ jobs and backgrounds on ‘civvy street’ make them perfectly suited for this role where interaction with the public is central. Though some were specifically selected for mobilisation because they work in security in their day jobs, it’s the fact that Reservists live and work in our communities that makes them ideally suited to this important job.
For several weeks 6 RIFLES have been working on a 24-hour shift pattern which sees some of them starting at 4.00 in the morning and working through until 4pm, four days on, two days off. With tens of thousands of people passing through security every day it has been hard work, but ultimately worth it. Many have been thanked by people from around the World for being there.
Work hard, play hard
'When you're working it’s long hours... but every moment on the gate is worth the down time out and about' said Serjeant John Justice from Exmouth in Devon.
The 48-year-old former Royal Marine put his name forward to be mobilised during the London 2012 Olympics just a couple of months after returning from serving in Afghanistan, where 13 of his mates from 6 RIFLES are right now, serving shoulder-to-shoulder with their Regular counterparts from 3 RIFLES in Helmand Province.
There’s a reason why Sjt Justice was so determined to be a part of the 2012 Olympics. He might live in Devon, but he’s a Londoner and grew up just a stone's throw from Stratford, the part of East London transformed into the magical sporting arena that is the Olympic Park.
He passes his old front door on his way from the tube station to Whipps Cross TA Centre where 6 RIFLES are based during the Olympics. For him, serving at the London 2012 Olympics this summer is more than a fantastic experience; it’s about going home to play his part.
"I was born a couple of miles up the road and moved to Devon when I was 16. I know this area very well and have been visiting lots of cousins and other family while I've been up here" he said.
"It has change massively... where the Olympic Stadium and everything has been built used to be marshland where we played football as kids... It's one enormous change. I've had to carry a map because of the changes that have gone on over the years. It's amazing really."
Immersed themselves in the Olympics
Not all of the one hundred or so Reservists from the South West who’ve been mobilised for the London 2012 Olympics have such close links with the games. They might be experiencing the magic of the 30th Olympiad at close-hand but, coming from towns and villages in Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, for their families back home, they are the closest link to London 2012.
It’s something that clearly hasn’t been lost on these TA soldiers who have immersed themselves in the Olympics, spending most of their downtime at the Olympic Park in Stratford where they’ve been trying their best to ‘out do’ each other with stories of what, and who, they’ve seen and what they’ve done... stories they’ll bring home to the South West, helping to spread the Olympic spirit across Britain.
The highlight for Sjt Justice was being invited into the Olympic Stadium for the dress rehearsal of the opening ceremony. Knowing what that part of London was like when he was a boy made it all the more incredible: "It was fantastic and made me proud to be British… it was all there, apart from elements like the Queen which surprised everyone I think.
"What you don’t get from the TV is the atmosphere and the smells. During the Industrial Revolution part for instance with the smelting of the rings, you had that ironmongery smell and the countryside smells. It was the most amazing thing I’ve seen in an arena and I’ve been to some pretty big events."
For John this was just the start and he’s now seen a whole host of events with his mates from 6 RIFLES over the past few weeks, including fellow West Country boy Tom Daley in the synchronised diving. They’ve also met everyone from brand new British Olympic medallists to global sporting icons such as Roger Federer and Michael Johnson with name dropping now firmly a part of the daily routine.
The twenty or so riflemen who were invited in to the Olympic Stadium on 4 August to see Greg Rutherford, Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah win Gold for Team GB on ‘Super Saturday’ have surely won hands-down.
The Royal Wessex Yeomanry - Weymouth
37 members of The Royal Wessex Yeomanry, South West England's only Yeomanry Regiment, have performed a similarly vital job to 6 RIFLES, this time as part of the Venue Security Force at the London 2012 Olympic sailing venue at Weymouth & Portland.
They are based at Chickerell Camp near Portland and have been supported by a contingent of TA communications experts from Bristol-based 39 Signal Regiment and Plymouth-based TA Commandos from 383 Commando Petroleum Troop, making it a true West Country deployment
Unlike 6 RIFLES this means the Royal Wessex Yeomanry and their fellow TA soldiers are serving in their own region during the London 2012 Olympics. It might not be at the heart of the games in London itself, but their job is just as important and the fact that it’s so close to home - their Regimental HQ is just 30 minutes up the road at Bovington Camp - makes the experience all the more exciting.
"It’s been fantastic to be down at Weymouth. It’s been a great atmosphere" says Trooper Jessica Hunter who’s a beautician by trade and lives just 50 miles away in Salisbury, Wilshire.
"I’ve been providing the security at Chickerell Camp itself and I’ve been down helping with the boat security, so escorting the boats out of the safe area to go and refuel and making sure nothing goes wrong… It’s wicked… I’d be doing nails now if I wasn’t here" added the effervescent 21-year-old who’s based at B Squadron RWxY in Old Sarum in Wiltshire.
It's not just the work that they’ve had in common with 6 RIFLES; for all it's been an extended period away from home and from loved ones, not to mention supportive employers. All are looked after by dedicated welfare teams in their respective units.
Some have been able to meet up with friends and families to see some Olympic action and 50 tickets a day have been made available for the military at the Nothe spectator area. Earlier this month 150 military personnel and their families were given access to the local council’s facility at Portland so they could see some Olympic racing.
Major Stuart Keegan from Newton Abbot in Devon has been able to get home to see his wife and young baby a few times over the past few weeks.
The 36-year-old is Officer Commanding the RWxY Olympics contingent at Chickerell Camp. He admits it has been difficult at times, but his family - who happen to be keen sailors - understand how important the job is; "This proves we can do resilience, we can do war fighting… we’ve got guys currently on operations in Afghanistan, 32 of them, operating in a dismounted infantry-style role with Regular Royal Armoured Corps… It just goes to prove just how flexible the modern TA is; how good we are at providing functionality for the civilian powers as well as the military."
Members of RWxY are also working at Dorset Police HQ providing military liaison and at the HQ of 43 (Wessex) Brigade, which runs the Army in the South West and is playing a leading role in the security operation for the London 2012 Olympics sailing events in Weymouth and Portland in support of Dorset Police and other civilian and Olympic authorities.
"Its been a true inter-agency integrated and indeed joint effort… We’re doing UK security here, homeland security," says Brigadier Piers Hankinson, Commander of 43 (Wessex) Brigade and Joint Military Commander for Dorset during the 2012 Olympics.
"It’s a police lead - I get involved in the strategic coordinating group with the Chief Constable and Assistant Chief Constable - right the way down to the tactical level, and it truly is joined up; and not just the uniformed personnel that you would expect by way of the Fire and Rescue Service, the Ambulance Service, the police… but actually the local authorities as well and all those other branches have really stepped up to the plate and we work together to solve problems. I think it’s exemplar of how we can do this in the future."
The greatest show on earth
So what next for these TA soldiers from the West County? For many the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics will mean the end of their mobilisation and they’ll return home to friends, families and colleagues at work with exciting stories to tell.
Others will go on to serve during the London 2012 Paralympics as part of a continuing military deployment. For example, 23 riflemen from 6 RIFLES will stay on and continue to provide security at the Olympic Park in Stratford.
Rifleman Glen Hamblett from Cornwall is one of them. This time last year, the 23-year-old self employed website designer was nearing the end of an arduous 6-month mission in the scorching heat of Helmand province in Afghanistan where he was serving shoulder-to-shoulder with Regular counterparts from Gloucestershire’s 1 RIFLES.
Now he’s in London and, after more than a month on duty during the Olympics, is proud to be staying on to serve during the Paralympics too; "For me, as important as the Olympics are, it’s the Paralympics which hold a special connection for the Armed Forces. It was something started for people injured in war. Having been to Afghanistan and seen a lot of injuries which would cause people to be part of the Paralympics I think it would be an absolute pleasure to be a part of it."
Whatever their reasons for taking part, this summer is something these TA soldiers from the West Country will remember for the rest of their lives. They’ve had a front row seat during the greatest show on Earth and all can return home knowing that they’ve genuinely made a difference because they helped to make it all possible. They’re some of the heroes who helped to make the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics safe and secure.