Army finds its new troops need tender, loving care

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"Come on you! What are you waiting for? An invitation? You should be up there! Let's go!"

After six weeks of training at Pirbright, Surrey, the future soldiers in the five Guards regiments and the Royal Logistic Corps were undergoing their combat agility test, designed to show they were fit enough and knew how to tackle obstacles well enough to go into combat.

As most swung over the assault course, climbing ropes, scaling 6ft walls and balancing on steel bars, a group of newer recruits were watching, getting their first introduction to a frenetic world of mud, water, acrobatics, aerial bars and pain.

"Do not stop! If you stop you will fall in!" shouted Bombardier Ian Battersby, Royal Artillery, one of the instructors. There was a splash as one of the soldiers dropped from the aerial frame and disappeared into the brown gunge.

After 16 to 25 years of the wrong food, the wrong shoes and not enough exercise, the Army has just 10 weeks to get its recruits up to the minimum standard required for combat soldiers. Mostly it succeeds in turning raw material which is sometimes the consistency of lard into something nearer fillet steak. But to do so it has had to alter its training policy.

Twenty years ago, young recruits would have been hurled at this assault course with little preparation and expected to get on with it. Now, they have to be introduced to it gently. By week eight they should be ready to take the basic fitness test, which all soldiers have to pass every six months. The biggest and most far-reaching change the Army has had to face in recent years is in the human raw material the instructors now have to work with.

The most difficult task for the newly-formed Army Individual Training Organisation will be to maintain a flow of trained soldiers as the Army's recruits become less "robust". Changes in diet and lifestyle - long hours in front of the video, less emphasis on physical exercise and sport in schools - are blamed. In many cases, recruits are overweight. In some cases, particularly in Scotland, they are also underweight.

They are usually aged between 16 and 25, although occasionally those entering certain trades may be older. Pirbright, formerly the Guards' depot, is the home of one of the Army's five training regiments, which trains young men and women for the Guards, the RLC, the Royal Artillery and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. All do the 10-week "common military syllabus" course. The gunners, engineers and logisticians move on to learn their trades, but for the Guardsmen this is only the beginning. Another 14 excruciating and exhausting weeks of infantry training follow.

The effect of modern lifestyle on young bodies is not just a question of fitness, of upper-body strength and endurance. Young people also appear to be more fragile, and less used to pain and exertion, and the trainers have to take that into account as well.

Further round the assault course, one of the recruits stumbled as he landed after negotiating an obstacle. A medic was summoned. "It's just his ankles, but we don't take any chances," said Staff Sergeant Pauline Doran, the senior physical training instructor responsible for the gym and 15 physical training instructors at Pirbright.

About five out of every 40 recruits are injured during the 10 weeks. S/Sgt Paul Bastow is a trained "remedial instructor"."We get lots of lower leg injuries, stress fractures, and back injuries. And we're starting to see more stress fractures of the feet. It's the bio-mechanics of the foot," he said.

Those who attend the remedial centre receive extra help which may give them an advantage over those fortunate enough not to be injured. Special attention is paid to "running style", which is a big problem as many of the recruits have never been taught to run properly. The instructors at Pirbright are increasingly finding that recruits have not been taught basic physical techniques - for example, how to lift weights. They also have to be taught what to eat.

"Another problem is they've never gone through any pain. Their perceived rate of exertion would be totally different from a competent amateur athlete," said S/Sgt Bastow. The majority of recruits were determined to become soldiers and to overcome the hurdles in their way. About 60 per cent of those injured returned to and completed their training.

Major-General Christopher Elliott, the "chief executive" of the new agency responsible for producing trained soldiers, said the Army was considering lengthening the initial recruits' training course to 12 weeks to cope with the "couch potato" problem, but that other, more flexible schemes were also being examined, such as potential recruits joining the Territorial Army for six months.

Back at Pirbright, in the gym, a group of recruits destined for the Royal Artillery, who had been in the Army just three days, were receiving their first gym instruction. Some had never been in a gymnasium before.

Those who have had gym lessons at school were taught alongside those who had not. Within 10 minutes, a change in the way recruits moved and worked together was apparent. There would many more changes in the next 10 weeks.