Young guns

Britain is embroiled in the most unpopular conflict for generations. And the Army is mired in allegations of abuse and bullying at Deepcut barracks. Why would anyone want to enlist? Clare Rudebeck finds out

In a cramped room above Wembley high street in north London, Liam Hickey, 17, is joining the Army. Holding the New Testament in his right hand and facing a portrait of the Queen, he reads the Oath of Allegiance from a plaque on the wall. Behind him, his girlfriend bites her fingernails, his mother smiles with tears in her eyes, and his father works a camcorder.

In a cramped room above Wembley high street in north London, Liam Hickey, 17, is joining the Army. Holding the New Testament in his right hand and facing a portrait of the Queen, he reads the Oath of Allegiance from a plaque on the wall. Behind him, his girlfriend bites her fingernails, his mother smiles with tears in her eyes, and his father works a camcorder.

The oath sworn, Hickey and Paul Eaton, 18, who is also being enlisted, are handed their contracts. Both are joining the Royal Engineers as general fitters; both are signing up for a minimum term of four years and three months. "Some people say you're signing your life away," jokes Captain Eric Burt, who is leading the ceremony. "But you're not. It's a wonderful career, trust me."

Three of the 21 British soldiers who have died in Iraq this year were Royal Engineers. But Iraq is not on the minds of the two teenagers as they pose for photographs in front of the Queen. They are fulfilling a long-held dream, and it's impervious to the Middle East news and the latest allegations of abuse, including assault, bullying and rape, at Deepcut barracks in Surrey.

"I've always wanted to join the Army," says Hickey, who stares ahead during the ceremony, perhaps imagining the man the Army will make of him. "You see all the films when you are a kid, and you think, 'I want to part of that. I want to be someone like Rambo.' I know you can't actually do that, but as a little kid, that's what you think. You want to be the best. And if you join the British Army, you will be the best."

Having been an Air Cadet since he was 13, his only dilemma was whether to join the Army or the RAF. "I haven't felt like this in ages," he says. "When you're young and you get close to Christmas, you get a feeling of excitement. I'd started to lose that, but now I've got it back again. I feel like a kid with lots of Christmas presents."

Sitting beside him in a blue shirt and tie, Eaton bites his lip and has to be reminded to smile for the photographs. But there are no second thoughts. "It's been a dream of mine," he says. "I feel confident in what I've done today. I'm now just waiting to get on with it."

Yet recruits such as Eaton and Hickey are becoming harder to find. Applications this year are down by 15 per cent, and for the first time since 2001 the Army will not hit its recruitment target. But, according to Warrant Officer Mick Warren, the senior recruiter at the Wembley office, this isn't because the war in Iraq has persuaded potential recruits rethink their careers.

"People wanting to join rarely ask us anything about the war," WO Warren says. "However, the parents do tend to ask if and when their son or daughter will go to war." This is reflected in the Army's latest research, which shows that 45 per cent of parents are now less likely to encourage their children to join the Army as a result of operations in Iraq.

Most recruits join the forces before their 20th birthday. Last year, more than half of the 13,350 new recruits were teenagers. As Hickey is under 18, his parents had to sign a consent form to let him join. His grandfather and great-grandfather were in the Army, but his mother Susan has mixed feelings about her son's decision. "I'm very proud and very scared," she says. "I don't want him to go, but I know he's made the right choice. He's wanted to do this ever since I can remember. It isn't for us to stand in his way. It's his life." When Paul Eaton is asked whether he is 18, his aunt, Dot Struthers, murmurs: "Just."

It is up to recruiters such as WO Warren to decide whether the young men and women are mature enough to sign up. Some are told to wait. Enquirers are also turned away if they are more than 30 years old or have criminal records. Others are told to come back once they have lost weight.

Applicants must then pass a medical and take a basic skills test, in which they must score at least "level two", equating to a reading age of seven. If all goes well, an applicant can become a recruit six to eight weeks later and then embark on their 12 weeks of basic training.

In the past year, the Wembley office has notched up 439 enquiries, 221 applicants and 91 enlistments. They hold an enlistment ceremony every week, as do the 120 other recruitment offices around the country.

WO Warren says that he doesn't hide the less glamorous aspects of the job from eager young people brought up on action films and combat computer-games. "We are obligated to tell them the negative as well as the positive. They are going to be out in the cold and wet, training at 5am," he says. "It would be remiss of us to say, 'Come and join, it's a fun organisation, we have a great time.'"

During enlistment, Capt Burt, who conducts the ceremony, warns the new recruits about the risk of being bullied - a problem highlighted by the controversy surrounding the deaths of four recruits at Deepcut barracks between 1995 and 2002. "There are three things on which we have a zero tolerance policy," Capt Burt says. "Bullying, racism and drugs." If they are ever bullied, he tells Hickey and Eaton, they should call the Army's confidential helpline.

Although the Army is happy to discuss bullying and 5am starts with its potential recruits, the danger of being injured or killed while on active service isn't directly addressed. "Obviously, we don't talk about dying; as with all people, we like to be optimistic," WO Warren says. "But we don't hide it. I don't see how we could." Certainly, Hickey and Eaton are under no illusions. "Anyone would be lying if they said they hadn't considered the prospect of going to Iraq," Eaton says. "It's a scary thought. But it's the price you pay if you join the Army, and I would be quite happy to go if I had to."

The head of recruitment for the British Army, Colonel Alasdair Loudon, is candid about the problems of persuading young people to serve their country. "People are not breaking down the doors of our recruiting offices. They never have been," he says. "It's always been a struggle to get the number of people we need, because it's a difficult and not terribly pleasant job, in some ways."

On the wall outside Col Loudon's office hangs the famous First World War poster of Lord Kitchener declaring that "Your Country Needs You". Inside his office hangs the new face of Army recruitment: a poster of a young black female soldier, with the words "Make a Difference" written across her shoulder.

Until now, Col Loudon, who abandoned a career in publishing to join the Army at 23, has hit his recruitment targets every year since taking the job in May 2002. Last year's target was 13,509. This year's, which will not be reached, is 11,592.

In the 1990s, the Army never hit its recruitment targets, according to Col Loudon. Its more recent successes are down to a change of approach. Today, the Army behaves more like a persistent suitor, rather than a press gang, towards possible recruits. "Joining the Army is such a big step that immediate recruiting doesn't work," Col Loudon says.

His budget is £70m a year. On any day, 1,000 members of the British Army will be actively recruiting. But they are prepared to play a long game; all enquirers are logged on to a centralised database, and they are then targeted directly via mailshots and invites to careers events.

As Col Loudon says, joining up can be the "least bad option" for some young people. "Over the past 50 to 60 years, there is a pretty clear link between times when finding a job has been tough and people joining the Army," he says.

The traditional recruiting grounds for the forces are the North-east, North-west and Scotland. So far this year, 4 per cent of recruits have come from the South-east, whereas 16 per cent have come from the North-east. "They are the areas where there's less money about," Col Loudon says. "The average wage in the North-east is 30 per cent lower than in the South-east." However, he points out that this emphasis on the north has a historical context: infantry regiments that are based in Scotland recruit in Scotland.

He also recognises that recruits to the forces have often failed at school. Last month, a Ministry of Defence report revealed that 70 per cent of the 2003 intake or recruits at the Army training centre in Catterick, North Yorkshire, had a reading age of 11 or younger.

"We know that we don't get the average sort of person. For example, 57 per cent of the population now get five grades A to C at GCSE level. It is much lower than that in the Army," he says. "Largely, it is an occupation for people who have fewer qualifications than the average, and that's the way it's always been."

However, he believes that requiring recruits to have better basic skills would deny employment to people who would be capable of doing the job very well. "In the Army, you need to be resilient, flexible and good in a team," he says. "And you find that a lot of people who have been failed by the education system have those qualities and make very good soldiers."

The Army isn't simply the last resort, Col Loudon stresses. Many recruits join for positive reasons, such as the recommendation of family or friends, seeing advertising, wanting to escape a desk job, or wanting to help others.

And what of patriotism? Or, in the words of the Oath of Allegiance, defending "Her Majesty, in person, Crown and dignity, against all enemies"? "I don't think it's a major reason," Col Loudon says.

But the Army's newest recruits, Liam Hickey and Paul Eaton, don't entirely agree. "I do feel patriotic," Hickey says. "My duty is to protect my Queen and country, so that's what I'm going to do." Eaton agrees: "You get a funny feeling when you take the oath."

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