The teenagers heading for the front line in Afghanistan

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Oblivious to the senior officers seated in silence only a foot in front of her, the tearful mother pointed over their shoulders. "I can't spot him. He said he would be near someone with a red beret. Can you see him?"

On the parade ground in front, rows of 17-year-olds in dress uniforms stood rigidly, their chests puffed out, their faces half hidden by brand new caps.

These were the junior soldiers who, within 12 weeks of their passing-out parade, could be donning equally new desert uniforms and heading to Afghanistan.

Flags representing every section of the British Army billowed on the blustery morning as they marched with impeccable discipline in marked contrast to their proud and excitable families.

Two spiky-haired boys were scouring the lines of Army Foundation College (AFC) graduates for their respective brothers. "Jump about a bit and see who laughs," one said to the other. "I can't wait," he added. He too was about to follow his sibling into the Army, and, in just over a year this gangly young man could become one of the junior soldiers on that very parade ground. By then his brother, having reached 18, may well be serving in Helmand or Basra. This was the passing out parade for the AFC at Harrogate which recruits 16- and 17-year-olds for a year-long course that aims to turn them into soldiers of leadership quality. They are educated, offered everything from skiing training to volunteer work and put through arduous military training. Loyalty, courage, integrity, discipline, respect and self-commitment are expected. A third do not make it through the course.

Those that passed out 10 days ago will now go on to second phase training and could be on operations within three months.

Soon there will be a permanent reminder at the college of exactly what that could mean. A new block is to be named after Cpl Bryan Budd, 29, of the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, an instructor at the college last June, who was killed two months later in Helmand and awarded the Victoria Cross.

"There is utter openness about it. The last two weeks of their military studies they talk about Iraq and Afghanistan and the realities of what they are going into," said Capt Jennifer Robbins. "Some of them are really prepared. For some it won't hit them until they step out of the plane in Basra."

William Rawdon, 13, stared admiringly up at his brother David who had been awarded the post of college Junior Regimental Sergeant Major, the best soldier of the intake. David Rawdon remembered doing the same at his older brothers' passing-out parades. They are now a corporal and lance corporal in the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment and he was following in their footsteps. In the past four months their sister 1st Battalion has lost nine men in Helmand.

Tears brimming, their mother Melanie Rawdon said: "I was totally chuffed, very, very, very proud [of David]. Unfortunately their dad died in May. He should have been here today."

Referring to recent reports, denied as “oversimplistic” by the Ministry of Defence, that frontline troops in Helmand have a 1 in 36 chance of dying, she added: “When you see on the news that soldiers in Afghanistan have a 1 in 36 chance, I have now got a 1 in 12 chance... But you can't live your life thinking something is going to happen. I just hope their Dad is looking after them."

Nearby Arlene Hughes was watching her son Alex with equal admiration. He had just won the award for most improved Junior Soldier.The youngster had arrived at the college without a single qualification to his name. He had been "in trouble" before, he admitted in his broad Geordie accent, but had become “much more disciplined” and now had numeracy, communication skills and an information technology qualifications. He planned to follow his father into 2 Para.

Reminded he still had to complete the tough parachute regiment selection process, he responded defiantly: "I will do it". Like his fellow graduates he marched, his nose firmly in the air. He was full of invincible bravado and, perhaps, a few hidden nerves.

When they joined their regiment, Major General Simon Mayall - former Deputy Commanding General in Iraq - told them in his address, they were to remember that every seemingly ancient non-commissioned officer had once stood in their shoes.

"Work hard, be proud of your cap badge, obey your superiors, contribute, look out for your mates, don't whinge. Will there be hard times? You bet there will be. But, as I have always said, if it was not tough we would give it to civilians to do."

Former AFC graduate Trooper Chris Finney, of the Household Cavalry, was just 18 when he became the youngest military recipient of the George Cross for “outstanding courage”. He was wounded saving a colleague after they were mistakenly hit by American A10 aircraft during the invasion of Iraq.

Across the parade ground last week were undoubtedly young men and women who would one day be decorated for bravery in battle. Some though - like Corporal Bryan Budd - will have to rely on their families to collect the medal.