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troops abroad

Lebanon troops on what the military needs: 'Pay could be better - we're months away from home'

The coming week marks the first anniversary of the Commission on the Defences Forces report.

THE COMING WEEK marks the first anniversary of the publication of the Commission on the Defence Forces report. 

When the report was published this time last year, there were 8,468 members within the Defence Forces. That figure now stands at 7,907, as of the end of January.

The report’s key recommendations included an overhaul of military hierarchy, creating a larger navy, introducing more aircraft and dealing with pay and conditions and detailed the gaps in Ireland’s defence structures in stark reality.

Tánaiste and Defence Minister Micheál Martin said this week there is a real “urgency” attached to recruitment and retention in the Defence Forces. However, his comments come as the LÉ Róisín and the LÉ Niamh ships are placed into reserve because the Naval Service does not have personnel to staff them.

In a bid to find solutions to the hemorrhaging of staff, the minister held a meeting in recent days with military command and senior officials in his department in respect of recruitment and retention.

Pay and conditions

He also acknowledged in the Dáíl that pay and conditions were identified as issues over the past two to three years, but insisted, “there has been a lot of movement on the pay front”.

The starting pay for a newly qualified three-star private recruited on completion of basic training is currently €36,419 – with the same future applying to the Naval Service,

A newly commissioned officer, that is, a school-leaver who applied for cadet training, is now commissioned after 15 to 18 months’ cadet training and starts on a salary of €40,316.  

If officers are already third-level graduates when they join, they start on a salary of €45,000.  

During a trip to Lebanon with the minister last month, The Journal spoke to a number of soldiers based in Camp Shamrock. 

They all agreed pay remained a huge issue. 

Second to that, was the upgrading of equipment. 

‘Pay is a massive thing for us’

Corporal Ciara Nevin, from Kilkenny, who is on her second stint at Camp Shamrock, said: 

“Pay is a massive thing for us. We work so hard, we really do, we spend six months away from family, which not a lot of people do.”

IMG_1048 Corporal Ciara Nevin

She said better pay and conditions would encourage people join up and would make people “actually want to come out here, because it is great to come here. So that would probably be one of the main things”.

Two brothers, Corporal Darren Fleming and Private Evan Fleming, who are both deployed in Camp Shamrock, agreed, stating that better pay would help with the retention issues the force is facing. 

“Pay could be better, there’s no doubt,” said Darren Fleming, who added that rising inflation and the cost-of-living also impacts Defence Force personnel and their families back home. 

He said due to the workload being carried out by soldiers, as well as the time that they must spend away from their families, better pay and conditions would help. 

“To make us a better organisation, pay could do with being better, no doubt. I think that is a big issue, of course with inflation and everyone getting crippled by that too,” he said, adding that many of his colleagues agree. 

IMG_1054 Brothers, Private Evan Fleming and Corporal Darren Fleming.

He said: “With the workload that we do, the long time away from home, like that is really tough, especially for relationships, it can be really tough on the partner, so money could be something that helps.”

Speaking about upgrading equipment, he said there has been newer equipment coming on stream, but he said “it is so slow in development coming through”. 

“I think if we got really high-tech stuff, I think it would be a beneficial factor in encouraging people to join,” he said.

“We are moving in that direction, slowly, if it could come on stream quicker, that would be great.”

Death of Private Seán Rooney

Since the death of Private Seán Rooney before Christmas, the risks the soldiers face have also come into focus, with soldiers speaking about how their families worry back home in Ireland.

“It’s natural for any parent to worry about their sons, two sons on deployment and mam only has three.

“I think Mam’s worries have escalated since the incident in December, but things in Lebanon can go from zero to a hundred like that, that’s how it works,” said Darren.

He said their mother is a bit of a worried, but with wifi in the camp, it makes it easier to keep in touch. 

“I have been deployed places overseas where there is nothing,” he said, stating that this is his third time in Lebanon, his seventh time overseas, and fourth time in the Middle East, having served in Golan Heights as well. 

There is a 12-year gap between the two brothers, with Darren, the eldest, stating his family, while worried they are both based in a hostile area, are also reassured they are together.

“I think they [his parents] are calmer because I am here with him, I think if he was here by himself after what happened they would probably be in an asylum right now, but the fact I am here with him, he is under good tuition and observation,” said Darren.

IMG_1051 Corporal Neil Walsh

Corporal Neil Walsh from Dublin, who is on his first overseas mission, has a six-month-old baby at home. While he said the training and night shifts are getting him prepared for the return home and the night feeds, leaving family is the “hardest part” of going abroad.

“I’m actually going home on Wednesday for three weeks’ holidays. I’ll be back out again until May,” he said. 

With a young family, he agrees that pay remains an issue. 

“The pay conditions and the equipment in general – upgrading – all the stuff that has come out of the report, all the stuff that they are going to be acting upon, it is great that we are getting it, because we want it so badly. The gear we have here is good, but it is just not up to the standard we want for our patrols,” he said.

When asked if pay, working conditions and equipment improved, would it help retention, Walsh said: 

“I would say so yeah, they are pushing the retention now, so if there are soldiers that are really enjoying their job it is obviously going to help retention.”

Right now, personnel levels in the Defence Forces are hovering at about 8,000.

Martin said in the Dáil that “it will take some time” – maybe the next two to three years -  to get to that 9,500, though he said he hoped maybe sooner.

He said investment is going to put into Gormanstown Defence Forces camp in Meath to ensure as a centre of excellence for induction training, which is something that should have happened before now, he added. 

Naval Service retention

Speaking specifically about the Naval Service, Martin said he believes the issues stem from the organisation of working time and the need to take modern-day realities into account.  

“We need to stand back and do everything we possibly can to arrest this decline,” he said.

While the Tánaiste wants to ramp up Defence Forces numbers, there is a particular focus being placed on recruiting women. 

The treatment of women in the armed forces has come under scrutiny, with the Independent Review Group on the Women of Honours allegations of bullying and harassment, going to the minister on Thursday.

Martin said it is Government policy to increase female participation rates at all levels across the Defence Forces, adding that a high level action plan has been drafted.

A senior gender advisor at colonel level, options for female participation at general staff level, a review of fitness standards, and the development of gender, diversity and unconscious bias training is all part of the new plan.

“These are critical recommendations which will underpin the commitment to moving to a strong representation by women across the ranks,” said the minister. 

Corporal Nevin told TheJournal that she would encourage women to join up.

“The lads just treat you as one of them, they are so great, they love involving you, they will never leave you out, ever. I have never felt that I have ever been left out. The lads over here are great, they are really, really good. I love having them around. 

“I encourage women to get involved – definitely – the lads will always look after you, they just take you under their wing, even though you might not need it, it is great to have them.”

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