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Corporal Alan Rigney at Camp Shamrock Defence Forces

Column ‘Breakfast is Lebanese porridge and UHT milk’ – an Irish soldier’s diary

What is life really like for Irish troops in Lebanon? Hot and dangerous, writes Westmeath native Corporal Alan Rigney.

IT IS 0400 hours on a new day as I am awakened by the Muslim call to prayer, which reverberates around Camp Shamrock in the Shia-dominated region of South Lebanon.

Camp Shamrock, home to the 104 Infantry Battalion, is located on the outskirts of the village of Tibnin, a mixed village with a population of 4,000 – 80 per cent of which is Shia Muslim with the remaining 15 per cent Maronite Christian.

I manage to get a further two hours of broken sleep before the battalion reveille at 0600. My roommates for the next five months are Sergeant Derek Hussey from Athlone and Corporal Tommy Craig from Cavan. Our room is a three-man room while most others are for four. We are all good mates and this makes a great difference while serving in a stressful and demanding overseas mission.

After my shave and ablutions, it’s time for breakfast. The cookhouse consists of a tented dome at present and we are obliged to use an anti-bacterial gel, Spirigel, on entering. This is used to kill all forms of bacterial infection and is a reminder of the precautions that must be taken in this closely confined and humid environment. Breakfast usually consists of Lebanese porridge, cereals and UHT Milk, which I have to say, is an acquired taste. But toast and boiled eggs mean that all in all one cannot complain about this morning feast.

Following Battalion Inspection Parade at 0745 hours, I report to my Platoon Commander for a briefing on the day’s activities. Today our platoon is conducting a series of training drills up until lunch hour. Following the two recent Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks on Italian and French convoys using the coast road from Beirut to the port city of Saida, the main emphasis for our platoon is counter–IED training. We have a number of drills we use to help us counter this potentially life threatening attack. There is no need to focus or motivate the platoon this morning as everyone knows that by being better at these and having our drills as slick as possible we are minimising the threat against us.

‘Accidents are not uncommon’

We conduct these drills for two hours. The heat of the Lebanese summer is beginning to gather and it won’t be long until the temperature peaks at 36 degrees. This is when it is necessary for me to make sure my section of eight soldiers, mostly on their first tour of duty, are looking after themselves and stay fully hydrated.

The next training which we conduct is with one of our medics, based here in Camp Shamrock. In our post we have two fully qualified doctors and a team of ten combat medics. This is a fantastic asset which the Irish Defence Force provides for Infantry Battalions overseas and further shows how dangerous and potentially volatile overseas service can be.

We go through a number of first aid classes and the application of dressings for a number of types of wounds. The second lesson we conduct this morning is how to remove a casualty from an Armoured Personnel Carrier whilst stabilising him as much as possible. Two things have struck me since we arrived in theatre and that is how narrow some of the roads here in South Lebanon are and secondly how dangerous the Lebanese drivers are – so defensive driving is a must at all times as accidents are not uncommon.

On patrol with UNIFIL

As there are 430 troops in Camp Shamrock at present, the four companies rotate through for lunch. A Company is from 1220 to 1240 hours today. All the battalion are of the same opinion when it comes to our cooks. It is not easy for them working in the sun, as they are currently cooking out of a mobile field unit kitchen until the new cookhouse is built… but they are producing some fantastic lunches.

At 1400hrs its time for my first operational patrol of the day. It is a joint Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF)/IRISHBATT patrol. LAF presence will be a constant part of routine operations, in compliance with the UN-mandated Security Council resolution 1701 (2006). UNIFIL and IRISHBATT are here in support of the LAF. This will be a Counter Rocket Operation Patrol. Following the 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli war the focus is on making sure that no armed elements are able to stock pile rockets or construct rocket launching sites near the border with Israel.

‘Thirty seconds in the shower’

The LAF take the lead in the patrol and we are glad of their familiarity with the terrain and routes in and out of the steep wadis (valleys). The patrol is an arduous task in the intense heat but it is my job to keep all members of the patrol alert and motivated. The patrol is four hours in duration.

At 1800 hours and back in Camp Shamrock, it is time for dinner. After dinner we get a brief from Platoon Sergeant Derek Hussey on planned activities for tomorrow. I go to my room at 1900 hours and relax for an hour before I head to the gym. Training is a vital part of overseas deployment as it keeps you both mentally and physically strong. If not on operational patrols/duties or employed on any work parties, troops can train from 1530 until 1700 hours, but as we missed those timings today it is important to get some form of training in.

Heading back to my room after my 30-second shower (water is vital here and must be conserved as much as possible, so we all must be disciplined – and this includes showering once a day for 30 seconds!) I know that today I have achieved quite a lot and it was a successful day overall for my section. I’m too tired to call my girlfriend so I give her a text to say goodnight and ensure her that everything is going OK and it’s not long before I’m drifting off to sleep.

It sure is a life less ordinary!

Corporal Alan Rigney is based in the 6th Infantry Battalion, Custume Barracks Athlone. He is the eldest of four and has a keen interest in sport especially Gaelic football, in which he has represented Westmeath at both Minor and Senior level. He joined the Defence Forces in 2002 and has completed two overseas missions to Liberia, in 2003 and 2005. His appointment in the 104 Infantry Battalion is as section second in command within No 1 Platoon, A Company.

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