Noel O’Callaghan, Regt Sgt Major, Sector South, Chad, reports from the mission base of the Irish Battalion in Camp MINURCAT in Chad, where 44 members of the 4 FAR from Columb Barracks, Mullingar are currently based.
After 51 years of continuous service with the United Nations, the 100 Infantry Battalion, made up mainly of the 4th Western Brigade, deployed to Chad for four months. With such a long tradition of overseas service comes a wealth of experience and expertise that will be put to good use in the mission area of Chad.
The six hour flight from Ireland to Chad gives a person a lot of time to think about the preparation for deployment with the United Nations in a country like Chad.
First and foremost there is the family, and the sadness of leaving them for a prolonged period. But there is also the practical preparation; “Did I leave everything in place to ensure they would cope without me?”
Any soldier with overseas experience will confirm that the support of the family, and the knowledge that they are ok is key to getting the job done in the mission area. Indeed, this is why the Defence Forces place such importance on having a family liaison team to support the families in each barracks from which soldiers are deployed.
Then you have to look at your own preparation. The mission readiness training and exercises, fitness and equipment preparation. What the particular job is, and whether you know it well enough to get the job done. The prolonged briefings on Chad, situation awareness, and every other type of lecture and training you can think of.
Then you have to look at your own strengths and weaknesses, and ensure you are disciplined enough to get the job done, no matter what comes your way.
And then, as a leader, you have to look at the most important asset of any unit, the personnel. With 92 of our personnel ‘first timers’, you cast a critical eye on the unit. Are they prepared enough, do they know their job, and what are their strengths and weaknesses? The standards they achieved during the training and mission readiness exercises certainly displayed a disciplined, well-equipped, well-motivated and cohesive unit, ready for deployment to a hard mission in Chad.
So as the flight comes to Chad airspace, you acknowledge that yes, the 100 Bn is ready for this mission, and whatever comes with it.
The first realisation of what lies ahead is when you look down and see the hard burnt terrain of Chad, and you again go through the preparation for the mission. On landing the heat is like a brick wall, 57 degrees of heat, and just then two French fighter jets take off, confirmation of the troubles that have plagued this country, and of the task that lies ahead.
You are given a food pack, water, and your small back pack, and get onto another plane for a further two hour journey direct into the mission base of the Irish Battalion in Camp MINURCAT.
The Irish camp is very practical for a hard mission in tough terrain. On arrival a quick brief on key points, security, fire prevention, water shortage, and camp routine. Then it is a quick bite to eat and rest for an hour or so.
After that the briefs start, and the handover from the 99 Infantry Battalion, who have completed their tour of duty, begins. It is also the start of the practical side of the self discipline of camp routine, which will be ‘home’ for the next four months.
And you soon realise once again, that while your rank will get you a certain amount of respect, you have to earn the main respect by doing your job, whatever that may be at any particular time.
But it is really on the long range patrols to the villages in Chad, which have refugee camps and displaced persons camps, that you see what the mission is about.
On patrol you share the tasks, the hardships, the sentry duty, or whatever else comes with it. Rank and gender come second to being a soldier, and you carry your weight with your mates.
The heat and dust can be very draining, but the constant training back home kicks in, and the personal equipment gives you an appreciation of what good equipment is all about. For despite the weight of the battle vest, you are confident in the contents you carry in it and the need for them if a situation develops. The discipline of the MOWAG armoured vehicle drivers, the turret gunners, and the dismount troops is very evident as we make the long journey north, portraying a confidence and caution that comes only from training and experience.
In a country ravaged by war, burnt by the sun, and plagued by abuse of human rights, we see at last why we are here. As we enter the large village the children and people are standing under trees, taking shade from the sun. ‘Homes’ are made up of branches and twigs, with some having plastic as a roof. When the monsoon rains hit Chad, these people will have huge problems. But as you wave to them they smile and wave back, and you realise that these people who have nothing of material worth have a warm and welcoming smile. They carry their children and make do with what they get from the United Nations organisations. We have been briefed that they welcome the United Nations, for providing them with a safe and secure environment, so that they can try to live their lives with dignity and respect for human life. But it is only when you see their reaction on your arrival that it all falls into place. The big eyes, warm smiles, and the way they look after each other gives us hope that we are making a difference in a land where there is nothing but war, feud, and heat and monsoon rain. In a country like Chad, that has known darkness and chaos, there is light, there is hope, and it comes in the form of the United Nations mission in Chad, MINURCAT. And a key member in MINURCAT is the 100 Irish Inf Bn, ‘The Centurions’.
The lessons learnt from past overseas missions, and the training and equipment will be put to the test in Chad over the coming months, but then that is why we are here in the first place.
Failure is not an option, for if we fail people lose their lives. And so we remember the missions over the past 51 years, and what a determined and well-disciplined unit can achieve in a mission area.
The men and women of the 100 Infantry Battalion will carry on the tradition of peacekeeping of the Irish Defence Forces, providing a safe and secure environment for ordinary people to live their lives in peace, protecting them from bandits and human rights abuse.
And the 44 members of the 4 FAR from Columb Barracks in Mullingar will be playing a key role in representing the Defence Forces, Ireland, and indeed Westmeath, supporting the United Nations in what it does best - protect people.