The day my life changed - Army orders took me from classroom to front line

14th May 2010 at 01:00
A tour of Afghanistan led to a new career path for a teacher in search of a challenge

I joined the Territorial Army (TA) when I was 17. I wanted a bit of adventure and a way to stay fit. Being a student at the time, it was also a good way to make extra money to help me through college. I did a degree in building studies and worked in that field for a couple of years before I became a design and technology teacher. In the meantime, I continued with the TA and was chosen to go to Sandhurst, where I was commissioned as an officer.

If you are in the TA there is always the possibility that you can be sent to fight at any time - that is half the reason people sign up. The minute the mobilisation papers hit my doormat, my life changed. Everything always changes in a way, but being sent to Afghanistan is quite a high-impact development.

I was teaching at Steyning Grammar School in West Sussex when I received the letter. The school was really supportive. I gave them the employers' pack that arrived with my mobilisation papers and they were behind me the whole way. I was lucky. I know a couple of guys who were mobilised but their employers appealed and prevented them from going on tour.

I was excited - it was something I was looking forward to, my chance to contribute and do my bit. It was a different experience for my family, though. It was probably harder for my wife than me in a way. We had recently married and it was my second tour, but the first one since our wedding.

Once everything was sorted at work I went through medical and dental checks. I spent the rest of the month on training exercises to make sure I was ready for Afghanistan.

When I arrived in Helmand, my role was a watch keeper. I was responsible for the day-to-day running of the battle group: dealing with communications, managing incidents on the ground and supervising patrols. I had quite a lot of responsibility. There are lots of transferable skills that you can bring to the classroom, and vice versa - like management, planning and organisation.

When you get back to civilian life and a civilian career, it can be quite difficult to adjust. People struggle to empathise with what you are going through because they have not experienced anything similar.

After my post-operational leave I went straight back to school. The children were curious about what I had done. I tried to answer their questions when they came up. Civilians don't really know what it is like to serve, apart from what they read in the papers or what they see on TV, so I had quite a lot of questions from people wanting to know the truth.

Being mobilised with the TA makes you realise a few things about life - what is important and what is not. You deal with life or death situations on a regular basis and then you come home and see people making a fuss about what appears to you to be nothing. It makes you think about where you sit in the scheme of things.

Since I got back I have finished at Steyning Grammar and am preparing to start a new job at a special school for boys with behavioural, social and emotional difficulties in Seaford, East Sussex.

I have always been quite relaxed. I don't think it does you any good to get stressed. The perspective I gained from my time in Afghanistan will be good for teaching at a special school. I wanted something a bit more challenging.

I'm still part of the TA. I don't have any plans to quit - I have been doing it for 13 years now. It has become habitual. I can't predict the future, as to whether I will be sent out again, but that remains part and parcel of the job.

Leland Fieldsend was talking to Rachel Smith.

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