Firepower in the classroom

4th July 2008 at 01:00
Susan Aitken works as a teacher in Dundee. But during her spare time she is a major in the Territorial Army, and could be called up to serve her country at any time, anywhere from Bosnia to Iraq
Susan Aitken works as a teacher in Dundee. But during her spare time she is a major in the Territorial Army, and could be called up to serve her country at any time, anywhere from Bosnia to Iraq

Additional support needs teacher Susan Aitken has found herself taking an unusually keen interest in the mail dropping through the letter-box of her Wormit home. Any day now she could be part of the United Nations peace-keeping force in Cyprus, set up in 1964 to end hostilities between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

Usually, the UN Blue Berets stationed on the island are a mix of regular and Territorial Army troops but, for the first time this summer, the TA will go it alone. And in August, 300 members of the 32 Signal Regiment will be mobilised.

Mrs Aitken belongs to that corps, so suspects she will be among them. If she is called up, Mrs Aitken - or Major Aitken - will be one of the most senior officers in the force. "It's not as dangerous as Iraq or Afghanistan, but both sides are fully armed and there is always the chance something could spark off."

Mrs Aitken joined the University Officer Training Corps in 1971 in her second year of training in Dundee, where she was studying to become a primary teacher. She had no prior interest in the army and no history of family members in the forces. In fact, she says, she hardly knew the difference between the army, navy and air force. Bizarrely, it was the prospect of weapon cleaning that sparked her interest.

"A friend at Aberdeen University had joined the Officer Training Corps and she was talking about the things they were doing and it sounded good. Actually, it was weapon cleaning - I thought 'Where else could you do that?'"

Weapon cleaning, as it turned out, was a "horrible, messy and laborious task". But target practice was "quite good fun" and Mrs Aitken describes the OTC as being like a university club. "There was no call-up commitment, it was a social thing at that time, all students together with lots of adventure training and sport and field craft - going out and living under a poncho, things like that."

It was when she joined the TA's 39 Signal Regiment, where she encrypted messages and sent them across the world, at the same time as taking up her first teaching post at Leuchars Primary in Fife, that it hit home that she could be mobilised. Still, at that time, the role of the TA was seen as home defence. But then, with the invasion of Iraq in the late 1990s, all that changed.

"The first any of us realised we were likely to go abroad and fight with the regulars was when we invaded Iraq. Everyone in the TA accepted we could be mobilised at any time to go to a theatre of war. People not prepared to do that left. If you stayed, you realised that was not a possibility but a likelihood."

Ask how she feels about the prospect of being sent to a war zone and she points out that is what she has been trained for. She can handle weapons; she has honed her map-reading skills; and been trained in battlefield first aid. She has been on countless training exercises from Orkney to Germany, where she has had to survive in the wilds, while remaining undetected by the enemy.

Mrs Aitken is a woman in a man's world. Of the TA's 7,000 Scottish members just 9 per cent are female. Even more unusual is the fact that she now works in "media ops", promoting the TA and dealing with the press, and is far more likely to shoot a camera than a gun. But at 54, she never expected to be in the army.

After two years at Leuchars Primary she left Scotland to teach forces children in Gibraltar. Back home, she took up a post at Newport Primary and was appointed to the Tayforth University Officer Training Corps. However, in 1985 she resigned to have the first of her four children, with her husband, David.

"The ability to organise exercises for 80 soldiers - the transport, the food, the accommodation, what they need to take with them - prepared me for running a household with four children," she jokes.

She had no intention of returning. Then 10 years ago she got a phone call asking her to come back. "I went back for one year to help out and I'm there still."

It was her children who persuaded her to return. "I felt guilty that I would have to leave them at the weekends, but they thought it would be cool having a mum in the army."

Now Mrs Aitken's two eldest daughters have followed in her footsteps. Catherine, who has just qualified as a vet, is a Second Lieutenant, Scottish Transport Regiment, and Lesley, who begins teacher training in September, is an Officer Cadet in 2 Signal Squadron. Mrs Aitken is less laid back about the prospect of them being sent on operations overseas but points out: "What can I say? Me of all people!"

It remains to be seen if Ruth, 17, and Stuart, 15, take an interest. Mr Aitken, however, has never been bitten by the army bug. He is, she says, happy to let her wear the uniform.

After the summer holidays Mrs Aitken will take on a new role in education, working for Dundee City Council with children suffering from long-term illness who are unable to go to school.

The attraction of the TA, she says, is it offers something completely different.

"The army has this obsession with having people up at the crack of dawn," she says.

"You would never dream of getting up in February on some godforsaken moor at 6am when snow is all around you, whipping your face. But that's half the charm: you end up doing things you would never do otherwise.

"The army gives you the opportunity to test yourself and you see a beautiful side of nature while you're at it."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today