All is not quiet on home front
A WEARY look crosses Sarah Donovan’s face, and a half-laugh in her voice betrays her true feelings. And they reveal a wife and mother who is far from happy.
"We’re supposed to have them home for Christmas," she says. "It’ll be the first time for two years if we do. But ... well, who knows what will happen ... "
Sitting beside the Royal Scots’ major’s wife is sergeant’s wife Joanne Hallam. She scoffs: "Just wait and see. The kids are starting to get used to having Christmas without their dad here."
Of course, these are Army wives whose marriage vows bonded them not only to their husbands but also to the military. Life revolves around what their country expects - and, it seems, increasingly demands - of their men.
They aren’t complaining about that, they stress. They always knew exactly what Army life involved, but they are rapidly losing patience with it.
Until now there has been little complaint despite the tours of duty in dangerous foreign lands which come around with increasingly regularity, the seemingly endless training, the weeks and months away from home and the mounting workload when they eventually do return to Dreghorn.
They have grudgingly accepted the Jocks’ (the nickname for non-officer Royal Scots soldiers) pitiful wages - a private earns around 13,000 a year for putting his life on the line for his country - and the deployment in Iraq goes with the territory.
But the latest blow to family life has pushed them into battle themselves.
The Government’s proposals to dramatically reorganise Scotland’s regiments and axe the Royal Scots and merge it with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, have not gone down well with the wives at Dreghorn Barracks.
While their husbands’ opinions on the matter are confined to barracks, on Government orders, their wives - angry, bitter and worn down by what they see happening to their families - are determined their voices should be heard.
Which is why many Dreghorn wives will be among the thousands of protesters who will march down Princes Street on December 18, actively demonstrating their outrage as part of a mounting nationwide campaign to halt the controversial plans.
By then the Army Board will already have confirmed its decision on the matter following a meeting this Monday, and Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon will have announced the outcome in Westminster the following week. The decision is thought to be inevitable. The overall number of Scottish infantrymen will be cut by 500, a new Scottish "super-regiment" will be formed and Scotland’s six infantry regiments will become five as the Royal Scots, with its 471 soldiers recruited mainly from Lothian and Borders and a proud 371 years of history, is merged with the KOSB.
Each regiment’s individual cap badges, tartans and mottos will be consigned to the history books. Instead, there will be a common base uniform and the only nod to the past will be their new battalion titles within, say the proposals, "an over-arching new regimental name".
MANY Scots may view the changes with little more than a twinge of regret. But for the Army wives, the proposals are the final straw.
"Some of the children are already going six months without seeing their father," sighs Sarah, 32, mother to nine-year-old Christopher and Katie, aged two. "There are kids growing up and they hardly know who their dad is, that will only get worse if these proposals go ahead. To talk of cutting the number of soldiers at a time when they are being required to do more and more is unbelievable."
She has cause to be concerned. Christopher is severely disabled and confined to a wheelchair. Caring for him would be difficult enough with two parents at home. But with husband John, 37, so often away on duty, the burden on Sarah is immense.
Like all the Army wives, she yearns for her husband’s return to barracks yet even that brings its own demands.
"They are all being asked to do so much more," she says. "The tour dates are getting longer, the training is getting longer and there’s less time in between. The six months they are at home is lived at 100mph, they are working until stupid-o’clock at night. Then they take people from the Royals to help with other regiments’ training.
"Being away from their families like that affects their morale. Then to talk about throwing away their regiment, of which they are fiercely proud ... the men are at rock bottom."
Every Dreghorn wife has her own baggage to carry. Such as Joanne, 30, bringing up her children Morgan, aged six and Logan, three, at an Edinburgh barracks far from her family in Nairn, while her sergeant husband Tam, 34, and his comrades train at Catterick in preparation for heading to Iraq in January... or perhaps even sooner.
"There is a possibility they will go earlier," she says, a tone of resignation in her voice. "Their training finishes on December 17 and they are supposed to be on ten days’ notice to move back to Iraq to cover until August 6. They may go for the full time, or not. We don’t know and that means there’s nothing we can plan."
The shake-up of Scotland’s regiments simply adds to the pressure their husbands feel, she adds. "It’s hard for them. They have no right to talk about it, they are told there’s nothing they can do. They can’t down weapons, they can’t go on strike.
"It’s not that they are over- sentimental about the regiment, but they are proud of it, it gives them a focus."
There has been no shortage of demands on the Royal Scots over the past four years. Between 2000 and 2002 they went from Ballykelly in Northern Ireland back to Dreghorn to prepare for six months in Bosnia.
There was little time for rest on their return home in March 2003 - the firefighters’ strike meant the Royal Scots had to give up their leave. There followed three months’ royal guard in Balatter, training for Iraq and then a six-month posting to the war-torn country in November. last year.
Since their return there has been a further royal guard posting, Catterick training and little time off.
The wives have gathered at the Royal Scots Club in Abercromby Place, where Tasmin Valentine’s two-year-old daughter Devon chews on a sweet and gazes at regimental memorabilia. The little girl’s striking blue-green eyes spot a Jock’s beret.
"Daddy," she says, pointing at it. Her Fijian-born father, Arthur, 24, a Royal Scots private who signed up three years ago, enjoyed just two weeks with her after her birth before he was posted to Bosnia two years ago.
But at least he saw her being born. His second child is due on January 25, six days before the Iraq election and 15 days after the Royal Scots are expected to arrive there.
Like the other wives, heavily pregnant Tasmin, 26, has little option but to accept the inevitable - her husband won’t be there to help when she most needs him.
That, she admits, is just part of being a soldier’s wife. But the dismantling of his regiment is something she refuses to simply let happen.
"Arthur has already missed 14 months of his daughter’s life because he has been posted away. If they merge the regiments, then the men will be away more often. Instead of having 18 months between tours, it will be six months.
"We all know that it’s part of being a soldier’s wife, but it was my husband that I married, not the Army."
Retired Royal Scot’s colonel Martin Gibson watches the little girl and his thoughts drift to his own children and his 30 years as a serving officer. "You know, things like that are very, very difficult to see," he says.
"It is very hard for the men to be away from their families for increasingly long periods of time. Their family is on their minds the whole time they are away. Then they come home and mum has been running the household, dad walks in and the children sort of reject you. It’s absolutely heartbreaking for a father."
Breaking up Scotland’s regiments at a time when their soldiers are under increasing pressure is, he declares, gambling with the lives of not only soldiers but also their families.
"I have the utmost admiration for these wives and the way they cope with everything. Yes, they knew what they were marrying into, but it has got so much worse.
"How far do you take families and people for granted? How often can you deploy soldiers without them getting tired, demoralised and a risk to their fellow Jock?
"The Government has to sit up and listen. This is the wrong time to be meddling with Scotland’s regiments."
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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