ARRIVING at Camp Episkopi in Cyprus to spend a week with young soldiers training for Afghanistan, I had no idea what to expect.
The base, located on a scenic peninsula only a few miles from the sprawling British base Akrotiri, has been used to train up countless other military personnel, most destined for conflicts in the Middle East. Less than 100 miles from the coast of Syria, I am told the country's scorching temperatures and arid terrain provide a strikingly similar setting to that part of the world, rendering it both strategic and practical.
The seriousness of the situation hits me on day one, before I even had a chance to meet any of the troops.
We are woken up at 5.30am sharp, despite having arrived from the airport only three hours before.
Breakfast is strictly 6am to 6.30am, we are told, to which we sleepily oblige.
Barely awake enough to remember what country we had just landed in, it becomes clear we had been told no lie when prewarned that we would be treated the same as these soldiers, on the last leg of warfare training.
We suddenly find ourselves in a camp surrounded by uniformed troops marching up and down, swiftly getting the base and themselves into gear.
We are then swept into a whirlpool of activity and after choking down breakfast we are transported to a shooting range close by, located on the Akrotiri base. When we arrive amid gale-force winds, we find it hard to hear above a deafening flow of military planes which fill the sky.
In just a few hours we see a range of aircraft including spy planes, cargo planes, Red Arrows, Griffin helicopters and hulky RAF Tri-Stars, which are transporting soldiers and supplies to Afghanistan.
It is quite busy, but when we ask we are not told if any of the aircraft are assisting in the no-fly zone over Libya, which lies a few hundred miles southwest of us.
In front of us troops are taking part in simulated field combat.
From further up we can hear the noise of automated rifles as more troops are learning how to properly aim and fire their SA80s (A2).
Even though I am not British, I cannot help but feel proud as I think the men and women before my very eyes will soon be fighting to make the world a safer place in the desert battlefields of Afghanistan.
Major Toby Graddum greets our group to give us a summary of Operation Lionstar, which is this two week training programme designed to help get the servicemen and women ready for combat. It is explained to us that these platoons, from the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry, including 11 men from the Chester squadron, are taking part in a range of training techniques, such as obstacle crossings, combat fire, hostage rescues and even combat in a fake Afghan village.
Experienced personnel, including several senior soldiers from the Royal Welsh, are here this week to provide tips that can save these troops’ lives as well as those of others. During this time, soldiers will be living under the most meagre conditions, eating less than £5 worth of food rations each day, and sharing living quarters with more than 30 other people.
This, we are told, will prepare them for the harsh living standards of Afghanistan.
“This training they are receiving these two weeks is the last step in their field training. They are preparing to go out and doing something for real,” said Major Gaddum.
“Cyprus was chosen because of its Afghanistan-type terrain, which is very similar.
The base is also strategically important because its geographically close to the Middle East, and strategically it has been for the British Army for a long time.
“That being said, things are constantly changing,” he added.
“Warfare is a constantly evolving concept, with the enemy changing and therefore strategy changing. Getting a diversified group in is important so you then have a range of cross-experience.”
He said: “As part of the Territorial Army (TA), we are required to send people into operation every two years.
“Most people don't realise but the reserve army supplies as much as 10 per cent of all soldiers in active theatre. We also provide gunners, calvary replacement, we do administrative work, work stores, do cooking, medical and driving.”
The men and women at the base were from all walks of life, including cooks, binmen, students, recent graduates and bankers. The difference between these soldiers and the ‘regulars’, was that TA personnel also led civilian lives, some reporting in for as few as 30 days per year.
Major Gaddum said: “But what they do is very important as it provides support to the ‘regulars’. Coming into the TA is one of the best things they can do.
“People who join us can change very much in 12 months. They don't necessarily become different people but they become more well-rounded. The TA gives them more structure to their lives and a lot of confidence, even just by being in an environment with other soldiers.”
After the meeting I have the chance to talk to Lance Corporal Dan Jervis, who is getting ready to go off for a day of training. The 22-year-old, from Johnson Road in Neston, has already been on a seven month tour to Iraq and is now training for his second tour.
Dan told me he was looking forward to going to Afghanistan, which is scheduled to happen in autumn 2012, where he could help his fellow soldiers in the wartorn country.
“I am excited about it,” he said.
“It’s all a big mess and very dangerous but I am quite confident because of my training and experience. In Iraq it was extremely dangerous, and I saw a lot, but this is going to be a bit of a different situation. I am finding the training really good and effective and that is really going to help me.”
Dan, who is a sales rep, added: “No two days are the same in the TA, it always varies. The TA has really changed my life.”
As we head back to Episkopi, with the hum of planes fading into the distance, I realise this training mission is bound to forever change my appreciation of the military.
See full story in the Leader