I recently watched a BBC drama called Our Girl. It was about a young girl, one of a large family, from the East End of London, who decided to join the army.
It brought back memories for me. At 17 years old, and unhappy at home, I decided to do the same thing.
I enlisted, went through rigorous medical checks and interviews, and found myself boarding the train on a cold wet day in November, heading towards the camp at Guildford, for six weeks of training.
It was my first ever time away from home and I was both excited and terrified. The first couple of days passed in a blur. Settling into a room with 5 other girls, collecting uniform and equipment, finding my way around, endless lectures, etc. All this accompanied by constant shouting and what I would consider now to be bullying, by corporals and lance-corporals, trying to knock us into shape.
One of the characters in the BBC drama likened it to joining a cult. It was certainly similar. The object of the exercise it seemed was to remove your personality and individuality, and produce an army of women who were all the same. Obedient and subservient.
Every morning at 6am, we were woken up by an officer shouting at us. We dressed and stood by our beds for kit inspection. We then hit the parade ground and learned to march.....for 2 hours. Breakfast followed, and then intelligence tests, lectures and assault courses.
On Day 5 I woke up with a nasty bout of flu. I could hardly stand, let alone head out to the parade ground in icy cold weather. I stayed behind. I sat on the floor against a radiator to try to keep warm.
A lance-corporal found me there and shouted at me. I was ordered out onto to the parade ground, but I refused because I felt so ill. She was completely unsympathetic and put me on a charge. As I understood it, being put on a charge meant being locked up, but in this case, I was ordered to clean the toilets and the hallway.
I set about my tasks. It wasn't too difficult because the areas had already been cleaned, but when this officer inspected my work, she wasn't satisfied, and told me to do it again. I refused, saying that it was absolutely pointless to have to clean something that was already spotless. Red rag to a bull. More shouting, resulting in my being sent to a sargeant's office, where I was yelled at some more.
All of this of course is part of the brainwashing. I realised at that point that I was too strong a character to be browbeaten by these people, and that the army was not the place for me.
This was only the first week of the six week period, but I made it clear that I wanted to leave. The army don't like people giving up. It means they've failed, so it actually took the rest of the six weeks for me to convince them that I was serious. I was interviewed every day by every rank of officer, eventually seeing the Commanding Officer towards the end of week 6. Finally I was out.
I don't often think about this episode in my life, but when I do I question if it was my character that was unsuited to army life, or whether I was just too young. I wonder what path my life would have taken if I had stuck it out?