Last week I spent a day at Harrogate Foundation College, with the 16 and 17-year-old cadets in Injim Company. These were youngsters who had picked up injuries while in training.
Their company sergeant was a mate of mine. In fact we were at Harrogate together in 2000, before we both joined 7 Para RHA. Tthe idea was to show them that twists and sprains that seem like a big deal now, don’t actually matter in the scheme of things if you are prepared to put the work in to get better.
The camp is brand new and has over 1,000 students. In my day we were in portable cabins, but that’s all been demolished now. Funnily I could still remember exactly where the cookhouse was, even though it’s long gone.
The students spend half the day on phys and half on education. Then in the evening they get the chance to do loads of activities. We used to call the education sessions ’no pain breaks’, but I learnt loads there.
I remember my first day perfectly. There were 1,500 of us, mostly lads around 16 or 17, and I was one of the tallest. I had already said I wanted to go into the paras, and a great big 3Para sergeant came up to us and asked my step-dad if he was ex reg. “No,” Andy said, “I’m ex-electricity board.”
The first four weeks were very hard. You couldn’t leave and couldn’t even call home. Lots of lads struggled with homesickness or the discipline. After this first month there was a massive drop out, but I loved it.
The instructors were tough with you but very fair. Anyone caught bullying only did it once! We were scared of our instructors, but only because we wanted so much to impress them.
One day a sergeant called me over. I didn’t know what I had done but I was worried! He never said a word, just took out a felt pen and drew two circles round my eyes and then walked away. I didn’t dare wash them off for days.
My mum always said that Harrogate made me a man. I loved every minute of it.
We had a passing out parade, me wearing the maroon machine for the first time, and then went off to pack.
We were brought back to the parade square and our families in buses. My mum was talking to an instructor who was telling her I was vastly improved, especially in my admin and housekeeping, and nearly won most improved student.
Just at that second I fell off the bus carrying six ASDA carriers with all my stuff bursting out.
“We don’t teach them to pack though,” he said. And walked away.
* Ben Parkinson, wounded Doncaster war hero.