Exercise gives army wives taste of how other halves live

The wives get to grips with the SA80 assault rifle

The wives get to grips with the SA80 assault rifle

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KIT-bags packed, all the essentials required by a modern soldier are tucked inside. There are food rations – some kind of chicken pasta “thing” – binoculars for the recce exercise, clean socks, lip gloss and, of course, hair extensions brush.

For at least one of the army’s newest “recruits”, going out on manoeuvres meant being thoroughly prepared – even if the manoeuvres in question involved climbing a muddy hill to spend a windswept, rain-lashed night under a plastic poncho, then waking up, exhausted and aching, to face a day of full-on exercise.

But while Nicola Cox took care to pack her grooming essentials for her stint as a modern soldier, it very quickly became clear the lip gloss and brushes would be surplus to requirements half way up the Pentlands.

There, exposed to the elements, Nicola and 30 other Army wives became real life Private Benjamins – the girl soldier played for laughs by Goldie Hawn – taking part in the kind of gruelling exercises and outdoor adventures that their husbands endure every single day.

For Nicola, 25, whose make up essentials ended up remaining firmly inside her kit bag, the experience was quite an eye-opener.

“I’m a girly girl,” she giggles, recalling her intense preparation for the two day Exercise Bugle Life Swap. “I was packing my kitbag and my husband was laughing, saying ‘you’ll never need that’ and ‘leave that behind, it’ll make your bag too heavy’. But I insisted, I needed deodorant, lip gloss and my brush for my hair extensions.

“Well,” she grins, “he was right and I was wrong!”

The wives of 2 SCOTS officers and soldiers based at Glencorse Barracks near Penicuik are just back after taking part in the novel “life swap” aimed at giving them a taste of the kind of gritty experiences their partners undertake on a daily basis.

Their time as “troops” – when they took part in everything from square bashing to shooting exercises – was also a valuable chance to get to know each other, forming bonds that can be vital during long periods when their men are away from home.

And while they were hitting the hills in full kit, sleeping under flimsy ponchos and taking part next day in a gruelling casualty extraction – removing an injured “soldier” from enemy attack – their hubbies were mostly back home, looking after the kids.

The two-day exercise was organised and planned by 2 SCOTS Regimental Sergeant Major WO1 Billy Garrick and involved typical military activities from marching drill and team challenges to night time reconnaissance patrols for the wives.

There was a chance to show off their sharp-shooting skills using exactly the same training rifles as their husbands, and a series of challenging command tasks designed to test team work and problem solving, an exercise typically used to select both officers and soldiers.

And in the middle of the exhausting two days of army life was that soaking wet night spent under the rain clouds in the Pentland Hills, fuelled not on the home cooking they might typically put down in front of their hungry families, but boil-in-the-bag army rations of chicken, tomato and pasta immediately branded “disgusting” by at least one wife.

According to exercise instructor Lance Corporal “Watty” Watson, the wives showed themselves to be every bit as tough and hardy as their professional soldier husbands. “It was raining and blowing a gale when they were on the hill but even then their spirits were high. Some of their husbands would have spent the whole time moaning. But the wives were very impressive.

“It was a cold and uncomfortable 24 hours,” he adds. “I was very impressed by the way they coped.

“I reckon some of the girls would give their husbands a run for their money.”

The women, who had all volunteered for the exercise, were first split into three sections to encourage a degree of competitiveness. Then, dressed head to foot in their Army fatigues, they hit the parade ground for an intense spell of drill.

Nicola, mum to Scott, six and Victoria four, had left the children at home with husband Sergeant Scott Cox, 28, so she could join in the all-girls exercise. “There were eight of us trying to stay in step and do everything at the same time,” she laughs. “It was actually a real challenge.”

Ami McLellan, 27, who left toddler Lucy, two, behind with hubby Sergeant Andrew McLellan, 31, agrees: “It was hard work, fun, but hard. And it definitely gave us a proper idea of what our husbands actually do.”

Highlight for most of the wives was the chance to get their hands on a SA 80 assault rifle, practising their shots on the battalion’s simulated range.

And while Nicola prides herself on being a “girly girl”, she excelled at the macho shooting gallery, hitting one of the best scores of the day. “I actually surprised myself how much I enjoyed it,” she laughs.

But it was the night spent on the hills, followed by a day spent crawling through undergrowth spying on the “enemy” – four 2 SCOTS soldiers sent on to the hill with orders to try to evade the wives’ watch – that really tested their mettle.

Soaking wet, sheltering under ponchos with rain water seeping into their boots, the lip gloss and fancy hair brushes were nowhere to be seen.

“We all moan when our husbands say they want to buy warm kit, they need this and that, and we argue that they’re spending all the money and do they need it,” nods Nicola. “But I’ll never moan again about him having warm kit.

“It was so cold. And, of course it’s harder for them as they are carrying so much more than we were and camping not for one night but for weeks.”

For Claire Lavell, 25, the “life swap” exercise was a first chance to spend time away from four-month-old baby Archie Jay, who stayed behind at home with her fusilier husband Simon, 25. “Of course we have a good idea of what they do but it was still a big eye opener to actually try it ourselves,” she says.

“One night camping out was enough – it was horrible and it didn’t stop raining. We had a poncho to lie on and one to wear. I can’t imagine how it is for them camping for months at a time.”

She says the exercise was a perfect chance to meet other battalion wives and forge new friendships among women she might otherwise only pass by or nod to. “I just moved here in October, so it was great to meet more wives and make friends,” she adds.

The exercise, says Mjr Timothy Petranksy, was a fun way to give the wives a taste of army life and help them bond. “The wives really are the backbone of the battalion, they’re a very important part of battalion life,” he adds. “When we all go away, they support each other. They all understand what each other is going through in a way only people who are involved in the army can do.

“It’s very difficult to explain what it’s like when the wives are back here and we’re off in Afghanistan. It’s not easy for them, they are worried and it’s good for them to get to know each other.

“This is a good way of helping them get to know each other better.

“Wives have to rely on each other during the long and frequent deployments of the battalion,” he adds. “These are a constant feature in the modern Army, 2 SCOTS have deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, 2011 and recently deployed to Kenya for six weeks on exercise.

“Wives and partners of the soldiers often feel that there is little understanding of the difficulties inherent in the deployment of the battalion in society in general.

“They rely on themselves and the battalion welfare office, which makes it all the more important to build strong bonds between the wives.”

IN GOOD COMPANY

PENICUIK-BASED Royal Highland Fusiliers makes up the Second Battalion (2 SCOTS) of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.

One of seven battalions in the regiment, it is part of 16 Air Assault Brigade, and was deployed on Op Herrick 13 in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

That six-month tour of duty, in and around the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, ended last spring. It was the second operational tour of Helmand – the first was Op Herrick 8 in 2008.

In 2006, 2 SCOTS sent three companies to Iraq. The battalion traditionally recruits from Ayr and Glasgow, but accepts recruits from across the Commonwealth.