The Army is under attack for its age of enlistment. But what’s life like for the teenage soldiers who could be at school?
Ask Abbie Kirk what enticed her to join the Army aged 16 and she doesn’t hesitate. “Being able to fire a rifle. When I first fired a rifle in the Army, that was probably the best thing that I’d done.” This is a shock, coming from a sweet-looking girl with freckles, who has just been telling me about getting homesick and crying over the phone to her mum.
Most teenagers don’t have to think about the possibility of killing people as part of their jobs, but as one of 3,500 minors taken on by the British Army every year, Abbie has done. “It’d be difficult,” she says, “but there’s a bad side of any job — if you worked in an office, you’d have to be sat down all day. That’s my shooting people thing.”
A “tracksuit-hair-up kind of person”, Abbie wanted to be a soldier at the age of 10. Then something happened that made her even more determined. “I had a friend, he was from Maidenhead and his name was Daniel Hume, and he went to war. He died from an IED two years ago. He was 19 or 20.”
Britain has one of the lowest ages for enlistment in the world — only about 20 other countries recruit 16-year-olds, including Norway, which allows them to sign up during wartime, and Canada, which allows them to join the reserves or the Military College. Here, teenagers can sign up at 16 with parental consent (or at 18 without it), which according to one army spokesman results in making “a better soldier”.
“Any large employer offers apprenticeships and that’s what we do,” he says. “I can’t see what’s wrong in giving people a choice. We’re not abusing them in any way; we meet all of our international obligations.”
Although young recruits can opt out at any time before the age of 18 (those enlisting aged 18 and over must decide whether or not to sign up for four years after 14 weeks’ training), human rights groups want to stop the recruitment of what they consider to be child soldiers. Ethical considerations aside, a report by Child Soldiers International and ForcesWatchclaims drop-out figures are high and costly.
Despite her enthusiasm for the Army, Abbie is one of those dropouts. Accepted into the Army Foundation College for young recruits in Harrogate, she was one of the most hard working, but dislocated her shoulder badly during training, resulting in a medical discharge.
Now working at Legoland, she is desperate to rejoin. “I’m going to go back in at the end of this year,” she says, confidently.
Jordan Kissack, who left Harrogate after eight weeks, has no such plans. Wiry and street-savvy with cropped blond hair, he says at 17 he was too young when he started training. “They’ve got to understand you’ve come out of an environment that you’ve lived in all your life, playing on Xbox. I got put in an adult environment, I wasn’t mature and I was getting told what to do.”
However, he was mature enough to be a father and dropped out partly because of the constraints put on how much contact he could have with his seven-week-old daughter. “Something was wrong with Isabella. I rang to see if she was all right and the corporal came in and took my phone. It was a rule I’d broken. I explained it was regarding my daughter but there were no exceptions.”
When he first joined, asked where he thought he would be if not the Army, Jordan replied: “In prison”.
Now, he jokes: “You get more freedom in prison.”
The first six weeks at Harrogate are the hardest. Recruits get up at six, have constant inspections and are marched practically everywhere. Many of them leave in this window, or think about it.
“There was one time in Harrogate, just after Christmas leave, when I had a bit of a wobble,” admits Tom Cook, a 17-year-old trooper in the Queen’s Royal Lancers. “I’d had two weeks at home — I just got a bit homesick really.”
When Tom, who had taken it upon himself to visit his school careers office — saving the Army the £10,000 they usually spend on recruitment — turned to his parents, he received tough love from his father, a policeman, and his mother, who works with Army cadets. “I was sort of told to man up, and stick with it.”
According to ForcesWatch, the majority of those recruited as minors are from disadvantaged backgrounds. Traditionally the Army has been considered a way out and up, and Jade Hunter, a sporty Northern Irish girl, certainly sees it that way.
“I came from the countryside, from the smallest place going,” she says. “To go from nothing to gaining everything — I’ve had the time of it. My mum’s unemployed, she does cleaning in people’s houses and that’s all.”
Jade is now at the Defence School of Transport in Leconfield, learning to be an Army driver. If she hadn’t enlisted, she says, straightening her beret, “I think I’d still be cleaning out horses — I started that when I was 14. This is a life — and it’s a career for life.”
The average length minors serve is 10 years (compared with 7.6 years for adult recruits). One of the criticisms levelled at the Army is that it fails to prepare its soldiers for a career after leaving and Jade already finds it hard to imagine a life outside the Army.
“I don’t know what I’d do because, joining so young, I’ve not experienced something else. Living in a barracks is what I want.”
Of course, recruits don’t stay in barracks indefinitely. Those I spoke to agreed that Harrogate was “a bit like an adventure camp”, and although they have been told that they may be deployed overseas, Abbie Kirk says that “they never really said ‘You’re going to have to kill people’. They just wrapped it in cotton wool. I think they thought we were a bit young.”
The possibility that they might be killed doesn’t seem to have dawned on some of them. Of the 444 UK military personnel killed in Afghanistan, 35 have been teenagers.
“If you listen to everything you’re taught then you’ll be safe.” Jade hesitates. “Well, maybe not . I can’t really say because I don’t know yet.”