From the age of five, all I wanted to do after I left school was to join the army. I was obsessed with everything to do with it; books and films, and particularly anything to do with the modern British Army. Aged 14, I joined the Air Training Corps (ATC). But why join the Air Force Cadets: my school was visited by a senior member of the recruitment section of the ATC; following their presentation, it became clear that joining the ATC was the only option open to me at the time, I just jumped at the chance.
The ATC was completely different from the Army Cadets; the only similarity was the marching and access to guns, for shooting on the range and for ceremonial purposes. An advantage of the ATC was that on several occasions I got to fly in a Chipmunk, a two-seater aeroplane, and in gliders – so much fun.
By the time I was sixteen I was once more focussed on the army. Because of this, I got very low marks in school exams. But I did not care because I knew what I wanted to do. As soon as I turned 17, I was ready to join the Army. I took the entrance exam and passed. All that remained was the medical, but that was a disaster! I failed because I was two stones overweight. For the next five weeks I worked harder than ever to lose the weight and, thankfully, I succeeded.
When I returned for the follow-up medical, the doctor could not believe I was the same person. After signing some papers, I was given a date and a place to attend for training. As I was under 18, my mum had very reluctantly signed the consent form, though after failing my first medical she had hoped that I would change my mind – but, no chance.
Departure day finally came. I said farewell to my family and made my way to Sutton Coldfield, the army’s selection centre in the North of England. The five-day selection process was gruelling, mentally, and physically. I wanted to join the infantry, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. I was drawn to that wonderful part of the cap badge, the red and white hackle. It made the wearer stand out in a crowd, just like a peacock, and at my age at the time, every young man was a bit of a ‘peacock’.
Once selection was over, I was sent with several other young men to Bassingbourn barracks in Hertfordshire for thirteen weeks of intensive training. The training as an infantryman was tough, involving a lot of running and strength-based activities. Luckily for me, after I had lost the weight, I continued to work out, so I was no stranger to vigorous exercise.
During the thirteenth week we had our final test, a 20-mile speed march, carrying a full pack on our backs. It was a ‘killer’, but I made it. Out of an initial class of 40 recruits, I ‘passed out’ with nineteen others. It was a proud day for me and my family, including my mum. The rest of my career was served with the 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in places, such as, Northern Ireland, Germany and various European countries.
Army life was tough, especially for a 17-year-old, leaving home for the first time. I did not have a religious upbringing. There was an army Chaplain, but he was never readily available, so I had no connection with him. I had to deal with any emotional difficulties by myself. Although I had good comrades, they were in a similar situation – our focus was survival. For me, one difficulty was dealing with the level of aggression that, as soldiers, we were forced to develop as a survival mechanism. Part of this also involved a lot of swearing and drinking.
When I was preparing to be shipped to Northern Ireland, a new recruit joined my platoon. He was always very calm, despite what our work entailed. Every morning he would put a book called ‘The Book of Mormon’ on his pillow. I did not know what it was about, and my departure prevented me from finding out; I never saw him again. Then in 2000, I was trying to recover from the loss of my mother. A few days later, following a prayer to God for peace and comfort, missionaries from the Church knocked on my door. That was when I became aware of the content of The Book of Mormon. Following in-depth discussions, I made the decision to be baptised and so began my new life in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Although I cannot change my past, I do wish I could have had the gospel during my formative years. Like the new recruit to my platoon, I would have had the chance to experience the calm and peace he displayed. Additionally, gospel knowledge would have given me more confidence in myself as a child of God, my purpose in life, and who I could become. It would have helped me avoid succumbing to peer pressure – I would have known better. Being around death and devastation caused by war but having a knowledge of the gospel and the plan of salvation, would have been something to hold on to in that difficult journey. However, I have the gospel now and am full of gratitude that I eventually came to a knowledge of truth and light.
Despite the challenges I experienced, it was the best four and a half years of my life; I would not have changed anything apart from having the gospel in my life. Each year I look forward to the Remembrance commemoration that takes place during October and November. It allows me to reflect and take a broader perspective on life. I am proud to be a veteran and to have served my country with distinction and honour. Now, I am also proud to be a soldier in the Lord’s army and hope that I will be able to return to my Father in Heaven with honour.
Colin is a Member of Peckham Ward, Wandsworth Stake, London.