Soldier: BBC One documentary series shows Catterick Garrison new recruits in training
But a year on from passing out after his sixth-month training course, the teenager is clear and confident about his role in the infantry.
Now he’s preparing for the general public to see him being put through his paces in the new BBC One show, Soldier, which starts next week.
The five-part documentary series charts the lives of new recruits at the British Army’s Infantry Training Centre in Catterick, North Yorkshire, to see if they have what it takes to fight on the frontline.
The recruits tackle punishing obstacle courses, handle and fire weapons, and are shown how to kill at close quarters with the bayonet, the symbol of the infantry.
Under the watchful eyes of Sandhurst graduate Captain Nadir Wahab (who was promoted from Lieutenant during the show), Colour Sergeant Barry McIntosh, Corporal Philip White and Corporal Adam Bell, from Leeds, recruits must prove they have the skills and attitude required to make it in the Army.
Pte Stretton grew up in Manchester before moving to north Leeds, then heading to Catterick Garrison to take part in the training course aged just 17, meaning he was one of the youngest of the 45 new starters.
“I was studying plumbing and took a job at McDonald's over the summer, and decided it wasn't for me - nine to five, same stuff every day,” says Pte Stratton, now aged 19.
“I always wanted to join the Army, it just wasn’t something I thought I could do.”
Eventually, he did. But in the show, Pte Stretton considers returning to civilian life as a plumber.
“I think at first, it was just the feeling of regret, like ‘Oh I’m here now, I'm stuck here’. But it's something that I just came to terms with.
“It's one of my favourite things now, going out into the field. Obviously in training, it's a bit different, you’re being babied, you're constantly being watched to review your performance, whereas now, it's like, I'm actually here as a soldier doing my job. It’s something I'm quite passionate about.”
He has gone on to join the 2nd Battalion of The Royal Yorkshire Regiment, which is actually based in Chester, and has passed an anti-tank gunner course.
When he started training it was the little things he found challenging, like being independent, but in the first episode he is also seen having a moral dilemma about whether he could take a life in the line of duty.
He dicusses his concerns with commander Cpt Wahab, who praises Pte Stretton’s maturity but stresses that killing is something he might have to do as a soldier.
There will always be the possibility that he will be sent abroad to fight in the future. How does he feel about that?
“I don't think too much about it,” Pte Stretton says when talking this month. “Obviously, when it comes to the time, that’s something I’ll think about and come to terms with but I think at the end of the day it's me and my mates or it's them - that's the sad reality of it.”
Viewers will also see Private Ethan Sherwood, 18, from Hull, who worked in a fish and chip shop and lived with his mother and sister, but joined the Army to meet new people.
Meanwhile, Private Olivia Hall-Beakhouse, 18, is from a military family and took the opportunity to join the infantry after frontline roles became available to women in 2018.
There is also Private Curtis Dryden, 21, who was spotted as a young footballer for a number of clubs from Middlesbrough to Aston Villa, but sadly, his dream didn’t come true, so has turned to the Army for a new career and some self-confidence.
Not all 45 recruits will make it through the course. What does Pte Stretton think it takes to complete the training?
“Obviously it helps to be strong and intelligent, and this, that and the other, but I think a lot of it's just mental resilience. If you fill your head with ‘Oh, I can't do this’, you’re never going to be able to do it, but if you say ‘I’m going to get through this’ and you focus on it, you may get through it.
“You'll show up on the first day and you'll kind of think, ‘He won't make it or she won't make it’, and people surprise you. They’ll find a way to surprise you.”
He adds: “I think that I definitely surprised myself. Looking at some of the stuff I've managed to accomplish and the stuff I do now, it just amazes me.”
Cpl Bell believes integrity is important. “If you get a recruit who's lying to you, that's a big no-no for me. Discipline is very important as well. If you get a recruit who is quite ill-disciplined and can't really change that, it can be quite hard for us to train them. Loyalty is vital too because teamwork is crucial when you're in the army. The army is just like one big team really. If a recruit can't work within a team, it's pretty frustrating for everybody.”
The show is intended to give unprecedented access to the soldiers’ training.
Cpt Wahab says: “The series provides a privileged insight into how we convert civilians into soldiers. It’s quite an insular community. There are guards on the gate, and no one can just walk in here and watch on a spare day off. So, this offers a unique view of the workings of basic training. It's been going on for 400 to 500 years, and it's changed massively over that time. But there are still some aspects that are probably very similar as well.”
The series starts on Thursday, October 5 at 9pm on BBC One and will run weekly. It will drop as a full box set on BBC iPlayer on the same day.