'There's no greater test of doing a job than in a war zone' - Yorkshire Reservist reflects on military career
There are some 35,000 of them in the UK today, balancing a civilian life and job with a military career and making up around a sixth of the country’s Armed Forces personnel.
Flight Lieutenant James Barker is one of them. He joined the Reserve Forces in 2003, after a career as a full-time Regular with the RAF. “When my time was up, when I finished my period of commission, I had enjoyed it that much, I carried on into the Reserves,” he says. “I still wanted to be able to give something back.”
Reservists are integral to protecting the nation’s security both at home and overseas. Around 2,000 were called up to aid the military response to the coronavirus pandemic in early April and through the Covid Support Force (CSF), set up to assist the NHS and other public services with their reaction to the outbreak, they have worked alongside Regular personnel to provide medical support, as well as in engineering, logistical and liaison roles.
The Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) overall contribution has seen members of the Armed Forces assist with PPE distribution and Covid-19 testing, and support the building of the nation’s temporary Nightingale hospitals.
As a media operations officer with the RAF 7644 Squadron, Flt Lt Barker has been on the ground, capturing the military’s response and dealing with requests from the press and broadcast media.
“From the building of the Nightingale hospitals, to the creation of the patient recovery centres and the setting up of mobile testing units and regional testing centres, whenever the military are doing something in support of the NHS and the Covid effort, we are out there capturing it,” he says. “With the councils, the NHS and Public Health England, we’re fighting this and we show the military’s contribution to that.”
Flt Lt Barker, who lives in York, was contacted to start the role at the beginning of April. The site he’s working at, in Fulwood near Preston, includes members of the Army, Navy and RAF.
“We can put a lot of people on the ground very quickly,” he says of the military’s contribution. “We’re used to taking direction, we can think on our feet and are smart and professional.”
Reservists, the MOD says, have been a key part of the CSF. Today marks annual Reserves Day, a 24 hour period dedicated to highlighting and recognising the valuable contribution that Reservists make to the country’s Armed Forces.
“Don’t undervalue that contribution,” Flt Lt Barker says. Reservists bring different skillsets from their civilian jobs and lives, he explains. “As Churchill said, the Reservist is twice the citizen and it’s about looking past the rank on their chest and looking at an individual.
"One of the first things I do when I meet a reservist is ask what’s their day job...They bring an extra dimension. They’re used to working in civvy street, they give something back to the country, the service and the community. They provide a great deal.”
Flt Lt Barker, 49, juggles his work as a Reservist with family life in Yorkshire with his wife and two children. He’s a Liberal Democrats councillor for City of York Council and also works as a construction site manager.
“It’s tricky, it really is. There’s always a [demand] on time. One minute I’m a reservist, the next I’m a councillor, then I’m a dad and husband, next I’m a construction site manager. It’s a juggling act. Every Reservist does it.”
Born in Essex, he spent his formative years in South Africa and Somerset, entering the construction industry after leaving education. He first joined the forces in 1996, at the age of 26, becoming a Regiment Officer with the RAF.
His military career as a Regular and Reservist to date has seen him posted both to Iraq and Afghanistan. The latter, in 2002, was during a precursor period to Operation Herrick, the codename under which British combat operations were conducted in the country between 2002 and 2014.
“We were making sure everything was in place [for Operation Herrick to go ahead]...Have we got the right people in the right places? Have we got the right kit? What happens if something breaks down?
"For the first weeks and months, we’re living out of our rucksacks, eating rations and living in holes in the ground which we’ve dug or in tents. And then as the main force comes through, everything starts developing over time, with air conditioned accommodation, flushing toilets, everything which a well-found base has.
“It was a bit of a shame actually, as soon as the base was up and running, that was our time to leave. I remember using a shower bag, a big black bag hanging off a tent peg and showering with it. You’re doing that watching the new showers being put up thinking I’m not going to use those. But that’s the nature of the military.”
Flt Lt Barker’s first posting to Iraq came in 2003 and it was followed by a second two years later. He was among the first wave of the UK military to be involved in the conflict. “We took 13 scud missiles in 24 hours,” he recalls. “My sprint time has certainly improved, running for the shelters...You’re constantly vigilant, on the lookout for IEDs. It’s quite mentally draining actually being alert to that high a level for such a period of time.”
There was “gallows humour” among the forces, he says. The night before he and his comrades went to war, they sat and watched military sitcom Blackadder Goes Forth. “It’s what we do, it’s letting off steam, it’s gallows humour. You join the military knowing ultimately one day you might have to go to war.”
Still, coming under attack was a frightening experience, no matter the preparedness. “It’s what you’re trained for. We had loads of practice drills running up to the start of operations so everyone knew what was to happen. But the first time it happened for real there was a lot of bottom lips out young and old.
"I saw a 19-year-old lad vomit into his respirator he was that scared. I saw another guy sitting there rocking being comforted by someone holding his hand. Until you’ve experienced it, you never really know how you’re going to react.”
For Flt Lt Barker, staying alive was the focus, and doing “the best job I could”. “There is no greater test of doing a job than in a war zone,” he says.
Since making the switch from a Regular to Reservist well over a decade ago, he’s taken up a wealth of opportunities including carrying out a military exercise in Oman, participating in an exchange with the American Forces and indulging in his passion for sailing on numerous occasions.
“You get to do things you wouldn’t normally do in a day to day job like firing weapons or jumping out of aircraft or going to foreign countries or sailing,” he says. “Whatever your passion is, you can do it in the military.”
Reserves Day is being celebrated today as part of Armed Forces Week.
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