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peactime

The Peacetime Commando – the unheard soldier story

Mental Health

Hamish Keene write powerfully of the experience of training to be a Royal Marine Commando, and the mental strain that comes when you don't actually get a chance to fight

There is no other place on earth quite like the one I am about to describe. Whether you arrive on “The Bomber” or by road, either one represents your last moments of freedom and safety before the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines (‘Lympstone’) has you by the throat. It is a place that will forever haunt those brave enough to set foot on the establishment and subject mind, body and soul to eight months of the world’s longest and most arduous basic training. For the duration, you are completely at the mercy of your training team. They say jump, you’d better say “how high?” lest ye and your brethren be subjected to what are affectionately known as “beastings”. My Sergeant’s first ever words to us were “I can’t kill you and I can’t get you pregnant. How bad can it be?” A collective browning of underwear ensued, and the following weeks and months were a perfect illustration of exactly why the attrition rate is so notoriously high.

Trying to describe what goes on within those walls and on the training areas to anyone who hasn’t had the privilege is pretty much impossible. It is so hard to convey how far you must push yourself just to survive each day. You don’t reach the fitness levels of an Olympic athlete by accident. But that is exactly the level you attain. To offer some context, I moved to London a few years ago and joined a fantastic HIIT gym called ‘Rowbots’. It’s easily the hardest workout I’ve done since leaving the military, but it pales into insignificance compared to what we were subjected to. Crossfit? Don’t make me laugh. That’s a fully controlled environment. Short workouts, pumping tunes and high-fives where you’re fully rested, nourished as well as being armed with the full knowledge of what’s coming. Lympstone strips all that away. You’re thrashed for hours and even days on end in utterly miserable conditions. It is relentless and the Commando standard for everything is excellent as a bare minimum. Even showering has a specific technique (there’s just some things you can’t un-see).

So what? Well, with a failure rate that hovers in the mid-to-high 80s (my own troop started with 63 and finished with 14, perhaps we were lucky) what it asks of you is just about everything. This author bled, sweated and, on completion of his 30 miler, cried whilst achieving his boyhood dream of earning the Coveted Green Beret and becoming a Royal Marines Commando. It truly means everything to anyone who has ever earned the right to wear one of those.

It is for this reason that it was so hard to accept that I, like hundreds if not thousands of other service personnel of my generation, never got to put what we’d been trained for in to practice. After the turmoil of Lympstone, you join an active unit. Here you are a very small fish in a very big pond. You are fully trained, yet you know nothing. You are fitter that 99.99% of the people on the face of the earth, yet you’ve proved nothing. You can take care of yourself and your team in any environment you care to mention yet you have a fraction of the knowledge you require, and your sternest physical tests lie ahead. You must learn at a rapid rate from men whom you can’t help but idolise. I still think of the example set by one of my Corporals, a northerner called Chris. “What would Chris do?” is a question I ask myself to this day. You become desperate to prove your worth. Doing so on camp and on exercises will only get you so far. Even after your joining run (IYKYK…) some still won’t look you in the eye. This may seem odd from the outside but from the in it isn’t that surprising given what they’ve gone through.

Furthermore, your family have had to make their peace with the notion their son/brother may come home draped in a Union Flag. You just want to make them proud and so the desire to “do the job” intensifies. You move through your career maintaining hope that one day the call will come and get you off the proverbial bench. On the day it did come for my company, a tasking to Syria in the early days of ISIS, it was cancelled at the very last minute. I have never been amongst a group of such disappointed young men in my life. Beforehand, I hadn’t been able to tell my sisters what they meant to me in person so had to make do with a text. They felt relieved after the next one I sent. I just felt embarrassment.

It is because of this that I have often felt like a fraud in the company of “true Bootnecks”. It feels akin to the England rugby team going through all their training but never being allowed to set foot on the hallowed turf of Twickenham (our Gallic comrades would argue this isn’t necessarily a bad thing). You feel like you were only there notionally and it makes one question whether they can truly count themselves among the elite they trained so hard to be a part of. The frustration is immense and frequently unbearable. When we signed our names on that dotted line, we fucking meant it but circumstances outside of our control dictated that the itch would never be scratched. That is not easy to accept. “If it’s outside of your control, you shouldn’t feel bad!” Perfectly valid argument. However, it is scant consolation when you feel the need to prove you truly belong to one of the most special brotherhoods in existence.

The common narrative is dominated by those who got to do the job and the consequences they suffer. I am not and never would write this to deny their significance. I wrote this for those who may still feel that need to prove themselves. I am not alone in having concerns that some now-civilian friends still have a desire to put themselves in harms’ way to satiate a desire for action. Whatever their cap badge, I want to assure them that the mere fact they were prepared to sign their lives away to make the world a better place, will always make them enough.

If this article helps but one person, I will consider it a success.

Yours aye,

Hammy

P.s. I am always here for those that wish to talk x

Contact Hamish on Instagram

Hamish Keene

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