A Soldier’s Life

Dr Juliette McMahon and Claire Harnett were surprised at camp life in the Golan Heights, when they travelled there to complete a workplace survey for the Defence Forces, writes Áine Freeman.

Since 1974, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) has maintained the ceasefire between Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights.

When Dr Juliette McMahon travelled to the area of operation with Claire Harnett in December, to complete a workplace survey for the Irish Defence Forces, their image of what the soldiers would be doing was much different to the reality.

“They are constantly on alert. They do preparation exercises every day because there is always a chance that something is going to happen,” Dr McMahon, a lecturer in HRM and industrial relations at Kemmy Business School, notes.

Dr McMahon surveyed focus groups of the Defence Forces across Ireland in 2015. The aim was to gather information from soldiers about their wellbeing and their opinions about life within the Defence Forces. The following year, it was decided that the survey needed to be conducted with those operating overseas.

“The idea of the survey was to have a say, so it was felt we needed to get the voice of the overseas troops. What they’re facing overseas is a lot different in many ways from what they are doing at home in Ireland.”

Both women stayed for five days in the nearby village of Kibutz Ein-Zivan. They held the focus groups with soldiers based in Camp Ziouani, which is “quite an isolated place. It’s near villages but there wouldn’t be huge interaction”.

Dr McMahon felt the seriousness of the situation in the Golan Heights when they entered the camp. “The first thing they did was to sit us down and take us through the logistics of the camp.

They pointed to these armoured clothing, flack-jackets and vests and said ‘they’re yours, they have to stay beside you and if anything happens, that’s the first thing you take’. They took us through the procedures if we had to leave in a hurry. That brought it home to us how serious it was.”

They then organised the camp into groups. “We researched into why people feel the way they do about the Defence Forces, good, bad or indifferent and what are the key things for them being overseas,” Dr McMahon explains. Camp life was not what the researchers were expecting.

“The conditions are tough, the camp is welcoming but, for example, there is no alcohol allowed and you can understand that, given the situation that’s going on in the Golan Heights. The things we take for granted, like being able to go out and go down to the shop, is not an option for the soldiers. They’re quite restricted. They’re over there to do a job, they’re not over there for a holiday and that’s very clear.”

The everyday danger that is a reality for the forces was apparent. “The guys have to be able to go from cleaning the kitchen or preparing dinner to being in Mowag tanks, at their positions, ready to go in 10 minutes,” she says.

Along with seeing the troops at work, Dr McMahon also saw a more personal side. “They really are a tight-knit bunch. They said they do things they would never have considered doing before, like playing bingo and cards in the night.”

The connection to the University of Limerick was also evident, with several past students on site. “It was so good to go into the camp and see UL alumni after UL alumni as Defence Force members. They were in UL studying mainly master degrees in our department. From a personal point of view, you’re lecturing in industrial relations, leadership and human resource management but, very often, we’re teaching it from the point of view of a private sector organisation. Then you see leadership and people skills being utilised in a very different context,” she adds.

After their work in the Golan Heights, the two women travelled to Jerusalem to complete a focus group with Irish Defence Force workers in the United Nations’ Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO). The troops there are observing the West Bank and Jerusalem situation.

“To go to Jerusalem and see the division, for someone who’s heard about these things but never seen them, it’s fascinating to see the observers and the work they do and the lives they lead.”

Dr McMahon believes the results from such a trip are immense. “You get to do research which informs what you do and gives you an insight into the lives of overseas officers.

“I don’t think we have any real sense of what these men and women are doing and the service they are providing, not just for Ireland, but for Europe and the world.” 

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