18-year-old Maltese heads for the Afghanistan frontline
Matthew Camilleri has always been an adventurous guy – to the point that he is ready to be deployed to Afghanistan in the near future, having just graduated into the British Army.
For those unfamiliar with military jargon, which peppers the conversation with the 18-year-old soldier from Sliema, in his case it means he will basically be on the frontline. And if you force out of him whether that is as dangerous as it sounds, he finally acquiesces.
Matthew, whose job description is now combat infanteer, finds it hard to answer whether he harbours any feelings of fear about his upcoming assignment: he is aware that replying in the negative would make him out to be “crazy”, but if he were scared, he would not have joined the British Army in the first place. The soldier sees his operational tour – as it is termed – as a way of “doing a good deed”.
For him it is not so much a case of going to war but more a question of protecting the Afghans from Taliban insurgents and helping out with the situation there. To do that, however, the truth is he will be in “contact” everyday – and for the uninitiated, that means with insurgents.
As part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), he knows he will be constantly in conflict situations – under fire and firing back. Matthew will be armed to the teeth and although “trusting in your kit is a must, you never really know until you put it to the test”. Nevertheless, he feels prepared, having undergone rigorous training for the last year and a half.
Following a selection process, in September 2009 he left Malta to endure 48 weeks of interviews, tests and tasks at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate, and another 14 of training at Catterick Garrison, the largest of three Infantry Training Centres in the UK.
Training also included map reading and navigation but it was no mean feat. In fact, many drop out, instead of pass out: from a platoon of 48, only 23 graduated last month. “It could be due to injury, or because their skills and drills are not on the ball. Maybe the sergeant does not believe they have what it takes to go out and fight. But at that stage of training, it is definitely not a question of changing your mind,” Matthew maintains.
On his part, he managed to withstand the eight-mile tabs – fast walking, carrying 25kg on his back, up steep hills and across rugged terrain. “I love the challenging aspect of training and could never have a desk job!” Being a soldier is in his blood, confirm his parents, who, despite some worry, have supported him along the way.
Matthew was never a Boy Scout, for example, but his desire to join the army dates back to childhood and he has always been into physical fitness and sports, including abseiling and rugby. Although he had never set foot in a gym, Matthew is well-built and could handle the many press-ups he had to undergo during training. Having said that, there were moments when he wondered what he was doing there and why.
“During a week in the field, it was so cold that I got hypothermia. But I kept it to myself and continued training so I would not get back squadded.” What kept him going was selfmotivation — and he knows he may need to tap into that trait again in his future, where he envisages many hard times, but plans to “keep fighting on”.
He also recalls falling in a river in -5°C temperatures. But that did not put him out of action, and when his combat medic told him to dry his trousers on the heater, he ran out into the snow without them to smoke. “The adrenaline does not let you feel the cold,” Matthew says.
Given that he is only wearing a T-shirt and is actually feeling hot while everyone else is in coats, it is not hard to believe. As he starts to warm to the interview, Matthew opens up about what gets him going in a line of work that most would prefer to watch on TV. His most exciting experience was throwing his first high-explosive hand grenade which, he adds, destroyed the target – and brought on the adrenaline again.
This month, Matthew sets off to his battalion with the Mercian Regiment in Germany.
The only downside is being away from his family, friends – and his girlfriend. His grandfather, Derek Fenech, who went to Sandhurst, although he never forged a career in the field, is a great inspiration – as were the stories he would tell him as a child. Matthew may well follow in his footsteps and join the Royal Military Academy some day — but his own stories will be based on reality