First Published May 2022
GETTING IT DONE
There’s definitely something different about interviewing men who have put their lives on the line as part of their actual ‘day-job’. Men who have actively put themselves in harm’s way when the call has come to do so, and who have done so in the knowledge that few people – if, indeed, anyone at all except the men at their side in the heat of the moment – might ever know.
With men like GER REIDY – and his ex-Army Ranger Wing colleague Ray Goggins who we’ve featured previously in OTRT – sitting down to hear their take on life is a privilege. And it’s not because these guys are in any way special or extraordinary, because their humility means they themselves are the first to admit that they’re not. They’re just ordinary people, that’s what they’d say. But, of course, they’re far from ordinary. How they see and approach life has been sharpened and defined by experiences most of us would probably shudder at even the thought of.
But then that’s the difference between them and most of the rest of us: Ger, Ray, and their colleagues in the ARW, or ‘the Unit’, have trained themselves to do extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances. The extraordinary becomes more than just second-nature, it becomes their normal. And more than that, it becomes the standard for everything they do, with anything below that level simply not acceptable. And with good reason…because it might get them or their team killed. You can’t argue with that reasoning.
The hugely popular TV show SPECIAL FORCES – ULTIMATE HELL WEEK, produced by Motive Television, continues to give us an insight into their lives as members of Ireland’s elite Special Forces unit. And as harsh as the show can be, it’s worth remembering that everything we see is just a glimpse – no more – of what Army Ranger Wing recruits go through in real-life.
As this year’s series nears a conclusion, we had the chance to sit down with Ger a couple of weeks ago to talk all things Hell Week and more. If you missed Part 1 here, you can enjoy it in full elsewhere on this site.
In Part 2 this week, we kick things off by talking about one of the most important factors for anyone in any walk of life, but one that’s literally mission critical when you’re in the ARW or Defence Forces – mental toughness.
Everybody involved in Hell Week – from Ger and his fellow DS’s, to the celebs when they take part, to the regular recruits on the show right now – everyone at some stage or another talks about the importance of the mental side of things in getting through the course or making it as far as you possibly can. Physically, to get fitter and stronger, it’s a matter of hitting the road, the weights, or the gym. Pretty simple (at least in theory). But mentally, to stay sharper and become sharper still, how does someone like Ger train or prepare himself in that regard?
“You have to take it in small steps. Sometimes the mental end of things – the mental toughness is what we call it – there’s a couple of things that come with that. I put it down to a couple of things. Sometimes, you’re naturally born with it, mental toughness. And what I mean by that is that if you’ve gone through a traumatic stage in your life or if you’ve had a rough upbringing, or live in a rough area, you’re gonna be hardened when you’re growing up with that. So it’s natural to some people. In others, it’s not natural to them. So there’s a couple of things that come into it for me, the likes of motivation and discipline. And they come hand-in-hand for me. Sometimes the difference between success and failure is not how motivated you are, but it’s actually how disciplined you are in your preparation. That’s across the board. Like, my kid here has spent the last year – or year and a half with Covid – in college doing astrophysics. He gets up every morning at six o’ clock, sits at the computer until eleven or twelve at night, every single day, seven days a week, for the last year and a half. That individual has that mental toughness. How did he get that? Well, he got it because of the discipline.”
Ger continued, “He disciplined himself every morning to get up and sit at that computer and not quit. Because you may not be motivated every day. There’s some days I’ve been motivated to hell, but then you might get bad news that day, or something may happen that makes you go, ‘Look, I’m not f*&king doing that today.’ But it’s the fact that you’re disciplined [that keeps you going]. You just go out and do it, and get it done, ya know. The question I always put to myself is the want-to. That has to really resonate deep inside you. Then your discipline takes over and you just get it done. That’s just the way it is with mental toughness. Your motivation and your discipline come hand-in-hand. To try and train your mental toughness can be tricky. People might go, ‘Well how can I do a 10k run?’ Well give yourself small goals firstly, and achieve that. You might do a 1k run. Then the next day you might do a 2k run. Every day what’s starting to happen – unbeknownst to yourself – is that you’re starting to discipline yourself. You’re starting to push yourself. But this is important: the goals you give yourself have to be achievable. Don’t give yourself goals that are not achievable because you’ll only end up going backwards then. Small goals, achieve them. Next time, achieve them again. The more times you do that, what starts to happen is those voices in your head – the little monsters – they start to go away, and you start to turn them down. You start taking control. You replace those voices in your head with whatever works for you.”
“For me”, remarked Ger, “it’s just get it done. That’s it. Let’s get this done. Those voices then become fewer and fewer and less intrusive in your head. The more you keep doing it, the more you discipline yourself, the more mental toughness you get. And that’s not just for the military. You look at how hard it’s been for students over the last year, year and a half, getting themselves to sit down and do their studies or whatever it was they had to do to pass. That’s discipline. You need discipline to do that. Because [laughs], you’re not going to be motivated to get up out of your bed every day and then sit beside your bed all day, and from there just get back into your bed again, and do that for a year and a half [laughs]. You’re not gonna be motivated every day to do that. Your discipline comes in there. And the reason it does, is because in the back of your head, you have a long-term gain. That’s what you have. So you do all the small stuff because in a year or two or three, you want to reach that long-term gain or goal that you set for yourself. Eventually, that [attitude] just becomes habit. And then the mental toughness is there, because you’ve replaced that little monster that’s telling you to quit, or not to get out of bed, or not to turn on the computer. You just get it done.”
Ray Goggins, one of Ger’s colleagues in the Army Ranger Wing and now on Hell Week, siad in an interview once that the ARW was, “…under-valued, under-supported, under-paid – so many unders I can’t even go through them all.” He also pointed out that this was a failure of successive governments going back many, many years. Given the horrendous fact that we’re now back looking at war in Europe, and the fragility and unpredictability of the continent’s – and indeed, the world’s – geo-political situation, does Ger feel that this might spur the current Irish political leadership into treating both the ARW and our Defence Forces in general more seriously?
“I would like to think it would. I would like to think that. But, they’ll say all these things because of what’s happening now, and what’s in the news. But to get anything moving, to get it going, that could take another couple of years. That’s how slow the process is. I’ve been there. And there’s a massive gap between the military and how things get done, and the government. You have the Department of Defence which is all civilians, no military. I don’t get it. Even myself, after spending all my life in the military, I just don’t get that. Civilians are in charge of defence. We’d look for stuff – even within the Unit over the years – and it’s been shot down, no, you can’t get that. It’s been agreed all the way up to the top level [in the military], then it hits the Department of Defence which is all civilians, so they just don’t understand. And so we can’t get whatever it is we’re looking for. Even that alone shows a big disconnect. That whole system needs to change. It would be great if we had officers from the military and that’s where they were going, into that type of role. Or even have military [personnel] in that type of role, because they know what they’re talking about. They know what’s coming in the door. The Department of Defence just sees money and that’s it, it’s knocked on the head almost immediately.”
“And Ray is right”, Ger points out, “and you’re right, the Defence Forces as a whole are way under-valued. Government just doesn’t get it. You’ll see husbands, you’ll see wives heading overseas for six or eight months at a time, and they have to come back then and try to adapt to the environment they come back to, which is hard. When you’ve been away overseas for so long, coming back to normal life is hard to adapt to, even going to the shop for your groceries. The military – and even our own Unit – have lost a lot of guys, senior guys at the top level, but the middle-men as well which is a disaster. Generally, when the young guys come in, they start learning from the middle guys and the senior guys. But because of pay and conditions and everything, guys are getting out. So you have younger guys not really learning from anyone, and probably jumping up the ladder a bit quicker which is not ideal either. Because they’re learning while the training is moving very fast. You think about it. I left because of pay. All four of us left because of pay. If we were being paid decently, there’d probably be no ‘Ultimate Hell Week’, because the four of us would be still in there and training guys. I spent twenty-one years in the Special Forces Unit, and it was really embarrassing when I was cross-training with other Units across the world – and that’s a very small community, everybody knows each other – and when we’d be there talking about pay and conditions and that, they’re looking at us going, ‘Are you for real?’ They actually can’t believe it. It would be embarrassing. So we’d generally end up skirting around the subject and not talking about it. Because they’re saying to us, ‘But you’re Special Forces, a top-tier Unit?’, and they actually just don’t have any words. That’s embarrassing to me.”
“So it was really aggressive when I left. As in the decision process, not going in there and slapping people around [laughs]. I envisioned myself staying there forever”, Ger reveals.
“Since I was a kid people would ask me what I wanted to do, and for me, I wanted to be a soldier. That was it. Whatever education or background I came from, I was going to the military. Some military. Not necessarily the Irish one, but whatever military would have me. That’s what I wanted to do all my life. But I remember one of the days – a couple of times actually – I remember one of the guys having to actually stay down in the Unit because they had to make a decision to either keep going home every evening and pay for the petrol, or stay down a couple of nights a week and get a better shop in. Like I’m a Team-Leader, and these are the younger guys coming to me to talk. And in my head I’m going f*&k me, he has to stay down here in order to get a decent shop in. Because everything else has gone up, but our wages never went up. Houses went up, cars went up, food went up, but our wages stayed the same. But still we were on-call twenty-four-seven. And I can tell you now, even if you picked up the phone there now and rang any of those guys in there [in the Unit], they would drop everything at the drop of a hat and go anywhere in the world. In a heartbeat. I think the government abuses that. Like, if they’re heading anywhere, they just ring the Unit and the guys will be out there, and they get crap money for it. A lot of that started to come into my head and I started thinking about it. Then I just woke up one day, went into work, and the next 2 I/C I saw – a lovely fella – and I was supposed to be going overseas and taking a team over, but the next minute he says, ‘Well Ger, are ya all sorted?’ And I just said, ‘Nah, I’m out of here’ [laughs]. He nearly collapsed onto the floor because we had a lot of stuff coming up. But I just said, ‘I’m out of here, I have enough. It’s not worth it.’
“And the other thing is, those guys that decided to stay, that didn’t go home for two nights a week because they wanted to save the money, they slept on a mattress on the floor”, states Ger.
He continued, “They could have a wife and kid at home, they could go home to a nice bed, but to save the money they slept on a mattress on the floor. Those are the conditions for guys in an SF Unit there. It’s f*&king bananas. So after twenty-one years, I can’t remember what the trigger was, but it just hit me. I was sitting down one of the days, going through this stuff in my head, and would you believe it, if I just stayed home and took my pension and did nothing, I was only down something like fifty euro. When I’d claw back all the petrol and the car I didn’t need, all that kind of thing, that’s all I was down. I thought to myself, Jesus, if I work one day a week I’m actually up maybe two-hundred euros with my pension. That’s what did it for me really. What kept me in the Unit was the love of the job. Not promotion, because there is no real promotion in there. You’ll go so far and that’s it. It was the love of the job. And that’s what keeps all the guys in there. The other thing that kept me there, of course, was I had an overdraft in the bank. And that was always overdrawn! [Laughs]. That’s how bad it was. And when the recession hit that account was overdrawn twenty-four-seven, all the time. I’m not anymore. Within two or three weeks of leaving I was out of that. When was the recession, 2008, 2009? Well from then to when I left in 2017, I was overdrawn all the time. Except when I went overseas and I got a bit of cash. You know what I mean? An SF Unit, and here we were. It was kind of a shock for everyone when I left, and it took me a long time to get over it. It took me a year to try and adapt, because that’s all I ever wanted to do. I have a Masters, and I have all sorts of courses done, but all I ever wanted to do was that job in the Unit.”
After an incredibly engaging and insightful chat, I wanted to wind things up by asking Ger one of my favourite questions of those I have the pleasure of interviewing. Has there been any one particular piece of advice that’s come his way over the years which has always stayed with him and proved to be influential in shaping him?
“Ahhh…Jesus, I’d have to think about that one. What was it now? I think it was one of the senior boys in the Unit when I was going in who said…I can’t remember the exact words he said…but it was basically when you start climbing the ladder in here and you become senior and that, the one thing you always need to do is listen to your team. And mentor the guys under you. Especially the younger guys coming through. Because that’s what makes a good team in there. It’s not all one-way traffic, it has to be both ways. Because the youngest guy coming into the place has just as much value, and his ideas have just as much value, as the senior guys. I remember that now because there was an incident when I was only in the Unit about maybe two years, maybe three years. I had done the NCO’s course, and at that stage I think I was twenty-three or four, and I found myself in East Timor on an operation, and I was 2 I/C of the team. And I was only just in the Unit, so that was kind of unheard of. The guys I had on the team were senior to me as well. In my head I was going, ‘How am I going to manage two guys that are way senior than me?’ And there younger guys as well. Then about a month into that trip, I had two and a half, three months in the Team Leader role, at twenty-three, twenty-four, only just in the Unit. I’ll never forget it. Something happened before that operation came about and the guy who had been my Team Leader explained all that to me, how you make sure and listen to the guys coming in, and when I got to his position, how I needed to mentor those guys. And to listen to the team, it can’t just be all one way.”
“And”, Ger points out, “always take it on the chin if a young lad is right. As we call the 6 I/C – which is the junior man on the team – if he has an opinion, whether it be right or wrong, you listen to him. You don’t put them down. Because that will make for a better team. And the guys within your team will better respect you. I suppose that was probably the best piece of advice I could ever get from someone because a couple of months later I found myself in that position, with two senior people in the team and four younger guys as well, more or less the same age as myself but I was in charge of them all. But that worked really well, because anytime we went on operations, I did exactly what he’d said to me, and the guys would bend over backwards on the team to help out. I remember even doing a couple of patrols and going through a couple of orders with them, ya know, and a couple of the young guys came up with ideas and we’d use them. For them, that was a massive achievement as well, they were only in the Unit, they’d only finished their training and here we were in ‘live’ operations and they had ideas and ways of doing things that were listened to and taken on-board.”
“That was probably one of the bigger ones [pieces of advice] for me, listen to the people underneath ya. It’s like the old saying about why people enjoy their work. Some people are just going into work because they need the money. It’s not because they enjoy the work. But when you go into work and you have your peer, or your CEO, or Team-Leader, or whoever it is that’s over ya, stand beside you and ask you how you’re getting on, and it’s all positive feedback coming back to him, then he’s doing it right. And the reason he’s doing it right is because when he turns and asks that worker or that bod in the team, ‘How are you getting on?’, and they tell you they have this problem at home or whatever, you stand there and listen to them. You don’t just say grand, and head off! It’s actually about having a meaningful two-way conversation and then trying to help that person out. I find that goes a long way.”
~ SPECIAL FORCES – ULTIMATE HELL WEEK airs at 9.30pm on RTE 2, Thursday night.