First Published May 2022
A HELL OF A MAN
If you’re a regular reader of this column, then you’ll know that OTRT is a huge fan of RTE’s SPECIAL FORCES – ULTIMATE HELL WEEK show. And we’ve been lucky enough to sit down for a chat with the show’s Chief DS Ray Goggins, as well as two of the stand-out performers on this year’s celebrity version of the show; eventual winner Ryan Andrews of Fair City fame, and world champion dancer Laura Nolan from another of RTE’s most successful creations of recent years, Dancing With The Stars.
Both Ryan and Laura had captivating and enthralling stories to tell from their time on the show earlier this year, made all the more compelling, of course, because we – the viewers, sitting in the comfort of our own homes with a mug of tea in hand – got to ‘share’ that journey with them. Talking to Ray, though, that was a different experience. And why wouldn’t it be. Whereas Ryan and Laura are famous faces to us, and well used to the spotlight, Ray and his colleagues in the Army Ranger Wing have purposely spent their careers staying out of sight, keeping their heads down, and for the most part going unnoticed by the rest of the world. Until, that is, Ultimate Hell Week came along and changed all that.
This week, we have the pleasure of adding the name of DS GER REIDY to the list of Hell Week stars we’ve had the privilege of sitting down with. And sitting down with someone like Ger isn’t just a chance for a great chat. As with Ray, it’s a chance to learn.
Now, whether Ger likes the term or not, there’s no doubt that he, along with his fellow DS’s (Ray Goggins, Robert Stafford, and Alan O’ Brien) – are the ‘stars’ of the show. But more than simply being one of the show’s main figures, Ger is one of the core group responsible for the show even existing at all. Before we got on to that, though, I wondered if the show’s success and the way it has really captured the public’s imagination over the last few years had taken him by surprise at all?
“Yeah, it actually has. Because what we do in the Unit (the Army Ranger Wing), and the Unit’s existence, was kept fairly secret for years. So we were quite surprised when it started to take off, because we didn’t know how people would take it, ya know. But I suppose our main concern at the time was how the guys in the Unit would look at it and look at us, because obviously we tried to give some indication to people of what it’s like to go through selection, and show the public what it’s really like to go through that type of thing. So when it took off, yeah, it really did surprise us. We didn’t think there’d be that many people who’d be into this type of thing.”
So is it a thing that Ger finds himself being recognised more when he’s out and about now, thanks to his involvement in the show?
“Ah it is, yeah, and it was very weird there for me – and for the lads – for a long time. I spent twenty-one years in the Unit, and in twenty-one years I never wore my uniform home. No-one ever really knew what I did. Even in the town, and I live in a small town where I was highly involved with playing a high level of soccer, and Gaelic, my main sport was Gaelic football so I played that a lot even when I was in the Unit. When the show kicked off and came out, it was fierce funny because I was getting a lot of different looks from people in the town who never knew what I did. And guys would be sort of half afraid of me to come near me on the pitch [laughs]. So it was kinda weird.”
When Ger, Ray, Robert, and Alan, were first approached by Motive Television about the idea for Hell Week, it was far from a matter of everyone responding along the lines of, “Yes, brilliant, television, let’s do it!” In fact, it was actually something which all four put considerable thought into, not only as to whether or not such a show should happen, but if it did, what shape it would take…
“Yeah, that was kinda weird as well. I was on tour for a while and I came home and got an email talking about this. That email came through another ex-Unit guy who was approached as well. I thought it was a wind-up. And obviously the four of us are mates, so I sent the email on to them saying, ‘Here, did ye get this?’, cos’ we’re all paranoid, like, ya know [laughs]. And they did. Then we met Jamie [D’Alton] from Motive TV, and again, before we met him we all had a good chat, because again, we’re all paranoid [laughs]. We didn’t know where this was after coming from, or if it was a joke, or someone just pulling something out of their underpants, as we would say [laughs]. We met him, and it was funny, because we met so he could kind of interview us, but it really turned the other way around and we started interviewing him! But eventually he told us how it had went up the chain [of command in the Army] and then back down and it was all ok that way, and we were the guys they wanted to do it. And even at that, when he spoke to us we didn’t say yes straight away, it took us a while. We had a lot of coffees, the four of us together, and had a good talk about it. We kind of knew how the perception would be when it went out, and we told them. And it was hard for them as well, because we told them, look, when ye see us switching into this mode, it’s gonna be really weird to you. Because I was talking to them like I’m talking to you now. But when we switch into a training mode, it’s a different type of environment.”
“And the production crew”, Ger pointed out, “would never have experienced that. We were trying to explain to him that when this goes out on air, people that don’t get it will probably think we’re bullies and that, but people that do get it will understand. And we were trying to explain that what we do is nothing new. This is done in every SF (Special Forces) unit in the world. We didn’t pull this out of our underpants, and neither did they [any other SF unit). Everybody talks to each other because this is such a small community. We see how we all train things and how we bring in guys, and we change things. So the selection course changes quite considerably every year to try and make it better and get more people in. We understood that we’d get that label for a while until people kind of got it and understood. Then, of course, when we got out there and were doing a couple of interviews like this, we were trying to explain that there’s a process to it. Everybody is treated fairly. Everybody is on the same level once they come into the Unit. But our main concern at the time when the four of us spoke about it was actually the guys in the Unit, because we were trying to portray a representation of what everybody goes through in there. We really wanted their OK more than anybody else’s. We didn’t really care about anybody else’s! So once the guys in there were happy that it was a fair representation of what they go through, then we were happy enough. We were gonna get labelled with whatever we got labelled, but we were willing to take that on the chin and put ourselves out there. And that was a big thing. We knew we were gonna be in the limelight, and that was very hard for us. Because as I said, we’ve spent the last twenty-odd years hiding from all that kind of stuff! [Laughs].”
Before talking more about the show, I wanted to talk a little about Ger himself. Some people might watch him on Hell Week and think, ‘Yeah, he likes to shout, and yeah, he could probably take on five or six lads in one go…but is there anything else to him?’ Well, the answer to that is a simple and definite yes! Try a Master’s Degree – with First Class honours – in Forensic Computing and Cybercrime from UCD. I asked Ger about his decision to go in that particular direction…
“Well I was always into tech, but I kept that to myself. Because the guys in work would be lashing me out of it, ya know, they’d be calling me nerd and everything [laughs]. But when their phone would break, I’d fix it, ya know! So I was always dossing about taking phones apart and taking computers apart and fixing them or trying to put my own little bits of code onto them, that kind of thing. But that was just a hobby. Once the Afghanistan and Iraq war kicked off, things changed in the intelligence end of things. We used to work in the olden days as a triangle. That would be from the top down, with intel coming in, then down to the guys on the ground and they’d go do their thing. Nowadays – it comes from all directions – but a lot of it comes from the ground in, all the way up the triangle, sorted at the top, then it comes back down. And the reason that happens is because of all the technical stuff now. It’s what we call TEO, Technical Exploitation Operations. It’s like a forensic investigation, but it’s done in quick-time. We do the same thing as the police would do if they go into a crime-scene, except they get themselves suited up to take the fingerprints. We do all that, but in quick-time. We have five-minute, ten-minute, and fifteen minutes windows because obviously there’s bullets flying our way and that. So we come in, lift fingerprints, look for the stuff that you can use to actually make bombs, all that kind of thing. Then with the phones, we have machines to take all the information off them, and laptops, all of that. I did a lot of courses in that kinda stuff in SF schools around the world, because we’d all get taught the same thing. So I could go into any other team, or the guys could go into any other team around the world, and do the same drill because it’s the same thing that’s taught to everybody.”
Ger continued, “That’s where I got into it. I just decided then that we might be able to put this to good use within the unit and get a technical side of things set up. So I found that course in UCD and I could do the restricted one because I was in the military. That has an extra couple of courses on it that the civilian one doesn’t. I went hell-for-leather at that. And it was hard-going for the two years. Well, it was about two-and-a-half for me when I put my head to it. I think you needed ninety credits or something to pass, that would equate to nine courses, and you could break that down over the two years. But of course I wanted to do everything, so I think I did about twelve courses, and then a dissertation as well which was another thirty credits. I didn’t need to do a dissertation, but I wanted to because I was interested in things and how it all could benefit the Defence Forces, and relate it to the Defence Forces. So that’s why I decided to do that.”
I think it’s fair to say that everybody in the Army Ranger Wing needs to be a leader. And Ger’s career has examples of leadership that few people could match. Just some examples include being a Team Leader, a Team 2i/c (2nd-in-command), Platoon Sergeant, an NCO in Lebanon, Close Protection Team 2i/c for a trip to Beirut by the President, being Close Protection Team Leader for a visit to Ireland by the US Army’s Joint Chief-of-Staff, and countless more that the general public will probably never know anything about. But in leaders who Ger has looked up to, what have been two or three of their main attributes that he’s admired?
“I suppose one of the big things – that I find anyway in leadership – is the integrity of a leader. Integrity in a nutshell is you own up to your own faults. Accept the mistakes you make. I’ve been under some guys in those positions and they’d never accept their own mistakes. But we’re only human, everybody learns from their mistakes. And especially in the SF community, that’s how we get good at what we do. And that’s why guys are so good at what they do, they always learn from their mistakes. They have an ability to really critique each other a lot, accept those mistakes, and move on from them then, and do things better the next time that situation comes around. Some leaders are just naturally born [that way], but some have to work really hard at it. But there can be small traits there that enable them to bring out the leadership qualities in a person. And you have to be a good follower as well. That’s what makes good leaders as well, being a natural follower is part of the process. Another big thing is actually listening to people. I’ve often seen it, even in the corporate world, where a young guy or girl comes in and they want to talk to the CEO or whoever it is of the company. He might walk by and ask the question, ‘How’s your day?’, but without really listening, do you know what I mean? But I’ve seen others who are very good working in that environment, where they’ve actually asked their peers, or their peers have asked them, ya know, ‘How’s your day?’, and they’ve stood there and listened to them. Because of that, they get the responses they want to hear, like ‘I love working there.’ Why do you love working there? ‘Because people listen, people care, they look after you.’ All that kind of thing.”
And Ger’s own strongest quality as a leader?
“Well I like to think that it’s there or thereabouts [the quality of leadership], because I’ve been involved in a lot, even in the civilian end of things, not just with the military, where people end up looking up to you. And you don’t really realise it. I never really realise it when I move from the military [environment] because it’s such a natural thing, especially in the Unit. The majority of the lads at any stage can step up into that role. They’re sort of finely-tuned when they come in. And even if you’re not a leader [by nature], just by being around the senior guys all the time it’s sort of brought out in you more and more. I remember when I went in as a young guy, it took a while for that to come out in me as well. But when senior guys are over you and they’re mentoring you, you see your mistakes and you learn from them. And even some of the younger guys are very good as well and some of the other [older] guys will learn from them.”
I’m also a big fan of the Channel 4 show SAS: Who Dares Wins, but one difference I’ve noticed between the DS’s on that show and Hell Week is that Ger and his colleagues stay ‘in-character’, as it were, right up until the moment someone hands over their armband, at which point their humanity instantly returns. On SAS: Who Dares Wins, however, the DS can often have little moments where they actively reassure or encourage someone. So I asked Ger to tell me why his team believes it’s so important to keep that barrier between DS’s and recruits…
“If you break that barrier then sometimes it can give a false sense of security to the recruit or the candidate. And sometimes that can end up breaking the mold that we’re trying to get them into. We have to get them into that mindset [that we want them in] fairly quickly, because it’s only a short period that they’re there for. We have to get them into that quickly, and then keep them in it. For them, it’s really a battle between their own heads if they want to succeed or not. The battles go on in their head, ya know. We’re there to keep them in that environment as much as we possibly can. They have to understand that although it’s a show, we’re not gonna take any sh*t. If it goes wrong, or it’s not going how we want it to go, then in a heartbeat we’ll just switch it and pull them out. But at the same time, once they hand over the armband and once they go, then we obviously do show that [more human] side, because they’ve come down and put that effort in.”
“They’ve put their life on hold”, acknowledges Ger. “And some of them have good jobs, some have businesses, and they’ve put all that on hold and put the sacrifice in for the couple of months or weeks prior to the show to try and prep themselves for it. And they’re not getting anything from it. They volunteered. They’re not gonna win anything. Some might have put in all this preparation, and within an hour they’re gone. Or even stepping off the bus they’re gone because they just have four hairy guys coming at them! [Laughs]. So we understand the process of what they’re going through, or what they’re going to go through, the sacrifice that they’ve made. But this is not a career choice [for them]. For us, this is a career choice. When I make a sacrifice, that’s when I’m going to work at it. They’re not gonna work at this. They’re gonna go back to their jobs. And not only that, they’re after being on television. They didn’t do what they thought they were gonna do, maybe. They have to face all that when they go back to their normal lives. But we’re not gonna be assholes – as some people call us [laughs] – for the whole lot of it. We are human! You let them know that they’ve put in a fierce effort, and you congratulate them.”
~ SPECIAL FORCES – ULTIMATE HELL WEEK, airs again TOMORROW night (Thursday, May 19th) at 9.30pm on RTE 2.