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In the army now: how today’s nurses become tomorrow’s officers

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Over the years, I’ve written about some amazing nurses. Some of the stand-out stories I remember have involved nurses on the frontline, not only of healthcare but of the battlefield. 

Nursing as a profession began of course on the battlefields of the Crimea, with the pioneering work of Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole and others.

So I did something a bit different last Thursday. I was able to escape from my office in London and head deep into Surrey to see how the army nursing officers of the future are trained.

I had been invited to spend a day at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, more commonly known simply as Sandhurst, with an assorted group of other journalists. I admit I had jumped at the chance – call it a boy thing.

Once inside the gates, I found myself in a separate community, albeit a very ordered and physically fit one, and a million miles away from the nearby high street of Camberley. As one would expect, the college has its own facilities, including a large dining hall – think Hogwarts – and library, plus bars for each rank – all in 600 acres of parkland and surrounding that 1,200 acres of woodland.

Sandhurst is where all future British Army officers come first to complete their basic training, before they go on to specialise in a particular area, such as the infantry or engineers. The ethos is to create leaders by enhancing “character, intellect and professional competence”.

It is, therefore, also where nurses who wish to become officers in either the regular army or as part of the army reserve also must come.

Unlike the majority of the cadets, nurses joining the course are referred to as professionally qualified officers in recognition of their clinical expertise. Instead of the full 44-week course, they do a shorter 10-week course, which is more tailored to their role as clinicians, but helps them learn about military life and what they can expect to encounter while on deployment.

“Any nurses accepting the challenge will be required to march eight miles”

Admittedly, any nurses accepting the challenge will be required to march eight miles and complete one every 15 minutes, carrying what’s known in the army as a Bergen – very large, heavy rucksack in common parlance. Given that I enjoy walking and have felt the pain of long-distance paths around England, this sounded challenging.

But the physical training instructor, who gave us a tour of the impressive gym and swimming facilities, had noted that it wasn’t like in the films, with cadets pushed dangerously beyond their endurance. Instead, using the latest science on health and fitness, they were built up, along with their confidence.    

This was confirmed by the cadet I’d spoken to over lunch, who explained how her endurance was slowly increased with longer marches and heavier weights during the course. It was pleasing to see the pride she unconsciously expressed when describing what she could do when she first arrived at the college and what she could do now – she almost seemed surprised. 

“It was pleasing to see the pride she unconsciously expressed”

One of the most interesting parts of the day was being invited to sit-in on some of the cadet’s training classes. In the first, they were learning how to use some pretty aged looking radios, which felt like a throwback to a world before mobile phones.

In the second, the cadets were given real-life scenarios to react to – in our case entering a village in Afghanistan, to be faced by challenges including a dangerous electrical supply and local issues with prostitution. It was fascinating listening to the cadets debate how they would tackle the problems and then hearing what had actually happened in reality.

“It was fascinating listening to the cadets debate how they would tackle the problems”

There was, of course, some marching to be done too. It wouldn’t have seemed quite right if we’d gone through the day without watching a bit of drill, complete with swords and a shouting sergeant.

I left impressed and full of admiration for those that I had met, as I always do when I spend time visiting places where healthcare professionals are working or being educated.

“I left impressed and full of admiration for those that I had met”

Oh, and I learnt a lot as well. Including that the cannon outside the college was captured from the French at the Battle of Waterloo – 200 years ago in June. Made my day, that.


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