Kevin McDonald. . .back in his home town to announce the imminent launch of his book about his chequered army career.

Mayo soldier tells of his truly remarkable army life

A MAYO soldier currently working as an associate security coordination officer with the United Nations mission in South Sudan is set to launch a book about his army life later this year.

Entitled ‘A Life Less Ordinary’, Kevin McDonald, a native of Greenfields, Castlebar, and a son of the late Padraic and Bernie McDonald, revealed one of his friends described his work as ‘a bit like Indiana Jones meeting famous British mountaineer Chris Bonington, meeting special forces operator Ray Goggins from Hell Week’.

‘A Life Less Ordinary’ was a recruiting slogan used by the Irish Defence Forces in the early 1990s.

In an interview with The Connaught Telegraph, he explained the idea of writing his memoirs had been rumbling around in the back of his brain for quite some time now but it needed a catalyst to bring it to fruition.

That catalyst was unfortunately the Covid-19 pandemic.

He elaborated: “In early March 2020, I was on a training course in the capital city of the Central African Republic, Bangui.

“The course finished on March 13 and I was eagerly looking forward to going home on leave on March 20.

“We received news just as the course was finishing that one of our fellow students on the course had flown into Bangui the previous weekend on the same plane that apparently carried the first person to test positive for the disease in the Central African Republic.

“This person was a seventy-year-old Italian priest who has since made a full recovery. However, as a precautionary measure, all of the people on the course, students and instructors alike, had to go immediately into self-isolation for seven days.

“After two days of being stuck in an apartment with nothing to do, I had a eureka moment.

“I sat down with my laptop and started writing and remembering and writing some more. Memories triggered other long-forgotten episodes and I was soon at 30,000 words.

“Initially it was a sort of stream of consciousness, but I felt it was important to get as much down as I could.

“I initially wanted to just make a record of my life not just for my own sake but also for my family.

“I hadn’t really thought about the possibility of it ever getting published but as the pages grew and grew, I felt that there may be a possibility that some publisher might see some merit in what I have written.

“Now, four years on, my musings have morphed into what I hope is a readable account of what has certainly been for me ‘A Life Less Ordinary’.”

The book is, indeed, a fascinating insight to his life in the military, love of architecture and his adventures in the Himalayas.

Kevin was drawn to the Army from a young age.

He exclaimed: “My sole goal in life as a 15-year-old was to join the FCA. Undeterred by the legal requirement to be 17-years old, I ‘adjusted’ my birth certificate and was duly sworn in to be a recruit in the 5th Motor Squadron at the Military Barracks, Castlebar.

“I revelled in it and managed to get a military driving license for motorbikes, Land Rovers, Bedford trucks, and even the Leyland armoured car before I was legally old enough to drive on the road.

“I remember once during the summer months, a few of us were asked to ride three motorcycles to Westport. There was a parade being held there to herald the opening of the summer tourist season and the army was asked to provide a motorcycle escort to lead the parade.

“Now I do not think the officer that tasked us with doing the escort fully thought through his decision as once we left Castlebar, what else would we do but have a race all the way to Westport. Unsupervised young soldiers will always push the limits of what they can and cannot do!

“We dropped back below the speed limit as we approached the town and while riding down a long sloping hill that leads to the town centre, I decided I would stand up on the saddle and stretch out my arms in an approximation of the famous scene in The Titanic.

“Little did I know that there was a garda car waiting at the town’s entrance to guide us to where the parade was to start. I am not sure who had the biggest shock, me or them, but certainly the look on their faces was priceless.”

After completing his Leaving Cert, he worked with a Ford dealership in Athlone before joining the ambulance service in Castlebar on a temporary contract.

And, in 1983, he followed his heart by joining the Irish Defence Forces, starting his career in Monaghan Barracks with the 29th Infantry Battalion of the Eastern Command.

He was assigned to Support Company, based in Cootehill Military Post in Co. Cavan. It was formerly a seminary for training priests but closed as violence increased along the border with Northern Ireland.

“We all had our own rooms, which was unique,” he said.

As a young soldier, there was only one place he wanted to be, however, and that was Lebanon, to serve in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

“I was selected to go overseas with A Company 56th Infantry Battalion in late 1984 and could not wait. My parents and relations were naturally worried, but this was the life I had chosen,” he explained.

Based in the town of Tiblin, life soon settled into a pattern of patrolling and guard duty, and after two months he was promoted to acting corporal, which he was really impressed with.

In the book he recounts that one of their trouble spots was a three-storey house at a road junction which was manned by a militia trained by the Israeli Army, which was still occupying a large part of the country after their 1982 invasion.

After his tour of duty, which involved a lot of travel throughout the Middle East, he decided ‘with great trepidation’ to become an Army Wing Ranger, a step into the unknown.

“Most of the four weeks of physical training went by in a blur, alternating between pain and intense tiredness.

“We slept on old straw mattresses on the floor of a large room. There were two ‘Pass or Fail’ tests during this period, one was a 30-metre abseil off the water tower in the middle of the Curragh Camp and the other was an eight-metre jump off the main bridge crossing the huge water reservoir in Blessington Lake.

“The final two weeks were spent completely in the Wicklow mountains and entailed us setting up temporary bases in forests. Our navigation skills were tested as we moved to new locations each day.

“Life in ‘The Wing’ was exhilarating and I loved every minute of it. We were young, fit and thought of ourselves as invincible, no challenge was too big and we trained for operations on land, on the sea, and under it as well!

“In 1987 we, along with the rest of the Defence Forces, were involved in the nationwide search for the terrorist Dessie O’Hare.”

In mid-1990, a position came up in the FCA unit I had initially trained in, the 5th Motor Squadron in Castlebar.

“With a heavy heart, I left the ‘Wing’ to commence a new chapter in my army career. I became the Training Sergeant in my old unit and loved the freedom to be my own boss and also the time to develop my love for mountaineering.

“This period in my life gave me a deep love for rock climbing and alpine climbing, in particular,” he said.

However a short time later he suffered his first fall while climbing but was fortunate to escape without serious injury.

“I was instructing on a Defence Forces rock climbing course in Co. Donegal, and we were climbing at a sea cliff called Muckross Head.

“Muckross Head is a very unusual crag that is composed of horizontally bedded sandstone that is interspersed with thin bands of mudstone that have been eroded faster and have produced the characteristic overhangs that make the rock climbing here excellent.

“My fall demonstrated the thin line that climbers dance through and around when climbing and was once again a reminder that climbers do not ‘conquer’ cliffs or mountains, rather the Gods of these high places tolerate their presence for a fleeting moment. I dusted myself off, thanked my friend for arresting my fall.”

It did not deter him and as his climbing career took off, he joined the Irish Defence Forces expedition to the French Alps with the intention of summiting Mont Blanc (4,804 meters).

Kevin recalled: “After reaching the summit of Le Tacul at 4,100m and in a freshening wind, we descended to the column between Le Tacul and Mont Maudit, from where we could continue along the ridgeline to the summit of Mt Blanc.

“But difficulties began to dog our progress as the fresh snow had not consolidated, as we thought it might. Soon we were floundering in thigh-deep snow as we worked our way towards a ramp that would allow us to gain the upper slopes of Mount Maudit.

“Every 10 or 15 paces we would stop and suck in the rarified air into heaving chests. At approximately 4,200 metres one of the party sank to his knees, slightly uncoordinated and with a blistering headache; he was showing the early signs of altitude sickness.

"Access to the summit slopes of Mount Blanc was tantalisingly close but our position became increasingly more precarious as streams of spindrift snow were now pouring down off the overhanging ice cliff under which we were now temporarily stopped. No time to waste, we retreated and made the long tortuous descent back down to the valley.”

By 1992, Kevin’s life in the Army had changed again.

After a period of six months training, he was commissioned as a Lieutenant at Curragh Camp and posted to the 6th Infantry Battalion in Athlone.

A year later he was back in Lebanon, this time as a commander and, on his return home, his hectic life continued as he was selected to the Irish Defence Forces military pentathlon team to take part in the first Military Olympics in Rome in August 1995.

At this point of the book, even the reader becomes exhausted by the sheer hectic nature of his life.

But there was so much more to tell, most notably his decision to join a cross border expedition to the Himalayas in October 1995.

“This expedition was unforgettable, not only because of the experience of climbing in the highest mountains of the world but of travelling in a strange and distant country whose customs and culture we are largely ignorant of.

“This was an experience that would remain with us forever and, in my own case, would only serve to fuel my wanderlust.”

By the following November, he was a member of the first Irish Defence Forces expedition to the Himalayas along with Cpl. Gerry Cassidy, Cpl. Barry Doyle and Cpl. Ollie O’Regan.

After a number of days climbing, they learned on their arrival in Kathmandu that an avalanche in the Annapurna area had swept a Sherpa and a Swiss mountaineer along with nine French climber to their deaths.

“Such are the vagaries of climbing in the higher mountain ranges of the world. It made us all the more aware of the fine line we dance between a successful climb and becoming a statistic.

“It made us remember our priorities which we had decided before embarking on the expedition, that we would first of all come back safely, that we would come back as friends and, finally, if possible, we would come back successful. Thankfully, we managed all three,” recalled Kevin.

In 2005, Kevin became an observer with the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) and his wife Clare and their young children could join him in Jerusalem.

Since its creation, UNTSO military observers have served in the Middle East to monitor ceasefires, supervise armistice agreements, prevent isolated incidents from escalating and assist other UN peacekeeping operations in the region to fulfil their respective mandates.

Working with the UN, he has also served in Lebanon, Chad, Mali, Sudan and Central African Republic.

“Looking back, the time has certainly flown, the tempo was frenetic and there was not much time to sit back and contemplate how privileged I am in some ways to be able to serve in places as obscure as Western Sahara.

“Let's face it, how many are even aware of the situation in this region? An understanding wife is the only key to a successful career in the military and I have been blessed with my wife Clare, daughter Ellen and son Ben.

“They have been as supportive as they can be in putting up with my sometimes very rapid deployments overseas.”

His truly remarkable book also gives a insight into the deep-rooted conflict in the Middle East and other areas of the world destroyed by war.

“All wars end eventually, they do,” he concluded.