Boy Soldier to Captain
I left the Bonnet Toun in 1998 aged 16, to join the Scots Guards not realising I would still be serving 22 years later. I never performed well at school and for those that know me remember me constantly trying to be the class clown. This of course ensured I would have very poor exam results and not a lot of job prospects when I left school. As I boarded the bus in Edinburgh to start training for the Army, I did so with the words of Mr McMahon (Geography teacher and scary bloke) ringing in my ears – “Kirkwood, you will amount to nothing”.
As a Junior Soldier (ages 16/17) I did one year of training in Edinburgh and the Infantry Training Centre in Catterick, North Yorkshire. It was hard to be away from home at first but the training took your mind off of it and developed self confidence, discipline, mental robustness and physical fitness. The other bonus to training which I did not expect was a driving license and a chance to gain my education qualifications in maths and English.
After training I was posted to London and for the first couple of years I conducted Public Duties, guarding the Queen and taking part in Trooping the Colour. It takes a lot of personal discipline to stand still for two hours at a time, especially when a tourist is standing there trying to make you laugh! Enjoyable as London was, it was time for a move and we had been warned off to move to Germany and this would be our home for five years.
The one thing I wanted when I joined the Scots Guards was the chance to travel and see the world and I saw a lot of it during my time in Germany. One of my first operational tours was to Iraq as a young Lance Sergeant in charge of eight men. This was a daunting country filled with the remnants of war, religious divide, political instability and a suspicion of any outside forces. It was a great experience and I learned so much during this tour that would help me in the future. One funny moment during the tour happened as the camp was getting hit with rockets and we were laying face down trying to protect ourselves, I heard laughing and recognised a boy from Stewarton, serving in a different Regiment. We looked at each other during the chaos and started catching up on what had been happening back home, the two Estonian soldiers with us thought we were mad, just chatting away as rockets struck the camp.
Over the coming years I got promoted again and deployed twice to Afghanistan, although the first tour was a tough experience it was the second tour in 2010 that really tested my ability and the ability of my mates. My Company deployed a month earlier than had been planned as we were to take part in a large helicopter assault operation against the Taliban. The Company deployed on three helicopters in the dead of night into a heavily defended Taliban area, our mission was to distract them as the main force came from somewhere else, hopefully not taking any casualties. The first week we were under constant siege from the Taliban and constantly fighting, it was tough on all the men. The end of the first week we moved out in the darkness so we could be extracted by helicopter back to our base when suddenly a burst of machine gun rounds flew across out Helicopter Landing Site. The rounds hit my Platoon Commander and after the fire died down he was given first aid and put on the medical evacuation helicopter, it was at this point that I was told I was now in command of the Platoon. As a Sergeant you are the second in command of a Platoon of thirty men, the Officer is the commander and when he gets injured or killed then the Sergeant steps up.
I never let it phase me, I couldn’t as I had thirty men looking at me to tell them what to do and plan the next operation which was similar to the last one we had conducted. I planned the next helicopter operation and we made it onto the ground, after a few days fighting, one of my friends in my Platoon was killed. This was a hard day, one of the hardest I have ever experienced in the Army. The operation still had to continue and we had no time to grieve, only when we were back in Camp Bastion, would we be able to say goodbye. Over the past two weeks on the operations we had multiple gunshot wound casualties, five in my Platoon alone, but they all made it out and would recover.
This particular tour was extremely hard as you were fighting a sneaky enemy every day or worrying about getting hit with an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), add to that the casualties and being far away from your loved ones, it takes its toll.
After the tour I became an Instructor at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and passed some knowledge onto the future Officers of the British Army. I returned to the Scots Guards and promoted to Warrant Officer Class 2, I would do various jobs at this rank including Company Sergeant Major and Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant. All the jobs were interesting and that is the thing about the Army, you are never bored and can always learn something new or pass a course to get promoted.
Twenty years into my career I decided to do a BA (Hons) in Leadership and Management at Northumbria University. I started this as I deployed to Cyprus on an operational tour with the United Nations. It was hard to balance studying and conducting your normal job but the personal discipline learned over the years kicked in and got me through it. I still had Mr McMahons infamous words inside my head as I took the stage in Newcastle and collected my Degree, I was proud as punch and hoped that by me passing a Degree would inspire others with my background to do the same.
The last two years have seen me promoted to become the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards, which is the senior soldier in the Regiment. This was special for me as it showed that I had made it to become the top soldier in the Regiment and responsible for 600 other soldiers. As I write this article I have been selected to Commission as a Captain which lets me serve for another ten years and have a second career.
When I started in 1998 I never thought I would have maths and English qualifications never mind a Degree! The Army has given me the confidence to believe in myself and hopefully set a good example for others to follow. In my Regiment we have had many a Stewartonian serve in the last three hundred plus years including a few that lost their lives in the World Wars. The Scots Guards are a massive family orientated Regiment with many brothers, fathers, sons all serving together, we also have a very large Ayrshire contingent.
The Scots Guards are moving to Catterick, North Yorkshire in summer 2021 which is great news for my soldiers as it means they are closer to home. We are also going on multiple operational deployments and getting the newest vehicle in the British Army – The Boxer. It is a very exciting period for the Scots Guards going forward.
If you are interested then you can follow my journey on Instagram and Twitter.