TWO Limerickmen and their comrades were honoured for their contribution to the “economic and social development” in South Lebanon, as they near the end of a six-month UN peacekeeping mission.
Private Dave Le Gear, of Granville Park, was one of 82 to be awarded a peacekeeping medal for his first ever mission on Lebanese soil. He was mentored by Garryowen man Sergeant Major Stan Hurley, who was presented a silver numeral for being involved in the Lebanese mission, for a sixth time, since 1983.
Both former CBS Sexton Street students, Pte Le Gear, 28, and Sgt Maj Hurley, 52, are members of United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which has been in operation since 1978 to restore peace and security, and to assist the Lebanese authorities to regain authority in the country.
Since the start of the mission in May, the core part of their task has been to observe and to patrol the Blue Line — an “agreed line of withdrawal” of the Israeli Defence Forces from Lebanese territory. And according to the two soldiers, the mission has been “successful” so far.
Pte Le Gear told the Limerick Leader from his camp in the Lebanon that receiving his medal from the Defence Forces chief of staff, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, was “a proud day for him” and that he hopes to engage in another mission soon.
The 28-year-old electrician, who joined the army when he was 24, has been undergoing “massive patrolling” and has been monitoring the “cessation of hostilities” along the Blue Line, as a member of the rifle company.
To receive his certification of fitness to travel to Lebanon, Pte Le Gear and the UN soldiers commenced “intense” training on March 16 in Kilwurth, Cork, and then moved onto the Glen of Imaal, in Wicklow, for their mission readiness exercises.
“All the lessons have been identified from the previous trips. Out of that, they create a number of scenarios, and they know the different threats that are out here,” Sgt Maj Hurley said.
The experienced UN soldier — who has participated in missions in Chad, Kosovo, Bosnia, East Timor and Afghanistan — said that there is also “culture-focused” training, which allows the new UN soldiers to have a better understanding of the locals’ way of life.
Additionally the Irish troops, where possible, teach locals First Aid in community centres and help the children with their English in the classroom, as well as teaching other skills. This, Sgt Maj Hurley said, is part of their “civil military cooperation” task.
“On the sports front, the assistants of Irish Aid inaugurated a number of football pitches and astro turf pitches, and on the opening ceremony, we put up a team to play the local team,” he added.
He is also in charge of choreographing a monthly wreath-laying ceremony at their camp in Tibnin, in memory of the 47 Irish troops who have died since the UNIFIL missions began 37 years ago.
“It is very important to us. Part of my role of being Sergeant Major, and the older part of the more senior people, is always to ensure that the younger people — the next generation of soldiers who will be in the army long after I am gone — continue to keep that memory alive. And that is very important.”
Both Pte Le Gear and the Sgt Maj said that the Irish troops get on “exceptionally well” with the locals and have occasionally sat down with them in coffee shops for a cup of tea.
“There is a long-standing interaction between us and the locals in the community. In 1983, we were primarily doing checkpoints on the roads, and the young kids that were around we taught English by Irish people. And they are now adults and they have kids. And whenever the locals know when troops are coming, they would always ask who is coming.”
And while the threat of ISIS in the region has been an ongoing issue in recent years, the Garryowen man said that people in the Middle East have been fighting “since the birth of our Lord”, and that ISIS is “just another name for the latest group.
“When we were back in the 80s and 90s when this was occupied by the Israelis, the places that we were in used to constantly come under fire. The young kids that we met are now adults, so they grew up with that, and now their sons are fighting in Syria. The whole cycle continues here. That’s unfortunately the way this part of the world is.”
At the medal ceremony, Vice Admiral Mellett commended the troops for their efforts.
“It has not been an easy road but the Irish Defence Forces, on behalf of the Irish people, have stood steadfast in their commitment to peace in Lebanon and the broader Middle East,” he said.
Sgt Maj Hurley wished Paul O’Connell a “speedy recovery” after his injury at the Rugby World Cup, in Cardiff, and that the Irish troops have been supporting the Limerick star and the Irish team from their peacekeeping camps.