When I originally left University I wanted to be a Royal Marine Officer. I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and I wanted to do something worthwhile, action-packed, and hard. I suppose I wanted, most of all, to show just how tough I was.
Marine officer selection is split into two parts. First of all you go to Lympstone Commando Training Centre (CTC) in Devon for a 3 day Potential Officer Course (POC). This consists of a fully-packed itinerary of physical tests, mental tests, presentations and a host of other things to see if you have what they are looking for. The second part of selection, if you pass the first, is a 3 day trip to the Admiralty Interview Board (AIB) where the Navy get their hands on you with some written tests and leadership tests. If you pass both stages you would make a shortlist and, depending on how many people are on that shortlist, be put onto the next available training course if you’re considered good enough.
It’s the toughest selection course in the world (apparently) and I wanted some of that. You get a leaflet explaining a suggested training course to get in shape for the selection and for months that was my bible. I can’t remember how many times I patched up my blistered feet after running in army boots, but when the POC came along I felt ready. But boy was I not.
On the first day you get a gym test, the highlight of which is the RMFA (Royal Marine Fitness Assessment) which consists of press-ups, sit-ups, burpees (a squat thrust with standing up in the middle), pull ups and sprinting (if memory serves me). Unknown to me was that they beast the hell out of you first (beasting is almost as bad as it sounds) so you’re knackered, then they put you through the RMFA. If you fail that, you’re going home. I just managed to pass.
The next highlight was being introduced to the assault course and carrying a telegraph pole around with you all morning. After lunch you do a presentation and then the endurance course (running 10 miles across country including underwater tunnels and similar energy sapping tasks). A formation run back to camp finished that off, and by this stage you are absolutely wasted. Every part of your body tells you to lie down and die, but it’s a mental battle and you can keep going. There are a few more discussion exercises and some swimming, but that’s basically it. Amazingly, I passed. Not many of us from the group did but I felt great. You’ll never know how hard something like that is unless you do it and I had a real sense of achievement (I still do).
A few weeks later I attended the AIB and felt as though I was already in. I was cocky and felt as though I had done the hard part and this was just a formality. In retrospect I didn’t really apply myself to the leadership tasks I was set (such as getting a group of people across a chasm using a few bits of wood and a steel drum). It was my own fault for getting ahead of myself and I failed. I was however invited to come back a year later.
After doing an MSc to kill time (no, really, I couldn’t find anything better to do), I was ready to rock. I was fitter, stronger, faster and there was no way on earth I was going to fail. I’d done the POC before and knew exactly what it took to pass. And I knew exactly what was expected of me at the AIB, so no hanging back this time. No problem.
But shortly after arriving at Lympstone I noticed I had a little bit of a cold. I felt fine though, just a bit of a sniffle. The RMFA was no problem this time and managed to easily pass it (I almost fainted the first time but managed to stay conscious). However the morning of the second day wasn’t so good. I’d had the runs the night before and started day two by throwing up (I just put it down to nerves). I managed to hang in there through the assault course, telegraph pole carrying and cutting my knuckles doing press-ups on the frozen ground. But by the afternoon run I was starting to flag. I was with the pack until the run back to camp but then my legs started to give up the ghost. I would run at my normal pace for a few yards, then my lungs would seem to stop working, I’d drop to almost walking pace, feel a bit better and then try to speed up again. My body was wrecked and I got pulled into the back of a wagon after a couple of miles. I was gutted.
I knew I’d failed and I wasn’t impressed. In the final one-on-one with the officer running the course I got no sympathy (although I didn’t expect any) and was told that I’d failed and, now that I was too old, not to bother coming back. Suddenly, after two years of training for the one thing in life I really wanted to do, I had that dream snatched away and I had nobody to blame but myself. I was thoroughly ill for a couple of weeks afterwards (the flu apparently) but that was no consolation.
Up until that point I’d drifted through my life, passing exams with flying colours, passing my driving test first time, and achieving everything I wanted without trying too hard. It had been plain sailing. And now I’d failed at something that really mattered. I had to pick my life up and decide what else I wanted to do with it. I needed to “start again from my beginnings” and it was damn hard. I was bitter and twisted for a while.
But, looking back, failing was the best thing that ever happened to me. It stopped me taking things for granted. It made me realise that not everything was going to go my way and I was going to have to learn to deal with it. It stopped me drifting and made me act for a purpose all the time. But above all, it made me sit back and think about what the hell I wanted to do with my life. How I chose software development I’ll never know.
I did learn a few other things from the POC, however. One is that people who think they’re “hard” or tough, are most often not in the grand scheme of things. The Marine physical training staff are some of the toughest bastards I could ever imagine – they don’t feel pain and if there were three of you with baseball bats and one of them, I’d still bet on them. Another is that southerners are not jessies (a common assumption is that people from the south of England are soft). There were quite a few southerners on both my courses and I can assure you that they didn’t mind getting their feet wet or having their faces buried in the mud. Thirdly, I learned that big, muscle-bound meatheads, aren’t as tough as they seem. At the start of my first POC I was in awe at the size and shape of some of these guys on the course, and was amazed to see most of these guys drop out fairly quickly. Finally, if you think I’m arrogant now, you should have seen me before then – I was truly terrible.
So respect to our armed forces. And bring back National Service!