NOT every soldier taking part in the Afghanistan military training course ‘Operation Lionstar’ will end up being deployed to the land of the Mujahidin.
I discovered this after speaking to Trooper Prokopi Missias, of Chester, who tells me he is instead using the experience to gain the necessary skills to patrol the volatile border in divided Cyprus.
Prokopi and I are standing just outside the main Episkopi camp where he and the rest of the Chester squadron have just finished taking part in a field combat exercise.
We hear the sound of automated rifles in the near distance, as soldiers about a hundred metres in front of us are moving through the brush, pretending to avoid enemy fire as well as while firing blank rounds. Prokopi, 30, explains to me he hopes to learn these world-renowned military techniques to help keep Cyprus from falling back into violent turmoil.
The East Mediterranean Island, just south of Turkey and west of Syria, is subject to an ongoing international dispute which started when Greek Cypriots attempted a coup d’etat 1974. This subsequently led to an invasion by Turkey, causing widespread violence and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Cypriots.
Now, a border separates Turkish Cyprus in the north, covering roughly 36 per cent of the country, and independent Cyprus in the south. UN troops regularly patrol the area, with two sovereign military bases owned by the United Kingdom at or near the border, including Akrotiri and Dhekelia.
Prokopi, who is of dual Greek and British nationality, tells me he is gaining key skills from his time in the Territorial Army (TA), which, together with his fluency in Greek and English, he expects to make him an ideal soldier to help out with efforts to keep peace in the divided island.
Prokopi, originally from Greece, said: “I have never been in any conflict before, but the Cyprus situation is very important to me for personal reasons. I want to come here to be closer to home, and also help the UN patrol the border, maybe working as an interpreter or something like that since I speak the language. Even if it is just talking, I want to do what I can do to help.”
Prokopi, who lives in Blacon Point Road, Blacon, says although the Cyprus situation has calmed down in recent years, it remains especially important to him to keep things from escalating to the way they have been in the past. This is an increasing possibility, I am told, especially in light of the violence spreading across the Middle East.
Prokopi moved to the UK two years ago to be with his girlfriend Gemma Joinson, after first studying sports science at the University of Chester. The ‘physical fitness’ aspect of the TA was one of the main reasons he signed up to the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry Chester squadron, which trains at the Dale Barracks every Thursday.
He said: “Being in the TA has taught me motivation while learning extra discipline. I have never toured before so this course is helping me to reach my goals.”
“I already feel like I am improving my shooting ranges, my aim, tactics and my infantry,” he added. “It is an amazing amount to have learned in such a short time.
The training here has been really good, the other troops have been like family and you learn all sorts of things like teamwork and you feel a lot more mature. As well, the more experienced soldiers have been very helpful. This is the closest you can get to the real thing without actually going into live combat.”
Prokopi, who works at the cinema when he is not training, tells me joining the TA had also been ideal because it allows him the freedom to do other things.
“There are a lot of opportunities opening up for me in the TA,”" he said. “It is giving me the chance to come back to this part of the world where I can use new skills to help out with this situation.”
Prokopi also has a brother who has recently completed his National Service in Greece, a requirement in that country. Meanwhile, Gemma, who he communicates with every day via telephone or email, remains supportive and ‘would be very willing’ to come live with him in Cyprus or Greece. “She understands how important this is to me and how important it is to come back and help my homeland.”
He added he is looking forward to spending Easter back in Chester after the training course ends .