INSIDE RGS: The story behind Mr McLennan's medals

Eagle-eyed students noticed that assistant systems manager Bob McLennan proudly wore his military medals at RGS's Remembrance Day service in November. Little did we all know he led a fascinating life in the Army, serving in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and in Germany at the end of the Cold War, before he joined Ripon Grammar School's IT department. MEGAN INGLIS finds out more

Q: What did you do in the Army?

A: I did 22 years, from 1989 to 2001, a full contract for a non-commissioned officer (NCO), although officers can go longer. I was an aircraft technician, working with helicopters in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. I fixed helicopters, sat in the back and flight-tested them, and sometimes got to have a go. Because Army helicopters fly low level, under electricity pylons, then off at 100 miles an hour, it’s quite exciting. Then we’d get kicked out and sleep under the trees and bushes. So that’s what I did for a living.

Q: What tours did you do?

A: The UK obviously, Germany, Ireland and Belize, and we were on exercise in Cyprus. I also did tours with the UN out in the former Yugoslavia.

Q: You wore your medals with pride at our whole school Remembrance Day. What were they for?

A: Whilst I was in Northern Ireland, the Troubles were still going on, so that was a sensitive time, and a risky place to be. I got a campaign medal for that and also got a long service and good conduct medal for sticking with the Army for 22 years. My third medal was for a tour in support of the UN in former Yugoslavia, which was a hostile environment. We were armed, although the troubles were winding down, there were holes in the walls, shattered tanks in gardens, roads were broken up and we were there to protect the UN forces. I did another tour there to help keep the peace and got a medal for that, for serving in a place of risk. There is a difference between my medals and those for personal gallantry, I look at the service men and women awarded those medals with awe and respect, because to me they’re the true veterans. I’m a veteran, but they saw combat operations.

Q: Why did you go into service?

A: After leaving grammar school I started an engineering degree course, but decided it was a little too much like paper engineering. While looking for a job, I was recruited by an Army medic, who asked me if I wanted to fix helicopters as a mechanic. I thought, ‘Blimey, I’ll do that.’ My first posting was to a development unit in the UK and then to Germany.

Q: What was it like out there?

A: It was the tail end of the Cold War, so we were there to stop the Russians. I saw the inner German border of the Iron Curtain before it fell, in the countryside, where people’s gardens just stopped. A huge, complex, multi-layered construction, it looked very much like a real iron curtain, as wide as a motorway in places. But in the rural areas the border could be a stream, less than a metre to the other side.

Q: Were you ever in dangerous situations?

Being in the forces, my perception of danger is different to other peoples’, I'm a firm believer that if you’ve got time to panic, it isn’t serious. During the deployment to the former Yugoslavia, there was a minefield next to us. We had a cat called Boomer, who came through the minefield, and you could see the legacy of the conflict all around you. If you put a foot wrong, you could step on a mine. Even if you weren’t actively engaged in military duty, there were times when, just standing around like we were, you had to keep your wits about you.

I was in a helicopter crash where, unfortunately, the aircrew died. It’s not just about the soldiers, it’s about everybody we’ve lost. Even in peacetime, not everybody goes home.

Q: What were the most exciting things you did?

A: The Army is very keen to develop your character, so they’re very big on adventure training, such as offshore sailing. In a small gale off the north coast of Germany whilst everybody else is being sea-sick and there’s only two of you left to run the boat is pretty challenging and definitely character building. And there was low level flying - even in the UK that’s very exciting, doing a hundred and forty over the canals in Norfolk, having to bob over the bridges because you’re lower than they are.

Q: What rank did you reach?

A: I was a sergeant, and responsible for maintenance teams of up to half a dozen, with military responsibilities when we were deployed on operational exercise or wing support. I also had a supervisory role, so had to sign off on safety checks.

Q: What did you do after you left the Army and how did you end up at Ripon Grammar School?

A: My transition to civilian life was relatively smooth. I had already adopted Ripon as my home, with Dishforth, just across the A1, as my last posting. The Army resettlement package allowed me to gain IT qualifications whilst still serving, so I was equipped to go job hunting.

I landed a job with North Yorkshire County Council as an IT technician supporting primary schools. It involved a fair bit of travelling as at times I had a fairly large patch. No two schools were the same, flexibility was a key skill.

I joined RGS as assistant systems manager in 2007. Since then the school systems have had several significant changes and the IT team has also changed. It seems flexibility is always in fashion.