More than 190 Irish soldiers were greeted at Dublin Airport this afternoon after a six-month deployment to southern Lebanon.
A total of 341 members of the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps Defense Forces joined the 118th Infantry Battalion of the United Nations Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
The Irish Defense Forces have been deployed to UNIFIL since its inception in May 1978 following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
Lt. Col. Conor Bates, commander of the 118th Infantry Battalion, said that although Covid-19 affected the mission “it didn’t stop us from doing our job.”
“Lebanon is suffering from one of the worst economic crises in record history, which, added to the tensions there with Covid, meant it was a very difficult mission,” he said.
“We have dealt with difficult issues, but we have handled them very well.
“We kept the relationship there with the locals and because that’s what the Irish have traditionally done, so it was difficult with Covid to do it, but we were able to keep those links and control them. “
Lieutenant Balfe, who has three children, said the “real heroes” were the families of the soldiers at home.
“The real heroes were the people we left at home because their support for us is incredible and military families everywhere and abroad understand it,” he said.
“My wife and kids lived their normal lives at home while I was busy, I think the support we get from our families is amazing.
“I have said this to all my soldiers to thank their families and I hope they have a good Christmas and can rest. The real sacrifice is really made by the families.”
Private Chayanne O’Neill (25) said she was delighted to be home after her first overseas mission and couldn’t wait to see her grandmother who worried about her .
The Athlone native was one of 78 personnel who traveled overseas with the Defense Forces for the first time.
“I’m so happy to be home now that it’s Christmas,” she said. “It was my first trip and I was fortunate to have my home unit running it, so there were a lot of familiar faces to take care of me.
“I found it hard to be away from my family for seven months, it’s a long time and it was a bit hard on my family because my nanny’s brother died here in Lebanon in 1986, so it’s nice to be able to come home and see her today.
“Her heart was broken, she said mass every day. “
Pte O’Neill said the hardest part of the trip was self-quarantining for almost a month. The troops had to isolate themselves for two weeks before traveling and two weeks upon arrival in Lebanon.
Normally they would also have a three week break in the middle when they could return home, but, due to Covid-19, that was not possible.
“We did it two weeks before we left and two weeks when we arrived, so it’s a month of complete isolation, it’s a nightmare,” said Pte O’Neill.
“You’re not in a routine and you’re not working out so it’s not good, you have to do it but it was mentally tough.”
Battalion Sergeant Major Patrick Balfe has flown six missions to Lebanon since 1990 and said this one was “completely different” due to Covid-19. Fortunately, he said the entire camp was coronavirus free for a full six months.
“As for the mission itself, we were trained and prepared to do it, so it wasn’t a problem, but it was just dealing with Covid and being away from home which was the biggest challenge, ”he said.
“It was completely different [than previous missions] The Covid is the same there, it is the same restrictions.
“We kept an eye on the numbers there and made sure we didn’t put ourselves in danger. “
It was the third time that Commander Deirdre Newell had been with UNIFIL, and she said this time was completely different due to the economic crisis in the country.
“With the economic crisis over there, you can definitely see the difference,” she said.
“One of the most obvious was that there were queues at gas stations.
“You can be very disjointed and immune to the news when you see it here all the time, but when you actually see it you can see how people are affected. “