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Speech Day: Richard Mason (1984)

"A Government has no higher duty than the Defence of the Realm"

Words that have a very 20th Century, or even 19th century feel to them. In fact, these words were spoken only 6 weeks ago. They formed part of a speech from the Secretary of State for Defence on the announcement of the Armed Forces Covenant. A Covenant that outlines the Government's responsibility to those who serve our country. You'll be relieved to know that I don't intend to dwell on the politics of Defence being played out in the media today. Rather, I will give you a personal perspective of what responsibility means to someone who has served his country for twenty six years.

When I joined the Royal Air Force, we didn't have an Armed Forces Covenant. Neither did I join out of a sense of duty. Nor, if you read some of my school reports, did I know the meaning of responsibility! I joined the Royal Air Force quite simply because I had a thirst for adventure and a desire to do something worthwhile with my life. Yes, as a 16 year old school boy, I was inspired by the Falklands Conflict and I will never forget the day a Harrier landed at the Pebble Mill studios. Even the allure of double maths couldn't stop us all from leaning out the windows at the time! But it wasn't until I found myself as a Combat Ready fighter pilot, patrolling the same skies in the Falklands where my childhood heroes had fought and where some had died just 6 years earlier. It wasn't until then that I began to get a feel for what responsibility really meant. Strapping 27 tonnes of F4 Phantom to your back, a fighter armed with heat-seeking Sidewinder missiles, radar-guided Sky-flash missiles and a gun capable of firing 6000 High Explosive cannon shells per minute is a fairly heady experience for a 22 year old. Something that I initially sacrificed a University degree to achieve; a gamble that, fortunately for me, seems to have paid off! That said, I did need to wait nearly two decades before I had a Master's Degree; I suggest you don't leave it that long!

And then suddenly, the Cold War was over. Almost overnight, the Air Defence of the United Kingdom became an anachronism. It wasn't until after 9/11 that, for very different reasons, there was a real need to patrol the skies in the UK once again. But by then, I was doing something very different. Committed to a career in the Royal Air Force and while serving on the ground in Bosnia, I went flying in a helicopter on a very dark night using a set of Night Vision Goggles. Flying at very, very low level. And I was hooked!

Having volunteered for what was then known as the Special Forces Flight, a close knit team of just 12 pilots, flying specially modified Chinook helicopters, I was soon doing my job ‘for real'. Responsibility had suddenly taken on a whole new meaning. I now had up to 45 people in the back of my aircraft, often in very difficult and sometimes in very dangerous circumstances; 45 lives that were, quite literally, in my hands. And this was very humbling. For me, I had a clear responsibility to get our soldiers to where they needed to go and to get them back. In one piece. Easier said than done when a sophisticated Serbian Air Defence System is trying to shoot you down! As a junior officer, contributing to the events that ultimately led to the agreement that ended the Kosovo conflict made me begin to realise that I really was doing something worthwhile; that I really was making a difference. At the time though, the importance of playing a supporting role as a helicopter pilot rather than the more self-centred role flying fighters. After all, it was only after we dropped our troops off that their work really began. A humbling realisation that only really hit home as I picked up my first casualties; a task that brought the meaning of responsibility to a whole new level.

The following year, as we entered the new Millenium, I had the privilege of planning and then being part of a hostage rescue operation in Sierra Leone. An operation that again had strategic implications for the UK, following the taking of 11 British and one Sierra Leonean hostage in August 2000. Within 12 hours of my pager going off, I found myself on the aircraft that was originally due to pick the Prime Minister up from his summer break before being re-tasked to support the operation. With me, were a very small team, one of whom had had the foresight to bring a small bottle of single malt whisky. Having done all the planning we could, we decided to reflect on our efforts over a glass or two. Before we knew it, the bottle was empty and someone thought it would be a good idea to slide it down the back of the seat normally used by the Prime Minister. "That should give Tony a bit of a shock next time he sits down!" they said. I still don't know whether the crew found it first! 10 days later and after a bloody, 7 hour gun battle, all the hostages were rescued alive. Sadly one British soldier was killed, along with 26 of the hostage-takers with an estimate of a further 30 or more lying dead in the surrounding jungle and river. It was the first time that I had seen violent death at close quarters and the first time that I had been responsible for taking another human life. It is something that I will never forget. And my understanding of responsibility had just taken another huge step. But to me, helping to save those 12 lives whilst sending a clear message to anyone thinking of taking British Forces hostage in the future, was doing something worthwhile. Was making a difference.

The following year, I found myself in Afghanistan for the first time. 10 years ago this November. For those who watched Mark Urban's documentary on Wednesday evening, you may be forgiven for thinking that I'm about to try to defend the political decisions that led to us being embroiled in such a bloody campaign. I am not. That is not why I am here today. There is a legal and, some would argue, moral difference between the decision to commit Armed Forces to a conflict and their subsequent conduct. ‘Jus ad bellum; jus in bello' as Tom Freeman would have said. Rather, I will tell you about the courage, sacrifice and dedication of the tens of thousands of Service men and women who have risked their lives over the last ten years, the thousands who have been physically and mentally scarred and the hundreds who have lost their lives. Do they or their families feel that they have done something worthwhile? Do they feel that they have made a difference? I cannot speak for all of them. But I can say that on a personal level I believe that we have done something worthwhile. And we have made a difference. And we are continuing to do so. I have seen children who would otherwise have no hope of education. Women who would otherwise have no role in wider society. A generation who would otherwise have no vote or say in their future. I have played but a small part over the years; at one time evacuating Afghan children horrifically injured by a suicide bomber in a busy market square; at another flying British and American soldiers into Musa Quale to allow the Afghan National Army to retake the town in their own Government's name; to fly the Afghan flag where the Taliban had previously reigned through terror. To give hope to ordinary Afghan people.

As a Station Commander, I am now responsible for over 4000 Service personnel and their families; many of whom have served, are serving or are about to serve in Afghanistan; or in support of operations in Libya; or the Falklands; or elsewhere around the world where the Royal Air Force are based. All doing something worthwhile; all trying to make a difference. All prepared, if necessary, to make the ultimate sacrifice. It is humbling to see their courage, professionalism and dedication. Humbling, but inspiring. They know all about responsibility. Young men and women. Many fresh from university and one or two of the more reckless, direct entrants from school; eager to get on with their lives. Eager to take on responsibility.

And what of the future? Two years ago, we still had Armed Forces committed to the conflict in Iraq. Two years ago, it was also a widely held belief that we would have Armed Forces committed to Afghanistan for a generation. Ten years ago, I was supporting this country's efforts to in Macedonia to stop another Balkans war. It was our ‘Main Effort', a term that our Prime Minister used recently to describe the campaign in Afghanistan. And it remained our Main Effort, right up until 8:46 am on 11 September 2001. If there is one thing that history has taught us, we cannot predict the future. Uncertainty is with us. It is the new ‘steady state'. As a nation, we need to accept this. Take responsibility for it. And only then will we be prepared to deal with it. To persuade ourselves that we are entering a period of stability; that there is a peace dividend to follow Afghanistan, I would suggest would be short sighted. Worse than that, it would be irresponsible. Remembering the Secretary of State's words: "A Government has no higher duty than the Defence of the Realm"

But of course, it isn't just those who serve in the Armed Forces that have such huge responsibilities. A surgeon literally holds the lives of others in his or her hands. A doctor likewise. A judge or magistrate can retain or deny a person's liberty. The actions of a barrister or solicitor (and for those who heard ‘Lee Child' speak last year, even one from Erdington), their actions can have a profound effect on a person's life. Similarly, the actions of our religious leaders; and those who dedicate their lives to scientific research; charitable work; government. And, of course, education. A teacher, a Master; a Chief Master. All have enormous responsibilities.

I'm not sure that I agree with Lee Child's assertion last year that previous generations were smarter than you. I certainly wasn't. But whatever it is that you young men go on to do in your life. Whatever goals you set yourself. Whatever it is that you seek. All I ask is that you reflect on the following words. Words spoken to a small group of us a few weeks ago by Charles Haddon-Cave QC, a name that will be familiar to anyone in the world of aviation. "Responsibility is a privilege. Great responsibility is a great privilege. But it is the stuff of life!"'

All I would say to you is to go out there and seek responsibility. Grab it with both hands! Embrace it and enjoy it! And the reward? The knowledge that you have done something worthwhile. The knowledge that you are making a difference. That is the true prize in life.