What It Is: The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst is the British version of West Point. It’s also where Prince William and Prince Harry started their military careers. On Oct. 14, it also welcomed me (the grandson of an Irish builder) and 31 other novice competitors for the first ever PentUp modern pentathlon, which supports veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Who Tried It: Phil Boucher, PEOPLE correspondent
Level of Difficulty: 10/10.
Sandhurst is as royal as it gets. Along with Prince William and Prince Harry, the military academy has provided officer training for every Duke, Earl and Baron to serve in the British Army for the past 200 years — not to mention countless European, Arab and African royals, heads of state and political leaders. It’s also where Winston Churchill learned to fight a war.
So, to put it mildly, Sandhurst is not the sort of place that ordinary folks tend to visit. The word “nervous” doesn’t begin to describe my feelings as I drove through the academy gates. It had all started just before Christmas last year, when a psychologist friend of mine named Dr. Simon Thompson told me he wanted to create a modern pentathlon for his military patients suffering from post-traumatic stress. Thompson’s idea was that training for the five events (swimming, fencing, show jumping, running and pistol shooting) would provide the veterans with a secure, friendly sporting environment that also harked back to their former military lives. As a bonus, he reckoned he could talk Sandhurst into hosting it too.
At the time, I took the whole thing with a vast pinch of salt and blamed the equally large glass of gin Thompson was holding. Frankly, I thought the idea that you could get a total novice to show jump a horse within six months was plain crazy.
Three weeks later, however, Thompson walked into my local pub and handed me a shiny, silver sword – which I later discovered was called an épée. Soon after, I found myself suggesting the name PentUp on an e-mail and, within the space of a couple of months, I was staring at a 4-ft. fence from the back of a horse thinking, “How have I got into this madness?”
That thought never really left me during the four months of saddle sores, running blisters and fencing bruises that followed and, if anything, actually increased the moment I walked into my cadet room at Sandhurst and came face-to-face with the same type of 9-ft.-by-9-ft. room used by William and Harry. Inside it contained nothing more than a bed, sink, wardrobe, chair and desk. “Is this how the royals really live?” I thought, as I attempted (and failed) to get some sleep on the tiny cot bed before my 8 a.m. swimming event (my first in 30 years).
Breakfast was almost as startling. Here I was walking into a large, 1960s-era mess hall to eat scrambled eggs with 100 super-fit 20-somethings who looked as though they’d spent their entire teenage years learning to iron their perfectly pressed fatigues and buttoned suits with ties. I couldn’t look as smart as a Sandhurst cadet with a month’s intensive preparation and an Oscar-level team of assistants.
With my belly filled — and having said “hello” to a portrait of Princess Anne hanging over the fruit juice — I then toured the grounds of Sandhurst in search of the pool alongside my teammate Sean Hemans, 39, a former Coldstream Guard and PTSD patient who was the first Jamaican to join the oldest regiment in the British Army.
An Afghanistan veteran, Hemans specialized in clearing Taliban bomb factories in Helmand province and served with the British Army for 10 years, suffering third-degree burns in Iraq and earning a rosette on his campaign medal for using a bayonet in close quarters fighting. After leaving the army he suffered serious PTSD and, following a domestic incident, wound up in prison on a six-year sentence.
It was while behind bars that the veterans’ charity Combat Stress stepped in to help Hemans, and with Dr. Thompson’s help he received counseling and joined PentUp. Together we faced the challenge of learning to ride from scratch and despite multiple falls, he never once stopped smiling.
Hemans was one of 12 military veterans taking part in the day’s events. Each had faced up to all manner of psychological fears just to make it to Sandhurst and take on the fiendish task of a 120-meter swim, 3-hit fencing competition, 1,200-meter combined run and laser pistol shoot, and – most terrifying of all – show jumping over 11 fences (including 2 doubles, so 13 actual fences).
With a crowd of 200 friends and family cheering us along, however, the atmosphere was one of warmth and support – just as Dr.Thompson had hoped. The swim went past in the blur or towels and cheering, while the fencing – held in a gymnasium where William and Harry would have been “beasted” by army fitness instructors (translation: physically worked to the point of exhaustion) – was long, hard and tiring.
Then it was time to move onto the show jumping, held in the rear garden of a Victorian-era staff college — a place where Churchill almost certainly learned to hone his cavalry skills. One of the many strange rules of the modern pentathlon is that you have to ride a horse you’ve never seen before in your life and, thankfully, I drew a kindly chestnut named Joshua who basically led me over the fences as gently as a mother carrying a newborn baby. All I had to do was hang on.
With energy levels dropping below zero, it was time for the final event: the run & shoot. Faced with having to run 1,200 meters, while stopping to shoot five targets after each 400-meter lap, I desperately needed some form of inspiration and found it simply by looking up and seeing Sandhurst’s Old College to one side.
Dating back to 1801, the Old College is home to the Sovereign’s Parade, where each class of officer cadets graduates in front of Queen Elizabeth. It’s also where Kate Middleton took part in her first official royal engagement as William’s girlfriend, cheering him on from the parade ground as he became a commissioned officer in the Household Cavalry.
Standing to the side of this is the equally impressive New College. An elegant, red brick Victorian mansion house, its clock tower dominates the entire academy site. Inside the walls are lined with a combination of dazzling green and red tiles, historic paintings and military memorials honoring battles fought in every corner of the planet.
It was here that PentUp concluded with a black-tie dinner under the arched ceiling and low-hanging chandeliers of the cadet mess hall, where princes, dukes, sultans and kings have eaten for a couple of centuries. It was also where I met Milgrid Guzman, 32, from Hartford, Connecticut. The sister-in-law of Hemans, she served in a Forward Support Batallion for the Army National Guard in Iraq from 2005-2006, based south of Ramadi at Taqauddum Air Base.
In a strange twist of fate, Guzman and Hemans had both been in Iraq at the same time and regularly spoke from the front lines via Skype, yet they had never physically met until she flew across the Atlantic to watch him compete in PentUp.
“Whenever we heard that his squad got hit or my squad got hit, we would call each other and make sure we were still alive and just say ‘Hey, are you okay?’ ” Guzman told me, before the entire room stood to toast “the Queen.”
“At the end of the day, the British military and the American military all fight the same fight. We all bleed the same way, we all get shot the same way and we all try to help each other live and come back home.
“It was just amazing to see what PentUp are doing for the veterans,” added Guzman, who also suffers from PTSD as a result of her war experiences.
As for travelling from Connecticut to eat and drink in the same mess hall as William, Harry and Winston Churchill, well, Guzman described the whole experience as “an honor.”
“Not anyone can just step into Sandhurst, where the British officers train,” she said. “But I’ve seen it, I’ve touched it, I actually had a dinner there and not everybody could say that. It is amazing.”
With Guzman’s words ringing in my ears, I dragged my aching limbs into a car and completed my 24 hours at Sandhurst safe in the knowledge that I had experienced a very small the part of William and Harry’s military lives. More crucially, I had also seen Hemans and the other veterans triumph – and I hadn’t fallen off a horse in front of 200 people either.
The Verdict: The modern pentathlon is a massive test of your mental and physical stamina – not to mention your ability to pack clothes for four different events (my fencing jacket is now somewhere in the Sandhurst swimming pool). Being with the veterans as they competed was a huge honor and hugely emotional. Yet, it was Sandhurst that stood out. Essentially, the academy is part university campus and part military base, so while there are signs for “bayonet practice” and “live firing,” it’s also filled with beautiful lakes, landscaped grounds and stunning historic buildings. The thought “Wow, I’m at Sandhurst” never left me for a second during the entire day. To compete on the same historic grounds as William, Harry, Churchill and the rest, was a huge honor and one I will never forget.