One minute he was a QS in Birmingham, the next he was dodging Scuds in Iraq. Territorial Army lance corporal Craig Barker spoke to us about food rations, Saddam's yacht and keeping cool.
Craig Barker knew he was flying into a warzone, but he wasn't expecting this. The plane landed at Kuwait City International Airport just after 2am, and within 10 minutes his equipment was unloaded and he had boarded the coach that would take him to Ali Al Salem airbase. From there he was to cross the border to Basra, where Saddam's Republican Guard was putting up resistance to the American-led invasion. Then, as the engine started, air-raid sirens went off and loudspeakers blared out a warning of an incoming Scud. Barker reached instinctively for his gas mask – for all he knew, the missile payload could be nerve gas, anthrax or even a nuclear device.

So is Barker the hero of a Hollywood war flick? A real-life soldier caught up in a hot war? Actually, he's a quantity surveyor from Birmingham.

In his day job he works for Turner & Townsend as a cost manager. But he's also a lance corporal in the Territorial Army, and on Wednesday 19 February, four days after more than a million people participated in anti-war marches across the country, he got his call-up papers for Iraq. "My boss was a bit taken aback when he found out I could be gone for up to eight months, but he took it pretty well," Barker recalls. Having joined the TA the previous October after three years at EC Harris, where he started as a graduate trainee, he swapped his suit for a uniform and didn't return to the office until late July.

Two thousand members of the Territorial Army went to Iraq – the first mass-mobilisation since the Suez crisis in 1956. Barker says: "They asked for volunteers from the TA to go to Bosnia and that brought to my mind that this time people might start getting called up. On the call-up papers it said 'compulsory mobilisation', which means you have to go. After the initial shock of getting the letter, I thought, 'I'm up for it, I'll get the most from the experience that I can.'"

His first task was to make a will and provide details of his next of kin. But it was only later that the realities of modern warfare sunk in: "When we were collecting our extra kit and we were issued body armour, that's when it started to hit home." After two weeks' training in basic soldiering, including nuclear, biological and chemical drills, Barker spent a fortnight with his unit, the 39th Engineer regiment, at Waterbeach near Cambridge (which is where he is in the photos). Then he flew from Brize Norton airbase to Kuwait.

There wasn’t much to see of Saddam’s yacht because the RAF had bombed it, but it hadn’t sunk, so we got a photo on the deck

Scud attacks were coming every few days, but the anti-missile batteries always took care of them, and life was pretty comfortable during the acclimatisation at Ali Al Salem airbase. Internet access, a laundry service, a gym and a pool provided plenty of home comforts. They were meant to stay two weeks but this became a month because the war was not going according to plan: Barker's unit was waiting to go to Basra, but the British were taking longer than expected to capture it.

When Basra was finally taken, the 39th was stationed at the airport on the city's outskirts. The engineers had to set up lighting and partitions to turn the terminal building into a military headquarters, as well as restoring water and drainage. After that they had to set up a 500-man camp for medical personnel.

But there was also the odd sight to be taken in. Barker recalls a trip into town to help put a Bailey bridge across the Shatt-al-Arab waterway: "The combat support boat came up to the quayside and asked if anybody fancied a trip 10 minutes down river. We asked if there was anything to see, and they said: 'Yeah – Saddam's yacht'. So we all jumped on board to have a look." At this point Barker reaches into his collection of photos from his tour of duty, and pulls out a picture of the burnt-out hulk of a luxury yacht. He says: "There wasn't much to see because the RAF had bombed it, but it hadn't sunk, so we got a photo on the deck."

Between the little moments of history, however, there was a lot of hard work and gritty living. They worked from 5am until noon, because "it was getting ridiculously hot at 11 in the morning". Accommodation at Basra was a lot more spartan than at Ali Al Salem: there were no telephones or internet, no air-conditioning, and the heat was rising every week. Barker says: "After a few weeks we moved from tents into a maintenance building. Morale went through the roof when we managed to buy air-conditioning units, but we were still being fed on rations from the cookhouse, which were pretty bland." Spirits also rose when the alcohol ban ended, although consumption was limited to two cans of beer every Saturday night. Barker was also cheered up by parcels sent out by Turner & Townsend, which included lots of sweets – and copies of Building.

Personal effects

Where do you live? I’ve got a house in Yardley, so my commute into the centre of Birmingham’s not bad.

Where do you go on holiday? A group of us go camping and backpacking in the Lake District. They’re friends of mine from the gym back home in Hull.

Do you play much sport? I play squash, and I’m a left-arm spin bowler on the cricket team at work.

Do you socialise with people from the TA?We sometimes have a troop night out in Nottingham, where we’re based. There’s usually about 15 of us.