Yet, while being proclaimed heroes by the public and lauded by their officers for saving thousands of lives, they say the payback is not coming from the Department of Defence to the Naval Service crews who have worked on humanitarian missions in the Mediterranean Sea.
Further details of the extent of the operations emerged yesterday, at the annual conference of PDforra, which represents the Defence Forces’ enlisted men and women. The organisation is fighting for the proper overseas allowance to be paid to the crews.
It emerged the sailors regularly had to quell fights among migrant factions.
On one occasion, a crew were circled for some time by a boat full of highly aggressive people-smugglers who were eventually seen off by Italian special forces. The incident actually occurred as the Irish crew were in the middle of a migrant rescue.
Sailors also have to wear protective clothing at all times because of the risk of scabies from refugees with the contagious skin condition.
Sailors also described the harrowing scenes as they watched a barge capsize, last August, and how they worked frantically to pluck the living from a sea of bodies. Some watched on helplessly as those who were locked below deck banged on a barge porthole for help. On that day, they rescued 350 people but unfortunately more than 300 perished.
Despite their efforts, the department refuses to pay an €80 per day allowance for overseas armed missions, which PDforra general secretary Gerry Rooney branded as “disgraceful”.
It was claimed each crew member was, on average, owed nearly €1,500.
The department says it will pay a €55 per day allowance as it regards the sea rescues as non-armed missions.
But the representative association say the warships are obviously armed and so too are the crews, ready to defend themselves and those they have rescued at any time during the missions.
The Department of Defence reiterated last night that it was not going to pay the increase in the allowance that PDforra was demanding.
While, to date, no shots have been fired in anger, the Naval Service has detained nearly 50 people smugglers during its operations. These people were separated from refugees and handed over to the Italian authorities.
“The personnel concerned volunteered for the mission and carried out the difficult duties involved to a very high standard and to international acclaim,” Mr Rooney said. “Now that the mission is coming to an end, those involved feel they have been duped and are being ignored.”
He said as far as PDforra was concerned, the payment of the full overseas allowance was “an open and shut case”.
There are two rates paid under the Overseas Peace Support Allowance. One is a standard rate of €55 per day, and the other is €80 per day for armed missions. Officers get a higher rate.
Some PDforra members claimed their families had been told by officers they would get the higher allowance. But it was not until they were halfway through their tour of duty, the allowance was paid.