14/04/2016 18:00 BST | Updated 15/04/2017 06:12 BST

Sword Of Honour Winner 'Would Be Dead Or In Prison Had It Not Been For The Army'

The top-performing officer cadet at Sandhurst has said on the eve of his "passing out" ceremony that had it not been for joining the Army he would be dead or in prison.

Officer cadet Kidane Cousland, who grew up on a housing estate in north London, thanked the Army for putting him on the right track, ahead of completing his officer training at Sandhurst Royal Military Academy.

The 24-year-old is one of only a handful of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) officer cadets to be awarded the "sword of honour" for coming top of his intake, which he will be presented with during Friday's graduation ceremony.

Born in an estate in Tottenham, by the age of 11 officer cadet Cousland could not read, and left school at 15.

He said: "I went to school, I was completely disconnected, I didn't get on, I didn't do very well, I wasn't motivated ... I was in a bad way really.

"But something I always wanted to do since I was a child was join the Army.

"And it felt like a bit of a pipe dream when I was in Tottenham, but then I said to myself if I'm good enough, they'll pick me."

His mother refused to sign his application form at first because she was "absolutely terrified by the prospect of her young mixed-race son" joining the Army.

He said: "You're in the middle, you're mixed-race ... and it's just, it's hard to find sanctuary anywhere really, so she was extremely worried that going into this - what a lot of people perceive as a predominantly white organisation made up of some potentially quite aggressive working class men ruled by some upper class sorts ... that was very much her perception of the Army."

But, he said: "I either did that or my anger issues and frustration would actually see me move in a different direction, and probably end up killing me or I'd be in prison."

His mother having relented, he came top of the Army selection board when he applied at 16 in 2008, did "extremely well" during the year's training at Harrogate that followed, and came top of his Commando course aged 18.

At 19, he was deployed to Afghanistan, where he served as a bombardier for six months in the 29 Commando regiment, Royal Artillery. The first thing he did on leave was buy his mother a car. 

After being recommended for officer training, he started his 40-plus week officer training at Sandhurst in May 2015.

And when he officially becomes a senior under officer on Friday, in a ceremony watched by a 1,000-strong crowd, he will be presented with the prestigious sword of honour which he beat 200 fellow recruits to win.

Only a handful of BAME people have received the accolade, and the last black officer cadet to receive it was Charlie Mulira in 2007, who is currently serving with the Irish Guards.

Despite his lack of education, officer cadet Cousland excelled in his academic challenges - even beating former Oxbridge graduates in his war studies essay. He now hopes to complete a Bachelor's degree in war studies before doing a Master's.

The soon-to-be officer, known as Danny to his Army colleagues said: "I've invited loads of my friends ... but I've not told them that I've won the sword of honour because I think it would be quite funny to see their faces in the crowd.

"My mum lost a fiver to my uncle - she bet I wouldn't get it," he said, adding: "I'm just glad I can represent my family and they can be proud of me."

Around 2.5% British officers in the Army are from BAME backgrounds, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said.

However numbers have been slowly rising, and the MoD says it is on track to meet the target of 10% of all recruits as set out by Prime Minister David Cameron in early April.

Officer cadet Cousland said he did not believe the Army was "fundamentally racist" but admitted he had experienced some racism while serving.

"As I learned from when I was a kid, my response to racism is just to prove them wrong by being the best I can be, every day," he said.

"That's all you can do. It's an ideology that can only be defeated by successful people. You can't defeat it by stooping to someone's level and being upset and emotional, you just have to fight through it."