Women in the Military; Life in the Modern British Army
July 26, 2012
Country bumpkin, former all-girls school pupil and utterly un-streetwise. What better candidate for the British Army?
12 years ago and very much to the horror of my parents I toddled into the Army careers office, got the forms, filled them out, did my Barb test (which is an odd touch screen test that is literally 2+2) and passed. Various interviews later I reached the selection stage at Pirbright which was a bit of a blur but I must have passed because a couple of months later I was dumped at ATR Winchester to commence my Basic Training.
I am pretty sure my parents assumed I’d fail and that they would be picking me back up later that week, but I was very determined. I have always been headstrong and anything I decide I am going to do I give 100%, which is what I gave my efforts to join the Army.
Basic training was an eye opener and incredibly challenging and testing for a girl who had never even run a mile before. It was the steepest learning curve of my life but the best thing I ever did. Every day was different; one day I would be being dragged by my Corporal by my t-shirt around the mile-and-a-half to get in within the time, the next I was in France on a battlefield tour, the next I would be shoving grass in my helmet and sharing a shell scrape with a boy who kept jabbing me with his rifle and saying ‘feel my gun’.
It was 14 weeks of blood, sweat and tears but I made it and my passing out parade was a very proud day with my family and friends looking on, on top of which I was awarded ‘Most Improved Recruit’ which I have always been reliably informed means I was shit when I started but much less shit when I left.
I learnt my trade for a further 3 months then off I went into the field Army and my first posting, Germany, where my life as a soldier was about to get fun.
Arriving with nothing but a bag in tow I was shown to my room. I was sharing with two other girls who were clearly unhappy at my arrival and my bed was squished so far into the corner that I couldn’t even open my allocated locker, so bag under the bed it was. I didn’t leave the room for the first 2 weeks; one roomie had just had a boob job on the army (too big for soldiering apparently) and the other roomie would have a shot of aftershock everyday at 4.30pm when we were knocked off.
I was then posted into a very male orientated regiment and the ratio of girls to boys was probably 1:50. Not long after I arrived a knock at the door revealed two lads standing there clearly just assessing the fresh meat. They weren’t overly impressed with what they saw so off they went – although months later one did take a shine to me and I still have the love letters to prove it somewhere.
There was always an element of proving yourself as a girl in the Army, earning your slot and showing people you did deserve to be there and you could do your job, my motto quickly became ‘if you can’t beat them join them’ and I became an honorary ‘lad.’ I had the time of my life and a group took me under their wing. I was the butt of a lot of jokes but I could hold my own. We drank a lot, partied ‘til 7am – the block parties were out of control and we often broke into the outdoor swimming pool on the way home from the local club for a 5am dip which we all thought hilarious, until one day a lad shouted ‘log alert’ and we witnessed his number two bobbing past. I never took a late night dip again!
As you would imagine, the wives and girlfriends of the men I served with were very unwelcoming and stand-offish. Rather than seeing me as someone to befriend on ‘the inside’ they were suspicious and jealous of the access I had to their partners when they were not around, and of the bonds we formed that only shared service can create.
For the next part of my service I was moved to a different role within the regiment and had to start again from the beginning with a new set of lads, this accommodation I much preferred as it was mixed (I had previously been in an all-girls flat.) Every morning I would shuffle into the showers, my barnet all over the place in just my dressing gown to discover the lads all shaving with their six packs out greeting me with a cheerful ‘morning!’ I lost count of the times they would pinch my towel and dressing gown from the shower leaving me having to escape to my room using only my hands for modesty.
I still see so many of them now and ‘we’ve seen it all before’ often crops up.
I had a ball for the next few years going on some great exercises, battlefield tours and operational tours. One battlefield tour in particular stands out. It was to Arnhem and I was the only girl, so was dragged through the red light district for the entire duration of the trip! Baumholder too was a memorable exercise, not only because it was like ‘little America’ in Germany but also because during the exercise 9/11 happened. I will never forget being sat crammed on the back of a Bedford truck when we heard the news.
My first tour was Kosovo and I don’t ever remember thinking too hard about it, I just went and did what I had to do. I was a slight Private Benjamin in that many a patrol I would turn to get my rifle and realise I hadn’t signed it out – but I did lots of house searches, seized lots of weapons and grew as a person. I did also have fun, perhaps a little too much fun sometimes. Alcohol was in short supply and our interpreter was open to offers, so we would on many an occasion pay him to bring us in alcohol and formed a make shift party, these went on for months including my 19th birthday which I celebrated out there. This resulted in my breaking a rib falling off a chair drunk. The lads also presented me with a gift from all of them in front of everyone, which was a crusty sock that had seen some ‘action.’ Of course though, it was an operational theatre so something was always going to give.
December saw our regimental day and I won an award. I was the first person ever to win the award who wasn’t the cap badge of the regiment and it was for being the ‘Biggest impact to the regiment.’ I was thrilled, and off we went whooping whilst filling the trophy cup with vodka…. which all went horribly wrong when we all got caught. We were all charged and put on Commanding Officer’s orders on Boxing Day, drill in the -16 cold and snow is not fun and neither was the hefty fine. I have a lifetime of memories stored from that tour, I flew in so many helicopters, fired so many cool weapons, saw so many things that have stayed with me forever and drove in Pristina which if you manage you can survive anywhere, they are complete lunatics.
We returned from a six month tour to our medals parade in the chucking down rain (rain dripping off the end of your nose for over an hour is REALLY annoying) I was called into the CO’s office immediately post parade only to be told “We are very disappointed to find out that you were selling stamps to soldiers at a profit in Kosovo.” Oops. I had been found out. I was then confronted with bellows of laughter and was informed that as I’d shown initiative, I was to be promoted.
A post tour holiday to Magaluf was a fun time and is probably worth another post all of its own. 18 of us went, 18 of us returned – just about – with stories we still laugh about today. A certain picture from this holiday (of my boobs through a patio door) was placed on lots of block room walls which made for a rather embarrassed me and an even more embarrassed Sergeant Major on room inspection upon our return.
I could tell stories of my time forever, so this is only a small insight into my experience of the Army. Women in the military are tough, hardened individuals who are survivors but they are also women who have a vault of memories and stories and a long list of surrogate brothers who they could call upon for anything.
I worked so hard, laughed so hard, played so hard, made friends for life and they truly were the best years.
The worst part of serving for me was simply that I lost contact with the friends I had before I joined for the years I served. Army life is all consuming and requires total commitment, something that naturally results in your inability to maintain friendships from afar. When I was posted to Germany I stayed there for seven years. I worked, ate, slept, lived, socialised and holidayed with my Army friends. I would only go back to the UK once a year or so. If was to be drawn on the worst part of my actual service it would probably be the eight milers on a Saturday morning.
Once you have been in the Army no job quite matches up. The people you meet, the friends you make and the experiences you have never really compare. As a soldier every day is different and you don’t know what tomorrow will hold until Part One Orders go up at 1630hrs the day before.
I met my fellow soldier husband and left the British Army when our daughter was 15 months old, she is now 9 years old and proud as punch both mummy and daddy served and continue to serve their country.