Grandmother on Afghanistan tour
Published 04/03/2013 | 14:12
She may be a semi-retired grandmother-of-five soon eligible to draw a state pension but Marie Semple shows no sign of slowing down.
The 55-year-old Army reservist, dubbed "Combat Granny", from Co Antrim, has spent weeks caring for wounded soldiers, Afghan civilians and even insurgents at the field hospital in Camp Bastion - one of the busiest trauma units in the world.
"I didn't think twice about coming out," she said. "I joined the TA late in life for the challenge and for the possibility of deploying somewhere. I felt I needed to do another tour of Afghanistan as an ending to my challenge of joining the Territorial Army. The whole idea of joining was to deploy but, I have certainly got my money's worth out of it."
Major Semple, who serves with 204 Field Hospital, signed up with the TA aged 43 and in 12 years has completed an operational tour of duty in Iraq in 2003 and was in Afghanistan during 2008. She added: "It is a different tour this time. This is a winter tour so it is quieter than 2008 which was a summer tour. The hospital has improved, everything has improved."
Major Semple, who works as an agency nurse in the community and at Antrim Area Hospital is one of two grandmothers working the wards at Camp Bastion. She said her grandchildren - four girls and one boy - are too young to fully understand exactly what her duty entails.
"I don't think they know the context of war as such," she said. "I told them I was going to Afghanistan; got them a map and explained what I was doing. I sent a picture home and my grandson said 'Oh granny is shooting bad people'. They don't understand that I am a nurse - I am not out there on the ground."
Shifts at the hospital are 12 hours long, six days a week. Major Semple gets Sunday morning off to attend a church service. And while her accommodation may be five-star in terms of combat quarters they are far from luxurious.
She said: "I have lived in worse. We cannot complain - I have a warm bed, warm accommodation, the food is great - I can't complain about anything. Everything we need is here - we have a gym, there are runs and there is plenty to do. But, at the end of the day there is no place like home.
Having trained at the Royal Victoria Hospital during the height of the Troubles in 1975 Major Semple is well used to dealing with conflict related trauma. "Thankfully we haven't seen so many children on this tour but, again you just do the best you can for them. As a grandmother it is hard but, you can't let it get to you, you would crack up if you thought like that."
She also accepts that treating insurgents - who are kept under guard behind screens within the wards - is just another part of her job. She said: "You just get on with it - treat everybody the same."