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Khaki-clad angels of war zone dispensing kindness, comfort, care... and Custard Creams!

Rebecca Black on Ulster nurses who give up their free time to help victims of conflict

by rebecca black

Published 20/10/2015

From left: Major Kate McLaughlin, Major Sharon Quigg and Captain Kate Gilmore
From left: Major Kate McLaughlin, Major Sharon Quigg and Captain Kate Gilmore
The Ulster medics in training
The Ulster medics in training

Supporting each other from Ballymoney to Afghanistan, a big-hearted group of nurses have spoken about their decades of service across the world, giving up their free time to do so.

Major Sharon Quigg, Major Kate McLaughlin and Captain Kate Gilmore are more than just familiar faces to patients in north Antrim, but a comfort to those in some of the most extreme war zones across the world.

The trio were among a team from Field Hospital 204 who took part in advanced medical and physical training in the Nevada desert and California last week in preparation for their next deployment, expected to be in 2017.

Sharon has been serving with the Hydebank-based unit for some 34 years, and said the most important thing for her, whether working for the NHS at home or abroad in a war zone, was never forgetting the human touch.

She has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan among other postings, looking after mostly UK and US soldiers, but also young children and babies caught up in the crossfire.

She smiled as she recalled introducing some of the Afghan children to a British classic biscuit - the Custard Cream - and said "they loved them".

"It was often hard seeing the children who were hurt," she told the Belfast Telegraph.

"We had translators to communicate with them, but often you can communicate in other ways, even though there is the language barrier. I remember one of the senior guys a long time ago telling me it is important never to forget the human touch, and he is right."

Kate has served for 12 years and said she joined after hearing long-term friend Sharon's tales of her life overseas.

"I have known Sharon for 29 years; she filled in the forms for me to join and said 'sign here'," she laughed.

"Next thing I knew I was going for training.

"I had listened to the stories from Sharon so felt as if I knew what all was involved, and that it was great fun."

Kate said serving can be challenging, giving up spare time such as last week to be pushed to her physical limit, and sleeping with 23 other women in creaky camp beds in huts.

"But if I didn't enjoy it I wouldn't still be here all these years later," she said.

"We had a lot of weekends of infantry-style training last year, it is helpful as it lets us see what they go through bringing the patients to us in the field hospitals."

Kate served in Afghanistan in 2008, and described the experience as "hectic".

She said: "As soon as we landed we were immediately into training to prepare to take over from the unit we were going to relieve.

"I remember the heat, 52C, and the first night in the hangar where we were sleeping, all these rows and rows of three-level bunk beds, all different services together, even special forces arrived in the middle of the night. I got up to go to the loo in the middle of the night and could hardly find my way back to the bunk.

"That was a very busy tour, I was looking after a post-surgery ward, a lot of Afghan nationals and their families would stay with them. Every tour, even to the same place, is very different."

Kate Gilmore has served some 34 years.

The Belfast Royal Victoria Hospital nurse saw her first deployment in Bosnia.

"I joined the TA for a taste of what it was like and ended up staying for 34 years," she said,

"I served seven months in Bosnia. We had to set up a medical facility for all the people displaced."

She said as intense as service was, there were lighter moments, such as when two soldiers, one from Dublin and another from Londonderry, were brought in to her ward in Afghanistan.

"The next morning they were both sitting up, eating, and there was some banter between them," she laughed.

Readapting to life at home can often be a challenge for the nurses after seeing people with so little.

"We are spoilt back home," Sharon said. "You take everything for granted; they have nothing, they are so humble and accept their lot.

"When you come back from places like Iraq and Afghanistan, it can be hard to talk about it, but I have great support from my family.

"My husband has always been really supportive, but I would say it is not easy for him worrying about me out there.

"It makes a big difference when you work with people who experienced the same thing."

Belfast Telegraph

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