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Jennifer Jackson: From the bloody streets of Belfast to Iraq's front line

Ahead of the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year awards, nurse Jennifer Jackson, a winner last year, tells Stephanie Bell how experience gained during the Troubles helped her cope in the Gulf War

Highly decorated: Major Jenny Jackson with her Army medals
Highly decorated: Major Jenny Jackson with her Army medals

When a call went out for Army volunteers for the first Gulf War local woman Jenny Jackson didn't hesitate to put herself forward. She was gutted not to be among the selected few but her chance came a few years later when the mum of two boys sacrificed six months of family life to tend to casualties on the front line of the conflict in Iraq.

Courage was just one of the many fine qualities which led to Jenny being nominated and then selected as the winner of last year's Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year in Health Award sponsored by Linwoods.

A qualified practice and occupational health nurse, Jenny (55) has served as a volunteer reservist with the TA in the Queen Alexander Royal Army Nursing Corps for 32 years, rising through the ranks to become a respected Major.

It's a job which appeals to her indomitable nature as she thrives on being in the thick of things and with the Army she has seen her fair share of action. From dealing with the harsh realities of a war zone field hospital to saluting the Queen during her Golden Jubilee and playing a vital role in the London Olympics, Jenny's life has been packed full of variety, interest and challenge.

She has also emerged as a strong role model for women and has never missed an opportunity to encourage more females to consider a career in the Army. The fact that she is a soldier and a woman did, she says, make her Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Award even more special last year.

"I was absolutely gob smacked and very chuffed to be given the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year in Health Award," she says.

"I was also very chuffed that people recognised me being in the Army, given the stigma that is still attached to the Army in Northern Ireland.

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"It was nice to think that people in the Army were being treated as equals and not regarded as the big bad brother which they were seen as during the Troubles.

"Also as a female it was very special, as the Army is very male dominated and women in the forces don't get the same recognition and that was just fantastic.

"The whole event was amazing and it was lovely to see to so many females honoured in different fields."

It was a special year for Jenny who crowned a year's full-time post with the Horse Guards in Whitehall with the distinction of being the only TA soldier to receive a commendation from the GOC of London Major General George Norton, in recognition of the role she played during both the London 2012 Olympics and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

"I was very, very proud to receive the commendation and from such a fantastic General as George Norton," she adds.

Jenny was in her element during the year's post as again it put her at the very heart of the action during two of the biggest events London has seen in many years.

As a Grade 2 Medical Staff Officer for London District she was in charge of coordinating the Army's medical cover during the capital's Jubilee celebrations and the Olympics.

She says: "It was the best year of my life. I loved every minute and second of it.

"I was responsible for the medical cover for all three trooping of the colours, the beating of the retreat and Remembrance Sunday.

"The TV cameras show the Queen riding beautifully up the Mall but what you don't see is all the guys with stretchers on standby in the crowds.

"It was my job to make sure they were all in place and had all the right equipment if anything happened to any of the soldiers on parade.

"As the Queen goes by you have to stand and salute her and that to me was really scary as I'm not totally military in that respect.

"I see myself first and foremost as a nurse, then as a mother and then a soldier. I'm not brilliant at drill."

The massive security operation put in place for the Olympics saw Jenny working 24-7 to meet the medical needs of more than 20,000 Army personnel posted at the world's biggest sporting showcase.

Answerable directly to the GOC for London District it was an awesome responsibility which she thrived on.

"It was good fun but hard, hard graft. It really was 24-7 and I remember one night getting just one hour's sleep," she says.

"Anything medical at all that happened I had to know about it and there were hundreds of medical incidents involving soldiers on duty every day.

"These ranged from the minor such as blisters on their feet to more major incidents and I had to know at all times where the soldiers involved were, what hospitals they were in and ensure they were getting the right care."

Jenny lives in Templepatrick and is married to Peter (56) a retired civil servant and they have two sons, John (27) and James (26).

As a keen sportswoman and former hockey player she is thrilled that her boys grew up with an appreciation and talent for sport.

She takes pride in their prowess – John is captain of the Ireland hockey team and James plays rugby for Ballyclare.

John lives in England where he works as a hockey coach in Marlborough College, where the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton famously studied, and James is a maintenance contract salesman.

Jenny raised her boys while working part-time with the TA and also as a civilian nurse.

She began her career in the Ulster Hospital at Dundonald where she trained as a nurse in Accident and Emergency.

Her civilian nursing career has been as varied as her military one with stints in primary care in the community, intensive care in the Royal Victoria Hospital as well as working in occupational health in Harland & Wolff when the shipyard had a total of 8,500 workers.

She joined the TA in 1982 and just four years later became a mother for the first time when John was born in 1986, who was followed by James in 1987.

Jenny has seen her fair share of action with the Army including the cruel side of war during a posting to Iraq in 2003.

Her civilian career as a nurse working in A&E and intensive care in Belfast during the height of the Troubles did prepare her in some ways for the horrors of the battlefield.

She says: "The TA didn't do an awful lot until Iraq blew up. Then the Army asked the TA for volunteers for the first Gulf War and I put my hand in the air and said yes I would go but I wasn't picked.

"In 2003 when the second Gulf War started they again asked for volunteers and I got called up to take part in Operation Telic in Iraq working in an A&E department for six months.

"John was 18 and James was 16 and it meant going out in November so we missed Christmas, the New Year and Easter and that was very tough as a mum, but the boys were old enough to understand and they and my husband Peter were very supportive.

"There wasn't a great deal of difference in what we had to deal with in Iraq and what the 12 of us from Northern Ireland had dealt with during the Troubles.

"The main difference was that they were younger people and that was very hard.

"I think we coped better being from Northern Ireland than some of the regulars who found it more difficult. In some ways we were more prepared for it.

"It is difficult. Those guys are there doing a job and doing something worthwhile and we are there for them if anything happens, providing aid and care.

"I did see some horrendous things. I've seen guys arrive in bits but I've seen others come out the other end and return home alive and recovering.

"You programme yourself to cope. You want to save lives and you get on with it and just do it. "It's afterwards when you think about it that it can affect you but we would all sit around in our accommodation, a tent, and talk about it and bounce it off each other and get it out of our systems.

"I think seeing those awful things makes you a stronger person and it has made me who I am today."

Since finishing her posting in London in December of last year, Jenny has been back home in Northern Ireland where she has been tasked with a major new project which involves bringing all of the TA medical files in line with those of the regular Army. Outside of work she enjoys the simple pleasures of gardening, cooking and DIY as well as following her son's hockey career.

She sums up her time in the forces: "It has been a fascinating career, unbelievable and there are many things I could never have done, such as talking to a room full of people, without the Army. "The Army gave me that confidence and they have given me opportunities and skills that I wouldn't have got anywhere else. "I really feel more women should consider it as a career. It offers so many opportunities, for travel, for sport and allowing you to stand on your own two feet.

"I want to finish this project that I am working on at the moment and then give myself another five years before I think about retirement. When I just hope to put my feet up, continue to follow my son's hockey career and who knows maybe become a grandmother."

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