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Women who are proud to serve in Armed Forces

Ahead of Remembrance Day on Saturday, three officers talk about their life in the Army and Navy. They tell Kerry McKittrick why they are also proud to mark a centenary of females in the services

Women make up almost 10% of the UK's armed forces - although not every role within the military is open to women.

The image of a female soldier with gun in hand is still one that makes for uncomfortable viewing for some across the world.

Last month the Queen helped to mark 100 years of women in the Army and Navy. And, for those who are keen to serve their country there are still plenty of opportunities, both as Army regulars or in the Reserves.

‘I take the risks very seriously and am aware of my security’

Abigail Hassall (35) is a Major in the Army Reserves. She is married and lives in Belfast. She says:

I've just qualified as a consultant general surgeon. I took a bit of an odd route to the Reserves. I was in the Sea Cadets in school and really enjoyed that, but I left to go to university. It was when I became a surgical registrar that I realised I could have access to training and skills in the Army that I wouldn't have in the health service, mostly surrounding trauma.

I joined the Navy Reserves in 2010 and then moved to the Army Reserves in 2013.

As a reservist you give 27 days a year to the Army, but the health service does release you to go and train - you don't have much spare time as a doctor. I loved the evening training, too - it's a bit of stress relief from your day job.

They call it military tourism because you do travel to places like Cyprus, but you're not sitting on the beach with a cocktail. It was difficult to fit in around a training rota, but it was worth it.

There is a risk of joining the Army in Northern Ireland, but I felt as a doctor it would be unlikely that I was targeted - that would be bad form.

But it's a risk I take seriously - I'm very aware of security.

I haven't deployed yet. I was too junior during Afghanistan and I volunteered for Sierra Leone, but they didn't need me. I would like to deploy at some stage though.

I can leave whenever I like but I think I'm a lifer - as long as I'm enjoying it and getting something out of it. There is a camaraderie you get with your unit in the Army that you won't find anywhere else.

I spend a week a year in officer training with the Royal Marines. We'll be freezing cold in a field, knackered and starving, but we all come away saying we had the best time.

I've never had a problem being a woman in the Army. The only distinction between a man and a woman is during the fitness test when you have to run a mile and a half.

Men get slightly less time than women, but that changes as you get older, too.

We do a combat fitness test - you carry all your kit and a rifle and everyone carries the same weight over a six-mile run in a set time and that time is the same for everyone.

Women aren't in the infantry so it's unlikely I'll end up on my elbows with a gun in the undergrowth. I don't mind that at all because I'm a surgeon - I understand the reasons the same as I understand there aren't women on submarines. Mind you, if people want to do it that's great.

My husband is in the Naval Reserves so he understands what I do - he supports me and I support him. The annoying thing is that we train on different nights so we have limited time together.

He'll probably advance through the ranks faster than me as he'll be in a command position. It might get to the stage where I will step back to preserve our family life - I know if the roles were reversed he would do the same for me.

You get a lot out of joining the Reserves.

It doesn't matter what job you do during the day, the military will give you confidence and great people skills. There are skills I do in my day job that I learned in the military."

'My career's been an absolute whirlwind but very enjoyable'

Kerry McFadden-Newman (41) is a Major in the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps. She lives on the north coast with her husband Guy and their three  children, Caoimhe (11), Fionn (8) and Teagan (16 months). In 2015 she was awarded the Associate Royal Red Cross Medal for outstanding military nursing, the first recipient of whom was Florence Nightingale. She says:

I was always interested in nursing and have family in the Army. When I was at school representatives of the three Armed Forces came to visit and really started to pique my interest. But the Army stood out for me the most.

My original plan was to join the Army as a student nurse. They only ask for a four-year commitment once you've qualified with the added bonus that you get paid the whole way through. I was in the process of applying when there was a big cost-cutting exercise and they told me to go off and get qualified and then join afterwards.

I was 23 when I joined - I had done my nurse qualifications in Bath, but I still needed to train as a soldier. Most of my class were 17 or 18 years old so mine was the shoulder they would end up crying on. Basic training teaches you weaponry, tactics and how to work really well as a unit. Five years after I passed out I applied for officer training at Sandhurst. That's much more about training you as a leader and pushing you as an individual.

My career has been an absolute whirlwind but very, very enjoyable. I've been on exercise to Germany, Jordan, Kenya and of course around the UK. I've been deployed to Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. I prepped for Sierra Leone but I wasn't needed. You travel a lot in the Army anyway for courses, training and exercise.

Over the course of my career I could find myself working in the operating theatre, acute medicine or training. I've had vast experience in all sorts of different fields.

We came home to Northern Ireland a couple of years ago and I've been working in a field hospital here as a training officer. I work with the Army Reserves and with them alone I've been to Canada, the USA and Gibraltar - they're a busy lot, too.

We came back because I'll be leaving the Army next year. I think a part of me knew I would come back home and settle down. It's just been about finding the right time to do it.

My children have had some amazing experiences but I think it's time we settle down for them.

I made the decision to join the Army and I knew what I was getting into. It's given me a lot of confidence and I met my husband in it - he has now left the service. We've had kids who have had a blast moving round a lot. I think we've been very lucky as my kids have had all sorts of experiences. I know I was away a lot but thanks to Skype and WhatsApp it's become so much easier to stay in touch.

The Army has been very good to me and I'm so grateful for everything I've experienced but it's time to lay my hat down. I'll certainly be in the Reserves because I feel I have more to give. I've worked with them for the last couple of years and I know how they tick - I have huge respect for all of the time and energy they give."

'I was head of theatre at a camp in Helmand Province'

Joy Duffield (56) is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserves. She lives in Belfast with her husband Barry and has two daughters, Rihann (22) and Jamie (20).  She says:

I have retired as a theatre sister and nurse educator with the health service, but I'm now doing project work.

I joined the Army Reserves in 1985. A friend asked if I would like to do something different and it all moved very quickly on from there.

That was the height of the Troubles, but it didn't cross our minds as being risky at the time. We were young and you don't think of those things. I wasn't that long qualified as a nurse and I was just exploring things to do.

I joined as a commissioned officer - a second lieutenant - and went on to work my way up the ranks. Like everything else, the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.

I've loved having the chance at doing something different and away from the hospital. I wasn't very physical before I joined up but I did become after. I've taken part in a few marches including the Nijmegen march in the Netherlands that is 160km over four days.

I was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 - I was the head of theatre for 13 weeks at a camp in Helmand Province. It was hard but the most difficult thing for me was the heat. It was July and the temperature could reach the mid-50s. I was surprised at how fast I got used to it.

When I joined I wasn't married and you get very involved in Army life very quickly. When the first Iraq war happened I could have been deployed but my dad was very ill at the time. This made it all very real and was a big decision - and I realised it was what I wanted in the future.

Going away for a long time is hard but my family knows what's expected of me so it's not that big a shock when it happens. We weren't in much danger - we were working in the hospital that was well into the camp.

I've been able to make the Reserves fit for me and was able to take a step back for a year when my girls were very young.

I would encourage anyone to join the Reserves - it gives you so many opportunities and, for young people, really builds your confidence.

There is the possibility of deployment, but I think most people embrace that now - everyone knows what they are getting into."

Belfast Telegraph


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