Armed Forces Day: Meet the Merseyside women at the forefront and on the front line of our Armed Forces
Armed Forces Day on Saturday is the perfect chance for Liverpool to come out, show its support and say a big thank you to everyone who is serving.
It’s the climax of a week of celebrations taking place across the city, including a military exhibition at Royal Albert Dock Liverpool all day Saturday and the traditional parade of services through the streets, led this year by the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Scotland.
With the Armed Forces now one of the UK’s top employers for women, thousands from our region have vital roles across the three services.
In fact, with the opening up of so many different forces careers and branches, women have never been more at the forefront and on the front line.
But how has the part they play changed, what’s it really like being a Regular or Reserve in the Armed Forces and why has it become such an appealing choice for so many women?
Ahead of Armed Forces Day on Saturday 29 June we have spoken to four women with very different experiences to find out…
WO Jan Cox, who lives in Hightown, is command Warrant Officer for the Maritime Reserve, having joined up at HMS Eaglet in Liverpool in 1981. Now 60, she was awarded the Queen’s Volunteer Reserve Medal in last year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
“When I joined there was a separate service for women, the Wrens (Women’s Royal Naval Service), and we had very different terms and conditions to the men. Then in the 1990s the Wrens ceased to exist and we all became Royal Navy, and that’s when the opportunities for women expanded massively and they’ve continued to. I’ve travelled to Hong Kong, Oman, Gibraltar, Singapore and Malaysia and worked in all these places which I’d never have had the chance to do.
“Although I’ve held this role full-time for 11 years, I’ve also had various civilian careers including a conservator restoring historical documents in Liverpool’s Central Library, financial services and HR, and the skills I’ve learnt from the Royal Navy equipped me really well to lead.
“I served on the front line in Afghanistan in 2008/9 and before I returned I was offered a role to be a full-time instructor at HMS Raleigh.
“It’s not an easy thing for women, or men, to leave their families but in the Reserves we do what we call intelligent mobilisation so we try to make sure it’s as good a time as possible for each individual – for instance if you’ve just had a baby then obviously it isn’t!
“I would absolutely recommend the Royal Navy and Maritime Reserves as a career option, for me it’s been a phenomenal one, and I’ve never felt discriminated against as a woman. I didn’t need to be wrapped in cotton wool but I’ve always been treated well and respected as an equal and that’s really important.”
In December 2017, Donna Hall became the first woman in the history of the RAF Air Cadets to be appointed regional Warrant Officer. The 38-year-old, who lives in Kirkby, also has a civilian job with Liverpool City Council as physical activity and sport development coordinator.
“I started as a cadet when I was 13 and when I aged out at 22 I wanted to give something back so I was keen to become a volunteer staff member.
“The cadets has been a massive part of my life and what I absolutely love is seeing cadets developing and being able to achieve. If a 12-year-old female cadet joins and sees me in my position and thinks, I could do that, then that’s brilliant for me.
“Attitudes towards women have changed in the time I’ve been involved. The RAF was the first of the Armed Forces to open all front line services to women and it’s noticeable that there are more women in certain trades now because they’re more on an equal footing.
“Cadets is a stepping stone to a career for many young women and the RAF is doing a lot around science, tech, engineering and maths aimed at women, targeting girls in the cadets, to promote those kinds of trades. We’re moving away from the gender stereotypes of women doing this and men doing that to everyone can do everything.
“Girls weren’t allowed to join the Air Cadets until about 1980/81 and now it’s probably around a 50-50 split of girls and boys joining so the progression in the past 30 years has been massive. They do camp, flying, gliding, adventure training, drill, shooting and the cadets are all treated equally, everything is possible, and if you put your foot forward you never know how far you could go.”
Corporal Sarah O’Connor became an Army Reservist in 2014. The 35-year-old, who works as a staff nurse at Southport Hospital A&E department, serves in Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corp as part of 208 Field Hospital in Liverpool.
“I absolutely love being a Reserve because it gives me opportunities to travel and learn new skills, and it satisfies my desire for adventure. Since joining, I’ve worked alongside Regulars and Reservists in places such as California, France, Scotland and Norway and taken part in primary healthcare delivery in Kenya.
“My role is so varied, one exercise I may be patrolling through countryside evaluating where to site a treatment facility in a kinetic environment, and the next I could be learning how to deliver emergency obstetric treatment in a Third World country.
“I’m currently working in A&E at Southport Hospital and they’re very supportive of my military commitments because they recognise the benefits. I know my exposure in the Reserves to nursing in severe environments and under different pressures makes me stand out and helps my career. For instance, the Army has supported me in gaining paediatric and adult immediate life support qualifications that I use in my NHS job.
“I’ve learnt to Nordic ski as well in the Army and next year I’m hoping to compete for my unit at the Army Medical Services Ski Championships. And I’ve been supported to achieve qualifications in my favourite activity which is walking in the mountains.
“The Army Reserves really is committed to developing soldiers through adventure training and that makes us stronger and more resilient back home in the current high-pressure healthcare environment we experience as nurses.”
Find out more about The Reserve Forces’ & Cadets’ Association for the North West of England & the Isle of Man here.
MORE: Watch as we take you to the new First Women exhibition at St. George’s Hall. 100 women, 100 portraits, 100 firsts!
Flight Lieutenant Caroline Paige from Wallasey was the first officer to transition and serve openly in the UK Armed Forces. She joined up in 1980 after starting out as an Air Cadet and served for 35 years, transitioning in the late 1990s. She is now a public speaker and patron of Liverpool Pride.
“I had a fantastic job, I became a navigator during the Cold War and then, when the Berlin Wall came down, I saw an opportunity to move onto helicopters.
“In those days I still had to hide who I was, but as time went by that got harder and harder until in 1995 I started looking at the possibility of a future as Caroline. I expected to be thrown out of the military, so I was surprised and amazed when they said, ‘we want you to stay, we’ve never had anyone transition before, how do we do this?’ We had to make it up as we went along, there were no policies.
“I pushed hard to get on operations to show people I wasn’t a liability or a danger. I went out to Iraq and did four tours and to Afghanistan four times on the Merlin battlefield helicopter. I’d transitioned in 1999 and I went back on to the front line at the end of 2000.
“In January 2000 the military repealed the law that barred gay service, and the Air Force, Army and Royal Navy transformed. People saw positive examples of trans people on operations and saw there was no issue. You’re doing a job and doing it really well and that’s what it’s all about.
“The best moment for me was putting on the uniform as Caroline. I’d looked at it for a long time and thought, if only, so to be able to wear it openly was unbelievable.”
BY DAWN COLLINSON, COPY MEDIA