Images courtesy of Lizzy Stileman MBE
Tell us a bit about yourself and your background, where did you grow up?
I was brought up with my two brothers on a small farm in Lockerley (Hampshire) and my experiences here shaped the rest of my life. Being outdoors, understanding nature, working in the elements has underpinned everything I have done since. My family have had a very strong influence in my life, supporting me and the principles which were ingrained in me in my early years have remained with me ever since. I joined the Army in 1995 and left in 2015. Since then I completed a Master’s Degree in Disaster Management, joined the charity RE:ACT (formerly Team Rubicon UK), have become a Trustee of RE:ACT, started my own business (teaching Hostile Environment Awareness Training to the Humanitarian sector) and I remain an Army Reservist. I now live in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire.
Did you always want a career in the army?
I was never clear about what I wanted to do after my education. I only considered joining the Army when I started at the University of Plymouth in 1991 (reading Geography) and from here I joined the Officer Training Corps (OTC). I excelled in the OTC, enjoying being part of a team and realised that I had found my niche. I had a year-off after university directly after which I went to Sandhurst (May 1995) where I started officer training and my 20-year military career. Women account for only 10% of the armed forces, and 8% of the army, despite changes that have made it easier for women to take maternity leave and career breaks. How do we get more girls and women interested in joining the army?
The Army is a fantastic career choice and one I have loved. It is now one of the best employers in terms of equal opportunities for gender, race, sexual orientation (the Times top 50 employers for women). There is no discrimination on pay and as of very recently, all roles are available to everyone. There is now an ability to opt for flexible service, a career intermission for up to 3 years and if you want to have a family, there is an excellent maternity package and the military are supportive of breastfeeding.
What gender-based challenges did you face as your career advanced? I joined the Royal Logistic Corps which at the time was the most open to sex equality so I was treated equally from the start. On the whole, I was given the same opportunities as men (I can only think of one exception which would categorically not happen now). I was given command over men and women and was given every opportunity that anybody regardless of sex was given. I know this was not the same across the Army and I know that not everybody had the same experiences as I have. I joined in 1995 and since then, there has been so much change for the better with more and more opportunities opening up for anybody who joins. Women are now in high ranking appointments, taking command at the highest level and are able to join any part of the of the military. There is now one standard.
What do you say to the critics who think women should not serve in combat roles?
Not everybody is suited for the combat roles; men or women. But some really are.
There is no reason to turn down women for this role just because of their gender. If the individual passes the criteria, then there is no reason why they should not have the same opportunities as men. I am always delighted to see women breaking convention; passing and excelling in what was an exclusive role just for men.
For a long time, women have been serving in roles that have supported the combat roles; such as medics, logisticians (of note bomb disposal experts), communication experts – all of who work alongside their male counterparts in the ‘front line’ roles. It is wonderful finally to be recognised in the same way regardless of sex now. It will take some time to see women in combat roles as ‘normal’, but it will happen. You were also involved in training and developing the skills of the young Army officers - Is inspiring the next generation important to you?
My final role in the Army was as Company Commander in the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and I was there for two and a half years. I had only male cadets under my command and I absolutely loved the role and felt very privileged to be leading the future leaders of the Army. Since leaving the army, you completed a Master of Disaster Management degree and formed your own company to deliver disaster management and Hostile Environment Awareness Training to the humanitarian sector. What does your day-to-day look like?
Hostile Environment Awareness Training is essential for any organisation sending staff to unpredictable countries. I usually teach people from charities, NGO and journalists and it can be in the UK or overseas. The syllabus covers emergency first aid and security in hostile environments and I can be delivering some or all of it. So, this means my days working for myself are always varied.
Outside my HEAT work I rarely have a usual day. I am lucky in as much as I have a small pension from the army. I am also an Army Reservist which continues to bring me lots of opportunities and I am now doing more sport and adventure training that I have ever done. My work takes me around the world, stretches me. I never have a day which is the same and I really enjoy my work. When I am not working, or doing stuff for my charity, I do immerse myself in sport; tennis, golf, cycling, walking and love being outside. I love the mixed and varied combination of work that I have. I am proud of what I do and I like that feeling. I know I can make a difference and being able to help people with my actions.
You also joined RE:ACT to deliver vital aid at home and across the world. Where do you find the courage to do this line of work?
Working in a chaotic environment, with very little preparation time, not knowing where I would be or what I would be doing – this is how I thrive. I like the thrill of being first on the scene, helping those who have lost everything, building rapport and trust with them, working out the logistics with limited resources, motivating disparate team members and analysing the dynamics to use our collective skills to improve the situation. I do not think of it as courage, but teamwork. I have the skills to help people who need it the most.
Congratulations on your MBE for your services to incident response and charitable service during Covid-19. Could you tell us more about your important work during the pandemic? Thank you very much. To say I am overwhelmed is a massive understatement. I feel humbled; this really should have gone so many people who have worked so hard and put their life on hold and done so much since March. I have been blessed to have worked with so many incredible people. RE:ACT is about teamwork and this is no exception.
RE:ACT is a charity predominantly consisting of military veterans specialising in rapid disaster response, incident management and life support in complex and high-risk environments. It has just under 600 volunteers. They repurpose the unique skills and hard-earned experience of ex-military personnel and redeploy them wherever the need is greatest. Until 2020, RE:ACT had been focused on the international arena responding to disasters across the world. I have personally deployed on six of these disasters, including on Christmas Day to Indonesia following the tsunami and most recently to the Bahamas following Hurricane Dorian in September 2019 (a Category 5 hurricane). RE:ACT send small teams into the centre of the disaster to undertake direct humanitarian action, in the faster time, for those hardest to reach and most vulnerable. RE:ACT is a small charity which holds a very big punch and able to make a difference. It is not government funded and people like me are all volunteers.
My Army Reservist role for the last two years has been affiliated to Standing Joint Command UK (SJC UK). The purpose of SJC, which is based in Aldershot, is to coordinate defence’s contribution to UK resilience operations in support of other government departments and was at the heart of the defence contribution to COVID-19.
The CEO of RE:ACT saw an opportunity and asked if I could go to SJC as a volunteer and to act as a liaison between the voluntary sector and the military. I spent my first week or so networking and reaching out to many of my old military colleagues and asked for help to enable RE:ACT to work with them. I attended many meetings and helped RE:ACT’s situational awareness and was able to pass information between RE:ACT and the MOD. I did this continuously for 98 days.
RE:ACT is a charity that has completed more than 120 individual tasks from all around Britain during Wave 1; helping the NHS, supporting mortuaries, investing in mobile testing, and doing countless food/ COVID test deliveries and collections, as well as welfare checks on the most vulnerable in this difficult and isolating time. RE:ACT are now building up to assist in the next COVID response.
What's next for you and how can we support your journey?
Right now, I am continuing to support the fight against COVID-19 with RE:ACT. RE:ACT are calling forward our Veteran Volunteers again and will be supporting the Mass Town Testing and continuing to work alongside other voluntary organisations to support those in greatest need. Furthermore, I would appreciate any assistance to broaden the public understanding of RE:ACT and its on-going requirement for funds. It is not government funded and we rely on the generosity of the general public to allow us to proceed with our amazing work. RE:ACT are on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Anything that rases public awareness will help us enormously.
What one piece of advice would you offer to girls or young women considering a career in the army?
Do not be put off because you think it is a male world. It is not. Women now have an equal rights and equal pay. There are so many opportunities so many adventures. It is a life less ordinary and if you can take the plunge, you can be extraordinary.