When Captain Carol Betteridge joined the Armed Forces in 1990 her parents weren’t very happy. She had been a nurse in the NHS for more than 10 years and was searching for something that gave her more of a challenge when her friend suggested the Navy.
“I went to the careers office and they explained that you don’t go to sea very much, you don’t go abroad.”
“I was an operating theatre nurse so I would be working in the UK.”
“But while I was at the Royal Naval training in Dartmouth the Iraq War broke out, and I was sent on board a ship and sailed to Iraq.”
“My parents weren’t very happy about it, I can tell you. I sold the whole thing on not going anywhere.”
“Women hadn’t been at sea since the Second World War, not only was it alien to us but the crew as well.”
“We didn’t have separate toilets, they had to set aside sleeping arrangements for us.”
“But in the end what mattered was the job we were doing and the people we were caring for.”
Capt Betteridge, 62, stayed in the Navy until 2015. During her career she assisted in the evacuation of casualties from Lebanon, was appointed a Commanding Officer in Afghanistan, and ran the field hospital in Helmand Province.
On return she helped run the Royal Centre of Defence Medicine, accepting casualties from around the world, was awarded the Nato Meritorious Service Medal, and appointed OBE in 2012 for her leadership in Afghanistan.
Ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8, she reflects on her long career as one of the pioneering women in the Armed Forces.
In April 2021 there were 16,740 women in the UK Regular Forces – 11 percent of total strength.
Whereas once females were restricted in what they could do, from 2018 all roles were opened up.
“It’s been slow progress, but things have changed,” Capt Betteridge said. “When I was commanding the hospital in Afghanistan I was the first nurse to have ever done that, but I was always respected as their commanding officer.”
“Thirty years before that would never have happened.”
“When I was promoted to captain I was one of only four females out of 369 males. I hope that alongside other senior female colleagues I helped break that glass ceiling and proved we could deliver.”
Capt Betteridge, who lives in Dorset, now works as head of clinical services for Help For Heroes, alongside colleagues who also served.
One of the most recent appointees to her team also worked under her command in Afghanistan.
Julie-Anne Fulford, 35, who lives in Salisbury, joined the charity in January as a complex case manager after a 15-year career as an Army nurse. Coming from a military family, both parents were in the RAF, it felt like a natural fit.
She said while things were better for women, at the time she joined it wasn’t all plain sailing.
“During basic training we weren’t treated any differently,” Staff Sergeant Fulford said. “We weren’t as fast or as strong as the boys, but it was never held against us. Our corporal in charge though, I think he dreaded that we were a troop of girls – but we gave as good as we got. It spurred us on a bit.”
“I’m really short, I felt like a small petite female joining the army.”
“The uniform was made to fit men, everything on me was too big.”
“I constantly wanted to prove I deserved to be there. It’s getting better – females have a voice and are in senior leadership positions.”
She was appointed head of department for clinical care at Frimley Park Hospital, Surrey, in the early weeks of the Covid pandemic.
She was recognised in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours for 2022, for her work during this time.
Sarah Hattle, 42, knew she wanted to join from a young age.
She decided upon the Navy for the opportunities it offered women in 2000: “At the time there were hardly any options for women in the Army, but the Navy was brilliant.”
“Almost every option was open and there was the potential for travel and adventure.”
She became a Warfare Officer aboard ships including the HMS Gloucester and is particularly proud of being the ceremonial officer for the Royal Navy for the Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations.
Lt Comm Hattle, who lives in Snowdonia, said there were “very few female role models in the senior roles at that time”. She said she saw changes even in the time she was there, particularly around maternity.
“More women are staying in longer and that’s really important, because that’s what gives you those more senior role models.”
“I had four children while serving and saw the change in attitude to maternity leave – having kids and staying in service, or going back to sea. With the first lot it was not common at all to stay, and possibly I was judged a bit, but that changed with my later children. Now that’s common place. There are lots of mums and dads who deploy.”
In her role at Help for Heroes she helps veterans through sports and activity in Wales.
She says: “There’s a lot of women who just don’t identify as veterans.”
“I started working with a woman who came to an art session last month and she was nervous.”
“She had this perception of who a veteran is and said she only served for eight years and felt there wasn’t an entitlement to support.”
“Women can undersell themselves, but of course are equally entitled to any support.”
Julie Thain-Smith, who lives near Glasgow, joined the Navy after 19 years in the NHS as a nurse and midwife. She was deployed to Kuwait and Basra, as well as Afghanistan where she was Chief Medical Advisor to a four-star US General, and advised the Afghan National Army and Police.
She became a medical advisor to Nato, and was rewarded with a Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in June 2015.
“There’s men that still think ‘why aren’t you at home with a husband and children?’, but you got that in the NHS too.”
“When I went into The force is strong with these women the Ops Room in Afghanistan you could smell the testosterone. As a female leader I knew people in a different way.”
“I knew their children’s names, their dogs’ names. I got more from my team. Eventually, other leaders saw this too.”
“It was an amazing career. Be resilient, enjoy it, have adventures, and be kind to everyone. If you lead by example your behaviour rubs off on other people. It takes all sorts to make a team.”
“I’d encourage any woman to join. Take from it what you want – don’t miss an amazing opportunity.”
● For more information visit: helpforheroes.org.uk
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