100 years of women in the army: “what life is really like on the frontline”

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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Today marks 100 years since the formation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, which enabled women to officially enrol in the British Army for the first time when it was founded on 7 July 1917. To celebrate this groundbreaking centenary, Stylist’s digital writer Sarah Biddlecombe spoke to Stacey Hodnett, a former sergeant who served as a healthcare assistant in the army for 19 and a half years.

Here, the 39-year-old shares her experiences of her varied military career and discusses how it felt to be a mother of three while serving on the front line in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I was in the job centre just nosing around when I decided to stop training as a hairdresser and join the army. I saw a poster that said ‘be the best’ and I thought, do you know what, I’m only 17 – why shouldn’t I give it a go?

So I just went for it. I didn’t tell my parents until after the third interview, when I said, ‘oh by the way, I’m joining the army’. And away I went.

I liked the idea of working in caring and I wanted to do something hands on, so I trained as a healthcare assistant on the Queen Alexander nursing course.  I wanted to get into the grit of it and do the grafting, so I was pleased when my role evolved from general nursing duties to include things like changing dressings, making sure sutures were neat and tidy, taking blood and removing clips from wounds.

I had just turned 22 when I was deployed for the first time to Kosovo in 1999. I was excited but also apprehensive about what it was going to be like, because I’d seen everything about Bosnia on the news. We were being based just outside of Pristina, which is the capital, and we had a tented hospital with 25 beds, two ICU beds and a theatre.

There wasn’t much trauma during my time there but one of our soldiers did decide to take his own life, which was pretty horrific. It was an eye opener for me because it was the first time I had experienced a soldier’s death. All I wanted was my mum but obviously she couldn’t come to me, and I couldn’t say anything to her because we’re not allowed to discuss things like that.

Luckily I could talk about it to my other work colleagues and a lot of them were really supportive, because they had already been deployed so were more aware of these things. I can still remember it like it was yesterday.

All I wanted was my mum but obviously she couldn’t come to me

We didn’t really have a typical day in the army because something different would always end up happening. One minute you’d be turning sandbags in Iraq [sandbags were used to pin down the hospital tents] and the next you’d be told a multiple trauma was coming in and you needed to be prepared for it. You’d get such a rush of adrenalin, thinking ‘oh my god, what’s coming in?’

Some of the things I saw made me wish I could take my eyeballs out, rinse them in a solution, pop them back in my head and never think of them again - whether it would be watching two men die from gunshot wounds to the head or seeing a child who was left with just half an arm.

I’ve got three children, and I found out I was pregnant with my third child when I was on deployment in Afghanistan. I was on a six month tour after getting married at home on my R&R (rest and relaxation) and when I was out there I suddenly thought, ‘ooh, that feels a bit strange…. I know these sensations in my body’.

I took myself to the medical centre for a pregnancy test. They do them automatically, because obviously it would be awful if anything happened to someone and we didn’t know they were pregnant.

I was absolutely ecstatic that I was pregnant but I didn’t want to come home – I had another eight weeks left and I wanted to stay and finish my tour. But maternity’s not something you can do on tour and it was safer for me to go home and make sure everything was alright.

Being a mum on the frontline was difficult, but luckily I could leave my children with people I wholeheartedly trust, like my family and my husband. I missed them while I was away though – it was like losing an arm.

I missed my children when I was away – it was like losing an arm

I wasn’t really someone who took a lot of pictures on tour with me but I wrote home and got letters sent out to me that they had written. They had a club at school called the ‘Combat Club’ and they would send me little pictures and letters from there which was nice and such a morale boost. Then my husband would send me nice little bits and pieces from home like hand cream and sweets.

I never lied to my kids about my career and they know they know that I was in the army, and that they were left behind. My littlest one is only four at the moment so she knows mummy was in the army, but she’s not too sure what it’s all about: when she gets older I’ll definitely tell her.

My eldest daughter is really excited about it all and she’ll tell people what I’ve done and where I’ve been. She’s even worn my medals in parades and represented me at school. I know she’s very proud of me and will probably join the forces herself – she’s very feisty. But children change their minds like the weather and all I want is for them to be happy and grow up and enjoy things. I tell them, ‘do well in school and you’ll do well in life’.

I never really came up against any sexism in the army, and I never thought that because I was a woman I was second. We spoke our minds really.

And the area I worked in was female dominated, so when the guys would come in from the infantry or a more male dominated area they would have to try and prove that they were just as good and caring as the women, especially with the nursing side of things. They had to try harder.

I never thought that because I was a woman I was second.

But when people look at the army now they don’t see the women, they see the men. I don’t think women in the army are advertised enough – they need to do more of a surge on it to get the numbers up.

I would tell a woman who is thinking of joining the army to ask themselves, is it something you’ve always wanted to do, or something you believe you’ll be good at it?

If so, don’t be scared. Just go and do it. It’s a fantastic opportunity and a fantastic career.”

Images: courtesy of Stacey Hodnett


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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Commissioning Editor at Stylist. Follow her on Twitter