Between a Rock Chick and a hard place:PTSD • Part 1

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Michelle Partington has been struggling through a dark journey with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of her operational duties serving as a paramedic in the Royal Air Force (RAF). She was the first female RAF Paramedic to serve on the front line in Afghanistan with the RAF Regiment. Michelle also served on the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) picking up severely wounded casualties from the battlefield and carrying out lifesaving interventions in the back of a helicopter. This is a very personal and thought-provoking account of her time.

Pre-deployment Nerves 

During my last few weeks of Paramedic training I received a tasking to work as a Paramedic with the RAF Regiment out in Kandahar, Afghanistan. This was a new role for the RAF Medic commencing in February 09 so it was difficult to obtain any information on what will be expected of me. I had the added apprehension of being the first female to be detached to the front line with the RAF Regiment. Whilst I was sat in the UK thinking these thoughts the Regiment where probably sitting over in Afghanistan thinking how on earth I would cope! This was confirmed once the lads grew to know me and admitted to their apprehension which I soon squashed I hope. Banter and Innuendo’s would not worry me at all and I returned as much banter back so I held my own. What I wanted to do was to gain their respect and trust and I knew I had to prove myself quite early on.

michelle-partington-raf-ptsd-survivorI was so nervous for many reasons. I was worried in case my preparation was lacking. I had completed all relevant courses including the Cat A IRT at Honington. The instructors on the course were very good as I had made them aware of what my role would be. They gave me extra hints and tips on what would be required of me, including Op Barma drills and 5 and 20m checks. For the first time I took every single course seriously. Maybe I shouldn’t have made that statement but my previous detachments never included having to work on the front line with all those lads relying on me if something goes wrong. Equally, I have never had to be careful where I put my next footstep in case I stand on a mine, or look over my shoulder in case someone has a weapon aimed towards me. I have never concerned myself about carrying a weapon previously never mind one that is loaded with the possibility of having to fire it in a split second. I even though ‘what would happen if I had to shoot someone, how would I feel’? We were informed quite early on that we shouldn’t really carry anything personal out on the ground with us. I took a trinket my Granddad gave me to keep on me and also a Gaelic prayer from a loved one, this was so I had a personal item which could not be identified but allowed me to feel close to them whilst out on the ground. Every moment counted on those courses and I gave every ounce of concentration.

The first time I met the guys on the squadron was nerve racking. I had already been informed that they were unsure about my presence there and when I turned up they could not believe I would be going out on the ground with them. I had a lot to prove and I was determined I would not let myself, the RAF Medics or my fellow females down!! I had brought so much kit with me, a third of which I could have left back home. I had packed and re-packed my bags 3 times prior to coming as it was.

On the ground 

The role of the RAF Regiment out in Afghanistan is to protect Kandahar Airfield (KAF) and all the personnel within the compounds of the base. The base is situated 15 miles from Kandahar City. The squadron divides into 4 flights. There are always 2 flights out on the ground East and West, one flight on a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) of 5 mins and the 4th flight is on QRF at 3 hours notice to move. During the latter end of my tour 3 flights started to go on patrol at any one time. This was difficult because I could not stretch myself between all 3 flights. When a flight leaves camp we patrol 500 square kilometres, and call on extra assets if the need arises. It is also the Regiment’s job to build up a good relationship with the locals if we are to receive support from them.

During my tour there were no planned operations but I was out for a few days at a time. The shift sometimes consisted of 2 nights out and 2 nights in. Others saw me completing 4 nights out and 2 nights in. When we leave the base we are self-sufficient, with all our own kit. We organise what we want to do, where we go, and we’re off, setting up vehicle checkpoints, going to Shuras, carrying out covert checks for IED’s or rummaging for hidden weapon caches. We go on patrol with seven vehicles, such as WMIks (Weapon Mounted Installation Kits), Panthers and Vectors along with a huge amount of firepower. On patrol, we harbour up and sleep under the stars, eat ration packs and drinking water which becomes extremely warm after the first couple of days! We took various routes out on the ground split by a major road and two rivers, which the locals use. There are 52 villages in total and I remember at least 8 we patrolled through. A large mountain range dominates the landscape and overlooks the base. The RAF Regiment has an operational post there manned constantly.

My role became more than the squadron medic, I took on the role of a gunner. Due to the restriction of space within the Vector which was the vehicle I travelled in, every time I went out with a flight they stood one of their guys down. This meant having to take on various roles he would normally have had to carry out. This included doing 5 and 20mtr checks, Op Barma Drills, foot patrols, vehicle check points, top cover, guard duties during the night and ensuring I was available for searching females and children. One of the flights OC’s actually allowed me to go to a Shura to meet with the local commander. I was so nervous because they had built up a level of trust with this gentleman and I was about to go up there and sit amongst them which is not normally the case. I sat crossed legged but shaking like you wouldn’t believe. I drank tea and was stared at constantly. They never seemed to mind me being there although they did ask why. That was so surreal – to be part of that was something I would never in a million years think would happen to me.

I read a little about the traditions in Afghanistan prior to leaving so I could understand the customs of the local community which I would be patrolling in and possibly communicating with. I wanted to understand and respect the religion and tradition of Afghanistan, where women are ostracised if they are touched by any man who is not their husband or relative. Due to my gender I had to be aware of the rules so as not to create insult. I was aware of the importance of my role as the only female on hand to search women and children encountered on patrol.

My tour turned out to be really good for me in terms of challenges of the job and personal challenges which I went through. Before every trip out I would phone my loved ones just in case it was the last time I would speak to them.

Emotions

Most of the trips out consisted of combined foot and vehicle patrols which I became more used to and it didn’t take me long to settle in. I did as much as I could to become one of the lads. I had so many different emotions during the tour. I came through so many personal battles and some scary moments which I will not go in to but I will never forget. The adrenaline rush I mentioned at the beginning was there for every single trip out. I wasn’t allocated to one individual flight so I got to know all the lads and they got to know me. Each time was different from the last and I gained different experiences from each one.

michelle-partington-raf-ptsd-survivorOne of the things that stand out for me, and probably the only time I acted like a real girlie was on my granddad’s birthday. I have never missed a chance to phone him and I was on the mountain the day it fell and was gutted because I didn’t think I would be able to speak to him. He didn’t know what job I was going to do out in Afghanistan because he would be worried enough about me being out there as it was. The lads felt that something was wrong and I confided in them why I was a little quiet. A few minutes later the OC appeared with a satellite phone and gave me the chance to phone him. I was absolutely gobsmacked for 2 reasons. Firstly, I could wish my granddad a happy birthday from the mountains of Afghanistan and secondly, because of the sentiment the lads had showed to me. That was not a ‘looking after the girlie thing’, that was caring for your comrade. I believe I actually shed a little tear which was very girlie but fitting for the moment!

I remember when our patrol stint was over and we came in after the 2 or 4 nights out. The first thing we wanted to do was to go and have a decent breakfast in the Mess. People would stare at us as we walked in because we would primarily be in the same clothes we set out in except for socks and underwear. People would look down their noses at us but they didn’t know what we had been doing for the last few days. It never occurred to them that we were protecting the area so they could sleep as safe as possible in their beds at night.

Girls on the front line?

As a Paramedic, I am expected to venture into Afghanistan in vehicles alongside Regiment Gunners potentially facing enemy fire or IED strikes and along with the team medics will be the first medic on the ground to assist any casualties. I am armed with a rifle and a pistol to protect myself and any patients who may come under attack. I am scared when I’m out on the ground but I’m here for the lads who may get hurt and will be more scared than I am. I am proud to be the first female to complete an operational tour with the RAF Regiment. It wasn’t easy and I had to work hard to prove my ability. But I will always be pleased with the fact that I’m a girl, doing the job.

A comment was made in the first post detachment report about the role being gender specific but I stand by a comment I made to the Squadron and my bosses in that the role is not gender driven but personality driven. You can’t measure a person’s strength by their size or their gender. Serving female personnel like me hopefully proved that point in Afghanistan every single day. Gender should not be a bar for this role. As long as the person has the right capabilities and is fit and robust enough then I feel there should be more opportunities for females in frontline roles.

By Michelle Partington

Part 2 of Michelle’s incredible journey next week. She shares her struggles with PTSD…… She survived!

Michelle now runs a blog covering her personal journey (http://michellesandersonptsd.net) and has set up a new foundation called Behind The Mask (www.behindthemaskcharity.com) to help others who are struggling to come to terms with events that are threatening to take their lives.

Follow Michelle on Twitter

Behind the Mask: a free online peer to peer support and counselling service Twitter