‘If you cop it, can we have your radio?’
Published in The Guardian on 23 April 2003
The note from the Newspaper Publishers Association said: “Women war correspondents: the MoD advised that the marines and the 16 Air Assault Brigade wished not to have women.” It came as a shock. After months of rigorous training, fretting over kit, getting fit and steeling myself for war, I was told that because of my gender I could not go.
As an embedded journalist, part of the British pool system, my lottery draw had meant that I was to be assigned to the Household Cavalry Regiment’s D Squadron, a unit within 16 Air Assault Brigade. Their job is frontline reconnaissance and, for reasons that are the army’s own, women are generally allowed nowhere near the frontline.
It had not occurred to me or my editors that being a woman would be a hindrance to me doing my job or to the army. In the end, it wasn’t.
Some quiet calls were made and, while the marines held their line, someone in 16 Air Assault Brigade changed their minds. The Household Cavalry, one of the oldest and most traditional regiments in the country, made it clear that they would be happy to take a woman on board.
Within days, I found myself with the 105 men of D Squadron, the Blues and Royals, in Camp Eagle in Kuwait. Along with Daily Mail photographer Bruce Adams, the only other journalist with the squadron, I was shown into a large Bedouin tent filled with semi-naked, tattooed soldiers, men I would come to spend the next five weeks with. Towards the back were the officers and it was here that I found Squadron Leader Richard Taylor. He sat us down and said, in the politest of Household Cavalry tones: “When we are out in our vehicles in the field we live together, eat together, sleep together, fart together and wash our bollocks together. Do you think you can handle it?” I shrugged my shoulders, a part of me hoping he was pulling my leg in the way the regiment had when they hung up a picture of the Queen especially for the Guardian’s arrival.
But he wasn’t joking. At that time, there were more important things to be thinking about, like how do I keep my head down if we are attacked, should I jump head first into a trench, would they leave me behind if I couldn’t run fast enough or not carry my kit? Would they take me less seriously because I didn’t have an interest in big guns and had never seen a Scimitar or Spartan armoured reconnaissance vehicle, never mind lived in one? Washing my bits seemed the least of my worries.
We were shown to our tent: a hot, sticky, odorous enclosure with 60 squaddies sleeping and snoring on rollmats on a wooden floor. As we walked through, there were smirks on the faces that greeted us – the soldiers had been told they were going to have to put up with two journalists for the duration of the war but they hadn’t been told one was a woman.
Lugging a holdall on wheels filled with a flak jacket, helmet, respirator, camping stove and other bits and pieces, an 85-litre backpack, a day sack and my laptop I was immediately told by Corporal Mick Flynn, one of the squadron’s oldest and most experienced soldiers, I was going to have to scale down my kit. The first thing to go was the one-man tent I had been advised to buy by the MoD – the Household Cavalry don’t sleep in tents, they just bed down in the dirt next to their vehicles, so there went my privacy. I would be allowed my work equipment but not much else as there would be limited space on the vehicles. That meant taking just the day sack with two shirts, two pairs of trousers, four pairs of knickers (big, for modesty purposes), two sports bras, four pairs of socks and one pair of boots. My toiletries would be limited, my bars of chocolate were welcomed, but only because they would disappear quite quickly and therefore wouldn’t take up space. I wondered if they were trying to scare me when they asked: “If you cop it, can we have your shortwave radio?”
The shared showers and tents of the camp were soon to be looked back on as luxury as we moved into Iraq. The conditions were rough. We slept on the desert floor just inches from each other – a bonus on the freezing nights. The dust and sand went everywhere, into our kit and every crevice of our body, and we rarely got it out – we washed with a flannel in a bowl when we could and had to make do with babywipes when we couldn’t, which was almost always. The soldiers gave me my space when I needed it and most of the time my wash was protected by the side of a vehicle and the modesty of a towel.
As they saw that I was prepared to muck in – and as part of a crew of five on a small vehicle, I had little choice but to take my turn at making the tea, heating up the boil-in-the-bags or laying down people’s “doss bags”, I was shouted at and ordered around – I simply became “one of the boys”. Learning to swear like a trooper probably helped too.
It was different when we came across soldiers from other regiments who wolf-whistled and stared because they did not have a woman living with them. The two D Squadron guys, who had surrounded me with a poncho as I tried to have a quiet pee beside a wall when we found ourselves mobbed by curious Iraqis in one town, were outraged when a Para stuck his head through the hole and took a picture. I even had a guard when, on one occasion, a rare shower was to be taken fully exposed to all around – we crept up in darkness and those who approached were shooed away.
Of course, I was the butt of jokes, some of which were no doubt made out of my earshot. My nickname was “Admin” – in the military, admin means almost everything: taking care of your kit, making sure you have nothing out you are not using, eating enough food, washing your clothes, and yourself, just keeping everything in order. My ability to lose my Maglite torch, my goggles, at one point even mislay my helmet and a parcel just received in the post from my mother (we had just had to “bug out” or run away in the middle of the night from rounds of incoming Iraqi artillery at the time), meant I was an “admin vortex” and the source of much hilarity. Admin in the Field, they said, would be the title of my book on the war.
On one occasion, as the soldiers rooted around an abandoned barracks, finding Iraqi chemical warfare suits and masks, the squadron corporal major told some American marines that I was there to make his “brew” but he never treated me with any less respect – or indeed afforded me more privileges – than he did his own troops. My safety was one of his prime concerns.
The Household Cavalry found themselves leading 16 Air Assault Brigade in Iraq, coming under heavy attack from incoming Iraqi artillery, outgunned and fighting fierce battles with T55 tanks. They lost one of their men in the A10 friendly-fire attack, when two tankbuster aircraft turned their guns on their convoy. They lost two more in a tragic accident when a Scimitar overturned in a ditch, and had more injured.
I watched men desperately try to resuscitate their fallen colleagues and shake at their inability to fight with fate. I saw them weep as they learned of the death of men they had spoken to just that morning, men they had worked with for years, drank with, played football with. Sometimes, as we took incoming fire, they hugged me but they hugged each other as well.
They spoke to me, sometimes as a journalist, sometimes as a friend, of their fears, of their grief, of their boredom, of their frustration and of their ultimate pride in what they had done in Iraq.
And I never had to worry about being left behind. On the first day, I met Corporal Craig Trencher, the driver of Spartan Three Three Alpha, the cramped vehicle which was to be my home, he said: “Don’t worry, I will never, ever leave you. I will pick you up and carry you if I have to.” On the day that our vehicle was “bracketed” – we took incoming rounds at the front and back which missed us by metres – Corporal Danny Abbott just looked at me and laughed and said, “I think we are being shot at”. He squeezed my arm as if this was all part of a day’s soldiering. It wasn’t, but he didn’t want me thinking it. On one gas alert – which like all the many others was false – one soldier handed me my respirator before picking up his own: when you have just nine seconds to get your mask on safely, that is quite a thing to do.
Yes, they said I was their “little packet of morale” but they weren’t being sexist, just including me in their gang. I came to them with my own prejudices, the ones lots of people have about squaddies being tattooed, farting louts. They had tattoos, they farted and their feet certainly smelled, but they were also gentlemen. They showed me that there are other more appropriate cliches, the ones about camaraderie, “band of brothers”, and dying for each other. They shared everything they could with each other and with me, sweets sent from home, toilet paper, news, secrets, tears.
On Wednesday of last week, I went to the funeral in Windsor of Lance Corporal Karl Shearer who died when his Scimitar overturned in the ditch. Different men, from the regiment’s other squadrons, were grieving. But they also had a chance to joke about me being a woman and how they had laughed when they found out. The commanding officer said he had informed the Queen, who had been surprised that a woman had been embedded with her own personal regiment.
Tonight, I am to talk to the soldiers’ wives, telling them about a side of their husbands they will never see. Someone advised me not to wear nice clothes or make-up, to get into my smelly kit, put some sand on my face, be “admin in the field” again, because the wives might be jealous. Of course, I won’t. My being a woman should make no difference to them either.
Yesterday, I phoned Bruce Adams and asked him what it was about me being a woman that got me by in a war, living together with more than 100 men. “Balls,” he said. “More than some of the soldiers.” So, that could be the answer, I didn’t have the bollocks to wash in front of the squadron leader, but it seemed I had the balls.