Debbie Hiley is a Quality Standards Auditor at Greensleeves Care and has an extensive background in the Army. In light of Remembrance Sunday, Debbie spoke to us about her time in the Forces as well as her message to older people who have served.
Can you give an overview of your time in the Forces?
I joined the Army in April 1988, age 18. Back then, the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) was still in operation, which meant female soldiers would do their 6-week basic training at the WRAC Centre in Guildford before being sent to their relevant trades to join the men for the remainder of the training. I joined the Royal Military Police, for which the training was 6 months.
I served for 7 years before leaving to go to University, and in that time I rose to the rank of Corporal. My first posting was in Hohne in Germany. The Cold War ended during my time in Germany, and it was interesting to visit Berlin before, during and after.
Whilst in Germany the first Iraq War started and at that time women held non-operational roles only, though this did not stop me presenting myself outside the Regimental Sargeant Major’s office every time more troops were requested, in the hope that they had changed the policy. It wasn’t until the Bosnian conflict that women became fully operational, 3 years after I left the Army.
My next posting was Edinburgh and I lived and worked in Edinburgh Castle. The top floor of the building was the accommodation and the views were breath taking- literally- as the windows were sash windows which rattled and let the wind in!
The job was quieter as the civilian police deal with most crimes and my time was spent on exercise, patrolling the city to help the civilian police and dealing with incidents that were in contravention of military law. Mostly dealing with soldiers who were AWOL (Absent With Out Leave).
During my time in the Army I fell in love with sailing and managed to take several amazing trips. One was taking a 55ft yacht from Gosport to Lisbon where there was an International gathering of yachts and ships of all shapes and sizes It was during this trip that we got caught in one of the notorious storms in the Bay of Biscay, where at night the winds registered a Force 10 gale (a hurricane is Force 12) and we almost capsized, though we were lucky and the boat up-righted itself. My last sailing trip was a leisurely sail around the Windward Isles of the Caribbean – no dramas that time!
How do you think serving in the forces changes you as a person?
Though I had good experiences, such as those I have described, there were of course some dark times. However, I was always self-reliant as a child and the army reinforced that, and it gave me the mind set of pushing through even when I have wanted to give up. I have superb emotional resilience, though this is both a blessing and a curse.
What would be your message to older people who served in WWII?
Residents in our homes will have experienced conflict as far back as WWII, though also the Korean War, Aden, Palestine, Cyprus, Kenya, Malaya, Northern Ireland, and The Falklands as all these were 40+ years ago. All of these would have been a personal experience for those who served and supported, even if they were in the same Regiment/Unit. Some of our residents will be children of/ brothers and sisters of/ spouses of veterans. Some may be civilians who contributed to the war effort. My message to all of them is thank you. Purely and simply. It is not easy to describe to anyone who has not been involved in military service in some way. These two words say so much.
How do you think your experience in the forces has helped you in your working life (particularly in the care industry?)
Most of my working life since leaving the army has been in a support role – I have been a youth worker, community worker, homeless support worker and carer. In the army we support our colleagues as we are really close, helping each other through thick and thin, and this means I am driven to help people live the best lives they can.
You never leave the army family. Most of my best friends are from my army days and even though I have lost touch with many ex-colleagues over the years if I reached out and vice versa, for help of any kind it would be given. When I meet someone who I am supporting through my work who has been in service or have a spouse/family member who has passed on, we connect through our mutual experience and understanding.
It is a very special feeling to be allowed into that person’s life and a very cathartic experience for them to be able to talk about their past and memories. Of course, some people can never talk of their experiences for personal reasons and that is ok. Sometimes, just knowing someone understands is enough.