Updated: Dec 19, 2019
On Wednesday 6 November, Women in Defence UK welcomed Michelle Partington, Woman of the Year 2018, for a networking and briefing event.
The evening began with Helen Birchall of DXC Technology, the sponsor to the event, brilliantly welcoming Michelle by highlighting her remarkable journey from joining the Royal Air Force (RAF) to her battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Stepping into the spotlight, Michelle thanked Helen before beginning to tell her inspiring and remarkable story with the humour and authenticity that few public speakers are able to.
In 1991, Michelle joined the RAF and went on to have a diverse and interesting career, largely void of gender bias. That is except on one occasion when Michelle volunteered to take up a paramedic role with the RAF Regiment in Afghanistan. At the time of applying, the role was occupied by a male paramedic on the ground leading to questions being raised as to whether her application should be accepted. However, after refusing to back down, she was allowed to go. Diving straight in and always being in the middle of the group, she went onto to exceed her own and her male peers’ expectations. In her words, she proved that “it’s not what is down there that counts, it’s what’s up top”.
A second tour followed shortly afterwards. The quick turnaround was the critical juncture. She explained that she had not had access to any process that would have helped her to return her body and mind to the civilian world. That meant when she was asked to redeploy, she knew she wasn’t in a fit state but went ahead anyway. Poignantly, she admitted “as the leader of the paramedic group, I didn’t want to duck out and show weakness. But I now realise, it takes a bigger leader to say, wait I am struggling”.
On her return, suffering with PTSD, Michelle was assigned an office job in barracks and prescribed tablets to help with her illness. One quote from Michelle sticks out at this point capturing the mental trauma she suffered while in Afghanistan. Her role had been to save soldiers injured at the point of impact. On many occasions when her team arrived, soldiers would scream at her, “’don’t save me. Don’t leave me like this’. We would save them and live with the guilt”.
For the next few years, Michelle continued to battle PSTD. Eventually, on the third time of asking, she applied to the Invictus Games. Finally, she had direction again, taking on rowing, “you just sit down, right?”, and weight-lifting, “you just lie down”, and even came close to winning a medal. The Invictus Games changed Michelle’s way of thinking and turned her life around. In short order afterwards, she set up Behind the Mask, a foundation providing free online support to others battling mental illness.
Closely following this was her success at the Women in Defence Awards 2018, where she won the Special Award and Woman of the Year 2018. For Michelle, this achievement was the final piece in the jigsaw. While she still has bad days, “winning was like closure for my military career” and helped her to regain her confidence, confidence that was in full voice at the event at 10 Bressenden Place on Wednesday 6 November.
Read Michelle’s interview after winning Women of the Year 2018 and if you have a chance to hear her speak, grab it! You can also follow Michelle on Twitter.