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In Conversation With Michelle Partington

2018 Special Award winner and overall Woman of the Year, Michelle Partington tells us about her journey from joining the Royal Air Force, to battling Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and winning the Woman of the Year Award last November.

2018 ended very well for me. Winning the Woman of the Year Award at the Women in Defence Awards was a truly humbling experience. I ended the year feeling confident; I do in fact have what it takes to do exactly what I set my mind to.

I joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1991, a very naive, under confident individual. I was like a rabbit in headlights, not sure what I had done joining up. I was soon to realise that it was the best thing I ever did for myself, both on a personal and professional level.

Whilst I worked hard physically, my greatest battle was most definitely mentally. I had been told many, many times throughout my life that I “wouldn't be good enough” and that I should “know my place.” That mindset is very hard to break down and move beyond. I was told this by just a small number of naïve, ignorant or narcissistic individuals. Imagine that tenfold from a stereotypical societal view; that's a heck of a battle to win.

During my career I was very lucky not to experience too much gender bias. One moment however sticks in my mind. I volunteered to take up a paramedic role with the RAF Regiment in Afghanistan. This was a new role and at the time of applying was occupied by a male paramedic in theatre. Questions were raised at that point as to whether my application should be accepted.

“Will a female be able to keep up on foot patrols?”

“Will they require a separate admin area?”

“Will the men be distracted by having a female on tour with them?”

I stood my ground and eventually, I was allowed to go. This was the making of me! I fully immersed myself in the tour and my gender was most definitely not under question at any time. I proved that it matters not what 'tackle' you carry but whether you have the tenacity and the will carry out the role. Its what's in your head and heart that counts.

Following two tours of Afghanistan with the Medical Emergency Response Team, I was diagnosed with complex – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I was medically discharged from the RAF. It was very difficult to source the help I needed, battling alongside views that PTSD is predominantly a "male soldiers’ condition". Yes, that was actually said to me! Since then, I have set up Behind the Mask, a foundation providing free online support to others battling mental illness.

I was immensely honoured to have been nominated for two Women in Defence UK Awards. Winning the Special award and the overall Woman of the Year 2018 award, not only rounded off a fantastic year for me but also gave me the final chapter of my military career, a positive ending. I hope to work closely with Women in Defence as well as the wider community in promoting equality, inclusion and diversity in all elements of life. We all matter, and we all have the ability; we all deserve the right to be heard and I for one will stand firm and shout loud and proud!

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