Do British Female Service Personnel Have a Voice?

30/09/2015 15:12 BST | Updated 29/09/2016 10:12 BST

Nicola De Maine has no previous experience of writing for publication. She recently joined the BATTLE LINES New Writing Programme run by Raise Dark Theatre Company to learn the skills to write a short play.

Since being medically discharged from the Royal Navy in 2011 I haven't really been able to move on, a feeling I know a lot of ex-service personnel will empathise with. When I joined the navy aged nineteen, the military became my world. I was dunked (quite literally at times) into the sea and baptised in the name of Her Majesty. From then on I was judged by rules slightly different from the rest of society. My choice of hairstyle was no longer my own and my voice no longer free to question those in command.

It has taken me over four years to rediscover my voice but it is still a whisper. I joined BATTLE LINES because I wanted to gain the confidence to project that voice without ending up screaming and shouting in frustration.

My experience in the military was different from the majority of service personnel. I spent most of my seven and a half years in the UK never experiencing front-line combat and crucially, I am a woman.

Given my lack of operational experience, you might think it odd that I have decided to write my very first play about the concept of a 'hero'.

Popular culture tells us that a hero is a brave warrior who fights for what is right. A military hero is usually someone who has been under enemy fire and risked their own life to save the lives of others. Essentially, a 'hero' is a masculine concept. This is why it interests me.

That's not to say that the label 'hero' is not applied to women - it is- but the action the woman has to take in order to be deemed a hero must be masculine in nature. Let's face it. When did you last hear women like Mother Teresa or Florence Nightingale hailed as heroes? And the word 'heroine'? You can only be bestowed with this if you satisfy the criteria for being a hero and look sexy. Think Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. But for me the word 'hero' isn't just a feminist issue. It is also a personal one.

There is a tendency in today's society to automatically brand all of the people in our armed forces as 'heroes'. The number of charities for forces and ex-forces personnel with the word 'hero' in the title keeps growing but the only requirement to access support from these organisations ranges from simply having spent a day in the military to having ascertained an injury during service. There is no 'hero' test. Given that generally speaking, current and ex-military personnel do not like the word 'hero' being applied to them and will noticeably cringe if you mention it, why do we insist on continuing to label them as such?

During my time in the military I met some great people who will remain my life-long friends. However, I also met some people who I wouldn't trust to look after my purse, let alone my life. As a female, I experienced conflict not with the enemy, but with the men I worked alongside. A day would rarely pass without someone commenting on my sex life, the way I looked, how I spoke or how much I weighed. I'm sure some of the men I worked with thought I existed purely for their entertainment. I had commanding officers try to kiss me, hands caress my thigh under the table during mess dinners, my entire draw of underwear stolen and senior officers claim it was pointless me training as a pilot because I was just going to have babies.

"That's just banter!" I hear you say. And you might be right. After all, with the likes of James Bond to look up to and his womanising ways, for many people this sort of behaviour is just 'being a lad'. But it goes further. As well as experiencing sexual harassment, I observed racial prejudice and homophobia. All of the intolerances that exist in wider society exist in the military and are often amplified due to the high stress environment.

But back to the concept of a 'hero.' Without wanting to get too dark, my point is that people in the military, like people in the rest of society, are capable of both good and evil. Regardless of whether or not a soldier saves his oppo out in the gulf, I am not going to call him a hero if the day before he persisted with unwelcome advances towards his female comrade.

Perhaps the solution is to label acts as heroic rather than the person, acknowledging that someone can act in a heroic way whilst allowing them a gentle fall from grace in the future rather than a hefty thump onto the concrete (because a fall is inevitable - we are human after all). We also need to question the acts we think of as heroic and put them into context so we are careful about what we celebrate. When we celebrate people who have killed other people (regardless of us deeming them the 'enemy') we celebrate the act of killing. If we continue to associate heroism with violence and other typically masculine traits then those are the traits that become aspirational. If we continue to call military personnel heroes, then the military will continue to attract people who embody or aspire to these masculine ideals.

'But that's great!' I hear you cry. 'Our military needs to be a rough, tough, fighting machine.'

The things is, with modern warfare continually changing and becoming more complex as technology develops, we need a military that is diverse and represents the whole of our society. If we can't resolve the conflict within our own military then how can we expect to resolve the conflict outside?

Questions like this need to be asked. We need to have an open dialogue about the behaviour within our Armed Forces and the treatment of individuals once they leave (but that's another story). This is why I'm excited about BATTLE LINES and other initiatives that give individuals like me a voice.

Readings of the BATTLE LINES writers' plays will be shared after performances of THE SWEETHERTS, at the Finborough Theatre on 14 and 15 October 2015. This new play marks the first anniversary of the departure of British Troops from Afghanistan after a thirteen year campaign. More information and tickets are available here: