Leading from the front on tour in Lebanon
‘I think females and males are equally as professional and equally as competent’
When asked if the men she leads have had any problems taking orders and direction from a woman who is also younger than many of them, she laughs. “I knew this question would come up. I think females and males are equally as professional and equally as competent, so, as far as I can see, there are definitely no issues.”
There are almost 600 women serving in the 9,500-strong Defence Forces; 18 of them among the 339 Irish troops in Lebanon. The forces were opened to women for the first time as recently as 1980.
While still few in number, the women who spoke to The Irish Times this week in Lebanon believe their career prospects are in no way influenced by gender.
For Cpl Claire O’Connell (29), the blow of being away from home for six months is softened by being on the same tour as fiance Sgt Declan Costello (38). They are both based in Collins Barracks in Cork and are currently part of the mortar platoon survey section in Lebanon.
“If the mortars have to deploy then they need a survey section to give them bearings and angles where the mortars are to aim and fire if, God forbid, we were targeted,” says O’Connell.
She is also a commander of a Mowag armoured personnel carrier used by the Defence Forces to conduct security patrols on all UN missions. The couple – who are together four years – are due to marry on December 30th having met in the Army. However, despite their long-term relationship, they do not serve side by side abroad and do not live in the same quarters.
“We kept it very quiet within the Defence Forces,” O’Connell says of the early days of her relationship with Costello. “We wanted to make sure it was steady and going somewhere because you would get the speculation and jokes [from colleagues].
“This is our fourth mission overseas together, but we don’t share a room or anything. When we volunteered we knew the policies for overseas; you know what is ahead of you. So you’re willing to make sacrifices. You have to respect the fact that other people have wives and husbands and they are at home.”
Cpl Gemma O’Connor is another woman from Collins Barracks in Cork currently serving with Unifil. She was promoted to corporal five years ago and one of her main duties is to assist in training new recruits. On this tour she has worked in an administrative capacity for a company of 108 Irish personnel and has also been part of the patrols the Irish conduct to shore up security and assist the Lebanese armed forces increase their capacity, as per Unifil’s mandate. This is her first trip to Lebanon, but she has been posted to Liberia and Chad previously where she was sometimes part of long-range security patrols lasting up to seven days and reaching into volatile regions.
“Things might be quiet, but it can become hostile on a whim,” she says of the work. “When you come over first and you’re patrolling you very much have your wits about you. And then, as you go on, you try not to let complacency to set it, especially at this time when you’re close to going home.