Louise is the founder of Little Troopers, a charity that supports children in military families. When she gave birth to her daughter in 2003, Louise was a serving soldier of the British Army, in Germany, with her husband deployed as a front-line soldier in Iraq. She has kindly agreed to share her story, which also featured on ‘Breaking Mum and Dad’ podcast (Links below).
Everyone always asks me why I joined the army, and I don’t really know. I grew up in Salisbury, which is quite a military town. I was intrigued by the army and it kind of snowballed. Before I knew it, I was sat with my unit in Germany deploying to Kosovo. With the experiences I had, the places I saw and ultimately meeting my husband and having my daughter, it was the best thing I ever did. It was amazing!
The reality of being part of a military family though is something that is well hidden. We move a lot; every couple of years. We have lived in Germany, in Cyprus and all over the UK. We have to deal with elongated periods of separation during deployments, and dispersed between all of that are exercises and courses. It involves really long periods apart and lots of moving. There are so many complexities to military life!
In terms of moving as a family, you are more often than not, just told. You just have to go here and this is the date that you have to go. There’s not a lot of choice involved. I chose to join the army when I was a teenager and my husband chose to join the army when he was a teenager. I guess that is where the choice is born.
I was pregnant during the Iraq war and I was still a soldier. There was no contact between my husband and I at all. I was twenty years old, pregnant and living in Germany. My husband was in a war zone and you only knew if something had happened if you watched the news. It was absolutely emotionally exhausting!
When you’re pregnant and serving in the military, it is no different to any other job. My daughter is almost seventeen, so times have changed but back then I only got 14 weeks maternity leave so I went back to work when she was 9 weeks old. You let the army know your intention to still serve as a soldier and you carry on with light duties. As soon as you’re pregnant you don’t do any of the fitness or anything like that. It was sort of situation normal when I was pregnant and I was still a serving soldier. I was having to wear my combats, just with a growing bump and doing my boot laces up became increasingly difficult!
I lived in Germany during my pregnancy so I was away from family and I did feel a bit isolated with my husband away on deployment. I turned 21 when I was pregnant and I remember my mum came out for my 21st birthday. I was huge and we sat watching the news of Iraq. Some of the difficulties were attributed to the military life we lead, but not all of it. So many people have tricky pregnancies but I guess I had additional hurdles thrown in the way. It was like I was holding my breath for six months. Deployment has been a theme throughout my life and I think you do get bruised by it; the fear and the heartache. People were dying, it was war and it was scary. It was just lucky if it wasn’t you.
I was very poorly during the pregnancy and my husband was on deployment in Iraq. I remember being sat in an office, being sick out of a window. I had ridiculous sickness and was admitted and on a drip over Christmas because I couldn’t keep anything in and then at the end I had pre-eclampsia. I was off work because I was very poorly and I was under extreme stress.
I had a traumatic pregnancy but my birth was actually ok. I always laugh at my pregnancy as it was slightly strange. I was in a German hospital as I was living in Germany. There was a medical centre for British armed forces and their families on the base. The army sent English midwives over to look after you but they weren’t allowed to practise in the German hospitals so as soon as you went into labour you were handed over to the German system. There is a huge language barrier and gas and air wasn’t available. I was induced five days late because I had pre-eclampsia. It was roasting hot, and there was no pain relief. I remember the midwife gave me a pillow of cherry pips which she was trying to instruct me to put on the back of my neck because apparently they are calming.
I remember them doing things differently. You were in hospital for five days for a natural birth and ten days for a caesarean and the staff take the baby off you so can sleep. They fed my baby strange tea from this little bottle and I didn’t know what it was. It was very bizarre, a very different birth. They don’t have the same model of health service as the NHS so the hospital had three person rooms and you had your own on suite.
As I was so poorly my husband was sent home from deployment. He was home for four or five days before I gave birth and he deployed back to Iraq when she was six weeks old and I went back to work as a soldier when she was 9 weeks old.
In terms of support, the problem was that I was a military wife but I was also a serving soldier, so I wasn’t in that network. All my friends were in Iraq with my husband so it was difficult. There were a few absolute guardian angels who aren’t in my life now. They were officer’s wives, older ladies, who took me under their wing. I remember having a panic attack and my husband’s commanding officers wife came to my house and just hugged me. I was in Germany, my mum wasn’t around, I had a newborn, I was 21, my husband was in a war zone, I just couldn’t process it all. She just sat with me and hugged me and brought a bag of sweets and just sat in my flat. What a gem. She completely shaped my life at that moment in time.
Advice I would give to women giving birth abroad
It’s such a unique thing but there will be other women out there in the military community and beyond having to give birth overseas and in some part it is the most lovely memory because they did a lot of things right and the healthcare system is private in Germany so the care was fantastic for me and my baby but it was overwhelming and the language was a barrier. I was young…if I had to do it all again I think I would do a bit more research and prepare myself. I was a young soldier who had no idea. I haven’t gone on to have any more children as I was so poorly in my first pregnancy I was advised not to so have nothing else to compare it to.
Little Troopers: (https://www.littletroopers.net/)
Louise’s ‘Breaking Mum and Dad’ interview: