Q+A #2: Francesca Burrows

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Dafydd Jones August 24, 2021

Author: Dafydd Jones

In the second instalment of our Q+A series, we spoke to Call of the Wild’s Francesca Burrows!

A truly inspiring figure, Francesca speaks about her time in the military, the mental health stigma and the being recognised with awards.

In 2008, you spent seven months in Iraq as a Combat Medic. What did that entail?

In terms of an outlook on how the day would run, I was in an ambulance crew, you’d have three different crews. You’d have a five-minute crew, a fifteen-minute crew and a standby. The five-minute crew, their job is to immediately respond to any incident that happens on camp. The fifteen-minute crew is there for backup, and you’ve then got standby. Most of the time, the five and fifteen minute crew would get crashed out at the same time. You’re constantly on the go and by the time you come back in, replenish your ambulance and clean yourself up, you’d get called out again. It was 24 hours a day. There were no shifts. It’s all day, every day. When you go onto standby crew, that’s the only time when you can get a bit of sleep. In between all that, you’d get asked to go out on patrol, you’d go out for about ten days at a time, where you’re attached to the infantry. They’d need a medic, so you’d go out with them, come back and straight back into either five-minute or fifteen-minute crew. That was the routine for seven months.

For you personally, how did you find the experience?

I love helping people, so it was very rewarding. Thankfully, to date, I’ve never had a casualty die. The job satisfaction is something that I can’t put into words. Physically keeping someone alive is incredibly empowering and fulfilling. I loved it. My first casualty was pretty bad, you almost wouldn’t think it was real. I remember phoning my mum looking for a bit of sympathy and she told me to suck it up and get on with it! To this day, it was the best advice I’ve ever had. Once that difficult period was over, it was plain-sailing. The day got very predictable, you knew you’d be busy. It was someone’s job to keep statistics and we had about eight life-critical casualties a day. That over seven months was quite busy!

You spent five months in Afghanistan, how did that experience compare?

It was completely different. My job in Iraq, I was very much a medic 24 hours a day, but in Afghanistan, I was more of a soldier. I had my medical role as well, but it was two patrols a day on foot. In Iraq, there was a feeling that they wanted you there, but in Afghanistan, I didn’t get that at all. There was a lot of reluctance to take help. There were a few cases of people needing to go to hospital and be treated, but we weren’t let near them. They were two completely different experiences and the roles were different. Although the medical instances were less in Afghanistan, when something went wrong, it really went wrong.

In terms of your role changing. Was that something that happened often and was it by choice?

You just adapted to the environment. I was always a medic and I went out there as a medic, but before you train in your trade, you’re always a soldier first. A lot of people ask if I get a weapon and we do. You’re training at first is turning you from a civilian into a soldier. Only after that do you specialise in your job. It’s not by choice, it’s just how it goes with the country and the demand at the time.

In 2010, you received the DZ Award for Bravery. How did that come about?

The DZ award is given once a year to a medic. It’s named after Ella Delagough, she was a friend of mine who died in Iraq. After her passing, they came up with this award to give medics some recognition. In Afghanistan, we went out on a vehicle patrol and on our way back in. The vehicle that I was in was hit by a roadside bomb. We went thirty feet up in the air and thirty feet across. When that happened, I woke up to the sound of Palmer screaming. All the boys were thrown from the vehicle and I was stuck inside. I couldn’t get access to my medical equipment, but I hold some on my body armour. Luckily, I had enough to get us back to camp. We got them back to our patrol base. Unfortunately, because it was such a busy tour, we couldn’t get the helicopter to come over to us for seven hours, so it was a case of keeping them alive until then. Eventually, we got back to hospital and to this day, all the boys are fine. I got awarded the DZ award for that, which means you get a big write-up, you get a parade and get given this big plaque. It’s all very fancy and a lot of pressure!

How much does that ‘other people first’ attitude epitomise the role of a medic?

It’s standard. When you go for your training, if you’re not in the mindset of putting other people first, by the end of the training, you will be. It’s very natural, it’s not something that needs to be worked on. I didn’t realise that I was bleeding until somebody told me. There was one moment where all the boys were stabilised, Palmer was on a stretcher, we were all safe and I took myself around the corner and had my cry. I couldn’t believe what had happened. Then, you come back around the corner and you’re a medic again. That was my job. I was there to keep them alive. Putting other people first comes naturally with the job. It’s a mindset, not really a skill.

You were also nominated for the Rising Star award, how much does that recognition mean?

I left the military after my twelve years and came to Call of the Wild. The transition takes a long time. When I came here, I still had a military ethos, it never leaves. It was nice that somebody had identified that I was doing well, so they put me forward for the award. It was really nice, but I didn’t know what I had done to achieve it, but to go and get runner-up was nice considering I had been out for six months.

You’re still involved in the military with mental healthcare and motivational speaking, how important is that?

It was still important that I fulfil this need to help people. With mental health, I’ve seen the good, bad and the ugly. I’ve seen people come through it and I’ve been on both sides of the table, where I’ve spoken to people struggling and have been the one struggling myself. The reason I don’t have PTSD after everything I’ve seen boils down to one thing, it’s that the minute something happens, I’ve spoken about it. It’s both the easiest and the hardest thing to do. Teaching mental health and being involved in that, I’m so passionate about it, because I really believe that if you catch it early, you can do something about it.

From when you first started in the military, is there more attention now being put on mental health?

I certainly found when I joined the military, talking about thoughts and feelings and displaying those was something that you didn’t do. Unfortunately, that’s how it was. Back then, there was an element that you had to be a tough cookie, get on with it and worry about your problems later or put them to one side. When you join the army, all your training is to be able to operate in a warzone. We cannot afford for the level of resilience to drop because of problems at home with family or partners. There has to be that cut-throat line of putting your problems to one side. I do still believe there needs to be an element of that. Thankfully, when I was leaving, it was becoming acceptable and normal to talk about things if you were struggling. In my last two years, I was attached to the First Battalion, the Welsh Guards, and it was great. They had their own nurse that specialised in mental health and had a chat with everyone. If the boys were having problems, they would talk about them. It was great to see it being normalised, because if it’s nipped in the bud, it doesn’t escalate. It has changed and definitely for the better.

You found it difficult to adapt after your time in the military. Is that something that’s quite common?

It definitely is. There’s no way you can be in that environment and adapt easily because it’s ingrained in you. You’re made a certain way and now you have to fit into a society where not everybody gets you and you’re around people that aren’t made like you. I think it’s very common to take time to adjust and struggle with it. But we have to be able to help ourselves. The military do put on a year resettlement programme. During that year, you go on courses, write your CV, you get a careers coach and you slowly make that adjustment. It’s definitely easier said than done!

What have you been doing since leaving the military?

Personally, I’ve eventually loved the adjustment because it’s nice to be in control of my day. What I’m doing now for Call of the Wild is we deliver compliance training and leadership and management courses. Everything we do is bespoke and it’s all about helping people and their needs. I’ve just finished my third year of a law degree through an open university, so I’ve got one more year of that. Other than keeping fit and enjoying travelling, that’s pretty much my 24 hours gone!

You were a medic at the Queen’s birthday in 2015. How was that experience?

The build-up to that day was crazy. We rehearsed for six weeks before that day took place. By the time it comes around, you’re so tired. On the day of her birthday, that day in particular, we rehearsed at midnight, 1am, 3am and 6am, so by the time the Queen walks around at 11.20am, you’re so tired! On the day as well, you’re so wired and prepared, constantly observing the crowd, but a lot of the time, nothing happens. But it was great, we went back for the garden party and I got to invite my mum, she loves the royal family. I begged her not to embarrass me! It was a really good day.

 (Featured Image: Call of the Wild)