HIGHS AND LOWS OF CHINOOK GIRL

There are only so many dead and injured bodies one can retrieve from the battlefield before the mind buckles under the weight of the horrors it is witnessing. Her struggle to carry that emotional burden has led former RAF Chinook Fleet ‘crewman’ Liz McConaghy to write a gripping account of her 17 years in the forces, completing two deployments in Iraq and 10 in Afghanistan.

Entitled Chinook Crew ‘Chick’, the book was initially written by Liz as a way of processing the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms she experienced after she left the RAF and the world went into Covid lockdown. Born and bred in Newtownards where her parents still live, Liz joined the RAF on her 19th birthday, training at Cranwell before undertaking her first deployment to Iraq. For the next 17 years she was in and out of war zones, most of her deployments taking her to Helmand Province where she worked on Chinook helicopters, transporting equipment and troops.

Her most challenging but rewarding role was serving as part of a flying ambulance crew, rescuing injured troops along the Helmand Valley. Liz became so inured to the task that she thought nothing of it when she was handed the bagged-up foot of an American soldier to transport back to base. Having witnessed PTSD in many of her colleagues, Liz thought she had had a lucky escape when she left the RAF in 2019. “I remember leaving and thinking, ‘I’ve got out alive and I feel like I’m relatively well put together. I’ve managed to dodge a bullet, I’m okay’,” she says. “I had seen a lot of friends develop PTSD and I remember thinking, ‘wow, how have I not been affected by this’?” 2019 was, says Liz, ‘a pretty good year’ – she had left the forces and life felt good. Any potential problems were kept at bay through coping strategies that worked well for her – going to the gym, running and spending time with friends. “Then Boris [Prime Minister Johnson] locked us down,” she says. Suddenly all her coping mechanisms were taken away from her and Liz found herself with the time and opportunity to think about her experiences. “I had just got divorced as well which probably didn’t help,” she says. “My other half throughout those years had been in the army so we had been able to bounce off each other a little bit.”

Liz adds, “Slowly as the months went on in 2020 I developed insomnia, lost all my routine and found myself looking up on Google some of the soldiers I’d picked up in Afghanistan who had been killed and piecing that together. “That was a really detrimental exercise, which I knew at the time. I remember thinking this wasn’t healthy. “I didn’t tell anyone and it snowballed from there and eventually we got to August 2020 and I took a huge overdose.” That overdose consisted of Liz taking 95 pills and though she has no memory of it she later learned that she had called herself an ambulance at 1 o’clock in the morning. “There must have been some fighting spirit left inside me. I spoke to the ambulance crew about a month later to thank them and they said if I hadn’t lived next to the hospital I probably wouldn’t have made it, so it was a pretty close call,” she says.

Liz was offered counselling and quickly realised, she says, that, “I had a mountain to climb in terms of trying to put my brain back together and put all those files which I had [metaphorically] thrown over the floor back into my brain and file them properly. “I allowed myself to feel sorrow and sadness at the amount of death and trauma, torsos and limbs that we had seen over the years. That was important and I eventually got through it.”

As part of that recovery process Liz began to write down her experiences. “It was a cathartic thing to get the thoughts out of my head, it was never meant to be published,” she says. “I sent it to a mate who said it was brilliant and that I should send it to a publisher. I did and two years later its been published – seemingly my story has resonated.” Despite the toll her career took on her, Liz says that if she was granted one wish she would choose to go back and do it all again.

Back in her schooldays at Regent House there was, however, little inkling of the career path that lay ahead. Given the option of joining the school’s cadet force or playing hockey, she chose the latter. However, a new horizon dawned when Liz’s brother joined the army and she went along with him to Palace Barracks in Holywood when he was sitting his entrance test.

Liz explains: “There was a magazine on the table with a picture of a guy hanging outside of a helicopter. “I asked a guy in the office what this job was, it looked amazing, and he said helicopter crewman. I thought it was the coolest job ever.” Liz then passed her own interview at Palace Barracks, before beginning training at Cranwell at the age of 19, one of a small handful of women to do so. “I never looked back,” she says. “There were three girls on my training and when I eventually got onto Chinooks, which was about a year later, I was the only female. “I wasn’t the first female on Chinooks, there were some who had gone before me, but they had left and I was the only one for four years.” She laughs that as the only woman she didn’t get away with much. “If you parked badly on camp or if you were out at the bar too late, they would say ‘oh that’s that female crewman’,” she says. “Other than that it was really good.

All the lads really looked after me and the good thing about the forces is that everyone wants you to succeed and it’s a really great team. “I was never made to feel like a weaker or lesser individual for being a female, quite the opposite really, the lads would rally round and look after me. I essentially ended up with about 60 big brothers.” She explains that she did not fly Chinooks, that her role as crewman means she worked at the back of the aircraft with responsibility for everything stored inside and underneath the helicopter.

She explains: “The main difference between a Chinook versus a Puma or a Merlin helicopter is that a Chinook is huge, so inside a Chinook you can fit two landrovers or a trailer, you can fit 40 troops and basically anything that can fit over the ramp can go inside. “Our job as crewmen is to make all that fit and also to make sure of the weight balance of the aircraft. “Anything that can’t go inside goes underneath and with the Chinook we have three hooks so we can put three things underneath the aircraft at one time, such as landrovers that the troops are using or the big guns the artillery use. Most other helicopters have only got one hook.”

So much of her career was spent in Afghanistan, she says, because the RAF’s Chinook force were there from the very start of the war until the end. “The Army do six month tours but we don’t do that long, we do three months at a time then come back to the UK for nine months and back out again. “It sounds like a lot but I’m not the only one who did a lot in the Chinook force,” she says. Throughout that time Liz performed three key roles on board the Chinooks. She elaborates: “One of the things is called routine tasking where we just move a lot of the troops and ammunition, rations from Camp Bastion into the operating bases that were up the Helmand valley where our troops were stationed. “We did another thing called Deliberate Ops – deliberate operations where we would go to a known Taliban stronghold and we would have 40 troops in the back of our aircraft and fly maybe three Chinooks and land in the middle of the night, get the guys out of the back and they would go and search for weapons or Taliban.

“The third thing we did was MERT, which was Medical Emergency Response Team, and that was the flying ambulance, so essentially going in to rescue our injured soldiers up and down the Helmand Valley. “That was the best and worst bit in terms of it is the biggest honour to be part of that but it had its good days and its bad days. “I’ve seen troops in Iraq who had already been killed and come back to life in the back of the Chinook by the grace of the medics. But I have also seen lots of troops take their last breath.” It was the drip-drip effect of these traumatic experiences, she says, that led to her developing PTSD. “I never really had flashbacks or anything like that or loud bangs making me jump off my chair. It was a very slow kind of black cloud that arrived on me,” she says. “I had gone from having so much purpose to then suddenly feeling like I had no purpose. That was the undoing of me. “On my worst day on MERT I had 14 shouts in one day, so it was back-to-back casualties being brought in and out of Camp Bastion. “Then another day I had to go and pick up five guys who had been killed and they all got brought on, on stretchers onto the back of the aircraft. “That’s really hard to watch when it’s your colleagues and it’s a very tight knit bunch of soldiers and to lose five of their mates in one sitting. “They had to carry the stretchers over the ramp and go back into battle. Each of the stretchers came over the ramp and each had a flag over the body and that was really hard to watch. “I never really dealt with each of those things individually. We would land and I’d either go to the gym, go for a run or I was a bit like a mum or big sister asking the lads how they were dealing with it. “I think I tried a little bit too hard to look after everybody else instead of looking inwards to look after myself.”

Even with the benefit of hindsight, though, Liz does not see how she could have done things differently. “The thing is you’ve got a job to do and I have absolutely no regrets, I’d go back and do it again,” she says, “You can’t overthink these things because you know the next day you’re going to have to go back and do the same, and the next day after that and the next year after that. “If I had crumbled at any point throughout my RAF career then someone else has got to go and do my job for me and that then puts my trauma onto someone else and someone else is at risk of getting shot at or whatever.” In the end, she says, she coped by growing a very thick skin. “I remember on my last MERT shout in Afghanistan we picked up an American who had been killed and I got handed his foot in a clear plastic bag. “I set it at my feet on the back of the aircraft and the fact that that was like the most normal thing in the world shows how desensitised I was to it by then. It was just another thing to stick on the floor of the Chinook,” she says.

Though she experienced her fair share of such horrors, Liz says that war can actually be ‘quite mundane’. She elaborates, “A lot of it is just eat, sleep, fly, repeat because you’re kind of doing the same thing every day. “ She says that amongst the British forces there was a tremendous sense of camaraderie, living in tents in the field. “You’re there with your best mates and you’re in it together. It’s a privilege to be part of it. Though she has made a good recovery Liz says she and many of her Forces’ colleagues struggled to come to terms with Afghanistan returning to Taliban hands in August 2021. “We spoke about it a lot, asking was it worth it,” she says. “I think we all agreed that if we gave one young Afghan girl the chance to grow up and have a voice and maybe go to university and get out of the country, then it was worth it. “Or if we gave one Afghan boy the chance to fly a kite in the street and to have friends then it was worth it because those were the kind of things that the Taliban suppressed. “I do think the British Forces absolutely made a difference. It would be easy to wash it all away and say it was for nothing but it wasn’t, we made a difference.”

Following her years in the RAF Liz found new purpose in her life, initially working for a disabled flying charity. She explains: “They teach disabled people how to fly but as part of that they get scholarships for wounded soldiers and some of the people I picked up in Afghanistan, they had them as pilots. “It was a lovely way to find a new purpose, watching some of the guys I collected off the battlefield getting in an aircraft and going flying. Some of these guys have no legs or one arm, but they’ve adapted the aircraft so they can fly anyone with a disability.” Liz continues to support the charity’s events but now works for a drone company which delivers packages of chemotherapy to the NHS.

She continues to live close to her old RAF base in England and she laughs that she still ‘runs to the window like a five-year-old’ when a Chinook flies over. She is hoping to use the publication of Chinook Crew ‘Chick’ as a welcome excuse to return to her old school, Regent House, in the new year to do a talk with the cadets along with a book signing. It’s clear it would mean a lot to her given that the highlight of her career, she says, came in 2004 when she was in Northern Ireland doing some routine tasking and was given permission to take the Chinook to the rugby pitches at Regent House.

She recalls: “We took the kids from Regent around the aircraft. My little brother was still at Regent at the time and he brought all his class round and it was really amazing. “The Model Primary School brought all the kids down as well and it was great to have that age range. “You don’t necessarily have to go to university and get a degree to have an amazing career and I think that was a really important message I took to the school that day. “I did A levels but didn’t go on to do a degree but I had the most fantastic career with the most amazing adventures.

Obviously I had my hiccup in 2020 but I’d still go back and do it all again. “If I could have anything in life – all the money or eternal life – I’d ask for a rewind button and go back to being 19, joining up and doing it all again. “It was a great career and I always say to any kid to look at the forces for a career. It’s so diverse, you will make so many friends and I have been all around the world and seen so many things. You don’t have to be a pilot in order to fly.” Chinook Crew ‘Chick’ was released on September 30 and Amazon sold out of it in the first week, though it can still be ordered from publishers Pen and Sword.