IT’S NONE OF my business whether women should be allowed to fight on the front line.
As far as I can see, the only people who have the right to make that sort of decision are those charged with ensuring the effectiveness and morale of the Army, and if they’re sure that it wouldn’t jeopardise the lives of other soldiers then that’s good enough for me.
John Nichol was on Radio 4 this morning arguing quite vociferously that it is a good thing, and he cited RAMC medic Michelle Norris as an example of the effectiveness of female soldiers under fire.
In 2006, Pte Norris became the first woman to win a Military Cross for her actions in Iraq, when – under heavy fire – she leapt onto an armoured vehicle to treat a colour sergeant who had been shot in the face. She saved his life.
I interviewed Michelle for In Foreign Fields. It wasn’t the easiest interview – she was still a very young woman and didn’t enjoy talking about herself at all – but we felt it was important to include her in the book. Here’s her chapter:
WHEN British forces first went into Iraq, Michelle Norris was a schoolgirl. Just three short years later, she was sitting in the back of a Warrior armoured vehicle at the centre of one of the biggest battles British troops fought in Iraq.
It was June 11, 2006, and she and her colleagues were engaged in a night-time search operation aimed at arresting key Mahdi Army figures and seizing their weapons and ammunition. It had erupted into full-on war fighting, with hundreds of enemy fighters surrounding the British troops.
A few hundred metres away, Jim Harkess was engaged in one of the actions which would see him awarded the CGC, and many other soldiers were fighting hard.
During the heaviest of the fighting, CSgt Ian Page, the commander of her Warrior, was shot in the face and seriously injured.
Pte Norris was just nineteen years of age, and only recently out of basic training.
But without hesitation, she dismounted and climbed onto the top of the vehicle to administer life-saving first aid, while under sniper fire and with heavy small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade attacks continuing around her.
I joined the Army in November 2004, and went out to Iraq on TELIC 8 eighteen months later. I was eighteen at the time, and I’d wanted to join the Army since I was really little. I’d always been a bit of a tomboy – I like playing rugby, and I follow the Worcester Warriors – but I’m not from a Forces background. One of my uncles did his national service and then stayed on for a few years with the Royal Logistic Corps, that’s it – but I remember watching all the war films and documentaries with my dad and I guess it sprang from there. I joined the cadets when I was thirteen, and I really enjoyed that so I joined up after college.
When I was in the cadets, I developed an interest in the medical side of things. Both my parents worked at the local hospital, and my brother was in the Red Cross and the St John Ambulance, and I found I really enjoyed learning first aid. I progressed to teaching it as I got older, and found it was something that I was quite good at.
When you put the two together, I suppose it was inevitable that I’d joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, though my initial plan had been to go into the Royal Artillery.
My job is combat medical technician, which means dealing with casualties anywhere from immediately after they get hit – on the front line, if you want to call it that – to bringing them back to hospital or dealing with them once they are actually in the hospital. On any given operation I could be out with the troops or back at the hospital; on TELIC 8, I was a company medic out on the ground all of the time, whereas on my next tour I’ll be working in a hospital.
There were two medics, myself and a lance corporal, in our Warrior company – four Warriors in each platoon, three platoons to the Coy. We’d each travel out in different vehicles and the idea is that if someone gets shot we are on the scene to give whatever immediate treatment we can; the initial period, what we call the Golden Hour, is very important in surviving major trauma like gunshot wounds. As a medic, you might have to go to someone who has been injured and expose yourself where everyone else is taking cover. That is a scary thought, but we are trained to make sure the situation is as safe as possible before we move.
I went out to Iraq on April 12. I was with 1 Close Support, and in the January they had asked for volunteers to go out and I put my hand up. I thought, This is why I joined the Army, it’s an opportunity to see and do things I wouldn’t have otherwise. I had no idea what to expect. You see stuff on the telly, and you get your briefings and chat to guys who’ve already been out there, but I went out with a clear mind, determined to experience it for myself.
My first thoughts were how hot and dusty it was – a lot different from back home. And there was the cultural shock of seeing how other people live… the sounds of the praying from the mosques, the sights and smells. Very different.
On June 11, C Company 1 PWRR, to which Norris was attached, went out on a night-time search operation in Al Amarah. It turned into the largest and most intense battle in Iraq since 2004, a war-fighting engagement where the soldiers found themselves under very heavy, accurate and sustained attack from a well-organised Mahdi Army force of over two hundred.
We were going out to look for weapons caches after a series of recent attacks. I was obviously nervous before we went out; pretty much every time we went out we were shot at, and the anticipation of that isn’t nice. But it wasn’t as scary as it had been the first time; you just got more used to it, eventually. We were out all night and there were lots of contacts. Warriors were being shot at all over town, I could hear the reports coming in over the net and part of you is thinking, When are we going to get hit? You’re reasonably safe sat in the back of the vehicle with the dismount troops, protected by all the armour, certainly against small arms fire, that’s no problem at all; multiple RPG strikes or IEDs, that was what we were really concerned about.
We got through most of the operation without too many problems. But then, just as it was getting light-ish, it came over the net that we had to go to this particular place where there was a crowd gathering around another Warrior which had become bogged down in a ditch. So we set off, and as we got closer I started hearing things bouncing off the Warrior, little pings and dings. I thought it was just kids throwing stones, because that’s what it sounded like, but then I heard the turret getting hit, and that was clearly rounds. The turret is where the gun is, and the gunner and the commander.
Ian Page had taken a round to the face.
I shouted up, ‘Is everyone OK?’
There was no answer, but I could see movement – they had the hatches up, and there was some light coming in – so I thought nothing of it. I reached for a bottle of water, and the driver, Pte Nani Ratawake, shouted down to me that the vehicle commander, CSgt Ian Page, had been shot.
I got on really well with Pagey. He had his birthday while we were out there and I said, as a joke, ‘Blimey… you’re old enough to be my dad!’
He said, ‘You cheeky so-and-so!’ and ever since then we’d walk past each other and he’d say, ‘How are you then, daughter?’ and I’d say, ‘I’m alright dad, how are you?’
He was a nice man, very good to the younger soldiers, and if I wanted to talk about anything I could always go and talk to Ian. You don’t go to Iraq to make friends, you go to do a job, but sometimes it happens. You can’t help it – I just got on really well with him. So when I heard he’d been hit I was really concerned.
In the back of a Warrior there’s a cage around the turret mounting – the turret can traverse through 360 degrees and obviously you don’t want the soldiers in the back falling into the mechanism, or the guys in the turret getting their legs caught in it… hence the cage. You should be able to open it to get into and out of the turret, but it was jammed. I tried for a moment or two, but it wouldn’t open, so I shouted to Nani to stop. The only way I could get to Ian was to get out of the vehicle and up onto the top of it.
This was obviously an extremely dangerous action, and one which put her own life at immediate and serious risk.
The area was full of people, many of them armed, and the sniper who had shot CSgt Page saw her emerge from the vehicle.
As she clambered on top of it, he began trying to shoot her as well.
Despite this, she continued to administer first aid through the commander’s hatch, until the gunner pulled her into the turret for her own safety.
In addition to the sniper fire, heavy small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade attacks had continued around her, yet she deliberately ignored the danger to her own life in order to save CSgt Page.
I told the lads in the back to move out of the way to let me out. They opened the door for me, and I think one of them shouted to me, ‘Be careful.’ I jumped out.
From that moment on, it’s a bit of a blur.
I ran round to the side of the Warrior and climbed up on to the top, using the bar armour as a ladder. I stood over the turret and looked down. Pagey looked up at me, and I could see this massive hole in his face. There was blood everywhere, he was in a lot of pain and you could see the fright in his eyes.
He wasn’t speaking, I don’t think, but over the noise of the engine and the gunfire and the people I don’t know if I’d have heard him anyway. I shouted down through the turret to get one of the lads to chuck my med bag up while I was having a closer look at him.
He’d been standing up, with his head out of the turret and his rifle up, scanning his arcs for targets. A round had come in, hit the rifle, come through the other side and gone into his cheek. As it turned out, there was also an exit wound but I couldn’t see that for all the blood and tissue. I had to assume it might still be lodged inside his head, so that was another complication. If it had lodged in the back of his throat, say, it might obstruct his airway; if it had deflected upwards, it could have led to a brain injury. I just didn’t know.
I realised I wasn’t going to be able to do anything up there on top of the vehicle, so I told the lad with my med bag to get back down inside. Up to that point, it was strange, like time had accelerated.
I have no idea how long I was out there, but the OC said it was something like three or four minutes. If that’s right, it’s amazing – it didn’t feel anything like that. But then things started slowing down again, and I started hearing rounds cracking off right by my head. I thought, Maybe I’m getting shot at here? One of them hit the radio mounting a few inches away from me, and pretty much at that moment one of the lads pulled me down into the turret.
I slid down in with Ian. There was a lot of blood and I needed to get him into the back with the rest of the lads so I could treat him properly. I was thinking out loud, and I said to myself, ‘What do I do now?’
Pagey said, ‘Traverse the turret.’
Those were his only words – the rest was just mumbling, really. He was in a lot of pain.
I got the gunner to traverse it, the dismounts inside pulled the cage open and dragged both of us down through the turret into the back.
I applied a first field dressing to try to staunch the blood, and then had a think.
I couldn’t give him morphine for the pain, it’s not allowed with a head wound as it has effects on your breathing and blood pressure which can make things worse. So I checked his vital signs, his pulse, his respiration, his pupil dilation, the colour of his skin.
It wasn’t easy. There’s not a lot of light in the back of a Warrior – it can be pitch black at times, but there was some light coming in from one of the mortar hatches, which are used for top cover, and there’s a small red light inside which might have been on, too.
He looked OK, considering, but he was my first real casualty so I had nothing to compare it with. I’d never seen a gunshot wound like that before. I was crouched over him, talking to him all the time, trying to make sure he didn’t lose consciousness.
As long as someone is awake, you can get feedback to your questions. Where does it hurt? They can point. Is this helping? They can nod. They can squeeze your finger once for yes, twice for no, even if they can’t speak. He never lost consciousness, which was good. I felt that he needed fluids put into him, given the blood loss, so I told him that and he pulled away, which was a good, strong response. He’d understood me and knew he didn’t fancy a line being put into him.
While all this was going on, the driver was heading as quick as possible to the nearest HLS so we could evacuate Ian and get him to hospital. I have no idea how long it took us to get there, but the helicopter would have been airborne almost immediately and it was actually coming in to land as we drove into the camp. We stopped and a medic from the Light Infantry ran over. I did a quick handover, told him what I’d done, and we got Ian onto a stretcher and onto the chopper and away.
Despite the fear and shock she must have felt, her citation says she “immediately and without hesitation then remounted the Warrior and returned to the battle” for the remainder of the action. “On return to camp, she and the gunner helped to clean the large amounts of blood and human tissue from the turret. Even on being told that someone else would do this psychologically difficult task, she insisted on continuing.”
I went back to the Warrior. I sat in the back thinking, What if I haven’t done something I should have done? What if I could have done more? What if he dies? I got myself quite worked up and worried, with all sorts of stuff going through my head. What about his poor wife and parents? I didn’t have too long for that, because we needed to get straight back out onto the streets, continuing patrolling until the operation was officially over.
When you get back to camp, you have to strip down the wagons and get everything out. In our case, the vehicle was obviously full of blood. The sergeant major came over, pointed to a load of lads and said, ‘You, you and you… go and clean that Warrior.’
I said, ‘I’ll come and give you a hand.’
The lads tried to stop me but I wanted to do it. I couldn’t just sit around because at that stage I didn’t know whether Pagey would survive and I knew I’d just break down if I had nothing to do. So we cleaned it out.
The doctor phoned me later on in the evening from the hospital and said Ian had come out of theatre, he was fine and was making good progress. He said, ‘If it wasn’t for you getting to him in the time that you did and doing what you did he would have died.’ I just broke down and cried.
It was a bit embarrassing later on. In the cookhouse and places like that, people kept coming up to me and shaking my hand and saying, ‘Well done.’ Everyone loved Pagey, and they all kept saying what a good mate he was to them, and how long they’d known him. I was only doing my job.
I remember someone saying that because the operation had involved such a lot of fighting that it might be on the news, so I phoned my mum and said, ‘Something happened today, mum. It might be on the telly, but I just wanted to tell you that I’m OK.’
I went on R&R for two weeks not long after. It was really weird being at home, when just a day before you’ve been in Iraq surrounded by a lot of people who would kill you if they got the chance. I just chilled out as much as I could, still thinking about the lads who I was working with, the people still out there, but trying to enjoy myself as much as I could. After Ian got shot, I realised for the first time how special and fragile life is, and how you can be there one day and gone the next, so I just spent as much time as possible with my family.
When I went back out, the story of what had happened came out in the papers. There was a lot of stuff written that wasn’t true – like saying I got shot through my rucksack, which I didn’t. I’d seen it on the internet and I phoned home and said, ‘I think I’m in The Sun, mum.’
She said, ‘Do you know how much hassle you’ve caused me?’
I said, ‘Me? Why?’
She said, ‘I’ve got news reporters knocking on my door and phoning me up and trying to talk to us.’
After the incident, I was a lot more nervous when I went out.
Basically, I was scared of having another casualty to deal with and not saving a life or doing the right thing. Before this happened, I was basically an infantry soldier for seven months and I was always thinking, I want to do my job. And then that happened and I thought, Actually, I don’t want to do my job!
I mean, I love it, but if it’s quiet it means that the lads out on the ground aren’t getting injured or killed. He was actually the first and last casualty that I dealt with on the tour: most of my time was spent dealing with blokes who’d got insect bites and stuff like that. Thank goodness – if I never see another soldier with a gunshot wound I’ll be very happy.
We got back to Germany and we had to queue up at the barracks to hand our body armour back in. I was standing in the line and I head someone say, ‘Cheers, Pagey!’
He was the Company Quartermaster Sergeant who deals with all the stores and stuff, but I didn’t know he was back and in the office. I walked in and he dropped his book and said, ‘Private Norris!’ and he walked over and gave me a big hug and a kiss and said, ‘Thank you.’
I had tears in my eyes. It was all I could do to say, ‘Thank God you’re OK.’
As I say, I hadn’t really thought about dying or death before that. There were times… I still think about it now.
Do you remember the young girl who died not that long ago, Eleanor Dlugosz? She was in a Warrior, doing exactly the same job as me, and it was blown up.
She was one of four who died, including another girl. Eleanor was a few weeks behind me in training, and I knew her. My friend phoned me up and told me that she had been killed, and everything just came rushing back again.
It is hard. You do try and forget about it but there are certain moments when you can’t just forget about it. You have to sit down and have a think, or have a cry, or talk to someone about it. The Army’s like a family, especially in a small regiment, and something like that affects so many people.
But there has never been a moment when I’ve regretted joining up. It’s a really good thing to get into. You can be skint at the end of the month, but you’ll still have a roof over your head, three square meals a day and all your friends there to watch your back. And you’re learning a trade. I think you grow up a lot quicker than you do in Civvie Street. You have to look out for yourself, get yourself up for work, wash and iron your kit, look after your money… stuff like that. You can’t rely on mum and dad. I see some of my civilian friends back home, and they’re still asking their parents for things… ‘Can I have this, can I do that?’ I feel so much more independent.
Yes, there’s danger. I’m going back out in December and while I won’t be going back out on the ground again, there’s still mortars and rockets, you can’t do anything about them. But if it’s going to hit you it will, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. It’s just one of those things. That is what I signed on the dotted line for: to get sent anywhere in the world, any day. I’m looking forward to being back in Iraq.
I couldn’t believe it when I was told I was getting a medal. After the contact had finished, my sergeant major said, ‘You’ll probably get a Mention in Dispatches for that.’
I didn’t even know what one of those was. I read up about MiDs and thought, Well, that would be nice, but it wasn’t something I wanted or set out to get.
Afterwards, when it came out that I was getting a Military Cross, I thought, Bloody hell.
I was gobsmacked, and when the 2IC came up to me and said, ‘Do you realise you are the first female ever to win that award?’ I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry… I didn’t know what to do.
Of course, I’m very proud, but, honestly, anyone would have done what I did, and people did lots of far braver things and didn’t get medals. Look at Pagey – he had exposed himself by standing up in his turret and letting them shoot at him. How brave is that?
She may not see it herself, but her citation is clear. “Her actions were extremely courageous,” it says, “and certainly saved CSgt Page’s life. Her total disregard for her own personal safety to save the life of a comrade showed incredible bravery, particularly for a soldier so young and inexperienced.”
I was only allowed three guests at Buckingham Palace, so I took my mum, my dad and my older sister. It was hard to pick between my granddad, my brother or my sister. Because it was up steps, and my granddad has bad legs, it was between Peter and Tina. They put their names in a hat, and Tina’s name came out, so she came down.
It was mad. We were waiting upstairs, and there was a screen where you could watch people being invested. I could see my family in the audience and the next minute I was walking through and was in the queue myself. And I was like, Oh my God! That’s the Queen!
When my name was called, I walked forwards and curtsied and shook her hand and she was really nice.
She said, ‘I am really proud to be giving you this. You must be proud of yourself.’
I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’
It wasn’t as though she was just talking to anyone, she really seemed to care. She wanted to know where I was based and whether I was going back out to the Middle East, and when I said I was she wished me luck. And that was it. She shook my hand again and said goodbye.
It was great for my mum and dad. They say they’re proud of me but I can’t imagine how proud they are. There’s only so much words can say.