As Secretary General at the Department of Defence, Jacqui McCrum is familiar with the suffering caused by Covid-19, after her daughter Freya (23) was struck down by the virus at Christmas.
“It was incredibly stressful. She was struggling to breathe, so there were two days and nights where I didn’t sleep,” she says. “So I know exactly what people are going through with it.”
The first woman ever to be appointed to the role of Secretary General of the Department of Defence last year, she had to hit the ground running. Appointed at the end of August when we were all told to remain in our counties, she says the environment has made it a challenge to get around to the various barracks to build up relationships.
But she has been proud to see all the team pulling together to aid the health system. The Defence Forces has been involved in vaccinations and swabbing, the delivery of the vaccine itself by the Air Corps and the involvement of the naval service from the outset.
Asked about the rumoured ‘cold war’ between the civil service and the defence forces, Ms McCrum speaks of wanting to “bust the myths”.
“A lot of people on the sidelines have views that are historic and don’t reflect the current working environment,” she says.
“In my view, we have a healthy, professional relationship and given that we have policy on one side and operations on the other, you have a tension between the two that should be healthy as we all focus on the objective of working on defence being better.”
The most senior-serving female member of the Defence Forces is Brigadier General Maureen O’Brien, currently serving in The Golan, and with 14 overseas missions to her name.
A native of Galway city, she took up the position of Deputy Force Commander with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in Syria in 2019 and has served as acting Force Commander for 10 months of her deployment. She will shortly return home.
“It gave me great pride to see how we, as a small mission, rose to the challenge presented by the global pandemic,” she said, adding that soldiers and civilians worked together tirelessly.
Meanwhile, with 17 years service in the Defence Forces, Combat Medical Technician Sgt Gemma O’Connor hails from Cork city. Her sporting accolades include nine senior All-Ireland camogie titles.
However, this past year has been all about Covid, starting with testing in the nursing homes – a situation that has been very difficult.
“They are elderly, sick and some are distressed. You’re doing your best to calm them but it’s all very new for people not familiar with working in that environment. But it was a good experience,” said Sgt O’Connor.
Another first for the Defence Forces came with the appointment of Colonel Mairead Murphy as director of the Defence Forces Medical Branch in September 2019. By the following January she was watching the news intently, as reports of a novel virus in China emerged.
She linked in with international military colleagues in Europe and the US to see how they were coping.
“I suppose it was stressful. Everybody was working hard in the Defence Forces, they were long days – driving into work early morning and you wouldn’t be leaving until the late evening.”
The most challenging part of the pandemic for Col Murphy proved to be when her husband was posted to Lebanon for six months last June. With three children in their teens and early 20s now studying from home, life changed for their family. “But they’re great – everybody adapted,” she said.
Wanting to know exactly the challenges her colleagues were facing, Col Murphy trained up to take part in swabbing at a nursing home.
“Because it was a medical task that was very hands-on, you felt you were really doing something worthwhile,” she said. “Going to the nursing homes was very difficult for everybody. A terrible time.”
Col Murphy personally vaccinated people in a Dublin care-home facility.
“It was very rewarding because they were an older cohort confined by Covid,” she said.
“For them, the vaccination was a freedom to move. One lady told me her partner was in another ward and she hadn’t been able to see him.
“It was emotional. It was very heartwarming,” she said, adding that there is “a real positivity” about these tasks.
But it has been exhausting for everybody, she acknowledged.