by Sarwar Alam 

WHEN Harpreet Chauhan visited London in 2006 for a cousin’s wedding, her plan was to have a good time, enjoy the sights and sounds of the city, and head back home to India.

Fate would, however, have different plans for her. Nearly 12 years later, she lives in the UK, having become a sergeant in the British Army, earned a qualification as an intensive care nurse, married to an Army doctor and parent to a daughter. And to think, it was down to a chance encounter at a gurdwara.

“I used to visit gurdwaras in London and it was at one of them that I met some military personnel who were working to recruit from the ethnic minority community,” Sergeant Chauhan fondly remembers.

“I had no plans to join the Army; it had never crossed my mind. I was just really interested in basically finding a stable job, and then this wonderful opportunity came along. I found out about the healthcare jobs within the Army, did the application process and have been here since.”

Sergeant Chauhan admits she was actually quite puzzled to see the military in the gurdwara, as being new in the country she didn’t expect to see uniformed soldiers inside a place of worship, but feels she was “lucky” their paths crossed.

She had graduated with a political science degree back home in Bangalore and had been working in a call centre. A career in nursing was not something she had considered, and though she was excited by the Army recruitment team’s explanation of the medical professions available within the Army, she was certain she couldn’t apply as she had no previous qualifications or experience in healthcare.

Harpreet Chauhan at work.

“They told me it didn’t matter that I had no experience or qualifications. They said I would receive all the necessary training,” says Sergeant Chauhan. “I started my application process right there and then.”

Sergeant Chauhan revealed several members of her family had served in the military, including her grandfather, who was in the Indian Army. Her great grandfather fought for the British Army in the Second World War.

Growing up, hearing stories about the male members of her family serving in the Army left Sergeant Chauhan thinking that it was “all men in the military, no females” and “it was all fighting”.

“I really wasn’t aware of the wider aspect of the military, such as all the other jobs that are available and how supportive the military is of women,” she says. “So from the beginning I was motivated and passionate to learn new things.”

Though she was determined to succeed, it was a tremendous leap of faith for a young woman – in a foreign country, and whose family were in India – to join the British Army.

“I was only 22 years old when I came from India. Even though I had some friends’ support here, my parents were back home so was mainly here with friends. I was on my own and my family were worried.

“But the Army just becomes your family. You always have someone you can talk to. You feel supported. There are different networks, welfare offices and even your own chain of command. And it helps me there are so many women within the military.”

Within a month of joining the Army, a fellow new recruit caught her eye and he would go on to become family – her husband and father to their daughter.

After completing her basic soldier training, Sergeant Chauhan trained as a combat medical technician. It was a role which includes giving first aid on the battlefield; providing medical training and health education to the Army; supplying medical support on all kinds of operations and exercises; and helping with medical evacuations in hostile conditions.

As part of her role as a medical technician, Sergeant Chauhan did placements at Colchester General Hospital and Frimley Park Hospital. It was during these placements that she became aware of the role of a nurse. Soon after, she expressed a desire to become a nurse and wanted to get the necessary qualifications. Sergeant Chauhan reveals the Army couldn’t have been more supportive of her ambition.

“I was supported throughout the application and selection process, and then the Army paid for me to complete my three-year nursing Diploma at Birmingham City University.

“The Army always tries to encourage its soldiers to progress further. After I qualified as a nurse in 2012, I got experience doing shifts in intensive care units. I really liked that aspect of nursing and wanted to specialise in it.

“Once again the Army supported me fully with the selection process and funded me to go to Brighton University and do a specialist qualification in intensive care nursing.

“The Army knows one day you will leave, so they want you to get qualifications that will help you once you are in civilian life.”

Sergeant Chauhan is a mother to a young daughter

Sergeant Chauhan currently works at the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine where she is an intensive care nurse on the critical care ward at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham. Her role sees her treat troops who are sick, wounded or injured on deployments and exercises, both in the UK and overseas, as well as civilian NHS patients.

The 32-year-old’s warm, funny and caring personality seem like the perfect characteristics needed to be an intensive care nurse. But she admits that it does take a lot to do the job and also balance that with being a wife and mother.

“Working in intensive care is definitely challenging; it’s not easy. But it’s a great satisfaction that you are treating someone to get better,” she said. “You have to be in the right mind-set and mentally you have to be really strong.”

She also pays tribute to the Army for making her the person she is, saying: “It’s changed me as an individual quite a lot. The core values of the military teach you to be a good human being. To have respect for others; have integrity; be selfless; and show commitment to others. And I’m passionate about these values and standards.

“They have helped me become a better individual; have taught me to do the right thing at the right time; contribute towards society and be a good human being in general.”

Sergeant Chauhan’s husband, Second Lieutenant Munish Chauhan, was trained as a doctor through the Army and works for the NHS, but remains a reservist. They met during their combat medical technician training; her husband had joined the Army just a month before her.

“My husband served in the military for five years and then they paid for his first degree. He always wanted to become a doctor but there were finances to consider. Thankfully the military funded the last three/four years of medical training.”

Sergeant Chauhan laughed and admitted that when they decided to get married, there were a few hiccups in relation to their respective families as she is Sikh and her husband is Hindu, but they overcame those and now couldn’t be happier.

She looks back fondly on that day in the gurdwara and everything she has achieved in life thanks to the military, and also has a message for others from a similar background to hers.

“It’s kind of slightly disappointing that there are not a lot of Asian females (in the military), but that number is increasing now the awareness is increasing.

“I want to tell Asian women that I have been in the Army for 10 years and I am a satisfied individual and my career is going really well. I earn well and have a stable job. I’ve developed as an individual personally and professionally. I’m more confident. If you had spoken to me ten years ago, I was a totally different person. I’m more confident in myself now.”

“I am quite fortunate and very grateful to the military for making me what I am today. And my message to the community is that, as a female serving in the military, I am happy and satisfied. And if you consider this job opportunity, I can assure you will be happy and satisfied too.”