By Sarwar Alam and Raj Alom
SHE is a captain in the British Army; an award-winning photographer; runs the 100 metres in 13.2 seconds and competes in half marathons; and is a topclass bobsledder.
It’s hard not be completely in awe of Captain Jo Ellett. The 25-year-old has grasped every opportunity available to her in the Army with both hands and is an example of the multi-faceted, multi-skilled leaders the service produces.
Ellett’s foray into bobsleighing might seem strange for a young woman born and brought up in East Ham, London. But when you look at the logic behind it – and fans of the classic film Cool Runnings will be familiar with this – it makes total sense: great sprinters make great bobsledders.
“I was picked for bobsledding because of my athletic ability in the 100 metres. I was basically asked, ‘you’re really good at sprinting… have you tried running on ice?’” she recalls.
Instead of dismissing the idea, Ellett was intrigued and, as with most things in her life, she wanted to explore it and conquer it. She admits that her mother was “shocked” when she heard and couldn’t believe that one could do bobsledding with the Army.
“This (bobsledding) is something most people would never look into, unless they were watching Cool Runnings on TV. I said I would definitely give it a go. It’s something I would never have got to experience in civilian life. It’s a very expensive sport and you can’t do it in the UK.
“The Army paid for me to learn the sport. They paid for me to initially go out to Austria three years ago to do my novice camp and learn how to pilot and brake a bobsled. I’ve also been to Norway and Germany to try different tracks.”
So did she conquer bobsledding? Of course she did. She became the Army bobsledding champion and her brake woman, Lance Corporal Divi Tuilovoni, is the Army’s current 100 metre champion. Ellett smiles: “Us two together, we do move quite quickly on ice”.
The Army has been a part of Ellett’s life. She grew up listening to stories of life in the forces from her grandfather, who was a bombardier in the Territorial Army.
“My grandfather definitely influenced me. Hearing his stories and the camaraderie he had with his community, I wanted to experience the same things. I also really enjoyed shows like Soldier Soldier growing up, so I knew what I wanted to do when I was older.”
As with a lot of Army personnel, Ellett got her first taste of army life through the Army Cadets. From the age of 12 to 16, she was hooked on cadet life and went to as many events as she could. She describes it as “a great experience” and reaffirmed her belief that she “wanted to be in the army”.
“I did basic Army training, sports, adventure training. This was an experience I couldn’t get anywhere else,” says Ellett.
“It also gave me the chance to get away from my local environment where I didn’t like some of the stuff my friends were doing. They were just wasting their time, in my opinion. I wanted to go away and experience more.”
As well as having the largest apprenticeship programme in the UK, with 8,000 soldiers completing apprenticeships each year in a wide variety of areas such as engineering, information and communication technologies, construction, driving and animal care, the army is recognised for supporting its employees through higher and further education.
Ellett’s career path was crystal clear to her as soon as she left school as she knew that she was unlikely to get the support and guidance anywhere else that she would from the Army.
“I went to Welbeck Defence Sixth Form, which is for students seeking a career as a technical or engineering officer within the armed forces or as a civilian with the MoD. I studied A-levels in maths, design technology, PE and science. And then I got a bursary from the Army to do an engineering degree at Aston University.”
After obtaining her degree, Ellett explains that it was “a natural progression” for her to go to the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst to complete her Army officer training.
Training at Sandhurst is, by all accounts, a gruelling 44 weeks and while Ellett admits “it was hard work”, she reflects on it as “a great experience where you are with like-minded people and you all work together as a team”. She adds that training at Sandhurst “sets you up for Army life”.
At Sandhurst she also got to explore another one of her sporting prowesses – boxing. She says: “I did some training in the first two terms and then did some coaching in the third term.”
Ellett is now the battlegroup engineer for the 1st Battalion Scots Guards and alongside this, works as the training officer for her engineer squadron. This involves planning everything the squadron does for the next six months to a year, including organising exercises, training and activities abroad.
Her most recent assignment was to lead a team to Kenya to build a community centre.
“As the troop commander, I was responsible for planning the day-to-day activities. This started before we arrived in Kenya – from completing training in Germany, a plan of what tasks would be completed each day, through to returning to the UK after four months on site. Are we laying slabs today? Putting in windows and doors? Every day was planned up until the last day when construction finished and we handed the keys over the owners.”
“It was an amazing four months. Looking at an empty shell when we arrived to when we left having doors, windows, electricity, running water within the building. It was brilliant for the soldiers working on the task, using their trade and experience and showing themselves what they can achieve. A lot of them don’t understand what they can achieve in a small amount of time. We only had three months on site. In that time they did a lot of hard work and long hours and were able to look back on it and think, ‘we have achieved so much’.
“Being the manager of the team I wanted to show that we can achieve this. The late nights and early mornings are all worth it.”
Ellett will be leading a team on a battlefield study to Sicily this year to explore what happened there during Operation Husky in the Second World War.
“We plan everything from booking the flights, local transport, accommodation, food, the lessons. Then we take the people out and run the whole thing, including doing the teaching part of it.”
These kinds of experiences are something Ellett admits she would not get a chance to do in civilian life and she is thankful to the Army for the opportunities it has continued to give her.
She says: “I don’t think any of my friends who are civilians have the same level of camaraderie, friendship, and commitment to each other that you have within the Army… it’s something you can’t find anywhere else.”
Ellett sees has her long-term future in the service as she wants to “continue to learn and develop within the Army”. And this includes achieving her goal of becoming second-in-command of a squadron and doing a masters in ballistics.
She has become a part of the Army family and that sense of unity, no matter what your background may be, is an important reason why she will continue her time within the armed forces.
“I have never been treated any differently to my white colleagues,” says Ellett. “Members of the BAME community are treated exactly the same as everyone else. The experiences and opportunities are exactly the same so I don’t believe at all it’s a problem to be part of the BAME community. It’s just the community isn’t aware of the opportunities that are out there in the Army.”
As we part ways, Ellett gives me a warm handshake, and then with ease flings her refrigerator-sized rucksack over her shoulder and leaves, off I’m sure to conquer another mountain.