By Sarwar Alam
Having grown-up idolizing Indiana Jones, Sergeant Laher’s role as an Operational Specialist with the Royal Air Force (RAF) is one she always dreamed of but a dream which came to fruition after many bumps in the road.
“When I was young my hero was Indiana Jones and I really wanted an active, adventurous life” she says.
“When I spoke to other kids, they all wanted to be an accountant, pharmacist or doctor. I didn’t want to do something like that. I always wanted to do something different – something that involved adrenalin. I wanted to be in the Army when I was little.”
For a Gujarati-Muslim girl growing-up in Leicester, in the 1980s, joining the military was unheard of and Sergeant Lager admits her parents were not keen on the idea at all.
“For sure my background played a part in their hesitation in me joining the military.,” she says.
“We grew up in a predominantly Gujarati-Muslim community. Everybody’s daughters were nursery nurses, librarians or teachers. It was quite difficult for them to comprehend that I didn’t want to be one of those people and that they are going to have to tell people that ‘our daughter joined the military’.
“In Leicester where I grew up, it wasn’t even normal for girls to go away to study at university or go away from home for overnight stays. And obviously being in the military you are going to be based away from home so I think that was quite difficult for them to accept. And even if they accepted it, they would find it difficult to explain it to people in the community that ‘yeah we are happy to let her go away’.”
So, the teenage Sergeant Laher had no choice but to put her military aspirations on the “back-burner”. And at 19, she got married and got a job at her local benefits agency.
Unfortunately, her marriage broke down after four years. Looking for a fresh start, the 23-year-old got a job transfer to Bolton and made the vow to herself that she would “live my life they way I want to”.
“That desire to be in the military never went away,” she says. “I was a union rep (with the benefits agency) and there were a whole list of courses you can do as a rep and I would always choose the outwards bounds courses which would involve building rafts and jumping out of trees. So the military was still in my heart, the adrenaline buzz was still there.”
As fate would have it, there was a an Army recruitment centre right next to the benefits agency in Bolton. Sergeant Laher would walk past it everyday and not go in. One day she said to herself “what’s stopping me now?” and made the leap of faith and walked in.
However, her hopes of fighting on the frontline were dashed straight away…
“I walked in and said ‘I would like to be a soldier’. The two recruiters said ‘you know women can’t be a soldiers, you cant be frontline troops’. I was really shocked. I wanted to fight I wanted to be a soldier.” things were very different then, now the Armed Forces have a robust inclusive policy.
Far from being left deflated with the knowledge that she couldn’t be a solider, Sergeant Laher left with a new sense of purpose because after she spoke to the recruiters, who had given her a list of jobs she could do, she was certain she wanted to be in the military.
“I got to know the two Army reps quite well and they had been in the Army for while so I felt I should listen to their advice.
It was actually the two Army recruiters who got in touch with the RAF and recommended Sergeant Laher and so, in September 1998, she found herself in the RAF.
Despite numerous prodding, Sergeant Laher is true pro and refuses to go into too much detail about her work in the RAF.
“Obviously a lot of it is to do with the defence of the UK – I can’t say a lot more than that,” she smiles.
Key to her role is learning new languages and for someone who never went to university in civilian life, Sergeant Laher has been fortunate that the RAF have sent her to universities around the world to learn different languages.
“I spent three months in New Delhi to learn Punjabi. I have spent time at the University of London to learn Russian and also the University of EAFIT in Medellin, Columbia to learn Spanish. All of this was paid for by the RAF,” she says.
“I have done so much adventure activities thanks to the RAF. Paragliding, parachuting, skiing, sailing in the Caribbean. Lots and lots of trekking because that’s my passion. Backpacking trips to France, Bavaria, Cyprus. Rock climbing in America for three weeks. I’ve got everything I possibly could out of the Air Force.”
In 2012 she joined the RAF outreach/careers team in Gloucester where she went into schools and colleges to give young people training in leadership, team building and communication skills.
There was also a surprising perk to working for the outreach team in 2012…
“Everybody working for the careers office were mandated to do security for the London Olympics. That was an incredible opportunity. I have never seen so many happy people in my life.
“We were part of the dress rehearsal of the opening ceremony. The military people actually carried the flags. I carried the flag for Papua New Guinea. And then we joined together to carry the flag for the UK – I had a lump in my throat. We saw all the bands, such as Coldplay and the parachute of the Queen landing. A lot of the time they gave us tickets as well. I got to see the cycling, marathon, volleyball and basketball.”
What do her parents, who were so reluctant for her to join the military all those years ago, now make of the path her life has taken.
“They realised it was a great life and I was doing what I had always wanted to do. I was getting all these great opportunities at the RAF. My dad was actually super impressed with the pension scheme. When he saw that he was like ‘don’t ever leave’ – being a proper Gujarati,” she laughs.
For Sergeant Laher, life has come full circle. She joined the RAF after the end of her marriage. On the cusp of celebrating 21 years with the RAF, she got married again to someone she met in the RAF. And she continues to go in search of new adventures, revealing she is on her way to Indonesia to complete a mammoth trek.