Military madness: By suing the Army, Lance Cpl DeBique has betrayed all women soldiers who believe in duty, says former top female officer
The British Army is admired throughout the world for its toughness, efficiency and cohesion - but these high standards are increasingly under threat from the dogma of political correctness.
With their shrill, ideological certitude, the officials of the modern British state are now imposing on the armed services those fashionable nostrums about workplace rights that are entirely inappropriate for fighting units.
The case of single mother Tilern DeBique brilliantly symbolises the politicised ignorance of the realities of military life and operational requirements.
Committed: Judith Webb in the Royal Signals (left) and today
Recruited in the Caribbean to the 10th Royal Signals Regiment in 2001, Ms DeBique left the Army in 2008 because the demands of childcare for her young daughter interfered with her availability for duty.
Of course, this attitude didn’t fit the ethos of her regiment, which declared that the Army was a ‘war-fighting machine’ and ‘unsuitable for a single mother, who couldn’t sort her childcare arrangements’.
Such a robust statement might have Labour’s Deputy Leader Harriet Harman reaching for the smelling salts, but most sensible beings would probably agree with those words.
Frankly, the idea of British soldiers limiting their hours because of childcare is a farce, particularly when many of our young heroes have been dying in Afghanistan.
But Ms DeBique did not see it that way.
Instead, she took out a grievance against the Army, claiming to be
the victim not only of sex discrimination but also of racial prejudice
- the latter accusation made on the grounds that her Royal Signals regiment did not let her bring her half-sister from the West Indies to look after her child.
Instead of throwing out this allegation, an employment tribunal ruled in her favour. Ms DeBique is in line for a payout of at least £100,000 (while aiming for £500,000) for loss of earnings, aggravated damages and hurt feelings.
Tilern DeBique's case against the Army will set a dangerous precedent
As a former major in the Royal Signals, I am outraged. The case makes a mockery of the essential concepts of duty and self-sacrifice, which our Armed Forces depend on.
Frankly, the members of the tribunal are trying to apply the trendy, ultra-feminised values of a place like Islington Council to the unique environment of the British Army.
Such an absurd approach can only damage our fighting capability.
I do not write that as someone opposed to the progress of women in the Armed Forces.
Having been in the Royal Signals for two decades and being the first woman to command a virtually all-male regular field force unit, I am delighted at the advances made by my sex.
When I first joined at the age of 19, no mother was allowed to serve and any woman who fell pregnant had to leave within three months.
I was only able to start a family myself once I had left the Army. After completing the 20 years of service that entitled me to an Army pension, I had enough security to embark on a pregnancy and end my military career.
Throughout my time in the services, I fought battles against traditionalist prejudice. On one occasion, I was barred from taking a language course, as my commanders said it would be a waste of money, as I would probably soon want to have children and leave.
But, by giving a firm commitment to remain in the Army for at least five years, I persuaded them to change their minds.
So, I like to see myself as one of the trailblazers for women in the armed services. No doubt that is how the politically correct brigade would see Ms DeBique’s case, but the opposite is true.
The tribunal decision has nothing to do with equality and everything to do with special treatment.
It implies the Army should accommodate every mother, no matter how expensive or unreasonable the demands.
In this case, the Royal Signals was even expected to arrange for Ms DeBique’s half-sister to be brought halfway across the world to provide childcare.
Line of fire: Women are playing an increasing role in the Armed Forces
The real tragedy of all this, however, is that this woman’s claims damaged the standing of many decent women soldiers, who know that in military circumstances duty to country and regiment must take precedence over individual rights.
Any payout for Ms DeBique will cause Army recruiters to hesitate before taking on more young women, precisely because they could be seen as a potential cause of trouble and unable to do their jobs properly.
I am in favour of fair treatment for women in the military, but the drive for absolute equality is hopelessly ill-conceived.
Although a frontline in modern warfare is difficult to define and women are fulfilling vital jobs in Afghanistan, I do not believe women have a role in close combat within the infantry and cavalry.
In part, this is for a purely practical reason - they are just not as strong as men.
It is no use lowering standards to accommodate women - such a move undermines the overall fighting fitness of men.
In addition, whatever feminists might claim, women on the frontline weakens the esprit de corps generated by male bonding.
We have to face facts: given that its ultimate job is the brutal one of deterring, or even killing, the enemy, the Army cannot be a child-friendly environment - it is not the public sector world of nine-to-five, flexi-hours and crèches.
How on earth can the Army make childcare provisions in Helmand Province or Sierra Leone?
I saw firsthand the damage caused by the employee-oriented approach, when conducting manoeuvres with Dutch soldiers.
Reared in a trade union-led, short hours culture, the Dutch troops would disappear at four o’clock on a Friday for the weekend - we had to bring in less indulged British soldiers as cover.
The whole thing was a total farce, but it is the direction that the DeBique case is heading.
Mothers of young children cannot act as if the world revolves around them. They have to consider their responsibilities to their employer.
After I retired from the Army, I was required to remain a regular Army reservist. In that capacity, I was invited to do a tour of duty in Bosnia where my language skills were seen as an asset.
However, my commitment and responsibility to the Army was by then over. I had two young children and was not prepared to leave them for a long period.
Later, as headmistress of an independent school, I recognised the benefits of employing young, dynamic mothers on the staff, but I was also painfully aware of the costs and disruption caused by maternity leave.
A balance has to be struck between rights and duties - though this appears to have been lost on the tribunal.
But this case sets a disastrous precedent, since it could lead to a huge financial burden on the Ministry Of Defence at a time of severe cutbacks.
The potential £100,000 payout, or £500,000 if she gets her way, to Ms DeBique is ludicrous, when compared to lower awards to fighting men who have suffered life-changing injuries or the loss of limbs.
And, given the success of the claim, the accusations of racism and sexism can only lead to a stream of similar cases, undermining the Army’s ability to function efficiently.
The charge of racial prejudice is particularly ludicrous, given that large numbers of Commonwealth soldiers have long been an integral part of our military.
Instead of inflicting more damage by supporting legal actions like Ms DeBique’s, officialdom should recognise what has made our Armed Forces so successful.
It was not generous childcare that won the Battle of El Alamein or recaptured the Falklands.
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