Chinook Crew Chick: author Liz McConaghy talks PTSD, military life and memoir

AeroTime caught up with Liz earlier this week and also appointed her as the latest AeroTime Aviation Champion in recognition of her work and dedication to the industry. Congratulations to Liz!

WATCH THE INTERVIEW HERE:

Having written about aviation for more than two decades, I’ve interviewed many hundreds of different people in myriad roles. But until recently, I’d never met anyone like Liz McConaghy. The self-styled crew ‘chick’ has recently published her memoir about her time serving on the Royal Air Force’s Chinook helicopter. She deployed many times to both Iraq and Afghanistan, including flying on the medical missions known as ‘MERT’, recovering badly injured troops. She was the youngest serving aircrew to deploy to Iraq and went on to become an instructor, teaching the next generation of loadmasters how to operate the massive twin-rotored aircraft.

I was expecting yet another mediocre aircrew memoir with a few humorous stories, acronyms, and inflated tales of daring deeds. What I discovered is McConaghy’s book is refreshing because of its honesty. This is an author who wears her heart on her sleeve. The first part of the book covers her training, the deployments, her love affair with the Chinook and the unique role she had, often being the only female in the room. But the second part of the story made me sit up and pay attention. Calling McConaghy’s memoir an emotional roller-coaster is a lazy cliché but accurate, nonetheless. She battled with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and mental health issues, which led her to the brink of suicide. Her story is one that needs to be more widely heard.

AeroTime sat down with McConaghy to talk about the Chinook, women in the military and the importance of talking about our mental health.

The original manuscript was written in just three weeks as part of McConaghy’s recovery process from PTSD and is a rapid read at 160 pages. Yet, the raw intensity of Chapter 15, titled ‘Time to End a Life’, lingers with me still. What inspired her to write the book was the second chance at life she feels she was given when she woke up from an overdose, hearing the words: “She’s awake.”

So, how did McConaghy end up in such desperate circumstances? She had seen some terrible things on deployment during her service, not least flying on the medical flights recovering badly injured and dead soldiers from the battlefield. Then a close friend succumbed to terminal cancer and her own marriage to a soldier ended. And she tried to deal with it all on her own.

“Veterans are their own worst enemy.” McConaghy explained. “We never ask for help, mostly because it’s been bred into us. You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to be resilient. All those things that the military teach you to be becomes your make-up. So, it’s really hard to ask for help when you’re getting out [of the military] or are out.

“During my transition into civilian life, that year I was starting to unravel, I could have picked up the phone, but you don’t. You don’t want to be a burden.”

More recently, the armed forces are taking mental health more seriously. It’s in basic training. McConaghy has even been invited to RAF Benson, South Oxfordshire, England, and RAF Odiham, in Hampshire, England, to host talks about mental health. But such support was only made available during her last three years of service, towards the end of the allied involvement in Afghanistan. It was an afterthought, a response to the problem, she explained.

She descended into despair having left the RAF and realized she had lost her sense of purpose, having been integral to the mission in Afghanistan, including those medical rescue flights.

“We all like labels,” she said. “My entire career I wore a name badge, and we were that name on our chest. I wonder now, was that really for people talking to me or for me to know who I was at the time? Suddenly you take that badge off and you’re not wearing it every day it’s hard to figure out who you are.

“During my two years of struggles I lost my sense of identity and didn’t know who I was. I now feel like I’m Liz McConaghy ‘crew chick’ and the author. I don’t like the fact we need to label ourselves, but the truth is we all need to know who we are. You can be in a really bad floundering place. But I don’t feel the need to wear a badge anymore.”

So, how did McConaghy end up in such desperate circumstances?

“Yes, I have,” she said. “Having had the book come out [all her mental health challenges are] now completely out in the world. And the more I’m talking about it, the more it is genuinely OK now.

“The bad stuff is the same stuff that everyone else goes through, not so much the PTSD and mental health.”

But given everything that she has been through, would McConaghy do it all again?

“I would,” she said. “If I had the chance of eternal life, winning the lottery or [being given] a rewind button, I’d still pick the rewind button. I genuinely have no regrets about everything I did in the air force. Even MERT, which obviously left its impact on me in a good and bad way. It changed me as a person. I wrote a blog recently which talked about the thing with war is, it teaches you how to love. You don’t witness that loss that we saw, without it teaching you to love even harder. Because we saw how much people had lost. I’d do it all again in an instant.
“I wouldn’t have the book or be sat here talking now without that. I had to hit rock bottom to find my really good side. When I left hospital [after the suicide attempt] I had that total euphoric feeling you don’t often get. I’d had a real journey to get there over two years. Putting my life back together has given me so many more resilience skills. I have more armor than I ever had in the forces.”

When asked what she missed most about the military, McConaghy placed an emphasis on “the people, the banter, the chats” but also said she misses “the smell of the aircraft”.

“I went to see the retired Chinook in the RAF Museum and the smell of it set me off. It’s one of those things you don’t notice day-to-day. I now feel like I’m making a difference again. The latter part of my career when we pulled out of Afghanistan, I felt I’d lost my purpose. The book has helped me replace that. I want to do more veteran ambassador work and on mental health.”

After all that she has been through, what would McConaghy say to her younger self?

“I would say to my 19-year-old self: ‘Stop being scared. You’re going to be OK.’ I don’t know if I would tell her anything. I would never want to spoil the surprise because it was such a great journey. The naivety I had helped me through the first years. By the time I realized what was going on, I was already in it, and it was too late to back out.”

Does McConaghy have any words of wisdom for people thinking of following the same kind of career path?

“Find the thing that makes your skin tingle,” she said. “If it’s anything less than something that really lights your fire, you’re never going to get up and give it 100%, commit everything and throw yourself in headfirst. If you’re settling for what you’re doing, it’s not the right thing. Aim high and go for it! You’ll never know if you don’t try so just go for it.

“Aviation people have a very different slant on life, possibly because they know how quickly things can go wrong. They’re possibly a bit more mature as a result. Reasoned thinking is another thing that comes with aviators. We have a tendency to overthink. We’re not rash but calculated and with that comes a thought process.”

The book touches on, but is not dominated by, the theme of women in the armed forces. This is a topic that has been constantly in the UK news following a series of sex-related scandals. But McConaghy is pragmatic, explaining that in her experience, the men have never treated her or the only other female on her squadron any differently.

“I had learnt pretty well by now you get far more respect for not trying to highlight yourself as being ‘special’ in any way: as a chick doing such a manly job, and in shouting about it, you single your own self out in a sexist way,” she explained. “If you think you are owed some sort of prize for being capable of doing things as a woman, you’re almost saying you are incapable in the first place.”

“Keep your head down, get stuck in the same as the rest and be the best ‘person’ at your job,” she added.

Having said that, teamwork is vitally important on and around the aircraft and McConaghy was never afraid to ask for help when needed, such as if struggling to lift something heavy. But it goes both ways, and her male crew mates would often seek her assistance too, such as when her smaller hands were more useful for checking out an oil filter.

McConaghy said that the most frequently asked, and least favorite, question over the years has been the challenges she has faced as a female crewman.

“The truth [is] none. The crewmen never once made me feel as though I was an outsider or special for being female. But I wasn’t a trailblazer either, there were crew gals before me, and plenty came after me and will continue to do so.”

By way of a parting message for readers, McConaghy appeals to anyone going through similar issues she has experienced to seek help.

“PTSD doesn’t have to stay with you forever. It’s a chapter in my book, it’s not an anchor that I wear around my legs forever or a new label that I have to have forever,” she said. “I’ve met so many people via social media who tag themselves as the broken soldier or the forgotten veteran. But just like anything in your body, the bone you break or whatever, with the right time and methods you can heal, and you can move on and recover. I really want to get the message out – just because I had PTSD does not mean I have to have it forever.”

“I’m also keen to tell people to ‘ask twice’. People notice the changes of behavior in others. When my behavior started to change and I stopped running and cycling, no one was around to see it because it was during lockdown. But it’s with that kind of thing where you need to intervene. So, ask people if they’re OK and ask them twice.

“We’re all really bad at saying: ‘I’m living the dream, things are great’. And, whenever you do get asked that question, give your mental health a number. Are you a six, a five or maybe a seven today? There are two reasons for that. Firstly, it helps you gauge where you are, so you’ll notice changes or not. If you’ve been at number three for a few weeks that’s not good. But if you can get everyone to use that system, it’s also a good measure for other people and help them notice how you’re doing.”

As the interview came to an end, I couldn’t resist asking McConaghy how she was doing that day.

“I’m a nine-and-a-half right now! I can’t complain,” she said, with a beaming smile.

author avatar
Ben Griffiths
Columnist[br][br]Ben Griffiths is a communications director, an aviation writer and an adviser to organisations across the industry. He was named the 2021 'Aerospace Communicator of the Year' in the annual Aviation Media Awards. Ben is a Liveryman of the Honourable Company of Air Pilots and a member of its prestigious Trophies & Awards Committee, as well as an active member of the Air and Space Power Association and the Aviation Focus Group. During 2018 he was seconded to Airbus UK as the Head of Communications, where he helped lead the company's involvement in the RAF 100 centenary celebrations including its major presence at the Royal International Air Tattoo and Farnborough Air Show. He is a former external panel member of the Civil Aviation Authority's 'Aviation Futures' think tank and the Royal Aeronautical Society's Policy Committee. One of Ben's earliest memories is seeing Concorde soaring over London. Since then, aviation has been close to his heart. Having trained as a journalist and specialising in aerospace and defence coverage, Ben has been lucky enough to experience flying more than 30 types of aircraft from vintage trainers to modern military jets. He is a keen private pilot with a particular enthusiasm for historic taildraggers, and co-owns a 1950 de Havilland Chipmunk based at Old Warden, home of the renowned Shuttleworth Collection. In 2012 he fulfilled a childhood ambition by flying the Spitfire for the first time.
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