Understanding Women Impacted By Their Military Connection

Understanding Women Impacted By Their Military Connection

07 Mar 24
Posted by: Caroline Paxton
Message from the Editor

In celebration of International Women’s Day, the NR is proud to present the first of two articles on serving women’s networks. Caroline Paxton, Chair of Trustees for The Military Wives Choirs Foundation, provides this introduction to the Military Wives Choirs and their unique membership and opportunities. A 10 minute read.

How often do you pause to ‘walk in the shoes’ of the women in your lives who are impacted by their or your current or former service? How well do you really understand how they feel as they get deployed or watch you getting deployed or pack up home and move for the tenth time in 15 years? The Military Wives Choirs Foundation is the only charity that focuses on building wellbeing and resilience, through singing, for all women impacted by their military connection. Whether you are a serving woman, a wife or partner, a mother or a sister, a veteran or from one of the communities within the military such as Nepali, Fijian or elsewhere across the Commonwealth or have come here on schemes because of military impact, such as Afghans or Ukrainians, or are in the UK with a foreign Service, the Military Wives Choirs provide a ‘ready-made’ space and community who understand the issues faced by women connected with the Forces.

Having been away from Service life since leaving the military, after 13 years in the early 90s, it is encouraging to see how much has changed and how many things impacting women are on the agenda – from kit to female physiology and health and lots in between. Opportunities for women to serve are far greater. Yet in many ways the needs of the broad array of women serving, or supporting those serving, or who have served, are still largely overlooked or left to an array of charities and fragmented public services to address. As the Forces shrink and women increasingly live their lives alongside civilian counterparts, it becomes harder to find others who share their lived experience. We help to fill this gap.

We have come a long way since the original choir was formed in Catterick to help women impacted by their partners’ deployment in Afghanistan. This led to Gareth Malone working with women from Chivenor and Plymouth military bases to make music and film the BBC documentary series ‘The Choir: Military Wives’ and the No 1 single ‘Wherever you are’ in 2011. Afghanistan may be over, but today is just as challenging and, arguably, geopolitically more fragile, so our purpose is even more relevant as our troops are deployed to the Baltic or Northern Europe or to keeping the major seaways of the Middle East open, often with little notice.

Today, we have just under 2,300 women in our network of 72 choirs worldwide. Our choirs cover all three Services. Through the medium of singing and using our core repertoire, common to all choirs in our network, our women find a familiar space in unfamiliar surroundings when they arrive at a new location. Joining their nearest Military Wives Choir provides a warm welcome, tea, cake and singing, but also a ready-made home of ‘sisters’ who provide a listening space, advice on everything from local schools to reliable plumbers, a safe space to breathe and vent and a weekly mental health ‘workout’. Well-being measured before and after our events demonstrates a 5% uplift in well-being and a 10% uplift in feeling relaxed. Singing helps increase empowerment and the courage to deal with the often-challenging issues they face. We recognise the sacrifice our women make as the ‘hidden serving’, often putting their lives on hold and placing their needs last to keep life and home going for their partners and families.

Through weekly music-making in one of our choirs, women get an opportunity to experience the physical and mental benefits of singing in unison with others who share similar challenges, and get respite from their fears, loneliness and isolation. After which they have just a little bit more strength to deal with whatever life throws at them whether that is telling their four-year-old that yet again their other parent will not be home for their birthday or sports day, or coping with their partner of 30 years who is having a bad time with PTSD and shielding their children from the worst of the terror and outbursts, or taking a deep breath as they maintain a cheerful demeanour to make the most of the last evening before their partners’ deployment for six months.

We are musically inclusive and non-auditioned; no singing experience is necessary to join, and any woman impacted by their military connection is welcome. In addition, through membership of our choirs, all our women are part of a network as performing artists of the Military Wives Choirs. This provides ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunities to perform and record music – these range from singing in the Albert Hall, recording at Abbey Road, singing in the King’s Coronation Commonwealth Choir, and raising the flag on Armed Forces Day at the Houses of Parliament, among many others. As a network, we have recorded four albums in the last ten years. These opportunities have an enormous impact on self-esteem and self-worth and contribute massively to enhancing wellbeing and helping women escape their day-to-day and feel special for a short period. Listening to members of the network bursting with pride when they come off stage after a performance is uplifting and the energy is palpable.

Our support goes beyond singing – our choirs engage, train, and mentor, nearly 500 volunteers a year from within our membership for a variety of roles within our network. These roles refresh and build skill and enhance self-confidence. Our training enhances skills in leadership, mediation, mental health first aid, safeguarding, communication and PR and accounting amongst others. This experience and skills needed in roles within our network can help hugely with employability, especially for women re-entering the workforce after a break. This is particularly vital given the challenges for partners finding employment as they move from posting to posting.

Having just marked the 10th Anniversary since we were established as a formal charity, we are looking to our next decade. With 16,680 female serving personnel, 52,000 female partners of serving personnel, and 251,400 female veterans, we aim to bring the well-being benefit of singing to a bigger proportion of these women, with a particular focus on increasing our inclusion, diversity, and accessibility in terms of age, ethnicity and physical or mental ability, with a particular focus on serving and younger women. We are looking at how we can reach female veterans in the criminal justice system or connect with male veterans in the same. We also want to do what we can to support women here on the Ukrainian scheme who are facing significant anxiety and mental health challenges about what is going on at home. This fits very much into using singing as part of a social prescribing model, a national conversation we are keen to play our part in.

You can help us to keep growing our network and finding exciting opportunities to make music. Encourage the women you know who are impacted by their military connection to find their nearest choir and give it a try. If you are in uniform, encourage your base to promote us to partners and serving women, help us access rehearsal facilities (preferably for free!) and book us for your big events, giving us the opportunity to do what Military Wives Choirs do best – Sing, Share, Support. Listen and watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btOmF0lmISI / https://www.militarywiveschoirs.org


Emma, Digby Military Wives Choir, Age 28, serving RN, 3rd Choir

Why did you join Military Wives Choirs? I missed singing and had always sung in choirs before I joined the military and wanted to continue.

Why is choir important to you? Choir is an escape and a family away from home. I’ve made friends for life.

How has choir helped you deal with the challenges of Forces life? It gives you a community when you are away from your family and it becomes a support network. Choir is more than just singing.

What have been your choir highlights? Singing in Lincoln Cathedral, as well as taking part in events and charity concerts within the local community.

Military Wives Choirs in one word? Family.

Charlie, Portsmouth Military Wives Choir, Age 38, serving RN, 5th Choir

Why did you join Military Wives Choirs? I’d enjoyed singing in choirs but hadn’t kept it up when I joined the Royal Navy. I hadn’t realised I was eligible to join until I came across a stand with members of the Defence Academy Choir in Shrivenham. They explained that Military Wives Choirs welcomes women throughout the military community and persuaded me to come along and I haven’t looked back!

Why is choir important to you? No matter how busy or stressful work has been, you feel better after choir. There’s laughter, occasional tears, and lots of cake! Learning new songs and performing them together also gives a great sense of achievement.

How has choir helped you deal with the challenges of Forces life? Moving every couple of years can make it hard to maintain hobbies, find new groups to join and make friends at each new location. Military Wives Choirs make continuing to sing easy. You know there will be a choir nearby with a welcoming group of women, you’ll even be able to join in performances as soon as you join – the library of core songs shared across the network means you’ll already know lots of the repertoire.

What have been your choir highlights? Many! Flying to Gibraltar to sing in the 75th anniversary concert for the WWII evacuation, recording the ‘Home for Christmas’ album, singing the national anthem on the pitch at Wembley, performing at Christmas events in Highclere Castle (the real Downton Abbey), singing at events alongside Laura Wright, Shane Filan (Westlife), Lulu, Tom Chaplin (Keane), Blake, Madness.

Military Wives Choirs in one word? Joyful.

Marie, Portsmouth Military Wives Choir, Age 42, serving RN, 2nd Choir

Why did you join Military Wives Choirs? I first heard of the Military Wives Choirs when serving at Northwood in 2011, but it was after speaking to a colleague onboard a ship that I was serving in that I really thought about joining. When I settled in Portsmouth for 12 months, I decided to see what it was all about.

Why is choir important to you? It gave me something to do and a place to relax outside of work, and a network of lifelong civilian friends outside of my military circle.

How has choir helped you deal with the challenges of Forces life? As a serving member of the military, and a mum and service partner, it gives me a space to go and be myself, to chat and to let go and forget about everyday struggles.

What have been your choir highlights? Singing at D-Day 70 in the Royal Albert Hall, singing in St James’ Palace (twice), Singing a solo in front of ‘Roy Cropper’ from Corrie, and recording a few albums.

Military Wives Choirs in one word? Liberating!