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In the shadow of men
Valerie O’Brien was horrified to discover just how much of a “man’s world” the army was. As one of the first female combat soldiers in the Irish infantry, she suffered sexual harassment, isolation and depression. Behind her blonde façade lay a complex woman driven to succeed against the odds in a macho environment. Ultimately, her ambition would cost her dearly. Little did she know what she was letting herself in for. The training was excruciating, and she had to fight hard to be seen as an equal with the men. But she passed with flying colours. Along the way, she met and married Andy, another soldier, and they had two children. Being separated from her young son, Alex, for six months during her trip to Eritrea was also heartbreaking for her. The struggle to be a mother and keep up her army career took its toll on her health and she developed an eating disorder, viral encephalitis and fibromyalgia (ME), while her marriage also broke up. Finally, it became too much, and she left the army in 2007. She is now a qualified beautician – a far cry from army fatigues, punishing training and the shadow of men.