Donna Gavin can still remember walking up the stairs of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst armed with an ironing board, “the entire M&S stock of 10 denier matt tights”, and copious pots of Brasso.
If she was feeling daunted at that moment, she could have taken comfort from the fact that she would go on to work her way right up the ranks to Major in less than a decade. But, of course, she didn’t know that back then.
She had joined the Army at the height of the Iraq war and just as the Afghanistan war was starting. From day one her instructors were clear- every single one of her platoon would deploy within 18 months.
Not that Donna, who is gunning to be a politician in Wales at the next Senedd elections, was “scared”.
“In fact, it felt like the purpose of everything we did,” says the next candidate for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. “We worked harder and listened in class because we knew we would need these skills quickly.”
Until then, the then 22-year-old Donna was a woman in a man’s world – just 10% of the Armed Forces is made up of women. Yet Donna never really felt like she was at a disadvantage because of her sex, although she says the way women view and experience war is different to that of her male counterparts.
“I always felt like an equal part of the team, not once was I treated differently by the people I worked with because I was a woman,” she says.
“I was always one of the ‘lads’, the inequality was far more structural. I made sure I ran at the front on physical training -this means a lot in military circles.
“A year of intensive training is a long time and I lost a lot of weight quickly, going down to 52kg at one point which is not helpful when you regularly carry 30kg.”
But the effect was life-affirming and life-changing for Donna and she soon felt like a different person.
“Even my family said I walked differently,” she says. As a junior officer, she was immediately in charge of 30 other men.
“I think that was the start of the Army confidence that never leaves you – hold your head up high and be proud of what you’ve achieved, but stay humble.”
Get the latest news from your area:
Donna, who grew up on the outskirts of London, first joined the Army aged just 19 before enlisting in the regular Army aged 22 after finishing her studies in PR at Leeds University. She has travelled all over the world, spending more time overseas than at home. When she was posted to Afghanistan, it was Donna’s job to deploy and fix communications equipment all over the country.
“I had only been in Afghanistan before our first mortar attack a few days, the enemy often climbed a nearby hill and mortared our camp,” she recalls.
“My training meant my response was instinctual, I wasn’t scared, I knew clearly what I needed to do. Being the senior rank in the tent I told the other women to quickly get their boots, body armour and helmet on, pick up their weapon and follow me. I had a torch and led the group to the pre-agreed safe place.
“It wasn’t until I got there that I saw my Sergeant Major rolling his eyes and tutting, I realised my mistake. When men sleep they tend to just wear pants and so they put their uniform trousers on when they get up even in a rush.
“Women sleep in pyjamas, often bright coloured and small – we looked like a group of girls lost on our way back from a Justin Bieber concert, with rifles and helmets on. It was lesson learnt, get changed or wear green pyjamas.”
As she talks, it’s clear Donna loves to get things done and would rather prove herself through actions rather than words. And those actions have had a profound effect.
“What I thought was important when I was first deployed is very different to when I got back,” she says.
“My first boss was tough and in my initial interview told me jokingly that Donna wasn’t an officer’s name and that perhaps I should think of another,” she says about attitudes towards woman serving.
“I did meet some occasional classist attitudes, but only in small pockets. In my experience any junior officer who could run fast and got on well with their soldiers thrived.”
The only thing that slowed Donna down was poorly-designed kit that just didn’t think about women.
“Most clothing and equipment is designed around a man’s body, much of my equipment has written on the label ‘small mans’, any clothes designed for a woman was certainly not designed by a woman – they were terrible,” she says.
“When you have an active job that requires mobility and safety your kit matters. When your body armour is too long for your upper frame, it means you can’t bend over and I couldn’t fit the side armour plates in meaning I was less safe than my male colleagues. This made me less mobile and slowed me down.”
From junior officer, Donna was quickly promoted to Captain and then the executive officer for the Commander, taking on policy and day-to-day running of a unit of 400 soldiers.
Within seven years, she was promoted to Major, the first of her cohort, where she started flying a desk and developing policy that would shape future Defence capability.
“With hindsight I wish I was in less of a rush to promote and move up the ladder,” she says, adding she is proud of how much she achieved.
Now, aged 36, Donna wants to bring that hard-earned confidence to Cardiff Bay having just been nominated as the Conservative candidate for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney at the next Welsh elections. Currently living in Gloucester with her partner and their dog, she often pops over the Welsh border to indulge in her favourite past time of mountain biking.
In the military, you are taught to do “the right thing, not the easy thing”, Donna says.
And it’s her “instinct for service” and the “fire in my belly to make the country a better place” which has inspired her career change into politics.
She might not be what you’d call a “professional politician” but like all military folk she says, she “hates to sit on the side lines and see bad things happen to good people”.
Just like she didn’t come from a military family, there is no history of politics in her background either. But Donna has never been one for being put off that easily.
She remembers how, while serving in Afghanistan having had months of “cultural awareness” training, she had to brief an Afghan Brigadier.
“I knew he would not speak with a woman on his own, so I brought two male colleagues,” she says.
“On meeting the Afghan leader we were introduced by his staff, he walked over to my male colleagues and shook their hands. I knew my job during the formalities was to blend in to the wall and be quiet until we got down to business and I could bring the detail of the plan, but he surprised me. He held out his hand and gave me the most awkward handshake, but this was a huge moment and progress.”
It’s moments like that which inspire Donna and it was that moment she realised the value of having women in uniform and “not hiding them away in war”.
The Army has taught Donna qualities that would certainly come in use in the world of politics – she’s even an expert in digging herself out of holes, not just metaphorical ones but real holes.
“Life in the Army means I’m used to sharing a hole we dug ourselves in the ground with lots of people, often for weeks on end, meaning you get to know people inside and out,” she says.
“To my left might be a young lad who grew up bouncing between temporary homes and to my right a Viscount. It’s a funny old place and a social leveller, but one that offers a unique perspective on folk from different walks of life.
“When I look at a situation I can see it not only from my own perspective, but can imagine how it impacts a huge variety of people I served beside. There isn’t another job that sees you stand shoulder to shoulder with such a cross section of society and be comfortable having a brew with people who don’t share your beliefs. In fact that’s the democracy that we fight for.”
Her perspectives, learned in the theatre of war, can even relate to the PPE worn by frontline NHS workers.
“Every time I’ve picked up a problem and tried to solve it I can map the solution to a policy change, to me it is through politics that we can un-knot the most problems and make the lives of hard-working people better,” she explains.
“An example of this is my badly-fitting body armour – this was not the fault of my boss or the storeman that issued it to me, it was not the fault of the people in procurement who bought it, and it’s not completely the fault of the supplier who made it – we can track this back to the equipment trial not testing on a single woman, not one.
“Often women can be tricky to include in trials and commercially it can be more expensive, in my view it should be regulated that all equipment trials must include women. We’ve seen this exact problem come up in health PPE too – despite most health workers being women, their PPE was designed for a man’s shape face, meaning they slip down and make women unsafe.”
Politics has never been more relevant to our lives than right now.
Decisions made in Cardiff Bay and Westminster are directly affecting if we can see our loved ones, send our kids to school and go to work.
With so much happening every day it can be hard to keep track. Especially as somethings are decided by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and others by the First Minister Mark Drakeford.
If you want to keep up-to-date on the politics that is relevant to in your life you should sign up to our weekly politics newsletter.
“The one-legged duck” newsletter simplifies all the political announcements from the last weeks and explains how it affects you.
You can sign up to the WalesOnline politics newsletter here.
It is perhaps fitting that Donna has decided to stand for Methyr Tydfil and Rhymney, an area where she learned many of the skills she hopes to bring to the political table.
“Merthyr has a special place in the heart of those that serve, not only does the Army recruit a lot from here, and I know many locals who have gone on to thrive in the Army, we also sit in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons where I have spent many a night being wet, cold and tired,” she says.
“It was on these hills I learned that ‘can’t’ isn’t a word, we are all capable of doing incredible things, with the right support.”
She certainly has a different battle in front of her now.
“You can’t be politically active or a member of a political party whilst serving, so when I left I got on board the political rollercoaster – not with the intention of standing initially, but more to have a voice on the things that I’m passionate about.
“I became an ambassador for the only women’s veteran charity in the UK and started working with the Defence select committee in better understanding the impact of service life on women. I also campaign on digital inequality and improving how digital skills are taught in schools.”
While she was a soldier, she thought much less about “the why are we at war” and focused instead on keeping her fellow troops safe whilst doing their jobs.
“I believe soldiers don’t fight wars for politics or strategy, we fight for each other,” she says..
“When you look left and right you want to see people you can trust with your life and people that trust you too – that’s why we train together before we deploy.”
It’s still early days in her political campaign, but she is clear about what her mission is.
“I want to be the ambassador for the grafters and the go-getters and unlock opportunity and hope for the future.
“I grew up on a sprawling council estate and was told that being an Army officer wasn’t something ‘for people like us’.
“I want every boy and girl to learn that ‘can’t’ isn’t a word, we can all do incredible things with the right support. I’m a believer in unlocking opportunity for everyone, where ever you come from.”