Mental Health

How one female Chinook crewman turned her life around after nearly ending it all

The following video contains material that may be harmful or traumatising to some audiences. 

An RAF veteran who at 21 was the youngest aircrew member to deploy to Iraq, has written a book in which she reveals the highs and lows she witnessed during war and the heavy cost – both physically and mentally – for those who serve. 

Veteran-turned-author Liz McConaghy was the only female 'crewman' on the Chinook wing for four years and after 17 and half years of service, has written 'Chinook Crew 'Chick': Highs and Lows of Forces Life from the Longest Serving Female RAF Chinook Force Crewmember'.

It was written to inspire those who wish to join the Royal Air Force and help others who might be contending with difficult battlefield memories. 

After two deployments to Iraq followed by 10 to Afghanistan, her own mental health struggles left Liz feeling detached from herself emotionally and suicidal. 

She said: "In August 2020, I woke up one day and I can only describe it as an out-of-body experience because I felt so detached emotionally from myself at this point and I decided that I was going to end my life. 

"I actually woke up two days later in Basingstoke Intensive Care on an intubation machine and had been taken in by an ambulance crew. 

"It turns out that I had actually called at 00:50 in the morning, so clearly something inside me still wanted to fight."

Veteran turned author Liz McConaghy Chinook RAF MERT ramp pic CREDIT Liz McConaghy
Liz served on the Medical Emergency Response Team (Picture: Liz McConaghy).

While deployed, Liz served on the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) – a group of service personnel who saved countless lives in Helmand Province throughout the conflict in Afghanistan. 

She flew the Boeing CH-47 Chinook, the "flying ambulance", but her role also involved returning fire if they came under enemy attack. 

Liz would fly into dangerous war zones to recover severely wounded soldiers from the battlefield, often not knowing if they would survive. 

She said: "The 'bat phone' would ring, we'd take down all these details, we would sprint out to the aircraft, spin the aircraft up as quick as we could, engineers would be helping and most of the time we'd get very minimal information to begin with, and injuries in Afghanistan don't just happen by accident. 

"It's usually troops in contact or there's been an IED of some format so, you know, most of the time you're kind of going into somewhere that's pretty tasty when you're going to land." 

Watch: Forces News meet the Medical Emergency Response Team in Afghanistan in 2014.

Liz hopes her book encourages people to join the RAF as she had an "awesome" career and would do it all again in a heartbeat. 

However, she also wants people who read her book to learn from her sobering, life-changing experience. 

During her service, Liz would keenly look after the emotional well-being of those around her but never afforded herself the same luxury. 

She said: "I used to be there for the guys who used to come back from some of the MERT flights and be really upset. 

"And, old mum here was the one who would take them away, you know, get them a brew and I never listened to my own medicine, never take my own advice." 

Veteran turned author Liz McConaghy Chinook RAF MERT firearm CREDIT Liz McConaghy
Liz on board a Chinook (Picture: Liz McConaghy).

After her suicide attempt, Liz sought help from two mental health charities - PTSD Resolution and Help for Heroes. 

She received support to acknowledge the trauma she experienced during her service and help to move on from her darkest days. 

One way the former crewman chose to help herself was by writing about her RAF career and in particular, her adoration for Chinook helicopters. 

She describes the tandem-rotor, multi-role helicopter as the "love of [her] life", even referring to herself as the 'Chinook Crew Chick' in her book. 

Talking of the admiration she feels for the Chinook, she said: 

"It's the sound of freedom is what the troops call it and that's for a very good reason, you know. 

"It's them being taken off the battlefield, the majority of the time, or getting home after a three-week exercise on Salisbury Plain." 

Liz is delighted that, while her book was "born out of quite a low and dark time", something incredibly positive has come out of it. 

She said: "I always describe my time in the Air Force as the best of times and the worst of times but, it's the contrast of both of those that hopefully make for an interesting read in the book." 

If you or someone you know needs support at this time, find help available on our website.