Health and Fitness

'I feel lucky': HIV-positive Navy officer on 'momentous' defence policy changes

Lieutenant Commander Oliver Brown said he asked himself "when am I going to die?" when diagnosed with HIV in 2019.

An HIV-positive senior Royal Navy officer has praised the Ministry of Defence for the "pioneering" changes made to military service for those living with HIV.

In an announcement to coincide with World Aids Day, ministers have said candidates taking medication to prevent HIV infection will be accepted to join the military, while serving personnel who are HIV-positive will be permitted to take part in operations.

The policy change was reached with the help of Lieutenant Commander Oliver Brown, who was diagnosed with HIV in 2019.

He told Forces News: "I feel lucky that I work in an organisation that is positive, open-minded, accepting of challenge and has allowed this opportunity to happen."

He added: "It will change so many people’s lives – not just in defence or people that want to join defence, but people in any walk of life who now just know someone has stood up and said it’s ok."

Lt Cdr Brown told Forces News about the shock of his diagnosis two years ago.

He explained: "Three things went through my mind of 'what's my life going to be like, when am I going to die and do I still have a job?'.

"Two of those were quickly cleared up by the doctors in the hospital, but the third one hung around for three days whilst I worked out, spoke to people and understood it better."

He then decided to do something about it and said: "I felt alone and isolated and thought 'I cannot be the only one in defence with HIV' – that's a matter of fact, but I didn't know anyone.

"Why didn't I know anyone? Because no one talks about it. Almost, why would they, considering the amount of stigma and misinformation that people have out of date on HIV? So, I thought, talk about it then."

The Navy officer also outlined how damaging previous approaches to those living with HIV could be, and what it meant for his service.

"I was recognised as medically limited deployable, and ultimately that was there to protect me. The implications it had, in practice, on my job as a warfare officer, were almost minimal or non-existent. It was a pre-check before I go on extra administration," he said.

"But the reality is actually the burden of the mental health aspects of living with HIV – of being told, knowing yourself that it’s absolutely ok and it's fine, but you're labelled limited deployable, and it brings up those questions internally for yourself – 'oh but actually, I can do everything, why can't I do anything?'"

The UK is only the second country in the world after South Africa to make such changes in policy for its Armed Forces.  There will be practical hurdles to overcome – some countries do not allow entry to HIV positive people, for example.

However, it is a sign of the MOD's determination to lift barriers and allow all those who want to serve, to do so.

Lt Cdr Brown said: "We're a world-leading nation, it's Global Britain and that is the clear message of defence. We've taken this action, we don't even know yet what the ripples and the effects of this could be around the world, of making people sit up, listen and pay attention."