Humble, caring, and honest are three words Major Heleda Thompson uses to describe herself. But the petite personal assistant to Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Lieutenant General Rocky Meade is no pushover.
In fact, 52-year-old, five-feet, two inches Thompson, the longest-serving female soldier of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF), told the Jamaica Observer, “Mi likkle but mi tallawah,” in a recent interview at the JDF’s Up Park Camp headquarters in St Andrew ahead of today’s celebration of International Women’s Day. Though her pronouncements triggered cheers and laughter among her colleagues, there was no doubt that she meant every word as she was living proof that height in the Jamaican military is not an advantage.
Thompson, who hails from Christiana, Manchester, shared that growing up she passed the Common Entrance Exam for Knox College but only spent two years at the school as her mother thought she was too rough and boyish. This perception led to her transfer to Hampton School in an effort at refinement.
Her mother also told her daily that she would be a nurse, but Thompson said she knew that was no longer an option when she failed biology.
This period of uncertainty for Thompson became more frustrating when multiple job applications did not receive a response. But when retired Colonel Audley Carter visited her father and heard of her plight, his encouragement to join the JDF changed her life.
“He said they are recruiting females at the moment, why don’t you try? [Prior to that] the military never crossed my mind. I was sold on being a nurse, and that’s how it started, basically because I wanted a job. But it is a job I have grown to love. Being here 33 years, going into my 34th year, obviously it’s a job that I love,” Thompson said.
Her military career began as a private at JDF Headquarters (HQ) with the job description of a general duties clerk, a post she held for 18 years. Thereafter, Thompson went to the Air Wing before moving to the Support and Services Battalion, then the Second Battalion, the Jamaica Regiment (2 JR) before returning to HQ where her main focus is now on administration and logistics.
She is also president of the Military Christian Fellowship and the JDF Credit Union. Additionally, she has contributed to the region in the field of logistics, having served at the Trinidad and Tobago matches in the 2007 Cricket World Cup and in 2009 at the Fifth Summit of the Americas, also held in Trinidad and Tobago.
But for Thompson, her joy is seeing how much the JDF has grown to embrace women soldiers since her entry 34 years ago.
“General Meade has put some focus on gender optimisation. When I joined my first leadership course — a potential non-commissioned officers course — I was the best student on the course at the time and I don’t think men knew how to handle a woman coming out on top. I ended up with an A minus on my course and the person they awarded the top student got a B plus,” she said.
“The first set of women joined in 1977, and there were three intakes in a year. My intake didn’t come until the next nine, 10 years so they still didn’t know how to deal with women. When I topped my course they came and said, ‘You have the highest average on the course, however, we are going to use the field phase. So the person who topped the field phase, that’s who we are going to give top student.’ I don’t know if they were embarrassed or didn’t know how to handle it. That course is more like an infantry-type course, so for a woman to top it, it was just [a] no no,” Thompson said.
That was 1989, and for Thompson that experience served as a catalyst for the way women were regarded in the JDF.
“That was one of the things that changed how they began to view women. By the time the graduation was ending everybody was just coming to ask how I feel about it. The commanding officer came and asked how I felt that I was the top student but I wasn’t awarded. I told him it was discrimination at the time. But we have moved way past that,”she asserted.
“When we joined we would have been told that a female cannot pass the rank of major. It wasn’t policy, it wasn’t written anywhere, but persons heard it and believed. The point is, we never had a female who stayed long enough to move up to lieutenant colonel and I believe some persons would have even retired because of what they heard. Now, we have a female who is a brigadier and we are very proud of that.”
Thompson, who is a Christian, mother of one daughter and grandparent to two girls and a boy, does not mince words when it comes to encouraging women.
“I am as real as you get it. I don’t pretend. I tell them as is. I make sure to encourage them to stay in school and achieve things before getting into relationships to avoid early pregnancies. I got pregnant at 20 and if I was to relive my life, not that I regret having my child, but I would have waited,” she shared.
Further, Thompson, though a champion for women’s rights, said that she finds herself mentoring males more than females.
Regarding this year’s International Women’s Day theme ‘Each for Equal’, Thompson proffers that women must now join and help men be better versions of themselves.
“I believe that women are pushing for equality but I think the men need to step up now, it’s not us anymore. We used to be marginalised but I think it has reversed. It is now about how we are going to help the men to rise up to be equal with us now,” she said.
Thompson further explained that while certain organisations still have men at the helm, it is only a matter of time before women take those spots. She reiterated that while women rising to the top is a good thing, we must be careful not to leave our men behind.
“When I joined the JDF we could only have 10 per cent of females, we are gone now to 25 per cent. But if we are not careful we may have the reverse because the boys are just not doing well and that’s a concern for me. My focus is how to get men to stay where they are and step up to the women. If you even look at education the majority of university students are females. Therefore, what will happen in the years to come?” asked Thompson.
Thompson, who is currently pursuing a master of science degree in national security and strategic studies at The University of the West Indies, also encouraged women to work smart.
“They have this saying that women have to work twice as hard. I don’t believe that. I believe if you work smart and do your absolute best, then everything should fall into place,” she said.
Her spare time is spent working in various ministries within her church and the JDF, or unwinding with her daughter and family.
“You can find me at the chapel every single day in my lunch time, either with Bible study, teaching, or praying with persons. People will come for counselling. I am passionate about persons coming to Christ. I am also the chairperson for the benevolence ministry at my church — Eleven Miles New Testament Church of God in St Thomas — and I also find pleasure in helping out individuals,” shared Major Thompson, who has received medals of honour for long service, good conduct, meritorious service, general service, as well as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal.
Meanwhile Thompson, who hopes to give 40 years service to the JDF, lives by two personal mantras: “Expect nothing, appreciate everything, and be with those who will bring out the best in you and not those who will stress you.”
Article: Published in the Jamaica Observer on Sunday March 8, 2020
Writer: Kimberley Hibbert