Life in the trenches: Why 15 years in the army can’t prepare you for motherhood

You would think life with two toddlers would be a breeze for retired Australian Army Major Matina Jewell but there are times when she concedes leading 500 soldiers was a far easier task than motherhood is proving to be.

That’s not to lessen the challenges she faced in her 15 year military career spent tracking down warlords, rappelling from helicopters with Navy Seals and facing the brutal reality of a Middle East war. It has shaped the person she is today.

Flying high 

To call Matina accomplished would be an understatement. Not only was she part of the International Coalition Against Terrorism following the September 11 attacks on the United States of America, she also helped track down a notorious militia leader in the Solomon Islands. She speaks three languages, holds eight military medals and is the only Australian awarded two Republic of Lebanon War Medals. 

Hitting rock bottom

It was a career Matina loved and leaving it was never part of the plan. The heartbreaking way it all fell apart really took its toll on the rising military star.

While serving as an unarmed UN peacekeeper in Lebanon, she was rotated from her team to a base in the the town of Tyre. On route to her new base she suffered a serious spinal injury when the vehicle she was travelling in was forced to brake suddenly. As she started to understand the seriousness of her injury, she received news the base she was stationed at had been bombed in the days following her departure, killing her team and the peacekeeper who had taken her place.

“I had a great deal of survivor guilt, even to the point where I really resented the fact I was still alive, and all of my teammates had been killed and three of those guys had children,” she says. “I thought that was really unfair given I was single and didn’t have any dependents.”

Newfound purpose as a mum

But becoming a mum is helping Matina heal from the horrors and devastating loss she faced on the frontline. “Having kids has given me a whole new purpose in life after having hit rock bottom,” Matina says.

It was a long road to parenthood for her and her husband, Clenton. After several miscarriages and failed fertility treatments, doctors said that it was medically impossible for her to fall pregnant naturally – but she did. 

Motherhood, a new battlefront

Now with two busy little girls to chase, Sierra, 4, and Kyah, 2, Matina says her military experience couldn’t have prepared her for the unique challenges of parenthood.

“My two have certainly made commanding 500 soldiers or dodging bombs in a war zone look like a walk in the park most days and that’s why we call them Cyclone Sierra and Tornado Kyah – because those two are powerful little girls,” she says. However, she did concede that the sleep deprivation training she had during her military service has helped a little.

Really, for Matina and her husband, it is all a balancing act. “I think for every family it is a juggle these days. Trying to find the balance between work, career, children and trying to make everything fit in between.” To make life a little easier, they moved closer to their children’s grandparents for support. “I think that saying, ‘It takes a whole village to raise a child’, is very true,” she says.

A different perspective

If there is one thing her military career did give her, it was a healthy perspective on what really matters during those tough parenting moments. “I just think today’s issue, whatever it is, is not a war so let’s just get through whatever it is,” Matina says. “There are so many refugees and so much instability in many parts of the world, so just hug your kids tight.”

Tidal wave of change

Matina credits her time in the army for giving her amazing opportunities and responsibilities at a much younger age than she would have had in any other industry. But would she want the same for her girls?

She figures she has about 14 years to work out the parenting skills needed to support whatever career path her children choose, even if that means they follow a similar military path. “I have a feeling, knowing the personalities of my two girls, that they are very determined little ladies and they will certainly be choosing where they want to go and Mum and Dad will have very little say,” she says.

Regardless of what future her daughters forge for themselves, Matina hopes they go after what they really want. “I’d like my children to grow up knowing they can shoot for the stars, they can have a go at anything and, in this day and age, women can have a career in all sorts of industries that weren’t available to previous generations.”

Matina is an ambassador for the Thankful Foundation, dedicated to empowering women and children in the fight against violence. She is also an international keynote speaker and the author of Caught in the Crossfire.

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