Polly Wilton served in the Royal Military Police in the British Army between 2004 and 2012 in Iraq, Northern Ireland and Afghanistan. She went on to join the Adjutants General Corps Nordic Skiing team as a novice, before competing in the army championships as part of a female team made up of British skiers who won the female trophy. Today she runs a personal training business and is about to launch her own t-shirt brand, having worked in fashion retail in Harvey Nichols before she joined the Army.
“…I made the decision to do the Close Protection Course… The course is not something that is taken lightly, has a high failure rate and always seemed a taboo for females. Both male and females could apply, however it was extremely physically demanding and this put females off – so I signed up to it…”
From Harvey Nichols to the Army
I joined the Army when I was 21, I’d known since I was 16 that I wanted to join but my parents weren’t keen. Once I completed high school I worked in fashion retail which I did enjoy – I was great at sales and had a natural eye for visual merchandising. However, I still had a niggle in the back of my head that I wanted to join the Army.
I yearned for a physical challenge, I needed to push myself, I needed to see what I was capable of, also the second Iraq war had kicked off and I knew I had to experience it. I was working in Harvey Nichols in Edinburgh at the time and I was just like, “Why I am not doing this? If I don’t do it, I’ll only regret it.” So I went to the careers office and that was the beginning.
Joining the Royal Military Police and serving in Iraq
I enlisted in the Army in 2004 and joined the Royal Military Police (RMP). My first posting was at a Regimental Headquarters in Bulford, Wiltshire. From here I went on my first tour of Iraq in 2005. On this tour I was embedded within a battle group and conducted desert patrols, which involved staying out in the desert for periods of time, I was the only female RMP stationed there.
I moved to a Policing Company on my return, still in Bulford. From here I went on my second tour of Iraq in 2007. This time I was based in Basra and conducted strike ops with different battle groups.
For the later part of this tour I worked within the Theatre Investigation Group, which was part of the Special Investigation Branch, conducting investigations in Iraq. This tour was logged as the worst tour for the British Army in Iraq as it received its most fatalities.
Close Protection Course: Taboo for women
When I came back from this tour, I knew I wanted to do more than sit in a garrison police station on duty – that was to mundane for me. I made the decision to do the Close Protection Course, which is specifically for RMP only – essentially it’s a course that trains you to be the Army’s Bodyguards.
The course is not something that is taken lightly, has a high failure rate and always seemed a taboo for females. Both male and females could apply, however it was extremely physically demanding and this put females off – so I signed up to it.
I completed the course in 2008. I was now stationed at a Policing Company in Northern Ireland. I went on my first Close Protection Tour to Baghdad in early 2009. Upon my return from here I was posted to the Close Protection Unit (CPU) as an assistant instructor (I was the only female).
At CPU they train new recruits to the course, they train those who are going off to do a Close Protection Tour and the staff there are also put in a ‘High Readiness Team’ (HRT) who when not training go on ‘short notice’ deployments to where Close Protection Operatives are needed. In 2010 I went on a HRT deployment to Kabul.
Gold medal ski champions
Upon my return I joined the Adjutants General Corps Nordic Skiing team as a novice and had a whale of time training in this physically demanding discipline around Europe. I competed in the Army Championships alongside my team made up of GB skiers and we won the female trophy.
However, just like when I had the yearning feeling inside me all those years ago for a physical challenge, I had a different yearning inside me this time and that was for a baby. On the morning I found out I was pregnant, was the same morning I went out and won my first gold medal – it was pretty amazing. Although it meant me forgoing having a shot at national level, I wanted a baby 100 times more.
I returned to the Close Protection Unit, post skiing. I think it was a shock for them to have a pregnant female – their only female! My daughter was born in 2011 and I completed my service in 2012.
On my first Close Protection Tour I went to Bagdad and I protected a three-star General – he was the highest ranking British General out there and the second highest ranking general out there for the Joint Multinational Force. He was the Deputy to General Petraeus, an American.
Whilst on this tour, two weeks in I also had to bodyguard for General Sir Richard Dannatt, a four-star General – who was Head of the Army at the time. Two weeks in on my first tour of the job and it was rather daunting.
On my second Close Protection Tour I looked after the NATO Ambassador for Afghanistan – he was the highest ranking civilian out there for NATO. He was also an ex Mi6 so I’m sure he could have taken care of himself!
‘Blokey’ culture – chest puffing and dick swinging, but also great banter and equal pay
As you can imagine it was a very ‘blokey’ culture, lots of chest puffing and dick swinging. For an easy life you just have to fit in with it and grow a thick skin, guys can be just as bitchy as females at times, believe me. I just wanted to do the job, so learnt to get on with it. But also there was great banter. There was very few other females doing it, you could probably count one hand. When I went on close protection tours I was always the only female in the team.
On the whole I would say that my male colleagues didn’t treat me any different, everybody has to muck in and do the same, there was no role I couldn’t do because I was ‘female’. In the Military Police everything is gender balanced – everyone receives equal pay in relation to their level.
I faced many challenges in the Army, believe it or not fitness was one. I was fit, but I was not as fit as I needed to be – I struggled initially in my basic and phase two training but this spurred me on to improve myself. I knew I had to get serious for my CP course and so I’d be training at every opportunity – imagine a Rocky training montage!
Leaving the military
I never joined the Army for a full career, I joined for the experience and I felt I had fulfilled that. However, my passion is still fitness and wanting to be physically fit and healthy. I knew I had to make another career move that would still fulfil this.
How my military background affects my outlook as an entrepreneur
Being ex-military prepares you for most challenges – I think it helps you see the bigger picture and it teaches you to keep moving forward even when you are faced with knockbacks. I think also it makes you more daring in what you want and aim bigger.
Future plans for the business
As well as personal training, I am setting up my own t-shirt brand, which I am quite excited about. It’s a female fitness label called Lover and a Fighter. I do feel like the brand represents me and other females like me – passionate and caring but can also kick-ass and battle on when it’s needed! I love fitness and strong female role models and that’s what I want the brand to represent.