“Don’t look at your body, just have that mindset that you can do whatever you are tasked with doing. We as women can do can everything the men are doing; don’t bother with what people say…once you put your best foot forward you will make it and we will continue to shine.”
By Sharmain Grainger
Women have over the years proven that they are not only excellent home-makers but many
of them have ventured into traditional male arenas and have dominated those too.
Achieving this, however, has not been without loads of resistance. But this certainly did not serve as a detractor, at least not for women the likes of Ms. Beverly Somerset, who has the distinguished record of not only being among the early set of females to enter the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) but she has had the privilege of making soldiers of many recruits who rose to distinguished heights.
However, among her most proud achievements as a soldier is that she was the first woman soldier to trek to the top of Mount Ayanganna.
Mount Ayanganna is said to be a sandstone tepui (table-top mountain) in the Pakaraima Mountains of western Guyana. It is located 85 kilometres east of Mount Roraima at 5°232N 59°592W. With a height of 2,041 metres it is the easternmost tepui taller than 2,000 metres.
Scaling Mount Ayanganna was no easy assignment, she asserted during a recent interview, but she was determined to prove that she was just as fit and determined to reach the top as her male counterparts; well at least most of them.
You see Somerset was a member of a team which included 11 men and herself, but not all of them had the requisite stamina to reach the top.
The passion that Somerset exuded as a military woman was easily recognised. But it was her determination and drive to be as good as her male counterparts that essentially allowed her to pave the way for other women to follow suit.
Although enthused by the profession ever since she was a young girl, Somerset recalled that she never believed that, even in her wildest dreams, she would have been able to grasp the opportunity to embrace a military career.
She remembered being a part of a club which saw her learning from early on, proper posture and discipline too.
“Every two weeks I used to get promotion in the club and that motivated me to become better,” Somerset recounted as she strived to be even better when she would set eyes on occasional military processions. But back then a female entering the military was no easy task. They were very few and rarely rose to seniority.
Born September 30, 1956 to Henry Somerset and Sheila Yaw, Beverly was raised in Beterverwagting, East Coast Demerara. The very outgoing girl was the third of five children born to her parents. She attended Beterverwagting Primary School and then Buxton Secondary, and although of average stature, she had a keen passion for competing with boys.
Somerset disclosed that it was in 1975 that she dared to send an application to enter the male-dominated GDF. The process was a rather lengthy one. She waited for months for a reply, but became impatient and opted to join the Guyana National Service.
But according to Somerset, it wasn’t until months later that she would learn that the GDF would usually conduct a thorough background check before determining whether applicants were suitable for the military profession.
Moreover, after she graduated from the National Service, in June of 1976, she was immediately recruited by the GDF.
As fate would have it, Somerset would be enlisted at a time when the army decided to train its first batch of militia personnel.
“It was a batch of both male and female…they trained us in the army, but when we graduated they sent us to be a part of the Guyana People’s Militia,” Somerset recalled.
She however noted that the training that she was exposed to was not meant for a mere recruit but rather an instructor, a role she understandably had to assume. This was due to the fact that “everybody in my batch had some sort of military knowledge…who didn’t come from the National Service came from the Youth Corps”.
The batch soon after training was tasked with visiting a number of schools in order to identify and train recruits for the Army, Somerset disclosed.
She was so engaged for about three years before she was sent to Long Creek and base Camp Seweyo on the Soesdyke/Linden Highway. For the next two years, Somerset said that she had the responsibility of training reservists.
Recognised for her competent training ability, she was assigned to train soldiers at the Tacama Battle School.
“I had to conduct general weapons training, drills, field craft, open country warfare…just about everything to make a recruit a suitable soldier…,”Somerset reflected with pride. She remained there for about 13 years, training
many soldiers, and claimed the status of being the longest female training soldier in Tacama.
“I didn’t only train recruits but also officers, because back in the day, a recruit couldn’t just come off of the road and do the Cadet Course, they had to be trained first,” Somerset explained. “They had to get specific training before they could have done the Cadet programme.” “There are still several serving officers who I have trained…the majority of them are men, and I feel proud that these guys passed through my hands.”
Although training was a gratifying forte, it simply wasn’t enough for the ambitious Somerset. She felt stagnated and wanted to reach higher heights in the military.
“I was seeing so many male soldiers getting the opportunity to go to the mountains, to go paratrooping and all sorts of things, but women were just not going forward. I so wanted to challenge these men,” recalled Somerset.
Moreover, she decided to apply to participate in a paratrooper course. In fact, she applied on multiple occasions, but was denied in each instance.
Though daunted by this development, Somerset said that she was determined to prove that her skills were on par with her male counterparts, if not better.
She requested to do mountain climbing instead.
There were several male soldiers who had over the years trekked mountains in order to hoist the Golden Arrowhead and, Somerset thought that she too could be given the privilege to at least bask in such glory.
Somerset would first make a request around 1990 but would only be granted approval to climb in 1992. The mission was to climb Mount Ayanganna as part of the annual Operation Arrowhead to commemorate the Republic anniversary.
“After they gave me the opportunity to go ahead, I immediately started to do some rigorous training…I did sandpit training because I found out that I needed to really build my thighs and muscles,” Somerset recalled.
She remembers all too well that the mission started at the Timehri airport on February 8, 1992. As a Sergeant, she was in fact the most senior among the team members on the mission.
But each soldier, including her, had to be self-reliant.
“Each soldier had to carry their own ration; we had to manage with a bag of a lot of tin food stuff,” Somerset recounted as she spoke of having a backpack with, among other things, three suits of uniforms, gloves and a hammock.
The team was flown to Imbaimadai in the Upper Mazaruni. The residents of the area, according to Somerset, appeared astonished to see a female soldier in the company of male soldiers. “They had never seen a woman before and they were very curious…and I decided to hide. I didn’t want them to see me until after I would have accomplished what I’d set out to do,” Somerset said with a smile.
After “overnighting” at Imbaimadai, Somerset said that the team left for Chi Chi Falls where the real trekking mission commenced.
“We had to climb a real steep hill, as steep as two lantern poles,” said Somerset who noted that at the end of this phase of the journey the team awaited a guide to lead the way to a village called Chinoweing where they camped before continuing their journey.
At the location, the Amerindian residents there were again curious about the presence of a woman among the team, and again Somerset opted to conceal herself wherever and whenever it was possible. She maintained that she simply didn’t wish to be a spectacle until after the mission was accomplished.
From a secure vantage point in the village, Somerset quietly spied out Mount Ayanganna as, according to her, “from there you could get a good view of where we had to go.”
During the journey to the mountain, Somerset recalled the team hurrying to do as much as possible during the available light of day. And daylight didn’t last very long. In fact she recalled that “by three, four o’clock the place was dark as ever and so we had to hustle and do as much walking, eating and everything else we needed to do before we camped. We had to cross several rivers and creeks to get to the base of the mountain,” she said.
According to Somerset, crossing one river even entailed the mere use of a rope.
“We had to send over a strong swimmer to tie the rope to a tree and we each had to pull ourselves across the rough, black water to get to the other side. At one point when I was crossing I thought the rope was sinking and I started to holler, but the guys assured me that it wasn’t,” Somerset said.
It took about four days to reach to the base of the mountain. She recalled a single dip in the cold water of a creek constituted a bath and remembered sleeping in whatever dry change of clothes she had. Continuing the journey, however, was usually in a drenched outfit. This was unavoidable, as according to Somerset, the rain was incessant and the temperature was always cold.
“It wasn’t easy, there was jungle with trees full of large thorns and moss and along the path there were rocks the size of buildings…we had to clear and keep moving along. You couldn’t divert otherwise we would’ve lost the path,” said Somerset, as she remembered that at one point too, the team had to crawl through a 120-foot tunnel.
“You could’ve barely seen the man in front of you how it was so dark; you had to barely touch the boots of the man in front of you and keep going.”
Upon their arrival at the base of the mountain, several members of the team were too haggard to continue the journey. But not Somerset; even if she was too tired she was not prepared to give up at that point.
“I couldn’t give up…all along I was saying I asked to go there and I had to endure…I was prepared to die going forward; there was no way I was going to make a decision to stop short of my destination,” asserted Somerset.
Somerset gauged her journey to the top by infrequent gazes to the bottom which showcased just how high they had ascended.
“The smaller the things at the bottom looked, I knew that it meant the closer I was to reaching my goal…at one point our breathing just changed and I realised when I looked up and down there were clouds…that was how high we had to climb,” noted Somerset.
On the eve of Republic Day, Somerset was the lone woman atop Mount Ayanganna helping to hoist the Golden Arrowhead just in time for the observance of Republic Day. Her feat was not repeated until 2005 and 2009 when the hierarchy of the army asked that women seek to follow in Somerset’s footsteps. On those occasions, the journey to the top of Mount Ayanganna to hoist the flag was accomplished by all-women teams.
It was not until last year that a lone female soldier, Lance Corporal Shannon Ross-Cox, journeyed with her male counterparts to the top of the Mountain, mirroring Somerset’s feat in the process.
Although now a veteran, Somerset still plays an integral role in the army. She serves as the Army’s Welfare Officer and helps to cater to the needs of physically challenged veterans.
There are currently some 82 veterans who Somerset has on record.
“I go and visit them and carry hampers for them on a monthly basis…we get supplies from Food for the Poor and other veterans living abroad to sustain this programme,” Somerset disclosed recently.
To serving women in the Army, Somerset had this bit of advice, “don’t look at your body, just have that mindset that you can do whatever you are tasked with doing. We as women can do can everything the men are doing; don’t bother with what people say…once you put your best foot forward you will make it and we will continue to shine.”
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