I’m Sarah Browning-Lee and I have recently started work for the DIO as the Senior Infrastructure Manager, Ascension Island Base. This is a Permanent Joint Operating Base, which is a military base used by all three services and run by Joint Forces Command. All Permanent Joint Operating Bases are overseas.
As the Senior Infrastructure Manager I am the day to day interface with our Industry Partner (Interserve) delivering Hard and Soft Facilities Management here on Ascension Island. Currently DIO is completing £11.8m worth of project works for airfield and fuels infrastructure, in addition to our core ‘maintain and sustain’ programme, on Ascension Island.
I’ve only recently returned to work after a two year period of Extended Special Unpaid Leave (Ex SUPL), having accompanied my husband overseas as he worked for the MOD. This was firstly to the Falkland Islands and then to the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia.
Back to the MOD
Before joining DIO and my period of special leave, I was working in MOD myself so you might say it’s the family business. My background is in procurement and I worked for Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S), spending 16 years as a Commercial Officer. During this time I worked in RAF Wyton, Cyprus, DE&S Abbeywood and also completed three operational tours in Bosnia and Afghanistan. Latterly I worked for Commercial Scrutiny and Due Diligence.
Much as a period of Ex SuPL sounds appealing I did have some concerns and it was a difficult decision to make; I had been promoted, I was in a job I really enjoyed, I had big career plans and I didn’t want to lose my financial independence. However, I tried to look positively on the opportunity and approached it as a chance of a life time. It certainly was and I have had the most amazing time! Now that it’s come to an end, I can look back on not just the amazing experiences I had but also how much that time has helped me now I’m working at DIO.
Life in the Falkland Islands
My husband and I both loved our time in the Falklands and we embraced the life, the people and wildlife. In our spare time we ran the Mount Pleasant Sub Aqua Club, helped run the Base conservation club, we scuba dived with a voluntary marine research team, undertook all manner of conservation work and wildlife surveys and travelled extensively around both the Falklands and South America. Of course, DIO has a presence in the Falkland Islands and in retrospect I think that living in a close-knit defence community helped me to fully appreciate what other parts of the MOD do. Even after 16 years in MOD I was most familiar with my own part – DE&S – so seeing the work done by DIO and the other parts of the MOD was really helpful in expanding my knowledge and can only have helped me when I came to work at DIO.
On to South Georgia
From the Falklands we moved even further south to another UK Overseas Territory, South Georgia, when my husband took up the post of Government Office based at King Edward Point. South Georgia is breathtaking - the stuff of dreams - and we were privileged to live there for 18 months.
The only way to South Georgia is via ship and that’s a four day sail from the Falkland Islands; there’s no airport and no permanent residents. In the summer months, between October and March, numbers swell to around 30 then in the winter they drop down to around ten.
I filled my time working mainly on the habitat restoration weed eradication project which involved mapping and spraying invasive plants. It’s the best job ever as it’s outdoors the whole time – no emails, no phones and no inbox. I also worked in the post office selling stamps and postcards to the some 7,000 cruise ship visitors that pass through every summer, and I was one of two people who undertook the South Georgia 10 yearly Black Browed and Grey Headed Albatross Survey - the memories of which will remain with me forever.
In between all this I did many other fun things like fur seal surveys, baking cakes, baking bread, hosting VIP dinners for visiting Royal Navy ships, sailing tall ships, watching the fur seals sleeping on the Tussac Grass outside the house, walking in the summer, skiing in the winter, mid- winter swims and running a half marathon. I even got to meet Steve Backshall when he was filming Deadly Pole to Pole. The best times were when my husband and I got away from the base to go walking and camping – to have South Georgia as a back yard to enjoy with just us and the wildlife is a rare privilege.
Back to Work on Ascension Island
I left South Georgia at the end of May on board the MV Pharos, the Government’s patrol ship, bound for the Falklands, to catch a flight north to Ascension Island. I waved goodbye to nine people on the jetty and enjoyed the next six days sailing the Southern Ocean watching the birds and seals, looking for whales and reflecting on what an amazing experience I’d had in South Georgia.
Ex SUPL is not guaranteed and is subject to agreement from the department. I received exceptional support from DE&S throughout the whole process and am extremely grateful to them and also to those who invested their time and effort supporting me and keeping me in touch whilst I was away from MoD. I think this has helped me to transition more easily into working for DIO than would otherwise be the case.
So, as I sit here in the office in Ascension fighting off the emails, surrounded by financial spreadsheets I think back to what I was doing two months ago; watching the snow falling over the mountains of South Georgia, worrying about returning to work and wondering if I had made the right decision…
Of course I had, the experience I gained has been enriching and I bring to DIO a new perspective, feeling refreshed and ready to learn new skills and meet new people.