Despite facing challenges of her own, Royal Navy veteran Natalie McCombe knew she could help ex-Forces men and women in South West Wales find a way back into employment through her work as an Employability Consultant with The Poppy Factory. Here Natalie tells her story in her own words.
“I was born and raised in Swansea. Half-way through my A-levels I saw an advert in the local paper for the Royal Navy Reserves. I joined in 1990 and loved it so much, I decided to join the regulars. I signed up for the Wrens the following year.
“After going through basic training as a weapons engineering mechanic, I won the Owen Cup for the best new entry out of 130. My first sea draft was on HMS Battleaxe, a type 22 frigate based in Plymouth. This wasn’t a happy time as I felt isolated and bullied. Instead of accepting redundancy at the time, I changed to an operator mechanic role and went back for more training before joining my second ship, HMS Invincible.
“I met my now ex-husband and we both decided to leave the service in 1996. I secured a permanent role with HSBC within three months, and I loved that job. In a 12-year career I progressed from customer service adviser to financial planning manager.
“I had my first son in 2000 and my second son came along seven years later. I returned to work briefly after maternity leave but the financial sector was in chaos due to the global financial crisis. My ex-husband was working away on the oil rigs and I decided to resign from my job to concentrate on supporting my family, becoming a stay-at-home mum for eight years.
A new support network
“I decided to go back to university to study health and social care. I also joined the local branch of the Association of Wrens in Swansea and one of the ladies told me about volunteering opportunities with SSAFA, so I signed up to be one of their case workers.
“I’ve had a long-standing problem with my back since my Navy days. In 2016 I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a chronic condition causing stiffness, pain and fatigue. Finally, all my years of back pain had a name and a treatment plan.
“Soon afterwards my ex-husband and I separated after 20 years of marriage. It was a complete shock and I was floored for months. My fellow Wrens were amazingly supportive, and I picked myself up and decided to get on with my life and went on the RBLI Lifeworks course for veterans. I realised I had years of professional experience and lots of transferable skills. My love of the Armed Forces and volunteering experience with SSAFA made me want to help other veterans.
Supporting veterans into work
“I’d asked The Poppy Factory for support to help me get back to work. My Employability Consultant, Suzanne, was moving away – she told me that her job was being split into two posts and she felt I would be perfect for the role. I applied and became an Employability Consultant covering South West Wales in 2017.
“It was a tough time on several fronts. Along with the pressures around work, my health and my divorce, my mum had cancer and she sadly passed away in 2018. My mental health took a battering but my employers supported me and I went through counselling.
“I was very proud to be chosen to represent Wales in the Help for Heroes 2019 winter games. I also did the Royal British Legion’s Battle Back course, which helps veterans improve their physical and mental wellbeing through sport and outdoor adventure. Both experiences helped build my resilience and pushed me out of my comfort zone, which helps me be more effective in my work. I can really relate to most of my clients and I feel proud and privileged to be a veteran supporting other veterans in my community.
“It really feels like my stars aligned when I got the job at The Poppy Factory. It’s the perfect role for me.”
Female veterans of the Royal Navy can find out about joining the Association of Wrens and Women of the Royal Naval Services online or by calling 02392 725 141.