In her final year at vet school, Ann O'Flynn realised she wanted something a bit different from the normal vet jobs. She was already playing rugby for England and needed an employer who would understand that sporting excellence was just as important to her as her professional career. She found that the Army offered just what she wanted.
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What made you join the Army?
A friend suggested that I join the Army because I could play rugby to a high level and be a vet. The more I looked at the Army as a career, the more I liked it. It seemed to offer the challenge that I was looking for; a new goal that could also offer me personal development. The opportunity to learn about leadership, decision-making under pressure and tricky things like budgets and writing appraisals was really attractive.
How did you get to where you are today?
When I look back now, it seems that everything I have done in my life has prepared me for being an Officer in the Army. I didn't get the grades to get a place at vet school and I was devastated, but I believe that God stepped in, and I swiftly gained a place at the University of Liverpool to read physiology. Throughout my degree, I kept in touch with the vet school, did my dissertation in the department of preclinical sciences, and worked there as a research assistant when I graduated.
At the time, I was playing rugby for a Premiership team in Liverpool and was picked for the England students' team. I spent my annual leave seeing practice on the university farm and got the last-ever bursary place that the university offered in the faculty. My rugby went well, too. In 1994, weeks after graduating from my first degree, I changed position on the advice of the England coach, to hooker, and within three months I was in the senior England squad. I played for England for 12 years (and was capped 23 times), in three World Cups, the European Championship and won a Six Nations Grand Slam. I joined the Army a year after graduating.
Why is your job important?
As the Regimental Veterinary Officer for the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment (HCMR) I am responsible for the veterinary healthcare and welfare of over 300 horses that provide the Queen's Life Guard. Apart from their duties at Horse Guards Parade, the horses also escort the Queen on state visits and on state ceremonial occasions. I have the privilege of being a vital part of an iconic British tradition that is respected and lauded around the world.
What does your job involve?
I do lots of first-opinion work, but I also devise and set the policy that the Regiment works to regarding equine health and welfare. I am the officer in charge of the HCMR forge, where I lead and manage a team of 15 farriers and a veterinary technician. I am responsible for their training, personal development, welfare, education and discipline.
As I am coming to end of my playing career, through age and injury, I have been focusing on being a rugby referee and I have officiated at many games for military and civilian teams. I am also the Regiment's Rugby Officer, so I coach our team and facilitate the soldiers playing for representative sides.
What do you like about your job?
I love working with the horses. For me, the absolute bonus about this career is the chance to work with soldiers – they are fantastic to work with, and I really enjoy the responsibility of leading men and having the honour to look out for them. When a soldier who you have gone out of your way for turns to you and says ‘You're a hero, boss’, there is nothing better; it is the part of the job that makes me smile at the end of every long day.
What do you not like?
It's an amazing job, but can be totally life-consuming. Sometimes I don't know what time of day or night it is, and at busy times I don't leave the premises for days on end, but in return I have the honour of ensuring the health and fitness of the horses and being there on the parades myself too.
You don't get a choice in where you work, who your team is, or when you move on – you can express your preference for certain jobs over others, but the needs of the Army come before your own. The on-call hours can be relentless and it is tiring being on call so much. Often you are the only vet in a unit, although there are fewer out-of-hours surprises as our animals are all secured at night and checked every 30 minutes. The other difficulty is working alone, so to get peer advice you need to call someone else or ask them to visit to help with a difficult case, but it is good to have total case ownership.
What advice would you give to someone considering a similar career?
Being a vet nowadays is a serious consideration, not just in terms of tuition fees but also quality of working life. However, if you are the kind of person who wants to prevent illness rather than make money out of treating it, and you like the idea of a constantly changing job and work location and the opportunity to keep fit or play sport, then the Army could be the place for you.
What's the best piece of advice you were ever given?
‘Don't let your valley trials steal your mountain vision’: this was from my sports psychologist in the England squad in 2002, but it applies just as well to my prolonged veterinary trials too!
What was your proudest moment?
Running out at Twickenham for the first ever women's international to be played there; it was the 2003 Six Nations competition against France – we won 53-0 and were Grand Slam champions that year.
Tell us something not many people know.
My sister, Chrissie, is an Army doctor and she also played rugby for England; she has two England under-19 caps.
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