DIVA meets the couple who are working together to fight against the pandemic

BY ROSA BRANDMARK ROBINSON

If you’d told Karen Mellow-Marais and her wife Sam that they would be spending their first wedding anniversary working on the front line of a global pandemic on their wedding day, I doubt they would believe you. 

But the pair packed up their kit after volunteering to support the fight against the pandemic and found out that they would be working on the same team running a coronavirus testing unit together. The couple, who are both RAF drivers at RAF Brize Norton, worked together to carry out virus tests at centres across the South East and we wanted to find out the newlyweds’ experience. 

Where did you meet?

Karen: We met at work, we both started in the same department at Lush Cosmetics within a couple of weeks of each other.

What made you want to join the Forces?

Sam: I considered joining the army after college but decided to go to university instead. After graduating, changing career direction and meeting Karen I realised that the RAF was about a lot more than flying and I really wanted to get involved in driving some of the vast array of military vehicles I’d heard about from Karen. 

The discipline and camaraderie was a real draw for me. That and the scope to use my brain power for something worthwhile.

Karen: I was brought up to hold the Forces in high respect and had always wanted to get involved, but always found excuses to not get around to it; until my father passed away from a short illness and my perspective changed. I decided to stop putting things off.

What has been the highlight of your career?

Sam: Covid mobilisation. Working on the MTU’s (Mobile Testing Units) with a tight, reliable group of people. Deploying with other 501 personnel allowed me to settle into the squadron and make some very good friends and connections throughout the unit.

Karen: In 2017 I was deployed on a four month tour in the Falklands and was required to carry out refuelling duties. During my training for this I had to spend two weeks at RAF Scampton learning to refuel on the Red Arrows, and a week at RAF Coningsby refuelling Typhoons (including refuelling them whilst they were still running.) 

There have been many highlights over the past five years, and I could list many, but I think these would have to be the best so far.

What would you say to an LGBTQI person considering joining the RAF?

Sam: The RAF has clearly progressed well on the subject of LGBTQI matters, to the point where I don’t really feel the need to provide specific advice to an LGBTQI person. It has been my experience that it isn’t even a factor anymore and that is a very positive thing.

Karen: As Sam said, leaps and bounds have been made over recent years. When I first thought about joining the Forces straight from school, I couldn’t have been open about my sexuality, but joining when I did, I have never even had a reason to think about it. It’s not a conversation I have needed to enter into. I am just Karen to all who know me. I just happen to have a wife. Members of the squadron came to our wedding last year.

What has been the toughest part of your work on the COVID-19 frontline?

Sam: The toughest part of the mobilisation was coping with the ever-changing situation and the strict lockdown procedures in place, which made the normal social aspect of a mobilisation very difficult.

Karen: On the Mobile Testing Unit we were in different locations every two or three days, so the logistics of new surroundings and organising transport and manpower were the biggest challenge. The officers in charge had the toughest job. Managing people’s expectations and personal time due to restrictions brought on by COVID-19 were probably my toughest part.

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