For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer; as we’re told by countless officiants in ceremonies across the years, marriage is not to be entered into lightly. But nothing tests a partnership quite like a crisis.
It’s something that Chantelle Miller and her wife, Tara Miller, can attest to. The pair, who both serve in the military, have not seen each other for two months since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK – they are key workers at the forefront of the fight against the virus.
Chantelle is currently working as a military planner in Wales with the Cardiff and Vale University health board, while her wife’s roles include that of first responder with the South Central Ambulance Service on the south coast of England. Both were awaiting deployment when the pandemic struck, and having previously served in Afghanistan and Northern Ireland, they knew they were likely to be called up to work as part of the home emergency. They then had to have a difficult conversation about their impending new roles.
“We sat down and we made sure our wills were in order. We made sure we had things in place, should the worst happen,” says Chantelle. “We made sure we had means of communication and we were prepared.”
Thankfully, a long history in the armed forces had taught them to be ready for anything. After studying law and criminology at university, and having initially wanted to join the police, Chantelle chose the military. “I was attracted by the career, travel and essentially because no two days are ever the same,” she says.
Tara signed up aged 19, as she had family connections to the forces. “I always wanted to join the military,” she says. “My grandma was a nurse, and my grandad was
a medic in the Royal Marines. My great-great-great uncle was a bomb disposal expert in the second world war. I loved hearing all their stories as a child.”
Despite both working in the same sector, theirs wasn’t an office romance. Instead, they bonded over a rugby match, having played – on opposite teams – in a game back in 2012. While they can’t remember the result, they did have a post-game drink. “We’re both big rugby fans,” says Chantelle. “And we just got talking after the match. Soon after, Tara got deployed to Afghanistan, but we kept talking. Then eventually, after I’d worked in Germany, we both got posted back to the UK, and that’s when we got together.”
They were married in 2017 and say that being forced to spend much of their relationship apart has strengthened their bond – and unwittingly prepared them for the self-isolation they currently find themselves in.
“We’re coming up to four years married, and for that time, I’ve been deployed in different jobs that have taken me away from the family home for about one and a half years,” says Chantelle.
“It’s definitely weird being deployed – it’s challenging and dangerous but it’s harder on the person who’s been left at home, trying to keep on with normal life. The dog needs to be walked, the daily monotony continues while the other person is off
doing something that they’re really passionate about. It can be difficult, it comes with a particular strain, but it’s something that we’re both aware of and we always put our jobs first. That might surprise a few people, and it might be an issue for some marriages, but not for us. We know the type of people we are – we both want to help others, and we never want to hold each other back.”
Shortly after the country went into lockdown on 23 March, the Millers were assigned their new duties as a Military Aid to the Civil Authorities request (MACA). Even they were surprised at the speed in which the pandemic took hold, and how quickly they were drafted in.
“I got the call on Friday, 27 March and I was deployed the next day,” says Chantelle. “I did training on Sunday and I was working on the ground doing crisis management with the health board on Monday. I know it’s only a small part of what’s going on, but we both wanted the opportunity to work as part of it.”
While Chantelle’s day-to-day role at HQ includes working with contingency plans, crisis management and supporting testing operations – such as antibody testing and contact tracing – her wife is at the centre of the health crisis.
Tara works as part of the patient transport service, putting in gruelling 12-hour shifts from Southampton general hospital, taking people back to their homes in Portsmouth, Bournemouth and the surrounding areas.
“It’s an emotional rollercoaster,” says Tara. “You’re happy that you’re taking patients home, but you have to go to the ward where the patients are and that really brings home the reality that there are very ill people, of all different ages, alone in the hospital. It’s really, really sad. It does get to you, and if it didn’t, you wouldn’t be human.”
It’s a different kind of distress, Tara says, than serving in other countries. “In Afghanistan, for example, there’s the language barrier – you can only read people’s body language and I think you can tell a lot from someone’s eyes. But working with Covid-19, because you speak the same language as the patients you get very emotionally involved. It’s similar, but because it’s on your doorstep and because it could happen to you or your loved ones, it makes it that little bit harder.”
That work has been even more difficult in the days before this interview, Chantelle explains, as Tara has been dealing with the death of her grandad. “She found out he had passed away when she was working on a shift, and in her typical way, she just carried on working,” she says. “I’m just so, so proud of her.”
However, it’s the glints of light in dark experiences like this that drive people such as Tara on. She has witnessed some uplifting moments in the pandemic firsthand. “There was a 75-year-old ex-serviceman who had just got over coronavirus. He was telling us how scared he was when he was taken into hospital and how brilliant the doctors and nurses were. We got to take him home to his wife, and when they saw each other they both just started crying. They were so excited to see each other.
“I’ve seen horrible stuff, but that’s not what sticks with me, it’s the joyful, happy endings that I want to focus on,” says Tara.
For now, the pair are keeping in touch using video calls and are looking forward to when they will be reunited in June. They are also making plans for their free time together again. “Tara has written me a long list of DIY jobs I need to do around the house when I get back!” Chantelle says.
“We know our relationship is strong and that’s how we know we can support each other through this.”
“We’re just cogs in a big wheel”, Tara adds, while Chantelle is keeping positive about this unprecedented time. “I’ve loved seeing how the country has come together. In 10 years, we’ll all look back on this and reflect on our behaviour, and most people will be able to look back and be proud of what they’ve done. Whether that was just staying at home or whether you were on the frontline, it all has a positive effect on society.”
This advertiser content was paid for by the UK government. All in, all together is a government-backed initiative tasked with informing the UK about the Covid-19 pandemic.