RAF Wittering support force officer overcomes breast cancer to lead squadron
A woman who fought aggressive breast cancer has returned to RAF Wittering to take command of a squadron.
Laura Gilbert graduated with a degree in chemistry from Durham University before joining the Royal Air Force in 2007.
It is a qualification well suited to her chosen profession in fuels and logistics and, after her specialist training, Laura, 38, came to RAF Wittering to lead 1EL’s Fuel Support Team (FST).
1EL is one of the most versatile logistics units in the Ministry of Defence, and is part of the RAF Support Force.
Logistic support from 1EL underpins and supports air operations, through its port-liaison team, fuels support team and deployed supply groups with personnel working in several locations around the world.
One of Sqn Ldr Gilbert’s most memorable experiences was serving in Afghanistan between 2013 and 2014.
She was attached to the Army’s 101 Logs Brigade, working with fuels in Joint Force Support Headquarters for seven months.
She said: “It was awesome, really hard work but I have no bad memories of that tour at all, and I had an amazing chain of command and that makes all the difference.”
Although Afghanistan is perhaps her fondest memory, Sqn Ldr Gilbert’s favourite post in the RAF was as executive officer for RAF Brize-Norton’s Logistics Squadron.
Sqn Ldr Gilbert said: “It was amazing, the best job I’ve had to date, Brize is the biggest RAF station and I was in charge of logistics operations and supply chain management.”
But it was at Air Command that Laura received the news that every person, regardless of age, sex or social status dreads - she had cancer.
The cancer was in her breast and a biopsy revealed that it was of an aggressive kind.
She said: “It was serious, I had to have a lumpectomy and the surgeons had to remove more than they expected because it had spread so deeply.”
As a result of chemotherapy Laura lost her hair, fingernails and toenails. To say it was difficult is an understatement, but she has returned to duty in good health, and is looking forward to her new challenge leading 1EL.
She said: “I was lucky, I had amazing support from the health professionals, RAF and my colleagues, friends and family.”
Extraordinarily, the day after Laura completed her chemotherapy, she raised £1,500 doing the ten-mile Pink Ribbon walk for Breast Cancer Now, which supports women of any age and background with breast cancer.
Sqn Ldr Gilbert said: “1EL is a squadron I really care about, and taking command is a bit strange but also pretty wonderful.
"It’s good to be somewhere familiar, a place that I know and love, and it’s also good to take on a new challenge, and both of those things are happening at once.”
Gp Capt Nick Huntley is deputy commander of the RAF Support Force, of which 1EL is a part.
He said: “It is the one word nobody wants to hear, the thought of cancer would terrify anyone, but Laura has faced it with real bravery.
"That kind of fortitude and integrity is exactly what the RAF needs in its leaders and I am very proud to welcome Sqn Ldr Gilbert to the Support Force.”