Huntingdon UN peacekeeper tells of life in South Sudan and helping construct NHS Nightingale

Captain Sophie Piper from Huntingdon who is a UN peacekeeper. Picture: MOD

Captain Sophie Piper from Huntingdon who is a UN peacekeeper. Picture: MOD - Credit: Archant

An inspirational soldier from Huntingdon - who was a UN peacekeeper in South Sudan - helped coordinate the build of NHS Nightingale just 24 hours after landing back in the UK.

Captain Sophie Piper joined the army in 2012 and has been stationed in Cyprus and Nepal before being deployed on the United Nations (UN) mission in Malakal.

Around 300 British troops worked on the mission to protect 150,000 civilians during Operation Trenton.

Sophie, who worked with the 69 Gurkha Field Squadron, was the last of the UK peacekeepers to be based there prior to the operation successfully ending in January this year.

Her tour helped enable and facilitate, working to support those employed by the UN.

The 32-year-old also worked parallel with the protection of civilian camps in engineering and managing an outreach programme.

This included teaching local’s self-defence, fishing skills, how to build a bridge and constructing floating jetties.

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However, Sophie had to take on an unexpected mission when returning to the UK in March.

In a matter of hours she had to coordinate engineers to begin work on the NHS Nightingale hospital in London to support the MOD after the UK was hit by the coronavirus outbreak.

“We went in on lockdown in South Sudan to come back to the UK in lockdown,” she said.

“It was a really an interesting transition, and of course, we train for the unknown, but it hammered home what the military is about when we must protect people.

“We train to not react but respond to do the correct thing with the information we have.

“Everything just stopped to focus on protecting the UK – it really was a humbling experience.

“There was a massive shift and focus into supporting other government departments.”

Sophie’s training was paramount to helping her colleagues work at intense pace to get the build underway.

She continued: “It has been a very turbulent time.

“I think it is only when we take the time to pause and reflect back then we will recognise what the country has actually been through.”

Sophie moved overseas when she was toddler, so she felt that the army was always going to be “a natural choice”.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) commenced in 2011 when they declared independence, and was one of the largest peacekeeping missions, with more than 14,000 contingent troops from 65 countries.

Operation Trenton drew to a close in January 2020 four years after it first began.

It had resulted in the construction of two hospitals, as well as upgrades to schools, prisons, roads and bridges.

She explained: “The outreach projects were a real benefit and we wanted to see the impact be sustainable.

“It was important that we didn’t just create a legacy but help people gain lifelong positive skills that can be applied to anything.”

Sophie also worked on a human rights advocacy awareness programme.

“There were a lot of things we take for granted such as communication skills and how to resolve conflict that we helped teach the locals,” she said. “It was difficult but when you see where the impact can be then it is very rewarding.

“Nothing good comes from something easy and every day is a learning curve.

“Working alongside different cultures can change your perspective and I know that I have grown and matured professionally and personally.”

Last Friday (May 29) also marked the 17th international peacekeepers day with the theme ‘women in peacekeeping’.

There are currently 300 British service personnel deployed across seven UN peacekeeping operations around the world.

The main role of peacekeeping missions is to protect civilians and maintain peace in countries and areas that require it the most.

Speaking about empowering women in the military, Sophie said: “I have been very fortunate that the army is an organisation that has a very fair treatment of gender, background and culture – and I am very proud of that.

“I have always been seen as an officer and soldier and not just a woman.”

The UK has set a goal of 15 per cent women staff in the armed forces in the coming years.

“The UN are really trying to push for more women in uniform in peacekeeping,” Sophie added.

“The British military are hitting these targets but there is still of work to be done and this is an opportunity to influence others.

“We need to remember that not all countries have a military that is like ours.”

Sophie is currently based in Maidstone in Kent, before hoping to take a post in Kenya.

Her parents live near St Ives, so she hopes she can catch up with them once the lockdown is over.

She added: “It is always nice to go back home.

“It can be challenging but brings the reality of the organisation you join.”