Retired Army Major Matina Jewell should have died many times as a UN peacekeeper in the 2006 war in Lebanon but she didn’t. Today, her story captivates audiences around the world and she has a message for women – live fearlessly.
“I would encourage any woman, regardless of what industry they are working in, to give themselves permission to have a crack at new things and to try and remove the pressure of success or failure as we often learn the most from our failures,” she tells Women’s Agenda.
“They [failures] tend to embed very deeply, and we remember the learnings for a really long time.”
Jewell survived the conflict between Israeli and Hezbollah fighters in 2006 when, sadly, her UN peacekeeping teammates did not.
Jewell is now an in-demand keynote speaker and there are plans for her story to be made into a feature film, with movie-producers suggesting casting either Charlize Theron or Margot Robbie to play her.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this until the start of this school year. My daughter’s first day of kindergarten ended with her excitedly telling me that one of her new BFFs has a mum who is a hero.
Now like most mums I like to think of myself as hero, as should any multi-tasking woman juggling numerous demands to get through the day, but Jewell is something else. She is an inspirational change agent and thought leader whose experiences and lessons on leading through change and building resilient teams are shaping organisations across the country and around the world.
In our interview, which I made sure I was slightly early for only to have her beat me to our location, she tells me that her hope for our daughters and younger generations of women is that “things will be very different when they are in the workforce and they will hopefully be saying, ‘You know, I don’t know what this fuss around gender equality and feminism is all about’.”
Jewell opens up about her career: “I joined the army when I was 17 and I left the Byron Bay hinterland and headed off to Canberra to complete my university studies at the Australia Defence Force Academy,” she says. “I really wanted to help people in disadvantaged communities and focus on that humanitarian aid aspect.”
But her military career was tragically cut short during the Lebanon War where she sustained permanent injuries in an armoured vehicle while commanding a convoy of UN peacekeepers under fire through southern Lebanon.
After years of rebuilding herself physically and emotionally, she is now one of the top female leadership speakers and facilitators in Australia, which is something she’d like to see more women do.
“On the speaking circuit, there’s not so many women sharing their valuable experiences and the ones that are, are not necessarily speaking in the leadership category. We are starting to see events criticised for not having more female input and I would love to see more women out there as industry leaders and speakers.”
Her book, Caught in the Crossfire, which she was given just a 90 day deadline to write, takes readers on a journey into the highs and very low points of her life. It shares how she met her future husband just months before taking up that post as a UN peacekeeper in Syria and Lebanon, and sees Jewell open up about the tragic deaths of her teammates and how she suffered through years of unanswered pain.
She’s been to hell and back.
When Jewell was first asked to speak at events about seven years ago, she thought it would last only three weeks or so following a special two-part television program by the ABC’s Australian Story.
But now her business as a speaker on leadership, resilience and change is continuing to grow and expand into online leadership programs and corporate partnerships in Brand Ambassador roles.
It’s not surprising that she was recently named by the Australian Financial Review as one of the top 100 women of influence for 2018.
Matina Jewell’s trailblazing military career, where she completed a number of firsts for women in the Army, including fast roping from helicopters, qualifying as a Navy Diver and working with the US Navy Seals, helped pave the way for greater gender equality in the Australian military today.
“There is a movement happening now that is hopefully making a difference in terms of giving more women a voice and creating equal opportunities around pay.
“This was one of the things I took for granted with the military where there is equal pay and there has been a whole lot of benefits for Defence women that I hadn’t fully appreciated until I started working with a number of different industries and hearing some of the challenges from women in senior corporate roles,” she says.
Jewell says the answer to getting equality requires bringing men to the table as well. “We are not going to get the result and solutions we want as women alone. We need to get men involved with open dialogue that will help gain equality and respect, and I think we are starting to get there now,” she says.
For more from Matina Jewell, check out this 2015 Q&A we published with her following the launch of her memoir.