Wed | Oct 4, 2023

Firm, feisty, but loyal

Lifelong friends say JDF leader is a steady hand

Published:Friday | January 21, 2022 | 12:14 AMKimone Francis/Senior Staff Reporter
Commodore Antonette Wemyss-Gorman (left) participates in Wednesday's rehearsal for the change of command parade that will take place at Up Park Camp today. Assuming the title of rear admiral, Wemyss-Gorman succeeds retiring Lieutenant General Rocky Meade.
Rear Admiral Antonette Wemyss-Gorman says strong women have helped shape her life and world view.

When storm-like conditions years ago threatened to capsize the vessel a young Antonette Wemyss Gorman was commanding, a verbal lashing from the feisty captain caused panicky crew members to regroup and steady the ship. The crew had left the...

When storm-like conditions years ago threatened to capsize the vessel a young Antonette Wemyss Gorman was commanding, a verbal lashing from the feisty captain caused panicky crew members to regroup and steady the ship.

The crew had left the mainland for Pedro Cays to carry out a routine evacuation operation and was headed back when the vessel developed mechanical problems.

“Everything that could go wrong on the patrol boat was going wrong,” retired Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) Captain Sydney Innis, a close friend of Wemyss Gorman's, relayed in a Gleaner interview on Thursday.

The vessel's engine had become faulty, it had lost steering, and the shaft began leaking, causing it to take water.

Innis said Wemyss Gorman had experienced crewmen who had more than a decade on her, but fear had consumed them. Choppy waters, torrential rain, and howling winds had crippled the seamen, he said.

“She really had to tell them off and drag them up. All she was left to do was to physically slap them into shape, but they responded and made adjustments and were able to get home,” he said.

“That was a really scary episode for her, and being on land and hearing what was happening, that they were having difficulty, the vessel was at risk, the storm was approaching, was something. But she really held it together and successfully brought all her crew to land and was able to get on with preparing for the storm.”

The now-rear admiral's response to that episode, Innis told The Gleaner, casts a larger-than-life image of the small-statured woman.

Sharp-tongued, ambitious, and enthusiastic, Innis said his friend, who was on Thursday sworn in as chief of defence staff, does not suffer fools gladly.

“She was somewhat of a feisty young officer, but it was never the case that she was insubordinate. She's very clear and very professional, and because of that, she progressed very quickly. Sort of a meteoric rise,” the former army man said.

Wemyss Gorman, 49, became the first and only woman to attain a flag rank in the army and has served as brigade commander, maritime air and cyber command, and commanding officer of the Coast Guard. She was also instrumental in the establishment of the Caribbean Maritime Military Training Centre and the development of core courses offered there.

The career officer has also served as technical director of marine transport in the Ministry of Public Utilities and Transport.

Her assumption of the role of rear admiral makes her the only serving female head of a modern national army and the second in history behind retired Major General Alenka Ermenc of Slovenia.

“She is very deserving of this achievement,” Master Chief Petty Officer Andrea Kirby told The Gleaner on Thursday.

Kirby, who has known the new army chief since her enlistment in the JDF in 1992, serving as Wemyss Gorman's batchmate in the Coast Guard, shared that she had been diagnosed with a serious illness a few years ago.

She said Wemyss Gorman has not left her side since her diagnosis.

Wemyss Gorman would often accompany her to and from her doctor's visits, affirming true friendship and exemplary leadership, Kirby said.

“I am so happy for her to the point that I feel maybe I'm happier than her. She's a very good leader, a very good leader,” Kirby gushed.

But Wemyss Gorman never set out to become the leader of a national army. There was nothing she believed she could not do, but aspirations of heading one of the historically most patriarchal organisations never crossed her mind.

“I was just a little girl growing up [enjoying] a normal childhood,” she recalled, in a Gleaner interview on Wednesday, of her youthful days in Alston, Clarendon.

“But I think what is essential to the person I am today is the fact that I don't think that there are things that I can't do. I wasn't socialised that way. I had strong women all through that influenced my life.”

Chief among those women were her grandmother, Lynette Freckleton, and her mom, Marie Freckleton.

The elder Freckleton, who is now deceased, was credited for raising her while her mother sought a better life for the family overseas.

Wemyss Gorman said both were unsung influencers in her life.

Those years under her grandmother's wings fostered her green thumb.

The garden, she said, is her happy place.

“My earliest memory of gardening was walking around with a little red can with a yellow handle. Mama would be watering her garden, and I ended up having a little patch that I was very territorial about,” the JDF boss shared.

But gardening, running the army, and mothering a teenager is often an unwieldy balancing act, conceded Wemyss Gorman, who was married to Jonathan Wemyss Gorman.

“Sometimes you're a good mother and you're having a crappy day at work. Sometimes you are kicking it at work and you are a crappy mother because you missed an activity for your son,” she said, with a chuckle.

“For modern women who have demanding careers, the balance includes some sacrifice.”