A FULL military funeral will be held tomorrow for a pioneering naval officer who has died of cancer aged 49.
Chief Petty Officer Michelle Hewitt, of Edgworth, who served for 21 years, has been described as a 'stalwart' by colleagues for her work helping Afghanistan veterans cope with life after being in a warzone.
Michelle, one of the first sea-going women in the Royal Navy, also worked as a welfare officer with the Royal Marines and the elite Special Boat Service (SBS) - the navy's version of the SAS - in some of the world’s worst conflicts in the past decade.
She also served in conflicts in Kosovo and Northern Ireland.
Michelle is the daughter of former Blackburn with Darwen Council leader, Coun Colin Rigby, and his wife, Coun Jean Rigby.
Coun Jean Rigby said: “She was always a good kid. She was a hairdresser with her own salon in Bolton until the age of 27, and then she decided that she wanted to change direction and join the Royal Navy.
“She seemed to flourish in the Navy, really coming into her own and completing a masters degree in sociology.
“The letters that have come to us from people she helped have touched us deeply.
“A lot of them have said that they wouldn’t have survived without her, or wouldn’t have known what to do. Not only did she look after the officers, she looked after the welfare of their families back home.
“We didn’t know a lot of what she did because she was so professional, and would say that she couldn’t mention the details. We are incredibly proud of her.”
Michelle joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRENS) in 1991 in the midst of debate over whether women should go to sea.
Warrant Officer Dug Hickin said: “When Michelle joined the Navy she was 28 years old, and was one of the first women to go out to sea, on HMS Cardiff.
“Normally the age that women join up is 17 or 18, so she really was a mother figure for all the young girls who were not only away from home for the first time, but also at sea.
“She had a range of operational roles, but since 2001 was attached to the Royal Marines in Portsmouth as a welfare officer.
“She dealt with three fatalities in Afghanistan, providing support for bereaved families, and also many injured servicemen.
“She wasn’t what you’d think of as a typical welfare officer. She was quite challenging in a positive way and very firm.
“She didn’t suffer fools gladly and was a staunch Lancastrian with a dry sense of humour.
“Her death has really hit the Royal Marine community hard because she served with us for almost 12 years.
“There will be people at her funeral who have benefitted from her work, including some of the people carrying her coffin.”
The former Turton High School pupil battled ovarian cancer for four years before passing away in Bolton Hospice on September 24.
Coun Rigby added: “Bolton Hospice is an amazing place, the support was unbelievable.
“Michelle battled her illness bravely and with great dignity. We had a few cries together, but she was incredibly strong.
“When she was ill, she planned every single bit of her funeral, so it will be exactly how she wanted it.”
The funeral takes place at 12.30pm at St Anne’s in Turton, followed by a private committal at East Lancashire Crematorium.
At 2pm there will be a celebration of Michelle’s life at The Barlow in Bolton Road, Edgworth, which will be open to everyone who knew her.