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Austen was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She grew up in Stonehaven, 15 miles (24 km) south of Aberdeen, in the North East of Scotland. She had a generally unhappy and dislocated childhood, including a spell at boarding school, where she was abused. She was an outwardly popular and charismatic child but after suffering years of sexual abuse made worse by her gender dysphoria, she decided to join the British Army to camouflage her real personality.
Austen joined as an officer in the Royal Irish Rangers in 1982, serving in Northern Ireland. She retrained as a video journalist in 1986 working for Scottish Television. Her military background saw her dispatched to war zones covering the Gulf War 1, the civil wars in Angola and Afghanistan, and the conflict in Bosnia, as well as service with the United Nations. She then worked as a director and series producer for Scottish and Anglia Television. In 1997 Hamilton was promoted to editor-in-chief of the television division of Mirror Group. After management changes at Mirror Group, she took up a senior management position at Granada TV. She has been nominated three times by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
Rejoining the British Army
During 1995, Austen rejoined the Army. As an over-age candidate, she first joined the Territorial Army and then the Regular Army. She joined the Parachute Regiment in 2002, having already passed the stringent selection process at age 35, and went on to attend All Arms Commando Course and Special Forces selection with 22 SAS, becoming a combat survival and a physical training instructor. She served with the Cheshire Regiment and The Highlanders in a variety of command appointments, as well as a number of staff appointments both in the UK and overseas, with a speciality in Information and Psychological Operations. In 2003 she commanded a company from The Parachute Regiment on operations in Iraq. She deployed on operations in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, the War in Afghanistan and the Iraq War. She returned to the United Kingdom in 2006 and spent a period recovering from two continuous years of operations before taking a position back in Afghanistan with NATO Forces, advising on specialist counter-narcotics operations, from where she was medevacked back to the UK with a serious infection following an IED incident.
Forced resignation, 2007
In 2007, Abigail decided to undergo gender normalisation, in accordance with her desire to live as a female.
Transgender individuals in the UK are protected under a number of legislative acts, including the Sex Discrimination Act Amendments (1999) and the Gender Recognition Act (2004), which make it illegal to treat a person differently on the grounds of gender alone, with the aim of protecting the rights of trans-people in the work-place. Although other people in the Royal Navy and Air Force have successfully transitioned in the service, as the first officer and first paratrooper, Austen's background caused considerable surprise to the Army, particularly in the light of constant media attention. At that time, the British military did not have regulations in place to support Ms. Austen’s continued service with Airborne Forces. This led to a lengthy and public legal dispute.
The issue was eventually amicably resolved, and Austen resigned her commission. Army policy on trans-gender soldiers was then formalised to allow soldiers to transition while in service. The Regimental Colonel of The Parachute Regiment wrote to Austen to thank her for her "years of loyal service as an Airborne Officer".
Austen was the subject of a documentary on Channel 4 (UK) in March 2008 entitled Sex Change Soldier. This was repeated several times on UK television and sold to a number of other territories. The film continues to be shown around the world and formed the basis for a biographical film based on her life, produced by the Japanese TV company NHK.
She continues to undertake a number of training and advisory roles on gender issues, including with Lancashire Police. She continues to support the Parachute Regiment by fundraising for Airborne Charities.
After leaving military service, Austen served as a police officer with Strathclyde Police in Glasgow, setting the first Scottish legal precedents for transphobic crimes and as the UK lead on development of diversity awareness for the national police service. She is an instructor with the Army Cadet Force, mentoring troubled young people from her police ward.
In 2012, she returned to Afghanistan as a NATO consultant, advising US Forces in Kandahar. She served three years on back-to-back tours with the US 82nd Airborne, 3rd and 4th infantry divisions and was awarded a number of prestigious decorations for her work.
She then moved to Ukraine, as deputy ambassador and senior diplomatic spokesperson for the European Union security sector reform mission.
Abigail was then appointed as senior advisor to the UK's Standing Joint Deployable Headquarters, creating policy for the 9-nation coalition Joint Expeditionary Force defending NATO’s eastern flank.
In 2017, Abigail returned to Afghanistan, as lead coordinator for NATO's strategic Enduring Partnership with the Afghan government.
She maintains a lecturing role to U.K. and US military staff colleges, specialising in conflict resolution and stabilisation.
Following her experiences in Kandahar, she wrote the book Lord Roberts' Valet and began a career strand as producer and presenter of her own television documentaries. In 2017, Abigail’s Channel 4 documentary, based on her experiences in Afghanistan, won a prestigious Creative Diversity Network award. ‘Lord Roberts’ Valet’ is currently in development as a film with a major broadcaster. Austen was further nominated as 2017 International Presenter of the Year by the Association of International Broadcasters. Her latest book, ‘Sugar and Spice’ is slated for publication in 2018.
Austen was featured in several UK national newspapers, and has made many television and radio appearances.
In 2009, Austen was reported extensively in the press, particularly in the News of the World, to have secured a £250,000 pay-out for "hurt feelings" from the MoD. She received several threats of violence from serving soldiers because of the attendant publicity of this case, but denied the pay-out and currently has three complaints against various newspapers lodged with the Press Complaints Commission.
The Mail Online  confirmed in a retraction issued, that they "in an article on 31 May may have suggested that Jan Hamilton had sought £250,000 for hurt feelings in her industrial action against the MoD." and that they "are happy to clarify that Ms Hamilton neither sought nor received £250,000 for hurt feelings." Austen insisted that they make a sizeable donation to service charities to compensate for the hurt done to the families of injured service personnel.
In 2017, she made several media appearances countering President Trump’s direction on banning trans individuals from service with the US military.
- British soldier has sex change – CNN Video
- Cutting Edge – Channel 4
- STV Interview
- Apartheid era SADF forced sex change operations for Gay/Lesbian soldiers
- modoracle.com, Austrian Army takes Soldiers case personal
- Alexandra Genova (2015-11-21). "'The UK's first transgender Army officer full of praise for 'tolerant' Liverpool - where she now calls home". Liverpool Echo. Retrieved 2016-04-08.
- "Sex swap Para to sue after Army withdraws £45,000-a-year post". This Is London. 2007-04-21. Archived from the original on 24 March 2008. Retrieved 2007-06-14.
- Alexandra Genova (2015-11-21). "'The UK's first transgender Army officer full of praise for 'tolerant' Liverpool - where she now calls home;". Liverpool Echo. Retrieved 2016-04-08.
- "Lancashire – Radio Lancashire – Ladies @ Lunch blog". BBC. 2008-04-18. Retrieved 2012-04-03.
- "Jan Hamilton | Mail Online". dailymail.co.uk. 2008-07-16. Retrieved 2012-04-03.