First Female GDF Officer

Clarissa Riehl

The highest spiritual quality, the noblest property of mind man can have, is that of loyalty. Defending one’s country in a time when there was uncertainty in the future of the country is a brave decision and the first woman of Indian descent who took up the gauntlet and showed her dedication to Guyana by joining the Guyana Defence Force from its inception was Clarissa Riehl.

Born Clarissa Sabita Hookumchand in Tempie, West Berbice on March 23rd, 1945 she was the second child of eight siblings to her Berbician parents. At great sacrifice, her parents sent all of their children to school so that they could become educated and independent. In order to fulfil her academic pursuits and complete her secondary studies at Berbice Educational Institute in New Amsterdam, Clarissa left her parents’ home in Tempie, West Berbice to stay with her Nani (maternal grandmother) during her years at school. With this family support, she was able to write the GCE O’Levels and the Senior Cambridge Certificate and successfully complete both in 1964.

Armed with her educational certificates, Clarissa moved to Georgetown where she started her first job at the Inland Revenue Department in 1965. It was during her years of work as a Clerk at Inland Revenue, that Clarissa developed an interest in the army. Still under the British rule, she made attempts to join the women’s arm of noblest property of mind man can the British army called the Women’s have, is that of loyalty. Defending Royal Air Force, but her attempt was met with rejection as they were not enlisting persons from overseas at that time. Shortly after, the British army came to Guyana to quell the racial disturbances and one regime, headed by Colonel Pope, remained to fashion a Defence Force for the newly independent Guyana. They used as a base for the Army, the British Guyana Volunteer Force, and Colonel Stephenson – Inspector of Taxes at Inland Revenue and a colleague of Clarissa was called to serve. He knew of her interest and encouraged her to become part of the women’s arm. She applied and was interviewed by a panel of six British Officers, the “steely blue eyes” as she referred to them and one Guyanese – Colonel Martindale. She joined as a Cadet in 1966 and trained for four months. On completion of her 4 months training, she became the first female of Indian descent and one of the first four women, to become a ranked officer in the Army, earning the rank of second Lieutenant in 1967, with the responsibility to head her own platoon. The women’s arm was a reserve section of the army. For two years, she continued her job at the Inland Revenue Department and was given time off to attend the Army’s one weekend per month military training and their seventeen day “summer” training.

A number of incidents occurred concurrently to shape her life thereafter. In 1969 she resigned from her job at the Inland Revenue Department and in September of the same year, married the love of her life, Mr. Thurston Riehl, an Anglican Priest of German descent. When the time came to make the women’s arm of the Army permanent, she made the decision not to become a permanent officer as she was focusing on other aspects of her life. She has one child, Indranie who was born in 1973.

Where can we find her now?

After marriage, she began studying law and acquired her legal education from the University of Guyana and University of the West Indies. She obtained an LLB Degree in 1977 from the University of Guyana and her Legal Education Certificate (LEC) from the Hugh Wooding Law School in Trinidad and Tobago in 1979. In 1979, she worked for two and half years at the DPP Chambers. In 1982, she sat on the bench as a Magistrate and then Senior Magistrate and then returned to the DPP Chambers in 1989 as Assistant DPP where she stayed until 1992. She joined the People’s National Congress (PNC) led by Mr. Desmond Hoyte and became a Member of Parliament in 1992, subsequently becoming Deputy Speaker of the House in 1997, where she served until 2011. Now, Mrs. Riehl has her own private law practice where she spends most of her time.