From the Field
One of the many privileges of being a parliamentarian is the opportunity to have new experiences that develop our knowledge base. Sometimes these experiences are provided by government but just as often they are handled by private industry or not-for-profit groups. Generally, these programs seek to give the participating politicians a glimpse into another ‘life’ – one that usually takes them outside of their comfort zone.
One of the best programs of this type is run by the Australian Defence Force (ADF). They offer to embed politicians in a variety of defence situations to experience first-hand the conditions our service men and women serve in.
This week I am participating in my fifth ADF program with the Army. Having previously spent a week on patrol with an indigenous unit in Western Queensland, five days in the gruelling SAS selection course and role-played as an ‘insurgent’ with the Combat Training Centre, this time I am with the new recruits at the ARTC in Wagga Wagga.
The 80-day Army induction takes our young men and women from the relative comfort of civilian life and turns them into soldiers. The discipline, skills and teamwork they develop over the 12-week course are lessons that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Over the next few days, I will be expanding on this blog post ‘Frmi machine om the Field’, providing some perspectives on the initiation and development of those that are prepared to serve our nation in such an important way.
UPDATE 1 – MONDAY
It was a fantastic first day at Kapooka, where Queensland Senator Brett Mason and I were accompanied by two young army Lieutenants who will act as our chaperones during the week. Their patience in answering the myriad of questions surrounding army life and the new recruit training program was greatly appreciated.
We were fortunate to meet with a platoon in their second week of training and sit in on one of their lessons. The group ranged in age from 17 to 46 and clearly had a range of motivations for enlisting. Some had felt an almost lifelong calling to join the army, while others found the motivation through a personal experience or desire for a career change. Universally they appeared grateful for the opportunity. Having heard how tough the first few weeks can be, I was surprised by the positive and upbeat nature of these very tired, but clearly happy new recruits.
There was some time spent on the weapons training simulation system, which provides an electronic theatre for marksmanship training. My performance on the e-range reflected my lack of experience with a rifle but Senator Mason did much better. It had me wondering why an inner city Senator from Brisbane is so competent with a firearm. Surely Queensland politics isn’t that tough?
The base CO detailed how over 4000 new recruits are trained at Kapooka every year. The majority are regular army personnel completing the 12-week course, but there are also over 1000 reservists who do a condensed four-week induction. The diversity of the participants is as rich a tapestry as our civilian community would suggest it should be. By all accounts there is a fairly steady stream of recruitment inquiries most years, but there has been a suggestion that inquiries have actually increased in recent times. Could this be a hitherto unforeseen positive effect of the Gillard Government’s job-destroying economic policies?
UPDATE 2 – TUESDAY
Today began with some essential skill development that every parliamentarian should undergo at least once: instruction on the finer points of bayoneting!
Following a quick breakfast at 6:15 am, we joined the 16th platoon for several hours of theory and practise of close combat techniques with the trusty bayonet. Actually, some of the bayonets weren’t that sturdy, with our batch issued pre-Vietnam and showing their age.
The practice was mentally intense and quite physically demanding, as we were coached into using controlled aggression to impale our static and moving targets. While at first blush one might consider bayonet skills a relic of yesteryear, the recruits were told of a 2007 engagement in Iraq where bayonet training saved the lives of several dozen British soldiers.
We then headed off to the bayonet assault course which involved crawling, running and jumping through water hazards, narrow corridors and a number of other obstacles. It was hard work and serious business, but great fun.
Our afternoon was spent visiting and speaking with another platoon whilst waiting for two bus-loads of brand new recruits to arrive. This was the moment I was most looking forward to – seeing the newest members of the ADF and observing the reaction to a massive change in their normal environment.
From the welcome pep talk to their first military hair cut – have it however you like as long as it’s a number 1 buzz cut all over – it is an astonishing first few hours.
I found myself speculating on the possible life story attached to each recruit whilst also cautioning myself that one should never judge a book by its cover. A very high percentage will get through the initial basic training and go on to careers with the ADF. It speaks volumes about the effectiveness of the teaching methodology at Kapooka, when a disparate group of youngsters (and some not so young) can be transformed from civilian to soldier in only 80 days.
Finally, the day was completed with some mundane washing duties and a warning that tomorrow was expected to be a very long one, starting with a mandatory mid-term fitness assessment that every recruit must pass before being allowed to continue with their training.
I’m just hoping they won’t be sending Senator Mason and myself home for not being up to scratch! I’ll let you know how we get on.
UPDATE 3 – WEDNESDAY
An amplified rendition of Reveille sounded across the base to mark the start of day three. It is strangely comforting as it triggers the thought that I am surrounded by some of the best trained soldiers in the world – and their newly minted successors.
Our first port of call was to the Physical Training (PT) area to submit our ageing bodies to the rigours of the recruit fitness assessment. This is a gateway that all recruits must accomplish after an initial six weeks of training before they can continue. It comprises push ups, sit ups and a 2.4 km run. Eager to get started to ward off the chill of the Wagga dawn, the two Senators did our best to reach at least the minimum standard required to continue training.
While neither of us could compete with the best of the recruits we managed to maintain a modicum of respectability with our performances. As a reformed athlete, it is amazing how the competitive edge kicks in, fuelling the will to win. I was a long way from winning but was happy that my 2012 exercise regime appeared to be paying some competitive dividends, allowing me to at least keep up with most of these young men and women.
Tonight we are sleeping in the field with a group of recruits who are only days away from completing their training. Their role play activities involve various scenarios where they can apply their knowledge of conventional battleground techniques. They also involve the use of a Minimi machine gun; a brute of a weapon capable of firing 900 7.62 mm rounds over 800 metres in less than a minute. The mere thought of having a go at shooting this little baby was heart-poundingly exciting.
Our lieutenant hosts were most obliging and set the weapon up so we could fire toward a distant target. I was first and in a thunder of smoke and recoil, let loose with an intimidating burst of firepower. When the smoke cleared, the target was still standing. Mystified and somewhat disappointed I turned to my young officer with a pitiful excuse as to why I missed.
“That’s alright Sir” she replied, “I’m not surprised the target is still there, you were only using blanks!”
In another credit to army discipline and self-control, Senator Mason was the only one among the dozen observers without the good grace to internalise his laughter!
The subsequent evening passed with ration pack meals and tales of the similarity between the institutions of defence and parliament. We, of course, were curious about the details of army life while the officers appeared simultaneously enlightened and horrified learning about some of the inner workings of politics.
UPDATE 4 – THURSDAY
A freezing day four dawned and packing up the campsite involved scraping ice from almost every solid object, including our vehicle. We then got to observe another strategic attack from ‘enemy forces’ using the cover of the soupy Wagga fog to press their objective.
Back at base, we joined Kapooka’s newest platoons for a lecture with a member of the psychology corp. In a fascinating presentation, we learned about how to cope with the stress of the unfamiliar and conquer our fears. Little did we know how important that lesson was going to be in the hours ahead.
“We’ve got a surprise for you this afternoon” it was announced as we were tucking in to a hearty lunch. “You are going to do the aerial adventure course.”
“Does that involve heights?” enquired a very alert Senator Mason. “Because I am not very good with heights. Actually, I am very bad with heights and don’t like them at all.”
“You’ll be fine Senator” came the soothing reply but I did notice that Brett seemed to suddenly have lost his appetite.
The aerial adventure course is a gruelling series of physical and mental challenges that take place up to twenty metres in the air. Words simply cannot describe the gut-wrenching emotional turmoil of negotiating narrow beams unsupported or using monkey bars to cross from one platform to another. On the ground the very same exercise is remarkably easy, but for some reason the elevation clouds the most rational justifications. Even the knowledge that we were perfectly safe thanks to the presence of experienced ropes officers couldn’t calm the nerves.
Brett Mason was first to attempt a high-wire crossing and mid-way across he paused as the foot and hand wire supporting him began to wobble.
“Is it windy up there?” I enquired helpfully.
“Hell no” he said, “I’m just so bloody scared I can’t stop shaking.”
I soon joined him up what we dubbed the ‘tower of terror’ to confront my own apprehension. Through a series of adrenaline pumping tests, our strength was sapped and our limits pushed. With every completed stage, the sense of achievement was simply overwhelming, leaving one with a feeling that we could now accomplish anything.
The afternoon was scheduled to conclude with a light and fun ride on the flying fox. Being only seven metres high, this was a doddle for us Senators who now considered ourselves to be the Australian descendants of famous circus trapeze family the Flying Wallendas.
“Just hang on to the strap and you’ll be right” was the instruction from the corporal. As we launched ourselves off the landing and our full weight hit the pulley system, these straps suddenly gave way.
The simultaneous screams of horror emanating from two grown men were unbecoming of anyone – even politicians accustomed to raising their voice.
In the split second before the safety harness kicked in and we continued to fly across the lake, I glimpsed our hosts laughing hysterically at their practical joke. It proved that even the army has an excellent sense of humour.