Private Roy's Diary
Private Roy's Diary
After 6 weeks of basic training for the territorials at Waiouru Military Camp I 'marched out' at Queen's Birthday weekend. The training was hard - challenging both physically and psychologically - but it was also exciting and enjoyable. I graduated from recruit to soldier alongside my 41 army colleagues with a real sense of achievement and, as my military friends had advised me, wore my uniform with great pride.
The Army News broke the story of my enlistment at the end of April. The article began by asking why a 42 year old married mother of five who is also a Member of Parliament would join the territorials. It was a question I asked myself several times during my training - especially when I was struggling out of bed at 5.30 every morning to clean toilets or sweep leaves at 6am, or when my hands were so cold in the Waiouru wind and rain I could hardly feel them, but gloves weren't an option because I had a weapon to carry.
There is no simple answer to the question 'Why?' Joining the territorials was something I had thought about for some time, but family commitments had made going away for 6 weeks impossible. When I became ACT's National Security Spokesman after the last election and spent some time working on defence issues, my interest was rekindled, and with some gentle encouragement from military friends the time seemed right.
I discovered shortly after arriving in Waiouru that one of the young men, an 18 year old, had been in my son's class at primary school. The training is demanding and I wondered how I was going to keep up with the fit young men and women. I have always taken exercise seriously and had made some effort to get fit prior to the training. As it turned out I passed the required fitness level with a G1 pass - the top category. I managed a 2.4 km run in 11 minutes 21 seconds, 21 press-ups and 118 sit-ups. I didn't think that was too bad for an 'experienced woman' as some of the young men called me (they were trying to be kind and not call me 'old'!).
The issue of age was never raised, and the other recruits treated me as one of the crowd. The army also promised no special treatment, and certainly the NCOs had no more difficulty shouting at me than at the 18 year olds. For 6 weeks I was Recruit Roy - most often just 'Roy'. We were all known by our surnames and I still don't know the Christian names of many of the other recruits.
In some areas I had certain advantages over the young men. Some of them struggled to make a bed complete with hospital corners and were up till the small hours ironing their uniforms. With a full programme and little spare time, lights out at 10 and constant uniform inspections, there was no other option. I have to confess that I now realise the great benefits of owning a head mounted torch for ironing in the dark!
Shortly before I left for Waiouru I received a letter from a fellow territorial. He commented that nowhere else had he come across the situation where you are brought together with others from all walks of life, live in close proximity, and work together for a common aim. I was amazed at how quickly a group of very different people managed just that. In my platoon we had a lawyer, a policeman, a teacher, two hairdressers, a receptionist, government department employees, army employees, tradesmen, several unemployed people - and an MP. Many will, I'm sure, become friends for life.
Waiouru in May and June is not known for its clement weather - but the army stops for nothing. Some had never seen snow before and had the opportunity to get an 'up close' inspection doing press-ups. We also did some serious square bashing in driving snow - there's nothing quite like the cold to concentrate one's mind. The aim of drill is to make soldiers alert, obedient and proud, and it works.
Much of the first two weeks of training involved an introduction to weapons. My Steyr rifle became my constant companion and it took some time and drastic disciplinary training to make sure I had it with me at all times. One morning out in the field I left it sitting where I had been eating my breakfast. Worse still I didn't realize I had left it unattended until one of our instructors brought it over to me. My punishment was to leopard crawl 100m with the rest of my platoon in the wet, muddy field we were working in. Those who know me well will be very surprised at my new-found skill with weapons. Previously I had no experience and something of an aversion to guns. One of my proudest moments was the comment in my end of course report about my ability with the C9 light machine gun. We had instruction in several other weapon systems but unfortunately the army does not have the resources to provide live ammunition for many. The theory alone makes it difficult to provide soldiers with useful training.
We did, however, get to throw two live grenades. Everybody got pretty excited about this but to be frank I found them a bit of an anti-climax. They are not hard to operate. After many dummy runs we were given the real thing. You cradle the grenade, remove the safety catch, pull the pin and throw - in my case not very far! Then you duck down to avoid being injured, which is very sensible, but it means that you don't get to see the explosion. I've decided I'm better at throwing metaphorical grenades in Parliament than the real variety.
I much preferred the stalking and live fire manoeuvres. Simply put, stalking involves sneaking through countryside evading patrols, and it requires a degree of patience. The young chaps doing MacGyver rolls simply drew attention to themselves and made it easier for the likes of me to sneak along unnoticed. Live fire manoeuvres incorporated much of our fieldwork and weapon firing techniques. In pairs we stalked a stationary enemy for a few hundred metres equipped with rifles and live rounds. You place a lot of trust in your partner when you know that real ammunition is being fired and a mistake will be disastrous. It makes you very careful.
All activities were a basis for teamwork, and the utilisation of some people's strengths to overcome the weaknesses of others was brought home very clearly on the assault course. The course - incorporating a six foot wall, rope and monkey bar obstacles to clamber over, water races over barbed wire and wire bridges, amongst other obstacles - was run as a competition between sections, groups of around 10 in which we did all our field work. Here the team really was only as fast as its weakest man and we quickly learnt to help each other to get a good result.
There were some very funny moments. During the 6 weeks training we had only two social nights. To my surprise we had to march around the base afterwards in an attempt to counter the effects of excessive drinking. This does, however, represent something of a problem to someone wearing high heels - as another girl and I found to our cost. The second night out I had some gym shoes to change into as festivities were winding down.
There has (of course) been the predictable criticism of being absent from Parliament and receiving taxpayer funding while training. I can say in my own defence that two weeks of my time was parliamentary recess, and while I was crawling through the mud in Waiouru, some MPs were taking taxpayer-funded trips abroad. It's hard to strike a balance - if you sit in parliament the accusation is that you are out of touch with ordinary Kiwis, but when you get out and about, you are neglecting your parliamentary duties. Nonetheless, I still have to justify the time commitment. I don't apologise for my time away and don't regret a moment of my soldier training. I have had a unique insight into the armed forces that will be valuable in my day job. No amount of reading, or even talking to servicemen, could replace the experience and the skills I have gained. And on the money front, all I earned from the Defence budget has been donated to an RSA charity - a worthy cause going mainly to Vietnam Veterans.
One of the things the defence force does best is train leaders. Showing recruits that they have responsibilities to others as well as themselves is woven amongst the skills the army teaches, and the development of leadership is evident, especially in team based activities. When I'm asked what I learned in the army the answer is discipline, teamwork and leadership.
The territorials perform many functions and one of the most significant is to weave the army thread throughout the fabric of society. It is important that the defence forces are seen as an extension of the people - the army is our army. It also provides an outlet for those who wish to make a concrete expression of their patriotism, something that has become unfashionable in this day and age.
For those wanting to join the territorials there are sometimes obstacles of a different nature to overcome. Several of my fellow recruits took annual leave or leave without pay to attend basic training. This is particularly hard for those with families to support. To add insult to injury, most are then taxed at the secondary tax level, and were essentially serving for the honour and glory. It's not surprising that recruitment and retention are problem areas for the army.
NZ soldiers, sailors and airmen are enormously well respected around the world and always have been. I am proud to belong to this military family and hope that by participating in this way I send a message to Kiwis about volunteering and serving their country. I'm 42, female, small and not naturally strong, but obstacles are often largely psychological. I'm told I have skills the Army wants and I'm going to continue training with my unit - 5 (Wellington, West Coast and Taranaki) Battalion Group - as a Field Engineer. The Army isn't just a career option for fit young men. Those with families, full time jobs and who (like me) are a bit older can donate their skills, enthusiasm and time to contribute to their country. I can highly recommend it.
* Photos of Heather Roy's training are online at http://www.act.org.nz/pteroy