Roy: Speech to Albany Rotary
Speech to Albany Rotary
Thursday, 6 July 2006
Speeches - Other
I've given a lot of thought over the years as to what to say when asked what I do by people who don't know me. Sometimes wife and mother seem the best answer and certainly these are my most important roles. Member of Parliament usually gets a stunned and embarrassed response if the person hasn't recognized me. As of a month ago I've added soldier to the list - mother, soldier, MP probably best sums me up.
After 6 weeks of territorial basic training 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 and I graduated alongside my 41 army recruit colleagues from recruit to soldier with a real sense of achievement and, as I had been advised by my military friends, wore my uniform with pride. Those of you who have done the same will know the sense of pride that goes with marching out.
There are many stories to tell and I'd like to share a few of them with you.
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. Good question and one I asked myself several times during my training - especially when I was struggling out of bed at 5.30 every morning, cleaning toilets or sweeping leaves at 6am and 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 six 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 that one of the young men, an 18 year old, had been in my son's class at primary school. As I have said the training is very 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 I 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 'older woman'.
The issue of age was never raised, and the other recruits treated me as just 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'- with my name on sticky tape attached to my jungle hat along with everyone else. 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 to now realizing the great benefits of ownership of a head torch for ironing in the dark too!
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 toethere 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 farmer, 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 is 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 Styer rifle became my constant companion and it took some time 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 many other weapon systems but unfortunately the army does not have the resource 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 - 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 throwing the real variety.
I much preferred the stalking and live fire manoeurves. Simply put stalking involves sneaking through countryside evading patrols and requires a degree of patience. The young chaps doing McGyver rolls simply drew attention to themselves and made it easier for the likes of me to sneak along unnoticed. Live fire manoeurves incorporated much of our fieldwork and weapon firing techniques. We stalked a stationary enemy for a few hundred metres working in pairs. You place a lot of trust in your partner when you know that real rounds are being fired and a mistake will be disastrous. It makes you very careful.
All activities were a basis for teamwork, and the utilization 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 funning moments. During the 6 weeks training we had only two social nights. In an attempt to overcome any excessive drinking were marched back to our barracks the long way - just about right around camp in fact. Marching in boots is one thing but as another girl and I found to our cost, in high heels is quite another. The second night out we packed our gym shoes to change into as festivities were winding down.
There has been of course the predictable criticism of being absent from Parliament during my 6 weeks of training. I can say in my own defence that two weeks of that was parliamentary recess and while I was crawling through the mud in Waiouru some were taking business class 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. When you get out and about you are neglecting your taxpayer funded 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 invaluable 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 learnt in the army the answer is discipline, teamwork, 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 the glory. It's not surprising that recruitment and retention are problem areas for the army.
At a much higher level the question remains as to "What should New Zealand's Defence Policy be?"
It will always be hard to answer because it involves the prediction of the future. The Prime Minister has said that we live in an amazingly benign defence environment. Not true, but the United States does have an overwhelming military dominance against any conceivable foe. In this situation we are unlikely to have to fight a war of the traditional kind. The demand in the immediate future is likely to be for peacekeeping soldiers, forces for anti-terrorism and for counter- insurgency operations where our forces occupy a position halfway between traditional soldiers and a police force and are faced with may types of threat including guerilla warfare. Our servicemen and women must be prepared for all eventualities and so their training needs to incorporate the traditional skills as well as new techniques and technologies - even for peacekeeping missions.
The government has decided that the likely demand in future will be for infantry and other army units. The airforce and the navy are likely to be required to augment the activities of the army. That is why the current government, rightly or wrongly, disbanded the combat wing of the airforce and is moving to make our navy a fisheries protection service. The demand from our allies is for infantry, infantry and more infantry.
To its credit the current government has increased the defence budget but the military still runs a shoestring operation. We were limited to 25 rounds each during our practise with the light machine gun and when training with rockets we only saw empty launchers. And that is not sophisticated equipment.
Is this is the correct policy? The main problem is that it relies on an interventionist United States. American military supremacy is only useful if they are prepared to use it and their patience may not be infinite. At the moment there are demands that American marines stand trial for murder in Iraq. I anticipate that the American voters will conclude that they should withdraw their troops from an ungrateful world and not venture forth again.
In that case we will have to look to ourselves for our own defence. This is a situation that is very much on the mind of the Australians and they are constantly impatient with New Zealand for spending too little on the military.
Given my own positive experiences of military training a number of people have asked me if I want to see compulsory military training. The short answer is no, because the army doesn't want it. There is a lot of truth in the saying that one volunteer is worth ten pressed men.
Nor do I agree with army training for delinquent youth as is perennially proposed. It might have some benefits for the youths but for the army it would be just one more job to do. Their job is to train soldiers, not to be a welfare agency. And the army is already suffering from a loss of personnel as experienced staff are headhunted for well paid security jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, we do need a plan to encourage and to recognize service. As Rotarians you will be familiar with the motto of service over self. I believe in an expanded Voluntary National Service. We need more doctors, nurses, and in some areas, teachers. We also need more military trained personnel and rather than write off student loans for staying in the country - that's just a little too easy to my mind - we could be encouraging our young people to join one of the forces - perhaps even extend it to other areas of National Security such as the police - and write student loans off depending on the length of commitment.
New Zealand has always been a strong volunteering nation. Before I went to Waiouru I spent some time on call with some of the emergency services who rely heavily on volunteers. The Coastguard is a good example. They have around 2000 volunteers, the same number as territorial soldiers, and just eight salaried staff. Given the nature of their work it would make sense to at least investigate the possibility of dovetailing the volunteers, the Naval Reserve and the Royal New Zealand Navy.
I've run out of time to tell you about many of the other things I did - the digging of holes to sleep in, digging fighting pits to fight in, putting up barbed wire fences in the dark, the art of camouflage.
I'm proud to now belong to the military family. New Zealand soldiers, sailors and airmen are enormously well respected around the world and always have been. I 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.