Rank shortcut a winner
There’s a fast track for latecomers wanting to be an officer in the defence forces, writes Amy Byrne
EARLIER this year Lisa Mansell found herself on the precipice of a cliff, peering down and contemplating a symbolic and physical leap that was to change her life in many ways. The 45-year-old single mother of two sons, 14 and 20, was abseiling on the first weekend of her training as an air force officer.
Mansell had felt an urge to ‘‘ do something different with my life before it was too late’’, and hasn’t looked back. On August 3 the former education administration and support worker graduated as a flying officer in the Royal Australian Air Force after a 17-week course at the Point Cook base, near Melbourne. She now has her first posting, as a logistics officer at the Edinburgh RAAF base in her home state of South Australia, and is relishing the career change.
‘‘ I’m actually loving it, I only wish I could have done it earlier,’’ Mansell said. ‘‘ There is a real sense of achievement in getting through the course, plus there is a sense of purpose when you come out at the other end. You feel you really are contributing to Australia.
‘‘ I have had some interesting reactions, though. The last one was from a student of a school I used to be at, who said: ‘ Aren’t you too old for that?’ I don’t think age should be a barrier. If you have the right attitude, you can do it.’’
Mansell entered the RAAF through the Direct Entry Officer (DEO) program, a short alternative to the Australian Defence Force Academy course and one that doesn’t require tertiary study.
The programs combine military and academic study. Air force candidates graduate from initial training after 17 weeks at Point Cook, navy students after 22 weeks at HMAS Creswell, Jervis Bay, and then move into specialisations. The equivalent army course at Duntroon is a more intense 18-month program that equips graduates to move straight into a platoon. There are also part-time study and work options.
Full-time students live in while training and are paid a salary of about $31,000 a year, increasing to about $43,500 on graduation.
Brigadier Simon Gould, director-general of defence force recruitment, says the program is geared towards people with a minimum Year 12 or similar education interested in a leadership role, but who don’t necessarily want to go down the path of tertiary study.
‘‘ People think the only route is to do a uni degree that is going to take three years. But with the direct-entry program we are saying come and do one of these courses and we will teach you the basics in leadership, we’ll continue to develop those skills over your career, and we will pay you while you train,’’ he said.
‘‘ The difference between direct entry as an officer and direct entry into the forces as a sailor, soldier or airman is that those in the latter group are coming in to be technically trained in a specialist skill, whereas the DEOs are coming in to learn leadership and management.’’
Direct entry officers still have a demanding physical component in their program, although Gould says it is ‘‘ not beyond anyone who sets their mind to it’’.
The practical components differ between the forces, but courses typically teach skills such as weapons training, navigation, field craft, drill, rules of engagement, communications and organisational management. Academically, it is challenging but within the reach of anyone who has handled a Higher School Certificate or similar leaving qualification.
‘‘ It is small ‘ a’ academic compared to tertiary study, but you have to write papers on military history and contemporary current affairs,’’ Gould says. ‘‘ We teach military processes so you need to be able to commit them to paper, people need to be able to follow your logic, and you need to be able to make an argument.’’
The majority of candidates who go through the direct-entry scheme have a Year 12 education but it also appeals to university graduates. Pilot Michael Jancek, 23, a recent DEO graduate, had completed a bachelor of engineering and was working in the profession before he signed up for the air force this year.
‘‘ I had always dreamed of being a pilot and applied to the defence force when I was in my final year of high school, but failed the aptitude tests,’’ he said. ‘‘ I thought I might not be eligible to reapply, but while searching on the internet I found out I could enter the RAAF through the Direct Entry Officer program, and was delighted when I was accepted. As a means of entry it was great for me, because I wasn’t interested in studying for another four or five years.’’
Graduate officers are encouraged to continue their professional development and have to make a minimum commitment to the force of one year for every year of study, plus an extra 12 months.
Brigadier Gould says those who later left the forces departed with skills highly regarded in the civilian job market. ‘‘ It’s not the weapon handling or the ability to put up a tent or dig a hole that is attractive, it’s the soft skills like leading and managing people, planning, executing, decision making and all those other things generally attributable to soldiers, seamen and airmen like self-discipline, a strong work ethic, teamwork and great communication,’’ he says.
‘‘ They also get a great sense of proportion because when you are put in difficult situations where you are making crucial decisions under pressure, then you do have a more balanced view on life than perhaps the person who is just driving to and from work every day.’’
For Flying Officer Mansell, the biggest rewards came not from completing the study requirements or the dreaded physical training that she eventually grew to enjoy, but from the sense of achievement derived from being yanked out of her comfort zone and dealing with it.
‘‘ It challenges the way you think about things,’’ she says. ‘‘ You stand on the edge of the cliff and say, ‘ No, I’m not going to do that’, and then you go right ahead and do it.’’
After finishing school, Kurt Phelps, 19, Seaman Officer, worked as an earthmover with his father’s Queensland business. But he was on the look-out for a long-term career option, and did the DEO program with his sights set on becoming a Principal Warfare Officer.
‘‘ The highlight of the training for me was the sea training deployment, where I spent four weeks on board HMAS Manoora travelling to Jakarta and Singapore and experienced firsthand how sailors live and work.’’
Dominika Czaja, 26, Legal Officer, studied law at the University of Western Sydney but wasn’t sure where to go with her qualifications. Her fiance, a former soldier, suggested the defence forces and she completed her DEO training with the navy. She is now planning to study a masters degree in military law.
‘‘ While it seems obvious now, I didn’t realise the navy would need a lawyer; I just assumed it was all about sailors, ships and submarines. It’s great that in addition to being offered the opportunity to travel the world and meet people from all walks of life, I’m given the chance to continually improve my skills.’’
Michael Jancek, 23, RAAF pilot, went into engineering after finishing school but never gave up on a childhood ambition to be a pilot. Having completed 17 weeks of DEO training, he is on his way to achieving that dream.
‘‘ The training was fantastic and the highlight was abseiling face-first down a cliff. As a fan of sports and a snowboarder and surfer, I felt pretty confident but I’ll never forget the sight of the cliff face dropping away from me, and the feeling of being totally reliant on my own wits and the support of my colleagues to get me down.’’
Michael Jancek: Escaped engineering to pilot aeroplanes
Lisa Mansell: Mother of two now an RAAF Flying Officer
Dominika Czaja: Found her forte in military law
Kurt Phelps: From earthmoving with dad to RAN warfare officer