De­fence vet­er­ans:

meet the women of the mil­i­tary

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

When 30-year-old Bon­nie Howes wears her medals, peo­ple as­sume they are her grand­fa­ther’s. “On my first An­zac Day back in New Zealand af­ter re­turn­ing from Afghanistan, I was so proud of my medals I went down to [the com­mem­o­ra­tions] wear­ing them. One of the old guys came up and said to me, ‘You’ve got your medals on the wrong side,’ and I said,

‘No I haven’t, these are ac­tu­ally mine,’” Bon­nie re­calls with a smile. “Con­tem­po­rary vet­er­ans are not what peo­ple ex­pect.”

To il­lus­trate this di­ver­sity, artist Matt Gauldie is in­clud­ing a por­trait of Bon­nie in the Sol­dier’s Five/A Vet­eran’s Jour­ney ex­hi­bi­tion at Bowen House, Par­lia­ment Build­ings in Welling­ton on

May 2. Matt, who is a serv­ing ter­ri­to­rial sol­dier and for­mer NZ Army artist, is one of three artists ex­hibit­ing. He has also painted el­derly vet­er­ans, such as Heather Hawthorne, 72, who served in the Navy four decades be­fore Bon­nie was in the army.

Bon­nie and Heather were both in their late teens when they joined their re­spec­tive ser­vices, but this is where the sim­i­lar­i­ties end – 40 years has made a world of dif­fer­ence to women’s role in the mil­i­tary.

When Heather joined the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Ser­vice in the early 1960s, women were not in­te­grated into the Royal New Zealand Navy (un­til 1979) and jobs were lim­ited to do­ing work at the naval base, such as typ­ing and ed­u­ca­tion.

Heather spent three years show­ing in­struc­tional videos to of­fi­cers be­fore she mar­ried and left the navy. She says while she learnt in­valu­able skills and the ca­ma­raderie was high, she would have loved the op­por­tu­nity to be out on the ships.

“They go to sea now,” she says. “I think that is a won­der­ful thing to be able to do – I would have liked to have seen bits and pieces of the world, but it wasn’t an op­tion then, you kept the home fires burn­ing.”

Four decades on from Heather’s time, Bon­nie’s role in the army took her around the world. Over her sixyear ca­reer she car­ried out engi­neer­ing work at McMurdo Base in Antarc­tica; pro­vided hu­man­i­tar­ian aid in Tu­valu; and did train­ing ex­er­cises in Syd­ney and Malaysia. Her highlight was lead­ing teams in pro­vin­cial re­con­struc­tion work in Afghanistan, which in­cluded man­ag­ing teams of local Afghan men build­ing hos­pi­tals, school ex­ten­sions and ac­com­mo­da­tion at uni­ver­si­ties, as part of New Zealand Aid-funded tasks.

“The local con­trac­tors prob­a­bly found it quite dif­fi­cult hav­ing a fe­male come and say, ‘That’s not good enough, you have to redo it,’ but at the end of the day I was the one who was pay­ing them so they lis­tened to me,” says Bon­nie, who says she was treated equally to men dur­ing her time in the army.

“I never felt I was held back be­cause I was a woman. Once they saw, par­tic­u­larly at Of­fi­cer Can­di­date School [OCS], that I was do­ing ev­ery­thing the guys were, then that was fine and I was very much treated as an equal. I was care­ful to not give any­one any rea­son to think I was get­ting spe­cial treat­ment as a fe­male.”

She ad­mits the phys­i­cal ex­er­cises were a chal­lenge, but one she was pre­pared for.

It took an hour to iron your uni­form… we’d stand on the bus be­cause we didn’t dare crease them.

“You don’t get a lot of sleep and you are car­ry­ing, what was for me, about half of my body weight. You just get on with it though – I ex­pected it to be dif­fi­cult and I wouldn’t have joined if I didn’t want the chal­lenge. It was im­por­tant for me that I was car­ry­ing my weight both phys­i­cally and fig­u­ra­tively and that I was able to keep up with the boys. In the fit­ness test­ing I was meet­ing the male stan­dards – I wanted to be ac­cepted as an equal by prov­ing that I was equal.”

Bon­nie says the ex­er­tion was worth it for the op­por­tu­ni­ties the army pro­vided her. “When I was only 22 I had a troop of 60 peo­ple I was re­spon­si­ble for.”

She would like to see more women join the army, where women still re­main very much the mi­nor­ity. “The year I did OCS there were 40 grad­u­ates and there was only one other fe­male in that group, and when I got my first troop of 60 peo­ple it only had one woman in it.

“The lead­er­ship ex­pe­ri­ence, the con­fi­dence it gave me to talk in front of a group and the abil­ity to make quick de­ci­sions and back my­self when the pres­sure is on – you don’t get the ex­pe­ri­ence of that any­where else.”

Heather was 18 and work­ing in a fac­tory in Otahuhu, mak­ing ra­dios, when she saw an ad­ver­tise­ment for the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Ser­vice. It was 1963.

“I saw some pro­mo­tional pho­tos say­ing, ‘We want you!’ There was a call-out for women dur­ing that time,” she re­mem­bers. Heather sub­se­quently fea­tured in the next batch of mar­ket­ing ma­te­rial for the navy.

“We lived in El­iz­a­beth House, which is a beau­ti­ful big house on the es­planade [in Devon­port, Auck­land], walk­ing dis­tance to the base. Mar­garet House was for the new wrens [the term given to women work­ing in the navy] that came in – you went from pro­ba­tion­ary wren to wren to lead­ing wren.”

Heather, who was a lead­ing wren by the time she left, says the job taught her “re­spect, re­spon­si­bil­ity and val­ues” and a strong sense of dis­ci­pline. “When we went out we had to be home at one minute to mid­night – not mid­night, one minute be­fore. On Satur­days we were al­lowed to be home at 12.29.

“It also taught me to be very tidy and take pride in my­self. You wouldn’t dream of look­ing crum­pled or un­pressed,” she re­calls. “It would take an hour to iron your uni­form prop­erly and the sum­mer uni­forms were so stiff they could stand up on their own. We’d get on the bus to go to the big pa­rade down in the navy base and we all stood up be­cause we didn’t dare crease them.”

Flick­ing through her al­bum of pho­tos from that time is a source of hap­pi­ness for Heather, whose hus­band Don was a chief of­fi­cer of Sonar un­der­wa­ter weapons. She says the ca­ma­raderie amongst the wrens was strong and “there was al­ways some­thing go­ing on”.

She re­mem­bers play­ing plenty of sport – par­tic­u­larly in­door hockey and net­ball – against other navy teams and putting on singing and danc­ing per­for­mances for en­ter­tain­ment. “Here we are per­form­ing with a band,” she says, point­ing to a black and white print. “We are do­ing the Charleston and high kicks – our legs were good in those days!”

When Heather mar­ried Don she left El­iz­a­beth House and moved into a navy home near the Devon­port base. She says be­ing part of the navy com­mu­nity was im­por­tant, par­tic­u­larly when her hus­band was at sea. “They used to go away for long pe­ri­ods of time, some­times months, so it was great com­pany.”

Heather now lives at Ran­nerdale Vet­er­ans Vil­lage in Christchurch, where she once again has that sense of ca­ma­raderie. Other res­i­dents will also fea­ture in Matt Gauldie’s ex­hi­bi­tion and 50 per cent of pro­ceeds from those paint­ings will go to the vil­lage.

I wanted to be ac­cepted as an equal by prov­ing that I was equal.


Bon­nie Howes spent six years in the army and proudly wears her medals to An­zac Day ser­vices.

Navy vet­eran Heather Hawthorne has fond mem­o­ries of her time in the ser­vice. TOP: Heather, left, and fel­low wrens in their im­mac­u­late uni­forms.

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