Media Project Part 4: Women In Uniform.

Image courtesy of ADF and the Australian Government.

Image courtesy of ADF and the Australian Government.

In 1983, Simone Wilkie joined the Royal Australian Army Signal Corps.

In August of 2013, Brigadier Wilkie will be promoted to Major General and take over command of the Australian Defence College.

In the intervening 30 years, Brigadier Wilkie has done as much as any woman in the Defence Force. She has served as the Brigadier National Commander in Afghanistan and as the Assistant Chief of Staff to US General David Petraeus during the 2007 Surge in Iraq, with roles as the first female Commanding Officer at the Royal Military College Duntroon and Commandant at the Army Recruit Training Centre at Kapooka along the way.

From studying Physical Education at university to being one of the highest-ranking military women in Australian history is quite a journey.

I recently spoke to Brigadier Wilkie about her career and experiences and how things have changed for women in the Army, and in the army in general over the years.

In ’83, when Brigadier Wilkie began her recruit training, the treatment of female recruits was very different to today.

“My class when I joined there were 32 women, it was all female training and it was done here in Sydney.”

“When I joined we didn’t even do sword drill. We learned how to fire weapons and do infantry minor tactics but there were some aspects of our training that weren’t the same either. So that’s changed quite a lot.”

“And we’re probably getting more women than that now going into Officer training. But we only had 4 girls from my class who didn’t finish, that’s a pretty good pass rate out of 32. And there is still, I think 2 or 3 of us serving 30 years later and a bunch of still in Reserves.”

Does she see the role of women as having changed during your time in the Army?

“It definitely has because the opportunities that are available now are much wider than when I joined.  There was a number of Corps that you couldn’t go to.”

“In fact when I joined and went off to Signals (Telecommunications) you could only serve in the units that didn’t deploy (get sent overseas), so the strategic communications assets. And that was my first deployment”

“Now you can pretty much serve in any Signals unit across the Army and deploy on operations.”

And what about the 2011 announcement of the removal of restrictions on women serving in combat units?

“We’ve opened up to those women who are already serving the opportunity to transfer (into combat units) and we’ve already had a small number of women indicate that that is what they’d like to do and progressively we are opening it up to people who want to enlist”

“But regardless of your gender, you need to pass the physical test in order to go into those, which is as important requirement in my view.”

If combat units were open to women at the time of her joining would Brigadier Wilkie have joined another Corps other than Signals?

“I didn’t actually pick signals.”

“That’s what I was allocated.  It wasn’t even one of my preferences. But in hindsight it was the best place for me to go and that’s where you know the Captain who was my guidance officer said, “You know Simone, I think you should go here”. And I’ve had lots of fantastic opportunities.  Would I go there now? Possibly not, because I’m not a particularly technically orientated person. And now that there is other things open like Engineers I would have been interested in that… knowing that that also has a technical bent to it!”

“If I were born 20 years later those opportunities would have been greater than they were when I joined.”

In her role as the Brigadier National Commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier Wilkie was in charge of the 1500 troops serving with ADF units and embedded with international forces in the combat zone.

“We had soldiers spread over a number of locations in Afghanistan. So I was the senior Brigadier, the Assistant Commander to the General that we have working out of Dubai.”

“So my specific role was within AF and I would liaise with the Commander of the Forces, who was General John Allen at the time, other nations, the UN and the Embassy. So in that whole of government space, which was quite a fascinating area, I also had oversight of some of the operations in theater, but not all of that because some of that goes directly back through the 2 Star (a Major General).

“So I would be the contact in theater for all of those things, even including the Red Cross and a whole raft on the NGO’s. And I was also the Defence Attaché. The list is long.”

How did that role compare to working as the Assistant Chief of Staff to Gen Petraeus in Iraq?

“It was quite different.”

“So I was actually in Gen Petraus’ HQ and that was split over two locations. His Chief of Staff was General Paxton, who is a 2 star Marine, and I was his deputy.”

“So I used to run a lot of the things that happened in the Embassy location, and the other location was out at Camp Victory. So Gen Pat used to flick between the two parts of his HQ, which had around 1800 people, so quite large.”

“I also used to work closely with the Department of State, which is I suppose like our DFAT. Which was amazing, because if you haven’t worked with the American military, they have their own language. So I found it an incredibly steep take off to learn the American military language and the way they did their business inside an HQ, and then the idiosyncrasies of their Department of State and the culture between the two of them. I was sort of a go between in managing things. So the first month was a lot of different things coming at me but it was absolutely fascinating to see how a campaign actually is conducted at that level. “

After her overseas deployments, and her soon to be promotion to Major General, does the Brigadier consider herself and the rest of her recruitment class pioneers or trailblazers?

“I think every decade, when the opportunities are provided you’ll get what some people class as a trailblazer.  But it’s more a case of the environment they are working in and what they’ve achieved.”

“If I compared myself to one of my class mates, she is an ammunition technician officer. So she’s one of those people that blow things up.  So if something’s found in the community that needs disposal she will be the one who does that…. that’s trailblazing.  You don’t find too many women working in that environment.”

“I think it’s just more a case of what’s available and are you suitable to do it.”

Over her 3 decades of service Brigadier Wilkie has shown that she is as capable as anyone in her chosen profession.

Doing the best she can.

2 Responses to “Media Project Part 4: Women In Uniform.”
  1. Amy Martin says:

    Nick, it’s “Corps”, not “Corp”, there’s also no such unit as the “Australian Defence College”.

    Decent article otherwise.

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