Media Project Part 5: Very Senior Soldiers.


As I walk up the rain slicked streets of Paddington on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, heavy cloud hangs low over Sydney, and a persistent drizzle has settled in over the city.

On this Wednesday, Victoria Barracks sits squat behind it’s now darkened sandstone walls, slightly hidden from the view of the motorists and pedestrians using Oxford Street, on their way to and from wherever they spend their days

I’m here today to speak to one of the most senior soldiers in the Australian Army.

WO1 Don Spinks joined the Australian Army in 1979 at the age of 17. Born and raised on a dairy farm at the junction of the Hunter and Goulburn Rivers, the Army presented him with something he wouldn’t find milking cows: world experience. In his 34 and a half years of active service he’s probably found plenty of that.

Don Spinks is a Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM).

The British version of the appointment (it’s not considered a rank) of Sergeant Major traces it’s history all the way back to 1680, and it was commonly applied to the senior Sergeant (a non-commissioned officer) in the Colonel’s company of an Infantry regiment. The role was formalised in 1797, with the addition of the Sergeant Major to the Battalion or Regimental staff.

The symbol of office for the RSM is the Pace Stick, originally used by Field Gun teams of the Royal Regiment of Artillery to makes correct distances between guns on the battlefield. The Pace Stick operates like a large pair of wooden calipers and, when it isn’t tucked safely under the arm, can be opened to correctly measure pace, hence its name. Although it sounds pedantic, pace is important for more than just ceremonial pomp. It’s also used to minimise fatigue on long marches and sets the accuracy and precision expected of soldiers. Whenever an RSM leaves his room he must carry his Pace Stick. It’s all terribly proper.

In the Australian Army there are 4 levels of RSM. The first is at the regular Battalion level, and there are between 126-130 of them. Above the Battalion RSM are formations and training centre RSM’s, followed by “higher formation” RSM’s and finally the RSM Army.

Don Spinks is the RSM for Forces Command and reports directly to Major General Mick Slater, Commander Forces Command.

But what does an RSM do?

“…. Was the real old fashioned type of soldier, a smart man in every way, a terror for discipline when on duty, a thorough gentleman off duty. A man who would sing a song or dance with the best; who knew everything there was to know about soldiering and took the greatest pride in his regiment. His decorations numbered 9, and included the Military Cross…. His word was law in the battalion and he would give an officer a, “lecture,” just the same as he would a private soldier, so that all ranks looked up to him as a man to be respected.”

John Jackson, Private 12768 Memoir of a Tommy.

Besides being the soldier’s representative and the primary maintainer of discipline amongst the soldiers, the RSM’s role is to support command and act as the primary conduit between Commanders and their troops.

This means that an RSM is able to walk into any level of command and lay the truth out there. He provides wise counsel, the common soldiers point of view. If a commanding officer needs an opinion, he doesn’t need it sugar coated. He needs truth. The RSM provides it.

In a nutshell he is support to command and presents on behalf of the Diggers.

I sat down with Don on that rainy Wednesday afternoon and spent an hour picking his brain about his job, his experiences and his opinions on some questions regarding the Australia Army and it’s deployments overseas.

Nick Monfries (NM) – How hard is it for soldiers to leave loved ones behind to deploy overseas? Are they able to keep in touch while deployed? Is the army able to support those left behind during deployments? What difficulties do all parties (home and away) face?

WO 1 Don Spinks (WO1 DS) – We’re better at it now then we were at the beginning. The Welfare Teams and Army Support have evolved over time, learnt hard lessons and gotten better. The length and intensity of operations overseas has changed with Afghanistan, and so has how we support our troops.

Previous to our recent deployments (Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan), we’d had a long period of peace after Vietnam. Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan have forced a large amount of learning for all concerned, be they soldiers, the Army itself or families.

Sometimes it’s easier to go overseas than Shoalwater Bay in Queensland. Proximity becomes a factor, and so does finance. Extra pay for overseas deployments can make the absence a bit easier to handle. But when a soldier is only a state or two away, and the spouse or partner is having a bad day, it’s certainly keenly felt.

We try to educate the troops on how to prepare the family, because they are the ones to have the day-to-day contact and proper relationship for that. DCO ( and other Defence organizations play a big part in supporting those left behind.  However the units themselves do the core work. They organize briefing, info nights and newsletters.

In country, the Forward Operating Bases’ (FOB’s, have Skype, Email and telephones available to the Diggers. Thus communications are very easy.  It’s a double-edged sword though. Young soldiers sometimes struggle with having a their loved ones so close yet so far.

With email, Skype and everything else, letter writing is nearly dead.

Balancing communication is difficult. You minimise when you need to… It’s down to the individual how often they do or don’t, only they can make the decision. It is something that needs to sort itself. Prohibition doesn’t work, you can’t make them not talk to loved ones. Even if you did prohibit it, the Diggers are smart enough to find ways around it. The paradigm of managing relationships has changed dramatically. The Diggers learn quickly though.

It’s the young families have it toughest obviously.

It’s maturity based.

NM – How does the Army train it’s troops to develop instinctive responses is dangerous situations?

WO1 DS – Two things: drills and training. It’s all about repetition, repetition and more repetition.

The Army obviously has a huge demand for excellence, a higher level of proficiency.  Our training systems allow that to become a reality.

When something happens, that instinctive reaction kicks in. So when an IED goes off, troops automatically get out of their vehicles, hit the deck and return fire, or whatever the training is for that situation.

The initial robotic reaction is great, but once that is finished it’s then time to deal with what is confronting you. You need to switch off that robotic nature and start to process the information you have in front of you.

The Army teaches you how to think, not what to think. It’s problem solving.  Ask yourself the question, “So what?”

For example, he has a machine gun – “so what?” So what do I do now? We need to surpass his ability to fire that machine gun. “So what?” So how do I do that?” You make plans and react according to what you’re answer is.

Again it’s problem solving.

After the contact drill ends it becomes command/leadership in the reaction.

It’s not about tactics; it’s how you think and react in any given situation. Tactics is the last bit of the process; applying the brainpower and processing the information is the start. Aural input, visual input, other information from members of the squad and group. We’ve learned a lot of lessons fighting in Afghanistan; we need to draw on them.

The enemy is hardy, not technologically advanced. Endeavour is important.

NMWhat is COIN?

WO1 DS – COIN stands for Counter Insurgency – It’s another type of conflict.

We had a ‘Hearts and Minds’ COIN conflict in Malaya (hearts and minds refers to winning the hearts and minds of the local population, making them feel safe and removing them from the side of the insurgents).  It’s about winning over the population. The Boer War, Zulu war, these are conflicts that used the “rough hand”.

We use the “soft hand”. The Aussie Digger is happy to help on the whole. We learn every day in country that something is good and bad. Afghanistan has a very rigid hierarchy regarding allegiance. That is self, tribe and then valley. Outside of the valley doesn’t matter; these people just want to exist.

Most internal conflicts in Afghanistan (not Taliban) are over water and women. Family Feuds. They merely want to be left alone, to get food to market, to keep their families and to simply live.

It’s important to get to know the population and that is self-taught.  Getting out and about and walking and listening is vital.  As our troops rotate in from Australia the soldiers they are replacing, the ones who were there before them, brief them. The fresh unit also begins patrolling with the unit that will soon be heading back.

Special Forces learning has evolved too and there are many lessons to be learned from them.

Everything ties back into respect. Arrogance is failure. One big question is “Who is the bad guy?” Our troops learn to pick up on warning signs and react accordingly.

The Afghanis will never learn to love an invading force. Throughout it’s history Afghanistan has been invaded over and over again, be it the Greeks, the English, the Russians or NATO.  It’s important to ask the question; how much is real insurgency, and how much is a person just wanting their home back.

Our allies the US are very good combat soldiers.  They’ve learnt their lessons well.

The only solution is an Afghan solution. Trying to provide the security forces to keep the country stable enough that they can learn to govern internally.

Only time will tell us if we were right or wrong.


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