The Middle East

October 16, 2019

I have had the privilege of taking part in the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program, visiting Middle East operations, including in Iraq. It was a profound experience. Like many MPs with a Defence Force facility in their electorate—in my case, Glenbrook air headquarters and RAAF Base Richmond—I have got to appreciate the work that is done by serving personnel locally. I also gained deeper insight into the strategic role of my local facilities a couple of years ago after spending a week at sister base Amberley.

But the immersion into the Middle East operations earlier this month, at a time when the situation is developing apace, was incredibly valuable. There were many highlights. There is something quite surreal about flying in a KC-30 and watching planes refuelling just off your wing, in midair. The calmness with which the pilots and operator go through their processes, which involve a very small spout connecting with a very small hose in midair, is quite a sight to see. I want to especially mention Squadron Leader Chris for giving up his time to host us. The E-7 Squadron leader also gave us access to the Wedgetail, and we were duly impressed by its capabilities as a very powerful eye in the sky.
It was a personal delight for me to catch up with a young man from my electorate, Jordan, who is one of many from the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury who are working in the Middle East. In fact, wherever I turned, whether it was inspecting the firefighting facilities or walking to breakfast in the mess, connections with Richmond RAAF Base and Glenbrook were strong. My favourite sight one morning was seeing someone heading towards me in a T-shirt that said, 'New York, Paris, London, south Windsor'. I pulled him aside and said, 'You have to be from Hawkesbury,' which of course he was. A Richmond Hercules flew us to and from Iraq, its crew kindly giving us the chance to view the incoming approach and landing from the cockpit.

On the ground in Camp Taji in Iraq, we saw firsthand the efforts of Australian Defence Force personnel to help build capacity in the Iraqi military, to help stabilise that country. Since 2015, the Australian Army has maintained a training team at the base, designated Task Group Taji. The New Zealand Defence Force also contributes personnel and both were kind enough to include us in their activities. It is a veritable United Nations within Taji, with representatives from all over the world—and a big shout out to the Fijians. We visited the training school where the coalition is doing much less teaching and much more mentoring of Iraqi trainers these days, who are now delivering most of the program. The message we got from the Iraqis is that assistance from Australia has been greatly appreciated and the school remains ambitious to keep building on its facilities and expand the training experiences it offers students. I was also grateful to have conversations with Iraqi translators, who are working for the Australian and New Zealand forces, and they shared some of the challenges of their lives and their hopes, as Iraq rebuilds after many difficult years, and of course there is a very long way to go.

Throughout it all, the professionalism of our troops to maintain their readiness and continue training was evident everywhere we went. I want to thank the quick reaction force platoon commander, who included us in exercises with the Australian and New Zealand soldiers. The bruises may be fading but my memories of those activities won't. Thanks also to the training team unit major, who, like so many others I can't begin to name, shared his experiences as he showed us the base, including a virtual men's shed, where Australian blokes and women can potter in their downtime.

At Australia's Middle East base, where we were put through our paces to prepare for the trip to Iraq, the RSO training, I'm pleased that not only have they managed to teach me how to pack a wound and tie a tourniquet but it turns out I'm not as bad a shot as I thought I might be. All this occurred under the leadership of Headquarters Joint Task Force 633 commander Rear Admiral Hill and the Chief Warrant Officer Matt Hurley, who allowed us into the workings of this home away from home for so many Australian Defence Force personnel. Our visit liaison officer Sonia Leon Sepulveda and Flying Officer Olivia Quattroto made sure we knew where to eat, that we were where we needed to be when we needed to be there, and they went out of their way to help us get our heads around a very different routine and way of life. Major James McGarrigle and Major M, our military advisors and security escorts—the most awesome pair—helped us unravel not only what Australia's defence personnel are doing but also what some of the really big challenging issues are on the ground in the Middle East and what the implications are for Australia.

My overriding take away aside from those fading bruises is the huge personal sacrifices that individuals make when they deploy. It's not just the long hours focused on their job and the 24/7 work environment, even when they're off duty; it is the enormous amount of time they are spending away from family and friends. They're in a really stimulating work environment and I think one of the biggest challenges is for the family and friends who are back in Australia—the challenge that it all presents for maintaining relationships and really the huge thing we ask of people who stay back home. I also appreciated the sense of family that being in the Defence Force confers, especially when you are deployed away from home. They are a bunch who look out for each other. They have a strong sense of purpose and readily welcome people into their ranks, even politicians. I was very proud to be one of their number for a short while.

The ADF visit also highlights for me the debt we owe people when they leave the force. I think there is much we can do in this parliament to ensure that once people have completed their service they are treated in an appropriate way as they move into the civilian world.
The parliamentary program is a really important program for members of parliament to have access to. I thank the ADF for the effort they put into it to deepen our knowledge. I would certainly encourage all members to take part, whether they have a Defence Force facility in their community or not—perhaps more so if they don't, because this parliament makes decisions that impact on the lives of these personnel. In every budget, in every decision we make about foreign policy there are implications for our defence forces. So I really urge people to take the opportunity to go inside and understand just a little bit of what it's like, what some of the challenges are and what some of the opportunities are for people who serve. Once again, thank you to the ADF for the enormous effort you make to ensure that we have a safe and fascinating time as we get to know your world.