Pandemic sees spike in number of ADF recruits

Private Jackson Bartlett from the 5th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment pulls the newly position trigger on the new Grenade Launcher Attachment (GLA) on an EF88 Austeyr weapon at Kangaroo Flats firing range, outside of Darwin.

The number of young Australians joining the armed forces is rising sharply. The diversity of the new recruits is shattering some stereotypes about the ADF.

Cornelius Azolibe, an Igbo man from Nigeria, arrived in Australia when he was 14. Now the 25-year-old proudly wears the Air Force’s general purpose uniform of blue camouflage as a flying officer-recruit in airfield engineering at the RAAF training school in East Sale, Victoria.

He speaks of receiving his Air Force acceptance letter as if he were Harry Potter getting his invitation to Hogwarts.

“When I got the letter it was a bit like a dream come true – you don’t know how it actually feels until you have got it in front of you,” says Azolibe. “Obviously my family was over the moon. Then I was on a plane, now I’m on base and then it dawned on me that this is my life now – this is the journey that I have chosen to take.”

It’s a journey he is not taking alone. All areas of the Australian Defence Force – the navy, army, air force and even the “part-time” reserves – have seen a significant increase in interest from aspiring recruits, partly driven by the COVID-19 pandemic ripping through other industries and leaving droves of people out of work.

Brigadier Duncan Hayward, Director General, Defence Force Recruiting, said it had received 59,213 applications to August this year, compared to 48,000 for the same period last year.

“We have seen about a 23 per cent increase in applications between January and August and we aim to fill about 8000 roles a year,” he said. “One of the reasons for that increase is clearly COVID-19, the second is that Defence has been in the public eye for its response to disaster relief, Operation Bushfire Assist and also its response and assistance with COVID.”

The states with the largest increase in applications were Victoria (43 per cent), NSW (25 per cent) and the ACT (23 per cent).

As well as prompting more people to apply to the ADF, the pandemic has also changed the way the military manages the recruitment process. Hayward says before COVID-19, the tens of thousands of applicants would be processed through 16 buildings for the initial assessment. That has been replaced by online aptitude testing, virtual information days and virtual selection boards.

Recruits have also had to keep themselves fit and adhere to demanding training routines in a world where gyms were closed and movement was sometimes severely limited.

“COVID has presented us with challenges but it has also presented us with opportunities,” says Hayward. “Since COVID started we have deployed, I would estimate, 4000 men and women in Army, Navy and Air Force without any transmission of COVID to our staff, candidates or into the broader Force or training institutions.”

There remains the need to meet candidates face-to-face to see that they are mentally and physically up to the job. Physical assessment takes place in the last six weeks prior to enlistment. An ADF Active app can be used for training at home so candidates know the expectations.

Old stereotypes about the forces are being dispelled as the diversity and variety of jobs on offer becomes better understood, from psychiatrists to plumbers and acoustic analyst submariners to aircraft technicians.

Figures show an increase in applications from women in NSW of 25 per cent in the first half of this year. Chief Petty Officer Alee-Marie Scarfone, a specialist recruiter for women for the Navy in Sydney, said some women going through the recruitment process need additional help with confidence to dispel any myths or rumours about what they perceive as a male-dominated environment.

“There’s a hangover from World War II where women were nurses and the rest of the field was men,” she says. “It’s just not the case any more. There is no role that isn’t open to females in [the] Navy – you can be anything from a clearance diver [explosive ordnance disposal], maritime warfare officer or to captain of a ship.

“You don’t always see women in specific roles – they often think Army are the infantry charging over hills with guns but we have a wide range of roles. We can help with females coming through with a family or wanting a family. Women can even put their career on hold to have children.”

Apprentice midshipman and maritime logistics officer Paige Vernon-Smith, 23, is a case in point. She completed a business degree at Newcastle University before happening upon the Navy at a careers fair.

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“I hadn’t thought of the military during my university time but then I realised that sitting at a desk in a corporate building wasn’t for me, I wanted more adventure,” she told The Sun-Herald from HMAS Creswell, the Royal Australian Naval College at Jervis Bay.

It was February when Vernon-Smith rang to enquire about enlisting. “Then COVID hit and the whole process changed quite radically but it was quick – they had adapted well to the COVID environment,” she said.

At home Vernon-Smith has left behind two mums, a twin sister and four younger brothers. “My mums are very supportive of me being here,” she says. “They were obviously shocked at first, but they sent me care packages during the first four weeks, which went a long way when it came to morale being isolated, especially during COVID.”

Vernon-Smith and her cohort had to do two weeks in quarantine before joining her training ship to ensure they did not accidentally bring COVID-19 on board. She admired the serious approach to the virus. “That really confirmed to me that the Navy was for me,” she said.

Corbin Dal Walters with his dog Stormy at his favourite surf spot at Shelley beach the day prior to his Enlistment Ceremony. 

Corbin Walters, 21, was almost halfway through a bachelor of diagnostic radiography when he had a change of heart about the direction his career was heading.

“I was doing a six-week placement out in Orange and I felt like I wasn’t offering most of the skills and talents that I thought I could offer,” says the Kamilaroi man from Shelly Beach on the central coast. “Not necessarily that the job was easy but I could go through it being comfortable but I wanted to do something that would challenge me.”

Walters is now training to be a maritime warfare officer as a midshipman, also at HMAS Creswell.

“My parents always knew this was in the back of my head but they are both in the police force and have a similar background,” he says. “They just said: if you are going to go through with it make sure you are 110 per cent and keep working hard for it.”

Seamus Linehan, 24, is an enrolled nurse on the COVID front line in emergency at Sydney Adventist Hospital, known as the San, in the north shore suburb of Wahroonga.

He says his objective in his final school years at Oakhill College in Castle Hill was to go to ADFA, the Australian Defence Force Academy. “Then in the last year I broke my leg playing rugby so I wasn’t able to finalise that contract,” he said.

“I took a couple of years off, did some travelling and studied nursing and started work in emergency care. I had some commitments so the Army Reserves felt like a good place to start with the potential to transfer across to full time.”

Nurse Seamus Linehan works in the Emergency Department at Sydney Adventist Hospital ahead of his Army Reserves Recruitment Ceremony. 

Linehan is eyeing a position as a general services officer in the Reserves, perhaps specialising as a medical officer or infantry or special forces. At the Sydney Adventist Hospital he is conducting several COVID-19 tests each day, in full protective gear. “It has been a very full-on time for healthcare workers, particularly front line. It has changed everything,” he says.

“My hospital has been extremely supportive of the whole program. They don’t have any reservists at the moment so they are writing the policy of how they go about it with me.”

Linehan says he was “gutted” when his broken leg stopped him from being accepted the first time around. “I want to serve, I want to give back, I want to be on the front line,” he says. “That’s why I am doing emergency nursing – because I want to be on that front line of call and in the firing line.

“I want to be where the action is. I would love to do an active military tour wherever it is in three or four years. I don’t want to get to 80 years old, sitting in my comfy armchair, and think I didn’t spend my time well.”

Azolibe,the 25-year-old RAAF recruit from western Sydney, says his desire to join the Air Force started in his second year at the University of Technology Sydney. “I wanted to join something different from a traditional civilian organisation,” he says.

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