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March 28, 2011 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Having a Blast at Uni

A lot of people think that those in the Territorial Army are not real soldiers. We are. We are well-trained, highly disciplined fighting machines, ready for war. We’re just not available during the week.”—Gareth Keenan, The Office

You mightn’t know it, but a number of Victoria University students moonlight as soldiers within New Zealand’s Army Reserve—the Territorial Force. Salient caught up with a couple of student reservists to find out what it’s like to be involved in two very different institutions.

Put simply, the Territorial Force or Army Reserve is the part-time component of New Zealand’s Army. It aims to provide trained individual volunteers “from all walks of life” for overseas operations. From the Reserve’s website: “They may be civilians with no prior military experience, or former Regular Force soldiers who have chosen to continue their link with the Army while pursuing a career in the civilian sector”.

Reservists generally train one weekend per month and some weekday evenings, which allows them to maintain those careers “in the civilian sector” outside of the force. The minimum commitment is a cumulative total of 20 days per year, and it’s also possible to take a leave of absence of up to two years—so it’s an achievable exercise for even the busiest student.

Just ask Private Michael Rennie. In September 2010, the 23-year-old LLB/BCA student was named Defence Reservist of the Year, beating out ten other Army and Navy reservists. The contestants were assessed in their performance of such tasks as weapons handling, physical fitness, first aid and public speaking.
Rennie is modest about his title, attributing his success to his simply attending training sessions and being “keen”.

“The more you turn up, the more people notice you around. And so, the people in charge of my unit thought that I was capable of representing, and so they picked me to go forward.”

Rennie joined the Army Reserve in mid-2007 after a lifelong fascination with “military activities”.
“I’ve kind of always been interested in it,” he says. “It’s kind of like a little itch at the back of the neck.”
So joining the Territorial Force was a natural step?

“Yeah, it was. Half-way through my second year, I was thinking ‘what am I going to do over summer? I’m going to be here for five years, doing a couple of degrees’. So I thought I’d have a look into it online, and it looked really good—and it kind of just went from there.”

Rennie points out that the Army Reserve’s “core blocks” of training sessions tend to suit students well.

“Big lots of training are usually held over summer, so it works out well for university students because you have these big summer breaks, and you can go away,” he says.
7 Wellington/Hawkes Bay (7 WNHB Bn Gp) Battalion Commander 2Lt Erin Sampson points out the annual Annual Field Exercise (AFE) is typically held in early February “to make it fit into the uni year.

“This exercise tends to last two weeks, and is the highlight of the training year, with up to 300 soldiers from all over the country participating.”
Rennie points out that there are financial incentives to being in the Army Reserve, too.

“It’s really legitimate part-time work. You go away for the weekend, and you can get a good few hundred bucks.”
Kim Maisey, a 19-year-old student of Criminology and Psychology who has just finished her initial ‘basic’ training session with the reservists, also signed up to the Territorials in search of a source of income.

“It was kind of like an impulse thing,” she recalls. “I thought it’d be quite a good summer job.”

One reservist Salient spoke to estimated that he received $750 per week he spent at basic training—not bad, considering that more and more students are struggling to secure part-time work of any kind. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) figures for the September 2010 quarter showed that 19.4 per cent of New Zealanders aged between 15 and 24 were unemployed.

Moreover, Rennie says that Victoria University has been accommodating of his reservist commitments on the odd occasion that there’s been a clash with exam dates.
“At the end of my first semester in 2009, I had to start training to go overseas during the exam period,” he remembers. “I was doing five papers at that time, and the law school was really good in that they… were flexible in their approach. And the accounting school was really good as well, and let me sit my exams around my training timetable.”
Not all his courses were so accommodating, however.

“INFO 101 and MOFI 201 decided that I wasn’t allowed to sit my exams out of place and out of time because it was ‘too much of a risk’,” he says, savouring the irony. “So, although the country would let me carry a firearm into the Solomon Islands with the possibility that I’d have to shoot people, the Faculty of Commerce would not let me sit my exams out of place and out of time, because there was ‘too much risk’.”

Reservists are often ridiculed for their part-time status—a
cheap shot that’s been reinforced by the British TV series The Office. The Territorials have a low profile compared to that of the Regular Force (a title that surely doesn’t help to even out the difference in public perception), and so self-important, humourless paper merchant/“fighting machine” Gareth Keenan has come to be the most iconic depiction of the Territorials in pop culture. [Author’s note: Some in the Salient office contested this, arguing that Mike Watt in Spaced is more notable. They’re wrong.]
In December 2005, at the peak of the series’ popularity, The Mirror reported that Keenan was “damaging the image of the Territorial Army and hitting recruitment”, while the then-Minister of Defence commented that “the Gareth character… has featured in an internal presentation for officials as an example of public perceptions of the TA”.
This is likely to have contributed to the New Zealand Territorial Force’s rebranding as the Reserve Force, which, according to the official website, “more accurately reflects [its] actual function and role.

“These forces are a Reserve for the Regular Force, demonstrated through our deployments to the Solomon Islands and East Timor… The Army Reserve name reflects the role of its soldiers as Reserves for the Regular Force, trained and ready to deploy for periods of full-time service when called upon to serve their country.”
Rennie isn’t so sure that Regular Force soldiers are in a superior position, anyway.

“Hardly anyone goes from the Territorials to the full-time Army. The thing about the Territorials is that everyone’s got a civilian job. And I’ll soon have a law degree and an accounting degree—I’m not going to go from that to being a soldier.”

In any case, Rennie argues, this is one of the “cool things” about the Army Reserve.

“The people who are in charge of us used to be in charge of the Regular Force soldiers… and they often talk about the different skill sets that the Territorial soldiers have. We often have a lot more life experience than someone who’s been in the army the whole time; a lot broader skills. We have all types of people here—there are lawyers, there are accountants, plumbers, builders, people who work in security.”

Reservists’ civilian jobs do not render them less effective than the Regular Force, as, Rennie points out, “whatever situation you get put into, you’re trained to do it.
“It’s not like you’re thrown into the deep end straight away… and if you did get in a dangeorus situation, coming from the NZ Defence Force, you’re likely to be more trained than soldiers from many other countries—unless they too are ex-Regular Force soldiers.”

Rennie was deployed to the Solomon Islands at the end
of 2009.

“We have to be prepared for if anything goes wrong, but it’s our presence that is the main deterrant for anything that could happen. So we’re just there to support the police that are there.

“We did quite a bit of patrolling, so we’d just go through the streets and… support police, especially at rougher times of the day and night… I was there for four months.”
The Army Reserve is one of the arms that the government can call upon in the case of a civil emergency, and this also presents reservists with a number of opportunities.

“A lot of a time, as a reservist, you have to nominate yourself by putting yourself forward, and there are heaps of opportunities as well—it’s not just about going and fighting overseas. There’s things like the Christchurch earthquake, some riot control…”

80 reservists from the 7 Wellington/Hawke’s Bay Battalion were sent to Christchurch in the wake of the 23 February earthquake. Along with 164 South Island Territorial soldiers already at Burnham, they helped to clear sediment from streets and properties, as well as acting as a support network for the police.

“It’s just being eyes and ears, as well,” says Rennie, who was one of the 80 reservists to be sent to Christchurch. “The police are busy, they’ve got a lot going on. Our job isn’t to… arrest people or tackle people who are breaching the cordon. Our job is to help the police.”

Rennie allows that it “takes a certain person” to be a reservist: “You gotta be pretty resilient at times, if you’re going to be living out of your backpack for six days, digging holes, living outside, eating cold reconstituted food…”

Maisey says a degree of “mental hardness” is beneficial, especially basic training.

“I really enjoyed it, but sometimes it was the worst time of my life… You definitely need to have a ‘never give up’ attitude, as they do test you quite a lot. And probably a cruisy attitude, too, because there’s a lot of stuff [during training] that’s real crap, and you just have to get through it.”

Having said that, Maisey believes “it’s a thing that most New Zealanders should do, even if it’s just the basic training.

“The things you’ve got to do, and the experiences you’ve got to get through… do have a big influence. They change your perspective.”

Even the application process, Rennie says, isn’t as gruelling as you might think: “If you wanted to do it, you could put some training in, and anyone could do it.”

Although further intake details for 2011 are to be confirmed, the current requirements are to be a minimum age of 17; have completed at least three years’ secondary school; have a proven ability in English and Mathematics at NCEA Level 1; be free from criminal convictions; and to be a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident. You will also be required to undergo a full medical, as well as to meet minimum fitness requirements.


About the Author ()

Elle started out at Salient reviewing music. In 2010, she wrote features and Animal of The Week, which an informal poll revealed to be 40% of Victoria students' favourite part of the magazine. Alongside Uther Dean, she was co-editor for 2011. In 2012, she is chief features writer.

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