Turning green: becoming an SSO in the Australian ArmyBy Matthew Williams May 15, 2020
What is it like to join the Australian Army? This is a question I have been asked a lot in the past few months. Is it a leap of faith? Perhaps the start of a journey filled with challenges and successes?
The reality is that joining the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is a life changing moment. As a newly commissioned Education Officer, I have just completed this process with 70 other Specialist Service Officers (SSO). This article will reflect on what it is like to join as an SSO, including the immediate challenges we have faced, our expectations versus the realities of service, and our training.
Sitting down to write this reflective piece, I began to realise just how different the world we live in is today, compared to the world this organisation has served for so many years. The Army is always adapting depending on the situation we find ourselves. In the last six months, our country has faced threats of a different kind as natural disasters have changed the way we live. It was also the period of time that I commissioned into the Australian Army. I think it’s important to frame this reflection with this lens, as what everyone has experienced recently is certainly not the norm.
So, what did I expect the Army to be like before I joined, and what did I experience?
Expectation versus reality
I honestly had no idea what to expect. I knew it would be mentally and physically tough, and a big change to the life I lived. I assumed that, like all soldiers, we would go into training immediately. Whilst recognising that we already possess some of the qualifications required of our job, we would need to be trained to operate within the Army. The reality is, most SSOs commission and begin work pretty much immediately, with training following afterwards. I became a Lieutenant on a Monday, and on the Tuesday I was in barracks before commencing my Regimental Officers Basic Course (ROBC) the following Monday! Other SSOs I met on course commissioned and went straight into a unit and began leading teams, a daunting task for sure.
Our First Appointment Course at the Royal Military College was our first real exposure to Army training. My cohort comprised of newly commissioned officers and a large group of reservists. Having been appointed in November 2019, I had been in slightly longer than most and thankfully my unit had prepared me well for the course. While a lot of us did not have the required uniform, equipment and embellishments, the staff at the college rectified this as best they could. The instructors we worked with were of a very high standard and made the course both challenging and rewarding. The training focused on officer and soldiering skills, with Part 1 centred on teaching us core skills such as drill and weapons handling. Part 2 focused on leadership, military ethics and knowledge to build on Part 1, including the widely-loved leadership reaction course and Tactical Care of the Combat Casualty training. By the end we were all qualified to use Army weapons systems and had baseline knowledge to support us in our jobs going forward.
The commissioning process presented its own challenges too. A common challenge was understanding how my speciality would be applied within the Army, as SSOs are used to their area of expertise. However, your role within Army isn’t necessarily a one to one translation from the civilian sector. I am often asked ‘What does an Education Officer actually do?’ by members and the public. I had a tough time explaining this to people prior to joining, which is why understanding your place in the Army is key to your capability. How do I contribute to the end state of the Army winning the land war? What do I do in my day to day role? How can I better myself to help those around me? These are all questions I would put to all new members, regardless of corps.
I’d like to finish up this reflection with this thought. The Army is under attack; not from a human or an idealistic threat, but we are fighting a war. COVID-19 is the latest threat to test the ADF and the Army's response is the exact outcome that the Chief of Army identified in his command statement, which is an Army in Motion that is ready for the threats it faces now, and those that are unknown in the future.
The Army is rapidly adapting to an online working environment during the COVID-19 crisis and it is my belief that the future of Army is flexible, always available and blended in its approaches to teaching, learning and working. Much like major wars have impacted the future of the Army and ADF, this global event will also change how we operate into the future. We are at war, just not with a human threat. As members of the ADF we must be willing to change, learn and adapt. I can contribute to this change through my work with the Army Education Centre, by promoting enhanced learning environments and techniques to improve educational outcomes for our soldiers. Smarter warfighters give us an advantage over our threats (even COVID-19). I would ask you, what can you do to help Army achieve its mission?
I initially thought of SSOs as square pegs trying to fit into round holes, having to modify our 'edges' to fit into the Army structure. This may be true to some extent, but throughout my training I have also come to realise that, as members of the Army, our capabilities are what make us valuable. All members of the Army have skills that they can offer, but it is the collaboration of our efforts that will see us succeed. We all combine to create a force capable of meeting the demands of future warfare and succeeding no matter the situation or mission. Regardless of our Corps, we all add to this organisation and must embrace our expertise and not be afraid to show our extraordinary skills.
Own your inner expert and be the best you can.