Articles by " Samantha Crompvoets"

ADF Reserves: understanding difference and delivering change

Australian Army Reserve soldiers from the 12th/40th Battalion, The Royal Tasmania Regiment, training in waterborne patrolling with a Zodiac from the Hobart-based Navy Reserve Diving Team 10.Last week saw National Reserve Forces day, which recognises former and current reservists and thanks their employers and families. But did anyone notice?

Over the last few months, there have been a number of policy changes affecting ADF reserves announced, including remuneration, and enhancing their ability to serve. In one media release, the Assistant Minister for Defence, Stuart Robert, stated that those changes reflect ’the fact that Reservists are becoming increasingly integrated into the total ADF workforce’.

But where’s the evidence of that integration?

Plan Beersheba proposes a more integrated force structure for Army, where the Force Generation Cycle ensures that combat brigades, specialist capabilities and part time forces consistently train together. Is that integration, or another attempt at assimilation? Read more

Two weeks ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) published a report I wrote based on an exploratory study of Air Force and Army reservists’ health, identity and support needs. The study describes the implications of imposing ’full time’ Defence systems, policies and norms on to those with competing civilian lives.

The alternative is to treat reserve service as a unique form of service that balances the expectations, obligations, and norms found in military and civilian culture.

The study found that the culture of the ADF—one favouring full-time immersion and commitment—creates an environment that systematically and structurally marginalises reserves through a) a system of entitlements designed for permanent members; and b) a standard or expectation of ‘permanents first’; and which is reinforced through c) active discrimination against and bullying of the reserve (which is detailed at length in the study (PDF) in the section called ‘The impact of military culture’ and in a literature review found in the ‘Background’ section that demonstrates this as a theme that is international).

For DVA, this study highlights the need to increase the understanding of the complexity of triggers for service and deployment-related stressors and the resultant impact on mental health for reservists. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) resulting from deployment may not have the same causation as for permanent members, however the psychological impact may be just as significant and debilitating.

This study points to two important paradoxes in the current state of reserve service.

First, deployment and training opportunities presented reservists with opportunities to be considered legitimate members of the Total Force (that is, the total capability that an integrated reserve and permanent force can deliver). However, the mode with which they were offered deployments and the pressure to take them up regardless of civilian commitments meant that reserves were often frustrated by the level of ignorance from the ADF of their dual military–civilian lives.

Second, strategies such as the reservist’s return to civilian employment appear to be an important stabilising resource. In contrast, however, returning to civilian employment too soon following deployment has been associated with increased risk of PTSD. This paradox highlights the complexities reserves face after deployment and the need to examine those issues further in future research.

Policy changes such as those mentioned above go some way in alleviating some of the red tape that has historically been par for the course when reserves attempt to access support, but more work is needed to better understand what Reserve work involves, both personally and professionally.

‘Work’ in Defence is often distinguished from that of the civilian sector with reference to it being ‘service’ rather than work. This ‘service’ is defined by law in the Defence Act 1903 and stipulates that members are ‘bound to render continuous unrestricted service’. In essence this legally and structurally divides those who ‘serve’ from those who simply ‘work’—and with it a swag of cultural baggage associated with being ’part-time committed’.

Observations of the marginalisation of both reservists and women are not new, and the intense focus on gender and culture over the last couple of years is almost reaching a threshold of organisational fatigue.

Effort and change at the tactical level must continue to be met and supported by change at the strategic level by the Abbott Government.

Proposed changes to legislation to alter the ‘bound to render’ construct in the Defence Act 1903 will be tabled in Parliament in early 2015 and represent the most significant attempt at Total Force in the ADF’s history. This isn’t about reducing the liability to serve, rather enabling the flexibility to serve in different and valued ways. Warfighting capability will be retained, and indeed strengthened, by increasing the ability to call upon different components of the total workforce. If those who are ‘part time’ are obligated to serve when needed then the culturally-entrenched arguments regarding ‘part time commitment’ could, and should, erode.

Many will watch with anticipation the parliamentary priority given to this seminal legislative change, and, if successful, we might then begin to see real evidence of integration.

Samantha Crompvoets is a sociologist, and research fellow in the ANU Medical School and contractor to the Department of Defence. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Women in war: what we don’t know

Ms Gai Brodtmann MP speaks with female members of the Australian Defence Force about their experiences as part of Female Engagement Team (FET) missions in Southern Afghanistan.

Over the last couple of years I’ve watched with interest how the ‘gender and Defence’ debates have unfolded in the Australian media. Debates about the inclusion of women in front line combat, physical standards for women in various occupational roles, and highly publicised ‘sex scandals’ have incited a range of political, professional and emotional reactions, and focused attention in a limited way on how gender roles are seen in the military today.

As an academic who has spent the last four years conducting an in-depth study of the health and wellbeing of Australia’s female veterans, I think debates about removing the restrictions from women’s participation in front line combat in particular have rendered invisible the considerable involvement Australian women have had in war and their exposure to trauma.

Women have served, and are currently serving, in situations very comparable to front line combat in all but name and classification. I listened to story after story from women who had deployed to Vietnam, Rwanda, East Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other operations. When I compared their experiences to the public discourse that argues the pros and cons of allowing women to serve at the ‘pointy end’ of war, it occurred to me that the debate implicitly, and often explicitly, suggested women’s experiences to date had been rather benign. Read more

But what are the implications of this continued rhetoric? Are these debates furthering gender equity for women in the military? Are they empowering women?

I’d argue that they aren’t—instead, I think that they have an enduring negative impact on women in the ADF, by not legitimising their experiences in war or peacekeeping operations to date, and the impact those experiences have had.

Despite active service, multiple deployments, and combat-like roles, invariably women don’t identify themselves as being veterans. In the study this was an issue for women across all ages and deployment cohorts, regardless of occupational group or service type. An authentic veteran was seen to be male, older and likely to have served in World War I or II, Korea, Vietnam or a combat role.

My (DVA funded) research found that overwhelmingly women valued their careers highly in the ADF; they enjoyed the opportunities afforded them and the close knit team environment. Despite significant structural barriers that impede some women’s career progression (for example the lack of a sustainable model of part-time work), and the intensity of experiences their military career involved (deployment, maternal separation, belonging to a minority group), female veterans framed their experiences mostly positively.

Mental, physical and reproductive health and wellbeing issues that emerged as a result of operational deployment manifested in various ways, and opportunities to address them with timely and appropriate support and services were often limited.

The duality of the empowering and satisfactory elements of an ADF career superimposed upon inadequate opportunities for a fulsome career, poor post separation health and wellbeing resources and resultant negative outcomes gives rise to an ‘empowerment/disempowerment paradox’: women were both empowered by their career and achievements and disempowered through a lack of appropriate resources and support.

Readjustment to life after the military is a common challenge for all military personnel. Female veterans face many ambiguities in relation to their gendered sense of self; as mothers, partners, carers, or as they forge a new professional identity in a more gender balanced workplace.

Throughout the interviews, I was continually awestruck by the experiences and involvement ADF women described—far from benign, and often, far from ‘behind the wire’. What struck me more was that I hadn’t known, and that no one else seemed to know. In light of this the ‘should women be allowed it front line combat?’ question seemed out of place. My research demonstrates that women were continuously contributing to operations in a front-line capacity for decades. As ADF personnel who have given much to their country and sacrificed much to serve on operational deployment, veteran status is something women should embrace. In contrast, many distance themselves from this epithet.

The implications of this are more than symbolic. Rather, they manifest as significant barriers to accessing existing support services aimed at ‘veterans’.  This is then compounded when women do try to access services, only to find that they are limited, developed for a largely male clientele and incompatible with carer responsibilities.

Female veterans seeking support and care from a civilian health care provider also often perceive (and experience) limited understandings by those practitioners of the experiences or needs of female veterans. The current state for female veterans is one that leads to potentially worsening health and wellbeing.

The focus of ‘gender and Defence’ discourse needs to shift to the needs of female veterans, both current serving and following transition or separation. Events like ANZAC day should provide an opportunity to focus attention on the needs of female veterans and to generate discussion in a direction that might support military women where they most need it.

Samantha Crompvoets is a sociologist, and research fellow in the ANU Medical School and contractor to the Department of Defence. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.