By Wing Commander Jennifer Atkinson
Royal New Zealand Air Force, Chief of Staff, Pacific Partnership
New Zealand Defence Force nominations for Pacific Partnership 2015 were sought at the end of last year. I received a very brief email that provide minimal information on the mission – other than it was preferable if you were comfortable climbing ladders on a Navy ship! However, this was enough to peak my interest and I soon learnt that PP15 was an annual U.S. Navy-led mission that engaged with nations in South-east Asia and the Pacific.
For PP15 there would be both a hospital ship, USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) and a smaller joint high speed vessel, USNS Millinocket (JHSV 3) – providing the opportunity for nine NZDF personnel to join. NZ would be part of a multilateral PP15 team which would include a range of other nations, military services and various non-governmental organisations. The engagements between PP15 participants and local communities would focus on strengthening regional relationships, improving host nation capacity and exercising collective ability to respond to a natural disaster. It essentially began in response to the catastrophic 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of South East Asia areas on Indonesia – and 2015 would be the tenth Pacific Partnership mission.
Armed with this knowledge and enthusiasm I put in my nomination for the Chief of Staff role where I would report directly to the U.S. Mission Commander and work alongside the Australian Deputy. Admittedly I did wonder what an Air Force Psychologist could know of a U.S. Navy-led mission like PP15 and how well would I cope with life at sea for four months. However, this was overshadowed by the desire to be a part of something meaningful and a willingness to learn.
While I had deployed several times as a psychologist, it was never longer than three weeks at a time so I was also aware that it would be significant for my family as well. When I got the call In December that I had been selected, my command was supportive and my family was excited for me – although towards my departure date my two children (aged 5 and 7) would change their minds!
As my departure with PP15 became more real, I realized I needed to draw on what I knew about deployments. As a Military Psychologist I had frequently conducted the family pre-deployment training briefs – emphasizing the potential positive effects from the experience for all, the roller coaster of emotions that could ensue and the resiliency of our children. It was the last point that I took to heart – reminding myself that four months away was long but achievable. I had the usual looks of disbelief from friends outside the military – often with the comment of how could I be away from my children. However I trusted the research that I so often quoted to others in Defence – to have faith in both ourselves and our families to adapt.
Closer to my departure, my children became more tearful and in particular my five year old son had frequent angry outbursts – usually directed at me and over the smallest thing. Probably the most helpful thing I did was visit their classrooms and where they both helped me talk about PP15 and the hospital ship ‘Mercy’ – there was a sense of pride and feeling ‘special’ that softened the anxiety over my
departure. The day arrived for my flight out to San Diego and tearful goodbyes followed but there was also some relief the time had finally arrived for the deployment to start too. Thankfully things quickly fell into place for both myself and the family with routines providing the much needed familiarity and stability.
I have now been onboard the ship almost a month and it continues to be a steep but enjoyable learning curve. I have found some routine onboard, the language/abbreviations seems less foreign and friendships have grown. I even had time to graduate from ‘Pollywog’ status to a “Shellback” during an eventful ceremony (ask a sailor to explain this one!). We are now in Fiji (our first mission stop) and we will participate in tailored medical, dental, veterinary, engineering civil action programs so very excited to see all our planning come to fruition! So far I have been out and about on various events, including a very fun-filled afternoon of face painting at a local school. How I enjoyed seeing the smiles on all the children’s faces as they saw their faces transformed by a little bit of paint and glitter!
For all those on PP15 and other missions around the world who are away from loved ones, firstly thank you so much for the sacrifice that both you and your loved ones have made. Secondly be kind to yourself – no doubt there will be times when it feels tough. Remember to support each other and that we are all part of something ‘special’ during this mission and beyond.