John Frewen - A formative experience

Running time
4 min 26 sec
Department of Veterans' Affairs


The mission probably did three things for me. It delivered some immensely strong friendships that we still enjoy. The group of people that I've had as a close circle from Rwanda that I didn't know before we went to Rwanda in particularly in and around the advanced party. That's been a lifelong gift and we still stay in very close contact and see each other at least a couple of times a year, if we can. And that encompasses people from the medical side of the mission and in the infantry, but other parts of the mission as well. So that's a great gift, and that's a thing that service and operational service can deliver. And I think Rwanda's been a great example of that.

For me, it was a very formative experience as well, because I learnt things about human nature and civil society and just how precarious, just how fragile society can be and just how quickly it can turn and how darkly it can turn if it's allowed to. And there's definitely the worst of human nature on display in Rwanda, both through the genocide. And then in later events like Kibeho. So that's allowed me to form perspectives on the world and views on life and reflect on value systems in a way that I think has been personally very useful.

But the final thing it gave me is it taught me a lot about our craft as military leaders. And I took things from Rwanda through other missions that have been really important. I learnt the absolute importance of the role of young officers in managing soldiers in either extreme boredom or confronting horror or situations of great fear and uncertainty. And that young officers are selected for different attributes to soldiers. And it's those sorts the character attributes and the judgment attributes that come into play, even from very junior officers are really important. And that the discipline that the military invokes is absolutely essential. And there are times when that sort of split-second adherence to orders is absolutely important.

So I came away from Rwanda with a crystal-clear sense of that, which has been very useful. Having trained as an infantryman for attacking hills and defending hills and all this sort of stuff, that's not what we did in Rwanda. Although there were aspects of physical security that came to play out through the mission at various times, but there were other things in there about dealing with human remains and dealing with very psychologically traumatic incidents that have also been very useful to me as a commander. And we had to deal with human remains without any appropriate training, without any appropriate equipment, without any appropriate sort of briefing or debriefing on a number of occasions. And that has damaged a lot of people. And then frankly left me with a self-diagnosed hypersensitivity to the smell of human death and all these sorts of things. But I've been able to manage it over the years, but others haven't.

But it's allowed me on other missions where suddenly it's been seen as a convenience for soldiers to go and clean up things like this. I've absolutely refused, unless the appropriate training and equipment is provided, or some suitably trained and equipped force has come to do it. Now, sometimes that's frustrated soldiers who thinking that's all part of a experience set that they should have protected them from it. And I'm very proud that I've stopped damage being done that they couldn't foresee, because unfortunately that wasn't the case in Rwanda. So there's been other, other lessons like that in leadership sense that, that mission at that time in my career, I think has, has greatly helped to this day.

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