Liz Cosson's veteran story

Liz Cosson joined the Australian Army in 1979 as an officer cadet and was commissioned in the Royal Australian Army Ordnance Corps. During the early part of her career, Liz worked as a supply and administrative officer.

In 1991, Liz joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Logistics Command, where she was responsible for the logistics support to army aviation aircraft. Her tasks included improving the availability of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter fleet and supporting the fleet deployment to Cambodia.

In 1995, Liz was a logistics staff officer at Headquarters Land Command. Her responsibilities included logistics planning in support of the 1999 peace operations in East Timor.

Liz deployed to Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, in November 1999. She was the Chief of Staff of the Peace Monitoring Group (PMG).

After Bougainville, Liz served with Defence Corporate Services before being seconded to the Joint Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade in the House of Representatives. In 2002, Liz started a 3-year appointment in strategic logistics planning. She was responsible for developing logistics policy and concepts to improve logistics information systems.

In 2005, Liz was promoted to Brigadier and served as the Director General Regions and Bases. She managed integrated service delivery to Australian Defence Force bases across the country. Then in 2007, she became Head Defence Support Operations in an acting capacity and was promoted to Major General several months later.

Liz retired from the Australian Defence Force in 2010 and soon after joined the Australian Public Service as First Assistant Secretary in the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA). She retired as Secretary of the DVA in January 2023.

Liz Cosson - Army veteran

Transcript

An army family

I was born in Melbourne. And essentially, I grew up in many places, not only in Australia, but overseas in Malaysia and in America, and had some time in Papua New Guinea with school holidays because my father was in the army. And being an army brat, as we were fractionally known as we had the opportunity to move around quite a bit.

So I did go to many schools. But I learned a lot through my life, growing up with a father who loved the army life. He was an officer and so our childhood included many experiences, and understanding, certainly, from my perspective, the value of our family, because you rely a lot on your family and all those moves before you make new friends and new acquaintances. But I loved my life. I loved growing up in an Army family.

A tough start

I said to Dad that I did want to join the army and he and Mum would not let me join the army. They just, Dad said it was not a job for a girl. And it's certainly not a career for a girl. And in his time, of course, there weren't many women in the Australian Army.

So when I was leaving school dad, both Mum and Dad suggested I do business college and learn a girl skill, how to be a secretary, not this type of secretary, a typing secretary. So I did business college for 12 months, and then when Dad was posted from Melbourne to Canberra and I was working here in Canberra as a secretary at a real estate agent where I was a receptionist.

The head of Hodgkinson real estate says which consumers use and I'm I was his secretary and did all payroll and that type of thing. And I said to Dad, "No, I still want to join the army". And he said, "Well, I want you to become an officer, if that's what you're going to do". But they told me after I was selected, that they didn't think that I would be selected.

They thought no, the army wouldn't accept someone like myself, I'm only 156 centimetres tall. I was pretty spoiled, growing up to be perfectly honest. And Dad said to Mum, "They won't accept her". And then we got a telegram back in those days, and that was in 1978, I received a telegram to say that I had been selected and to go to Sydney, and to take the oath and sign up, which I did.

And they then didn't think I'd make the training because it was the first year that females went through a whole year of training to become an officer. And that was in 1979. And it was only a couple of years after equal pay for women for doing the same work as the males and they were testing to see whether the females could go through a very similar training to what they were doing down in Portsea in Victoria, the officer cadet school down in Portsea.

And it was tough. It was tough, and I didn't think I was going to make it. I remember in the May of 1979, I said to Mum and Dad, "I don't think I can do this anymore". And Mum and Dad came up to Sydney and just spent the weekend with me and hung out, with my Mum saying, "Ah, your brother knew you wouldn't make it". And it really did spur me on, that healthy sort of rivalry between a sister and a younger brother. So I went back after that weekend and I stayed on and I completed my year.

A resilient bunch

It was the first year for women to go through very similar training for the males and they didn't have boots to fit me. They didn't have the uniform to fit a female or boots out in the field. So females were given driver boots, which were smooth soled to drive a car, to drive a commanding officer around and they were affectionately called pixie boots when I put them on because the other girls had bigger feet and they were able to wear GP boots.

They didn't have the GP boots to fit me for the whole year. So you can imagine out in the field running through the field, doing infantry minor tactics as we were and I just kept slipping over. And so my pixie boots were known as my pixie boots, but also we didn't have proper obstacle courses like you did at Portsea and Duntroon.

So I'll never forget out on the parade ground in front of our administration block, they set up wardrobes that we would have to leap over, a wooden wardrobe. And it was a makeshift obstacle course, because they were just testing and learning a little bit about what females could do and our senior instructor, he was a Vietnam veteran and I still see Gordon Hurford to this day, a wonderful man, and I can still hear him yelling at me, "Cadet Cosson get up and run", or "Cadet Cosson jump up there", you know, it was just an environment where you pushed and pushed and I realised, females are extremely capable, they persevere and we were a pretty resilient bunch of females, 33 of us started and 21 of us graduated.

And we were so proud when we did graduate because we actually were able to show, look what we can do, even though we haven't got all the kit to do this, we did it. And all of those ladies that marched out with me, they really paved the way.

Doing what they needed to do

We just knew that we were the first and we wanted to demonstrate that we could do this. And we had a couple of soldiers who had then decided to enlist as an officer and go through their officer training. And they were great, you know, they wanted to show us and help us and support us because they'd been through it in different ways, through different recruit training because don't forget, in 79 female recruits and female officers, it wasn't integrated training, that didn't happen until the mid-80s.

So we were just prepared to do what we needed to do to show that we could do it. And I don't think I ever sat there and thought the army wasn't prepared for this. I just saw a group of officers and instructors that wanted to get us through. And they did what they needed to do to help us get through. They were never trying to demonstrate we couldn't do it. They were there to demonstrate we could do it.

Up to the job

There was a view that that some people didn't want women in the army, they thought women had a different place in the army. We recognised in that 12-month course, we were paving the way to say, "No, actually, we're not there just to take minutes at a meeting or make coffee for our commanding officers". I also recall, one of my first commanding officers had some visiting dignitaries visiting the unit and he said to me, "Right, I want you to look after their wives".

And I said, "Well, okay", but I was quite confronted with that thinking or actually, "No, my role is beyond that". So there was a little bit of that. But you also saw on the other side, where there were others who wanted you to demonstrate that there was a role for females in our Australian Army and throughout my career, that's what I saw, leaders who wanted to give you opportunity, leaders who knew females had that capability and that capacity. And they gave you the opportunities and you just you just follow them. Those that did not want you to succeed, you didn't follow and you were just able to demonstrate you are up to the job.

20 years preparation

Most of my roles were in logistics appointments for example in supply battalions. Down in Bandiana was my first posting in the warehouse. Then I became an administrative officer. Then I went to Sydney, where I ran a clothing store in Sydney and I then had opportunities to go up to Oakey, where I started to stream myself into aviation, spare parts, and I worked in the warehouse there.

So I was predominantly in logistics, streaming myself into aviation logistics, because I did enjoy that and had the opportunity to introduce with the Air Force logistics command, to introduce our Blackhawks. We used to have, the Air Force used to look after rotary wing and army took over rotary wing aircraft in the early 90s and that was my role to work with the Air Force and Army engineers to start to transfer all the rotary wing capability to army and introduce the Blackhawks.

And then we saw Cambodia where we had to deploy the fleet of Blackhawks into Cambodia, we had some real issues with supply chain and spare parts and I learned a great deal in hard work, but also learning our role and learning the importance of capability and particularly aviation capability. And that actually, I then was fortunate to be selected to go to Staff College down at Queenscliff with two girls with a group of male colleagues and Nova crouch and I did that here and once again, learning and just being able to demonstrate that women can do whatever women can, what they want to do, and the capacity and the capability.

So beyond Staff College, I then went into the land army and it wasn't that common back then. I went into the land army and went up to Townsville and served with the brigade but also served with reserves in Townsville, and learnt so much about reserves, and I've got so much admiration for our reserve force. People don't really understand that they have a daytime job and they commit to doing this in their spare time.

So I learned about that and then I went to the land headquarters as it was then or forces command now and Timor. Timor started where we were about to deploy our forces into East Timor first time, large contingents, first time since Vietnam. And as a logistician, understanding what we needed to do when a lot of our logistics support had been outsourced, we really had lost sight of a lot of our military equipment, and we needed that, we needed to know where it was, we needed to set up robust supply chains to make sure when we put boots on the ground in East Timor, we were able to sustain the force.

And it was really important work that we were doing and we had such a great team of larger stations and ops team and planning team. And we had great leadership from the land commander down, to get that force ready and it was such a privilege to be there doing that and doing that planning and then to be there when the troops boots were on the ground. It was a challenging time and a lot of people don't understand that build up.

But also to make sure that whatever we were doing back here in Australia, we're going to keep our troops safe. We had great commanders, General Cosgrove, of course, really inspired me so much. When we also had troops on the ground in Bougainville at the time with the peace monitoring group, and my role was there looking at forced rotation, and we were looking at the people going into Bougainville, and we were making sure that we're able to commit our forces to East Timor, but also make sure that we didn't lose sight of what the important work that was underway in Bougainville, that when I was selected to go as the chief of staff to Bougainville.

As I said, at the early part of my interview, that apprehension was there a little bit, I hadn't deployed anyway, but only been doing the planning and in the operations back here in Australia to say, "Okay, I'm now going to go into Bougainville", and I remember my colonel, he was the colonel for logistics support, and he said to me, "You prepared for this for 20 years, you can do this, just stretch yourself. Back yourself in, you're gonna do it". And I did it. And so when I hit the ground, got off the Herc and the team were there, and who was taking over from the chief of staff and the commander was there. I knew I'm ready for this. And then you just go,

The best I can be

I think that anybody who feels that they're not up to the job, just to back themselves in and actually have a look at the fact that you’re selected for roles because other people have confidence in you. So live up to that confidence and know you can do it. And using and channelling that, it gives you energy. It's a whole issue of don't become, don't turn it into frightened, flee.

Turn it into strength, to then do the best you can and work out, "Okay, this confidence in me to do this job. I'm going to do the best I can". And I've often said I'm not necessarily the best at any job, but I will always be the best I can be. And sometimes I can look out there and say, "Well, that person might have been better. But that person wasn't selected. So therefore I have to be the best I can be in this job."

The importance of logistics

The biggest job for me was when I was appointed into running all our military bases around Australia. And I had over 4000 in my team and over a billion dollars to make sure the bases and the troops that are on each of our military bases were being looked after. And it was during a challenging time, we were outsourcing in a lot of the support on the bases.

But having that opportunity to work with my team, and then work with the leadership across the services to say, "Well, what do you need to actually deliver your capability?" And my background had prepared me for that. And that was a huge highlight because it was the opportunity.

And it's, as I say, that I would have never been promoted to Major General if it hadn't been for that role because my whole career had built up for a role like that, to understand military capability, to understand the importance of being able to sustain and support that capability and to be able to balance it with the logistic support they needed and the base support they needed.

And to work with, again, great leadership, the CDF of the day, which was Angus Houston, and I still connect with Angus Houston. That was an enormous highlight for me. Interviewer: When you were speaking about Timor before, and the logistical challenge of getting ready for that you said, people don't understand that. But I’d go further and say people don't really know about it, because it's not what makes the news.

It's the people who are in Timor that make the news, but the work you do. No army, no military force can function without that. No, the front line is key to success. Absolutely. But you look at experience and lessons from previous wars where supply chains were broken. That's what the enemy is going to try and do, break your supply chain so you're not getting your fuel, use your rations, your water, your ammunition.

If you don't get that you're not going to win a battle. So certainly as a logistician, I knew my role was to support the troops on the ground. And everything I did was about keeping them safe, and every logistician. That's what they're doing, making sure that that frontline is safe and sustained. So they can fight the battle, because that's what the key was always going to be and all our planning was about that and everything, every decision we took was for that soldier on the frontline. Because if we didn't get that right, then we were putting them in harm's way,

The biggest deployment since Vietnam

At land headquarters I had a mix of a military and civilians and I have seen incredible people who have just wanted to work to make sure they that they were keeping those soldiers safe. They knew the importance of this deployment of our force into East Timor they knew that, and they were prepared to work incredible hours and go above and beyond to do that work, and there were two civilian males, I'll never forget.

They just worked and worked to do that. And so never underestimate the role of our civilians in our workforce, the public service. You know, some people think the public service are not putting in; they are. And then I had the soldiers and I had the NCOs, who were also doing that.

And as a team, it was such a team that just wanted to get this right because we knew we were making history with East Timor, the commander would stand up in the ops briefs every Monday, and he'd say, "This is the biggest deployment that we have seen since Vietnam.

What do we need to do? Let's get the plans right. Let's know what we're doing". Because the forces were preparing, you know, the battalions were preparing and our largest logistics teams were preparing. But we were the rear and we were making sure that supply chain was going to get to them.

Pre-deployment training

So being on land headquarters, I did have the opportunity to meet with those who had gone on previous rotations and those who had had experience in peace monitoring. So yeah, and we did that for every rotation. And certainly with your pre deployment training, you have the opportunity to get all those briefs.

And I'll always remember, in our pre deployment training, we were educated on culture and language and just getting to know about the people that we're going to support and never losing sight of why we were there. And it wasn't for ourself, it was for the people of Bougainville, to help them through a period of where they were trying to rebuild, and they were still going through hand back of weapons, they were trying to find that peace.

They are trying to rebuild community, they are trying to be rebuild schools and church and, and we never lost sight of why we were there. And it was for the people wasn't for ourself because sometimes you can forget that, that it's not about us. And understanding the perception and how they see you and their culture and gaining that appreciation to all that pre deployment training was key for the force when we went over there.

Making a difference

It was completely destroyed. I would explain it as they had imploded. They had destroyed the heart of Bougainville, the capital of Arawa where we lived We had a house there with the commander and myself and the leader from Vanuatu and from Fiji and we had a house in the middle of Loughborough.

And every morning, we'd go for a walk. And there was nothing. It was all overgrown, all the buildings that used to be the administrative buildings in the heart of the government, and it was all gone. There was nothing. And I remember getting into the records and flying to our different team sites across the island. And it was dangerous because there were definitely no-go zones, that we would make sure that the helicopter didn't go to.

There were incidents during our period there. There were still tensions between the different factions. Yeah, it was heartbreaking but the people, and that's what it's all about, the people, and being a female and it is a matriarchal society. They wanted to rebuild 10 years that they hadn't been able to go back to schools and the highlight for me was the reopening of a school and standing up there on the stage with the teachers and seeing the kids and the mothers and the fathers just saying, "We're coming back" and being able to go to church on Sunday with the communities. And it meant so much to this community.

An uplifting experience

They thought that they were different. They saw themselves more with the Melanesian culture than they did with Papa New Guinea at the time, because they were so dark. And I used to stand out the back and the lovely fern leaf, you know, it's wide underneath and the lovely ladies would put it on their cheek and just have the fern there because it wouldn’t come off, and they try and do it with me and of course it didn't work.

And they're just so warm. And you’re right, the males can be quite intimidating but the smiles and just to sit down and talk and they'd be happy just to chat. And they'd come into the headquarters and we'd have meetings on our back veranda where they'd come to the house to meet the commander.

And we talk and that was always what was so powerful for me. The women would talk to me more than the men would talk to me and that was okay because I was different because our commander was pretty intimidating. Frank Roberts, Brigadier Frank Roberts, he was an artillery officer. He was tall, he was big, and they could find him intimidating.

And I always thought it was such a great mix between the commander and myself because we were so different. And we'd be walking along together and you could see his height and me, proper boots, no pixie boots up their proper GPS and proper uniform. And it was just the most uplifting experience.

Being a veteran

When I look at my service history, and 20 years serving before I was selected to go to Bougainville, in Papua New Guinea, and I know that when I was asked to go, there was this moment of apprehension. But there was also this, "Oh, my goodness me, I've been trained for this. This is what I wanted to do for 20 years".

And you do, you serve to do what you need to do for your country and if you find some, as you pointed out, feel that they haven't served because they haven't deployed or they haven't had war like service - and I was talking to a senator recently and I'd listened to his maiden speech, and he said to me, and I mentioned to him I'd heard part of his maiden speech, and he said, "Did anything struck a chord with you?"

And I said, "Yes, you're a veteran?" And he said, "No, I'm not". And I said to him, "I’m sure you're a veteran, I was listening to your speech". He said, "Oh, no, I never had operational service". And I said, "Senator, you're a veteran." He'd served in East Timor and he'd served for many years in our Australian army but he didn't relate that to being a veteran, and that's something that we have really focused on in this department that we have, we rely on a volunteer defence force, to put up your hand to say that you will serve.

And if you need to, you will make that sacrifice for our freedoms and our values. And I said to him, "You are a veteran", and I want to make sure that message always gets out to anybody that has served. You go through all the training and you, every year, you step up to say I am prepared and I'm ready to deploy, and you go through all the tests, all the fitness, all the medicals, and all that readiness training that you do every year to say I am ready to deploy. And that is such a powerful thing, you need to own that and be proud of that.

Liz Cosson - Bougainville veteran

Transcript

Selected as Chief of Staff

I was working in land headquarters at the time now Forces Command and my role there was as the SO 1 logistic planning and part of my responsibility was to look at the force rotation going into Bougainville and I recall looking for the next Lieutenant-Colonel, chief of staff, to go into the peace monitoring group and it just happened to be coinciding with the time that we were doing all our planning for East Timor.

And that was one of my key jobs to do in that planning and it was the colonel for logistics said to me, "Well, have you thought about going to Bougainville?" And my immediate response was, "No, that's not something I'd be able to do". I had been serving 20 years at that time and he said, "No, I think you should, we're going to put you forward to go as the Chief of Staff", and we put up a couple of other names forward as well.

And the land commander did select me into the role and when the colonel called me up and advised me that I had been selected, my first response was "No, I don't think I can do that". I felt quite overwhelmed that I had been selected to do such an important job, knowing that had been one of my key roles looking at that force rotation.

But he sat me down and he said, "Look, you have had 20 years' experience, all the training, all the preparation to do this job, you can do this job". And I went home and spoke with my husband and he said, "It's up to you. If you'd like to do it and give it a go, you can do it, it's not a case of not being able to do it. Just go for it". So I did.

Imposter syndrome

I do often talk about the imposter syndrome and it's not, it's not just gender specific either, which is quite interesting when you talk to people that they do have a sense that they aren't the best person for a role and that was certainly how I felt. And I thought I would let people down if I did take up that position and I also felt that I was taking a role that others might be better suited to.

But you're right. All the training, 20 years of doing all of that preparation. That's one thing about the army that I am so proud of, in our whole of Australian Defence Force, they prepare you, they will never send you somewhere that you are not prepared to go. And they will make sure that you have got all the skills that you need and you just need to have the courage and I often talk about that, that courage to step outside of your comfort zone and say, "Yes, I can do this".

And then you go through all the force preparation that you do, which once again prepares you even more further for that particular deployment that you're going on and our Australian Defence Forces is world class in its training, in its preparation of its forces to face any challenge in any deployment.

Understanding the mission

I did speak to several of my colleagues that had already gone up to the truce monitoring group, as you mentioned, and the leader of that, he was a pretty gruff colonel but he sat down and talked to me about what I could expect, and that it was not going to be soft, and how I could prepare and make sure that I considered what the mission was, particularly now as it was a peace monitoring group.

And I had the opportunity to talk to previous Chiefs of Staff to get some insights from them on how I could make sure that I was ready to assume that responsibility. Did a bit of research into the commander of the peace monitoring group at the time F. X. Roberts, just to know him and to understand what his style of leadership was because as his chief of staff I needed to be prepared to support him in that role.

It was at a very crucial time for the peace monitoring group and understanding the mission, understanding what our role was going to be, was really important and the best way to do that is by talking to people who had been there.

Paradise destroyed

I remember when the Herc landed in Bougainville and just getting off the aircraft and being met by my predecessor and the commander had come out to the aircraft to meet us. And I remember the heat, I remember, oh goodness me, just the overwhelming humidity and the heat and we're driving along the roads and as we were driving along the road, my predecessor at the time was pointing out some different landmarks leading into town of destruction and I had recalled as a child being an army brat with my father serving, one of his friends had actually worked in the copper mines up in Bougainville and they were pointing out the old country club, the Yacht Club and how they used to be thriving with expats, you know, people used to live and there was a tropical paradise, Bougainville.

And what I was seeing was just destruction and the roads were just ruined and getting into the town and seeing how the whole community, all that the main city had gone. There was no office life there, there were no shops, it was just destroyed. And that was really heartbreaking to know that it had been once a thriving paradise, that's how it had been described to me, to one that now was so desperate to find that peace and to rebuild that community and it made our job even more important because you could see that destruction, it was there every day you woke up.

A wonderful experience

We worked as a team and all the representative nations there, we all came together and we had that shared vision, shared mission, shared aim that what we were there to do was to help the people of Bougainville recover and re-establish from 10 years of conflict, to rebuild their community, rebuild their schools, their church.

We were just a team and I lived in Pacific House, as it was known, with the commander and myself and Ivan our senior representative, and our senior New Zealand representative, we were all in the one house and so we were able to live and dine and talk and just reflect on a day's events and talk about the days ahead.

And it was just a wonderful community feeling as well, being able to live in the middle of the town, and every morning, we'd get up together, the house, we'd all get up and we'd go for a walk very early before our day started.

Closeness and connection

I certainly learned so much, and just our defence forces, that we share the same values and we share the same will to make life better for others and to assist them in a humanitarian way. I mean, a lot of people forget that when you're in the military, you're not there to fight a war, you're there to find peace and when you're contributing to humanitarian operations such as that and starting to know the local community and the individuals in those communities together, it does create a bond and you learn about each other's countries.

And being able to cook of an evening, we had rosters on who was going to cook the evening meal and our Nevan colleague, I mean, he wasn't the best cook, but he did sort of muck in with us in the kitchen and it was just a wonderful feeling of closeness and connection.

Y2K

The decision that was taken back then to deploy the force unarmed, and that was a really important decision that our nation made to say that we want to find peace in Bougainville and we're trusting the peace process that we are sending our forces unarmed to the island but what that also required of our force is that situational awareness because you are unarmed and you therefore had to have a greater connection in the way you approached it, knowing what was happening and being aware and being alive to any risks.

And the commander would certainly rely on his chief of staff, myself in this case, to, every day, when we had our ops briefing, to get reports from our different team sites across the island to know what was happening, where there were risks and we were certainly very focused on risks around New Year's Eve.

There was a little sense of unrest on the island the year 2000. You might remember Y2K, there was a lot of planning here in Australia as well, but over there, some in the community felt that that was the end of the world. So there was a little bit of a groundswell that was occurring leading up to it, New Year's Eve, and just being aware of that and communicating with the community and communicating with the factions, which our commander did really well, and he was always talking to them to make sure we always had awareness of what was happening on the island.

Assessing risk

We did have an incident at one of our team sites where some of the rascals did cause a bit of grief for the team site and the commander of the team site was able to secure the site and called it into the headquarters and everything was fine and nobody was injured. But there was also still a case of no-fly zones across the island where we had to be cautious where we're operating the Iroquois at the time to go on to the team sites, particularly for resupplying and checking in.

But you were alert, I don't think there was a day that I was really alarmed or the commander was alarmed but you were certainly very alert to any of those risks or those dangers. And our team sites, because they were so remote, the commanders of those different sites were very conscious of not leaving their team isolated, they would always go out in groups and pairs and making sure that they were reporting back if there was any risk and the local community, because they wanted to find the peace, they were always sharing with us and telling us where they were detecting some unrest or some threat.

Reopening a school

I always felt that we were held in high regard. We went to church every Sunday morning, Frank Roberts and I and others. We'd walk with the community of Arawans into the church and they wanted us there. They felt that we were there for them and that we were there to assist them in something that they so desperately wanted and so they welcomed us there and would come to our house, they would talk to us.

The first school that reopened in Arawa, I recall, they asked the commander for us to come and help open and I stood up on the stage in front of all of those families to open the school and it was something I was so proud to do and you could see it in the community, how grateful that they were that they were able to rebuild their education for their kids, for, you know, some of those kids had never been to school because they'd been in a fighting situation for over a decade. So it was such an important time for them and they welcomed us.

Community connection

I am a Christian myself, so to be able to go to their church and participate in their worship was something I was very privileged to do and they welcomed us into their church. And to be able to sing with them and join in with them, it was something I wanted to do and it was something that they valued, that we were doing it and I know Frank Roberts, he and I, we just loved going to the church on a Sunday morning because there'd be a procession along the streets to go into church and then there'd be this huge procession coming out where it was all about the community reconnecting. Then you'd go to the markets, the outdoor markets and buy the food and talk to the community. It was such a day of not only worship, but also that community connection.

Daily routine

So a typical day for me, after getting up in the morning and having breakfast in our house, so we're all traveling to Loloho and we'd see the troops there and have a breakfast potentially with them if we haven't had it in the house, and then we'd go to our headquarters which was in Arawa and I would get, I'd have a briefing out with the ops team and the log team and the medical team and just work out what was happening around the day.

So it'd be a full briefing session, then the commander would call myself in with these other commanders and we'd debrief him on what was happening around the island and what was the week ahead in the events. And, of course, we'd have a call into Australia to let them know what was happening and we worked with our local negotiator on what were some key events for the commander to be briefing the local community.

And so a typical day, up until about lunchtime was full of briefings every single day. As I mentioned, that situational awareness and that, just knowing and having great connection with our team sites to understand what we should be preparing for was really important and we spent a lot of time in all that preparatory work in the briefings in the morning.

And then, at lunchtime, we'd often get into our vehicles and go to Loloho, again, that's where our main team site was, and have lunch with the troops and talk to them, visit the medical centre. We'd often support local community if we'd evacuated anybody from the remote areas of Bougainville into our hospital, our field hospital, so we'd visit them and a lot of it was just connecting with people and just talking to people and getting out and about.

So as a female, senior female in the peace monitoring group, certainly no female could go anywhere unaccompanied and so I always had somebody, either the commander with me or the S3 or somebody, then we'd go for drive out onto the sites and just visit people.

Gender influences

I often think about the times where the commander in his role was very powerful. He was the boss man and he was very, very strong and he had a presence about him that connected with the community. But as a female, mostly being a matriarchal society in Bougainville, they were the boss and they used to like just to stand and talk to me.

We never sat and talk and I've always reflected on that. It was quite interesting, the boys would sit there or sit around a circle and they talk, either in the headquarters around a table or they talk on our back porch sitting around talking and the women would just want to stand and talk to me and we would talk for ages.

And it was, I'd learned so much from just listening to them but I also learned so much about their culture and about why our role was so important to them. They sometimes thought their husbands and their sons and the brothers were a little bit naughty and our role was really important to keep them on this path and that the commander had a role in talking sense. I had a role in talking to them about helping the commander rebuild that life that they wanted so desperately back and they could see that the boys were listening to the commander.

So it was a completely different role that, I used to talk to Frank about this, that I felt that I was complementing him in his role in a completely different way. The men of Bougainville wouldn't have listened to me as they did he, as I listened to him, but the women listen to me and the men listen to the women. So it was a different approach to what we're trying to achieve.

Working in a different way

It was Christmas Day, in 1999 where the officers, of course, serve the troops and all the troops were sitting in Loloho and those that could come in from the team sites were there as well and I'm just looking around the tables and I'd say, about a third, and a lot of them played some key roles, particularly in the headquarters in the planning area. And when I'd have my briefing sessions every morning, there was a good mix of male and female.

But our medical team were just wonderful and we had female doctors and nurses and certainly in the logistics area. So, yeah, women play a really important role and just understanding that we are different, but also a huge contributor in a different way in, certainly, as I mentioned, my role with the commander complementing the commander, but also being able to influence, as the commander couldn't influence.

DFAT's role

In our house, we had the chief negotiator, so he was a representative from DFAT and his responsibility was to make sure that the commander in the force understood from a foreign policy perspective, what we were doing, and in that key negotiating role, so he played a key role with the commander in taking forward that piece of that negotiation.

Community leadership

They were seeking autonomy. They were seeking to create it, their independence, and that was really important to them. They were fighting for that. They were fighting for what they believe to be their freedom and they saw that was the driving force not only in the whole of the conflict that they'd experienced in Bougainville but that was their vision to actually get some form of autonomy from the broader government of PNG.

And they had strong leadership, really strong leadership in taking that vision forward and I've always remembered the High Commissioner, Australia's High Commissioner to PNG coming to the island many times, which was Nick Warner, and Mr. Warner would come down and talk to the leaders about their vision, and just talking to them and they were very committed to finding a way through that, but peacefully. And you could see that leadership in that community and in those that wanted to take that autonomy forward.

Trying to find a way back

I always had a sense that they were aware of the fact that their island paradise had been destroyed and they wanted to find their way into the world, which, in their mind was separate to the Government of PNG. And they blamed a lot of the past and history on the way that their island had been damaged.

I always felt that they wanted to be part of a solution though. Even in the remote communities when we'd fly in and we'd land on the fields and we'd go to our team site, we'd always be welcomed and the local communities would just want to come and talk, you know.

They're just wonderful people who were trying to find their way back into what they loved about their island paradise of Bougainville because it is such a magnificent island and it has so much richness. They wouldn't have gone into Arawa and seen the damage potentially but they knew it existed and they knew of the dangers still, where, as I mentioned, the no-fly zones over the mines, they were certainly aware of that.

Overseeing the peace

We were a multinational force and we were there to support them. We were there unarmed, we weren't trying to influence, we were allowing a process to happen. We're overseeing the peace, the monitoring of that peace and that engagement between both Bougainville and the government of PNG.

And certainly the meetings that I had the privilege to attend with the commander. it was always respectful of Australia's role, that we weren't trying to influence. We were there to facilitate and support and that was a really important message that we continually made sure that was evident whenever we had meetings with the leaders of Bougainville.

Mutual trust

Having a trust in the community, that we relied on them as well as they relied on us because we relied on them to ensure that we were safe. I mean, we had gone there trusting them and wanting to help them and not influence, not try and take control.

Not coming in to say, "Look at us, we're the good people who are going to protect this island". That wasn't our job and they respected us for that and they respected the fact that we were completely unarmed.

Relaxation

We did lots to relax. We used to go swimming. It was just as I keep calling it, it was just a paradise to be able to go for a swim of an afternoon, but just connecting with the troops, I mean, just to be able to go into Loloho of an evening where'd they have a show and it was always wonderful when we had new rotations come through from Fiji or New Zealand and we'd have the haka, and we'd have the welcomes, and it was just full of that community spirit, and relaxing, reading, just talking, just sitting and talking, or just going for a walk, there were so many things that you could do. And I never, I felt tired, but I always felt refreshed. It was just such an uplifting experience.

Contact with home

It wasn't the era of the mobile phones, it wasn't often, we did have satellite comms that we could tap into but that was very costly and so once a week, I remember, we'd all take it in turns to have a call home and home could call us or we would call them. We had the facility in our house to take those calls but also in the office the commander had a call back to Australia when we needed to.

But home, I used to write and the Herc would come in every week and the mail would be delivered and we'd get the mail bags delivered. And it was such a thrill to know that you have mail, you've got a package from home. My husband sent me a package from home every week, just little treats that he'd send me and that was just, it was lovely, the old-fashioned way of getting correspondence and packages and then the RSL, of course, at Christmas sent us our packages, care packages. And the troops, I did, we all did, we just loved that when that flew in and those bags were delivered to us.

Christmas planning

Before I went to Bougainville, that's when we had deployed into East Timor and I didn't think I would ever go to East Timor. And I never did. And the planning for East Timor was my role in land command at the time. And as a logistician, that was one of our biggest challenges.

To be frank, we had outsourced a lot of our logistics. So that was a lot of planning to do to find all the equipment, and to make sure that our supply chains were in place for East Timor. And so by the time I went to Bougainville, East Timor was up and running and I do recall one of my jobs, in land headquarters was to plan for the Christmas entertainment in East Timor.

And we were planning for the entertainment for Bougainville and planning for the entertainment in East Timor and, of course, everyone wants to go to East Timor but we were lucky we had the RMC band that came to Bougainville for our Christmas lunch and entertainment and that was so special.

Planning the withdrawal

I wanted to come home because I miss my family very much but I also loved being there. And I know that when we were leaving and saying goodbye, it was an emotional time and handing over to my successor, I did feel proud of what we did because the commander had asked me during my period there to have a look at the planning for coming off Bougainville, how we would wind down our presence because, as we've talked about, the community had come a long way over the period of the peace monitoring group and there would be a time when our forces would need to leave.

So we had done some extensive planning with our team sites and particularly our colleagues from New Zealand, they were responsible for one of the key sites on when would we start to withdraw our forces. So a lot of that planning had been done and I felt proud of that, being able to hand that over to my successor, but just saying goodbye to those that we built connections with. But I knew that we're leaving it in good hands, new commander, new chief of staff and new team site leaders, and we'd been able to stagger that, over that period and I'm proud of where they are today.

A visitor in your own home

I remember when we had our psych debriefs and leaving Bougainville and they reminded us that when we go home, that we're a visitor in our own home, that we've been away for a while, our families have adapted to life without us. And my husband had actually moved us from Sydney to Melbourne, I knew. So he didn't try and run away or anything but he had moved our home from Sydney to Melbourne and I remember he met me and we went to my new home and he had set up with all the furniture and unpacked all the boxes, and he'd done all that.

And the Psych is telling me I'm a visitor in my own home kept playing out in my mind and I'd looked at where he'd placed things in the kitchen and I thought, "Oh, I'm gonna have to move those glasses because they're a bit too high up", but I didn't do it, I waited for a few weeks before I moved the glasses and he and I still laugh about that because when he returned after a six-month deployment to East Timor, I said to him, "Now remember, you're a visitor in my home".

And it was a culture shock to come home and then go to a new home and then a new job and that was the hardest part of it. I had come from land headquarters planning for East Timor, I mean to Bougainville, and then in a new SO 1 job. That was the hardest transition, going from high tempo, doing that important work that we had trained to do for a job that I'd thought was less, but it wasn't, it was probably the biggest steppingstone for me to be where I am today.

A new path

I was told, "Thank you for your deployment, you are never going to be promoted above the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and here's your job in Melbourne". And I was devastated and that's why that adjustment for me, that transition from a deployed, an important role to one that was then presented as the end of my career, I was devastated, absolutely. And I thought, "No, I don't want this to be the end of my career".

And so, "What am I going to do with this job now, to now put me on a path for a next career?" And it just so happened that my next career was still serving and I was able to go on because I made something of that new job, which I'm very proud of that. It was devastating to be told that was the end of my career but it was interesting back then, and this is not a criticism, it was just one career was to take precedent and it was selected that his career would take precedent, I had been told that Bougainville would be a good opportunity for me to be promoted to further ranks but when I came back that wasn't the case.

But, I do have to look back and say, "Well, actually, they did me a favour". The job I went to then took me on a new path in the Australian Army which was into that corporate services area and base management and delivering logistics to our 80 odd bases around Australia. If I hadn't have gone into that job, I would have never been promoted to a major general. It took me up along a completely different path.

If potentially I had gone into a job after Bougainville, that was still that type of job, I would have never reached Major General. So, you think sometimes you're losing but actually it's a win. If you take that opportunity and not see it as a step backwards, take it as an opportunity and say, "What am I going to do with this?" And I was very fortunate to connect with some incredible leaders who wanted to help me along that path and I've never regretted that job and I've always been grateful that I went into that job after Bougainville.

Conspicuous Service Cross and Team support

When you receive that letter from the Governor General saying, "You've been nominated and will you accept this honour" and you write back and you say, "Yes". I was so overwhelmed and so proud and I recall, because you're not allowed to tell anybody that you're about to receive that honour.

And of course, I did tell my husband and I said to my husband, "It's going to be Australia Day, in 2001. It will be in a newspaper", and I said, "I don't want to tell mum and dad" but they were going to be visiting us so I'd planned it, they were coming down to Melbourne and I was just so proud to know, but I was also reflecting on my team because it was for Bougainville and it was for East Timor.

The team I had at Land Headquarters planning for East Timor, I can never tell you how they worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week to prepare our force for East Timor, incredible bunch of military and civilian APS staff who just wanted to make sure that we could get our force over to East Timor knowing they were going into, potentially, harm's way and making sure we had our supply chain set up.

The CSC was not just for Bougainville, it was for that and every one of those, every one of my team works so hard to make sure we could do that. I can't do a job as one person. No one can do a job as one person and you've got an incredible team around you and I have been so privileged to work with some wonderful teams who share with you where you need to be supporting the troops, whether it be planning for East Timor or on the island of Bougainville in this wonderful department that I'm in now in Veterans Affairs.

Everybody works with you and you are a team and if you are honoured in any way, you always know that you haven't done that by yourself. You can't. And there's so many others you want to thank and give that recognition to, to say, "I wouldn't have achieved this without you". I wouldn't have. I would never achieve anything in this department without this department.

The people, you know, over 2000 staff working here wanting to make a difference for veterans and families and they come to work every day to do that. They don't come to work every day to make it miserable. They come to work every day to support veterans and families and it's a privilege to work with them.

Prove you're capable

I just wanted to get through that first year. That training and that culture shock. Talk about culture shocks, that first year getting through that. And then the opportunities throughout my over 31-year career just kept opening up and you look at women today in the Australian Defence Force, every position is available to them, they can compete, they can go for those. Prove you're capable, you can do that job.

From when I started 23 per cent of the jobs were open to women. So in my lifetime, I have seen such incredible opportunities and I'm just proud that I've been able to be one that has contributed to being able to open those doors and have the benefit of those that went before me to be able to break that ground.

DVA - First Assistant Secretary

Transcript

An emotional last day in the Army

I often reference the fact that transitioning from military service can be quite challenging. After 31+ years, to know that I was about to leave Russell Offices, as that was my last place to serve, for the last time in uniform and it was my choice to leave, but it was quite confronting. I knew I was ready because I was coming to DVA into my first public service position, but to hand back your pass and someone to sign a piece of paper and say, "I'll let you out of the building, goodbye," it wasn't the best experience, I'll be honest … I went into a small office with a lovely lady who was responsible, she was a public servant, responsible for transition. A very sterile office, just a table, a few chairs, and she went through a checklist to ensure that I'd handed back all my things I needed to hand back and that I'd paid my mess bill and she signed it off and she said, "Well, thank you, Liz. Can I have your pass and I'll escort you to the barrier," and zapped me out of the building. It was very lonely … I don't think I really anticipated how emotional I felt when I walked out and I knew that was the last day that I'd be in the military.

Becoming First Assistant Secretary at DVA

I applied for the position as the First Assistant Secretary at the Executive Division, and then I was shortlisted and I went to interview and it was actually Shane Carmody, who was the Deputy President at the time here in the department, interviewed me with some other panel members and I was selected for the role and then I went to Lovett Tower and met the Secretary of the day, which was Ian Campbell, and he offered me the role. So, I was very excited about that opportunity because I did actually see that coming to DVA was an extension of my military service, but not in uniform, but as a civilian … I took leave, just a month. Took a month's leave, and then started my job as a civilian.

The role of First Assistant Secretary

The role I was expecting when I met with the Secretary, Ian Campbell, and he talked me through what his expectations were of the role, he was quite clear. So, I was excited about that but the role included the Executive Division that he wanted to ensure that we had a team there that was supporting what I believe was the start of a significant transformation. Ian was very conscious of the culture of the department and he was very conscious of the fact we had been starting to deploy our forces into the Middle East. He had incredible foresight and vision to say, "Well, we should be preparing for that now." and Ian indicated to me that one of his key areas he wanted me to concentrate on were contemporary veterans, as he called them, and the families of contemporary veterans, knowing we'd lost our first veteran on operations and how we were looking after his wife,  and he really wanted this division. This new division that he was employing me to lead, was very focused on that, to set the department up to look after the future veteran but he also had me leading the commemorations and the team under Tim Evans as the Assistant Secretary to prepare for the centenary. He was about to set up a new board, the Anzac Centenary board, and he said, "Right, Cosson, that's your responsibility. We're going to have a board planning for the centenary of Anzac." So, I was very excited about that opportunity, and he had a very clear mandate for me and, I think, when I started, it was above what I'd expected and I was very excited to be going into that role … and just being able to speak to the minister of the day, which was Warren Snowden, about potential board members and who was going to be the chair and, of course, it was Sir Angus Houston we selected. Well, I didn't select, the government selected, to be the chair of Anzac Centenary board and we had working groups reporting to the board to make sure that that Centenary was once again reinforcing the importance of all Australians, remembering the Prime Minister Billy Hughes commitment in 1918, that when they returned from the Great War, that we would look after them and to have that focus again and that purpose to make sure that we continue to remember and reflect on that service and sacrifice.

Leadership

What we learn in the military is all about leadership. I was a logistician and I remember very early in my career being told that decisions you take as a leader can actually put someone's life at risk. So, whenever you are making those decisions or considering outcomes and considering your decision, remember the soldier on the ground. Remember the soldiers on the front line because those decisions will have an impact on them and learning about leadership and having the opportunity to work out who I was as a leader was really important to me throughout my military service and I think one of the key lessons for me is being a female in an army of less than 10 per cent females, I wasn't going to be one of the boys, I'm just not that type of person. So, who was I? How was I going to shape my leadership? And you learn so much about yourself as a leader being put into different environments when you're in the military, that when you then transition into a public service leadership role you bring all those lessons, those learnings and those skills to your public service leadership.

The path to veteran-centric reform in DVA

When I came back to the Department in 2016 under Simon Lewis' leadership as Secretary, we were starting on what we were calling veteran-centric reform and what that meant was putting those individuals at the front of mind and how we did that was to establish some focus groups of volunteers, randomly selected female veterans and veterans from past and recent operations and we asked them, what was their experience with us? And there were two things that were watershed moments for me. One, where we had a focus group with a group of female veterans and Kate Pope, who is currently the Deputy President of the Commission, and I, we participated in this focus group and we heard a veteran say, "Getting a letter from DVA is like finding a tarantula in your letter box." And that was very confronting, but it was a moment that we recognized what we were doing in DVA, we were impacting on those lives and the second moment was, when we sat with a group of male veterans and they said to us, "We've served in the military. You trusted us. You gave us weapons. You sent us onto the front line. We then left. Why don't you know me? If I've worked in the Australian Defence Force, enlisted, why does DVA, who is there to serve us, not know who I am?" And that really shaped a lot of what are we doing for the future to understand not only today's veterans, but the future, the next generation of veterans. And, so, understanding that decisions that we took in DVA would impact on the lives of individuals and their families, that was front of mind every day to me, Ian. We didn't get it right all the time and I did worry about that, that sometimes we did make mistakes and I wished we could have done it better, but we never lost sight of why we were here and those individuals and the lives of those individuals, is really important.

Who is a veteran?

We didn't think about what did it mean to be a veteran after service. I mean, a lot of people when you say, "What does a veteran mean to you," they think of someone who has served in the Great War, the Second World War, Vietnam, an old man. Sadly, that's how a lot of people think of veterans, an old gentleman who's wearing his medals very proudly and marching on Anzac Day. That's not your typical veteran today, and I'm a veteran and, sadly, a couple of times in recent years where I've attended the War Memorial and I've worn my medals, and it was not that long ago, getting out of my car and I was putting my medals on and it was a lovely gentleman and his wife getting out of their car a couple down from me, and he didn't mean to hurt me, but he said to me, "Are they your father's medals?" and I said, "No, they're my medals." And still trying to let Australians know, what does service mean? Who is a veteran? What does a veteran look like? And so, when we're in service, we don't think of that when we leave and we need to do more in educating when you're in service that you are a veteran, and you need to then wear it proudly when you leave, that you are a veteran and to bring that to the forefront of Australian thinking as well, that veterans look like me. They look like a young woman, they look like a young man and to embrace that … I certainly didn't consider myself a veteran when I was serving and a lot of those that are wearing their uniform, when you ask them, "Are you a veteran," they'll say, “No.” I remember asking a recent Minister for Veterans Affairs, I asked his ADC, "Do you consider yourself to be a veteran?" and she said, “No”. So, despite all of our efforts in recent years to help those that are serving recognize and acknowledge they are veterans, they don't. They don't. So, what we need to be doing is preparing men and women when they're serving for their transition and to wear the word veteran proudly during service, during transition, and then post-service.

Working, listening, and adapting

When I graduated as a second lieutenant and I marched into my first military unit down in Bandiana, and it was a huge warehouse and I had a warrant officer working with me and a sergeant and corporals and privates and craftsman and I was quite confronted with that as a young officer to say, "You are expected to lead." But you also needed, I needed, to listen and I listened very carefully to the warrant officer and learned a little bit about our team and what was important to them and you learn not only from education, through reading of books and through your formal training, but I learned a lot from those that worked with me and listening to the warrant officers, who'd had that years of experience in leadership, and they had served in Vietnam, and to understand that just walking into a warehouse and saying, "Right, I'm your leader," that doesn't fly. You have to learn and you continue to learn and adapt your style throughout your military service and I had the great privilege to not only listen to my warrant officers and sergeants and corporals, but also those officers that mentored me and led me, to work out what does a leader actually mean and what works well and what doesn't and certainly being directive in a style of leadership did not suit me, and so, therefore, I had to learn, “Well, what was my style of leadership?” And I remember a leader once, a bit later in my career, talking about values-based leadership and that really resonated with me and who I was, based on my values, and to ask the question, "If I make this decision, what is that impact on that individual? What is the impact on the soldiers on the front line? What am I basing my decisions on? Is it the best decision that I can take?” And leading, as we've talked about, in sometimes very complex, uncertain environments, you learn and you adapt, but you listen and that was really important learning for me throughout my career … Most of my leadership, I believe, was through learnings, not formal learnings, but through working and listening and adapting and I often talked about, when I was in the military, having to make hard decisions when your heart wants you to go one way, but you have to use your head and you have to then base that decision on taking all of the evidence, taking all of the information that's being provided to you, taking that on board to say, 'Well, what is the right decision?" And then knowing that that right decision may not be popular, but you've made that right decision, you believe, based on all of your considerations and a textbook doesn't teach you that. A textbook will never really teach you the difference between your heart and your head and that came to the fore as well during COVID where I had to make some hard decisions that I knew may not be popular to everybody, but I had to consider why we were here and never lose sight of why DVA was here during COVID and remembering some of our veterans, our most vulnerable veterans, particularly when they went into lockdown in Victoria, working out how did we best support them while supporting our staff who had to continue to deliver important support and services during a really challenging time for our nation. The heart and the head and balancing all of that, you don't get that through reading, you get that through a lived experience and through judgment and through making sure that you never forget the people that are right at the centre of the decisions that you are taking … I learned early, and I read a book from a US general and it always resonated with me, about the fact that to be a leader you do have to make those tough decisions and you can't always be popular and as a person though, yes, you do feel that and I look at social media where it can become very personal and it can be confronting where people don't like your decisions and they don't understand necessarily why you made those decisions, but you know that you made that decision with the best interests of individuals at the heart of those decisions and you do the best you can with what is available to you at the time but, yes, Ian, it can be hurtful but I know every decision I've taken throughout my over four decades of a career were always based in the interests of the individuals and I never put self above those individuals … When I've had to make difficult decisions, I've always tried to present it back to staff and as best I can to the individuals to say, "Thank you for everything that you've provided to me and your arguments, but this is the way I have decided." and the majority of people will then follow. They'll trust, to say that you have listened and you have taken on board the arguments, but some people won't and that's their choice but those that do trust are those that I have had the great privilege to work with and I believe we have then taken organizations forward and improved outcomes for the majority.

Values based leadership

I'm probably not the best reader, to be perfectly honest, but I did read a little bit of General Powell's, the US general, his book when he released it as a strong leader and his lessons and what I found really interesting about his book, he talked about his top 12 lessons and that always resonated with me about working out what is important to me as a leader and how do I shape myself as a leader. So, that was one book I did read but mainly I have been a student of looking and learning and listening and the other person that I often talk about is Sir Angus Houston, because I heard him speak on many occasions where he talked about values-based leadership and how he applied his values to his leadership and he always gave practical lessons and when you listen to stories of leaders and how they've applied their leadership skills, that always resonated with me a lot more than reading a book. But there was someone else who I did read articles, and that was Dr. Allan Hawke and he was the Secretary in this department, but he was also a secretary in Defence and he was the Secretary of Defence when I used to listen to him speak and I used to listen to his articles and read his communication and he talked about people. People matter and those two words resonated with me more than any book I've read because I knew that at the heart of everything that I did, it was about people and then you look at Sir Angus Houston, about values and values-based leadership and that the people matter and then General Powell talking about his lessons of leadership, about knowing that you have to make right decisions but they're not always going to be necessarily the most popular decisions. Putting all of that together for me, Ian, was how I believe I shaped what was important to me as a leader throughout my career.

Selection and maintenance of the aim

One of the key lessons, I think, from our leadership that you learn in the military that translates really well into any leadership role, whether it be in the public service or the private sector, it was all about what in the military we refer to it as selection and maintenance of the aim and for me that translated into, what's your purpose? Why are you serving? Why are you leading? What gets you up in the morning? What inspires you? What drives you? And never losing sight of that and so, throughout my service in the military and now my public service, I will always apply that and I use that every day now. Why am I getting up this morning? So, that selection and maintenance of the aim or that purpose was a really important lesson that I believe will always shape my life regardless of what I do next but the other important lesson that we learned in the military and I believe translates once again well to any public service or private sector, is having a plan. What is your plan? Where do you want to go? So that you've got that direction and others know where you want to go and I was asked this question recently about, "Well, how do you lead and how do you deal with complexity and things that might be happening day-to-day that might be distracting?" It was all about knowing our purpose, our aim, where are we going? And then if the staff are connected with that, they will take you there. As a leader, you don't have to be doing everything. You can't be doing everything and you have to trust and inspire your staff to know where you're going and that's probably the third. And the third one I'll talk about is about trusting your staff, and when you are in the military as a leader, you had to trust your troops. You had to be able to trust them and inspire them and giving them an environment that you know that sometimes they're going to make mistakes but you've created an environment that they know where we're going, so that aim, that plan, and then they get on and do it because others' lives could be at risk if they don't understand where we are going. So, those three key lessons from our military service I believe translate into anything I do, whether it be public service or private sector or in my own life, just knowing where we are going, but I often used to reflect on command versus leadership. In the military there are times when you are required to command, but most of the time in the majority of your roles it's about leadership and command has its place and as a commander you understand the difference and when you then transition into the public service, what you're bringing is more of that leadership and the skills you've learned as a leader and a manager. So, I've reflected, the three are quite different, command and leadership and management and when I came into the public service, I recognized there were some individuals that didn't respect leadership. They didn't respect leaders, they felt that they were individuals and that they could do their own thing. They don't belong in any organization. I believe the majority of people who work in an organization, if they truly feel connected to that organization, they naturally follow leaders. Not directive, commanding leaders, but leaders who inspire them and leaders who help them know, what is the direction we are on? Where are we going? And that was a really important lesson for me, that I had some individuals when I first transitioned that I could not understand what it was that they didn't want to be part of that. They just wanted to do what they wanted to do and that's not a good public servant because if you look at the public service, the public service has its values. Military has its values. The services have their values and as a public servant, if you don't relate to those values, you actually don't belong even in the public service. So, I did find that confronting, but they were individuals. It was not the public service because I find the public service is an incredible institution whose values align to my values and the public service values align to our military values because ultimately what it is, it's all about service to our nation. We are all here, whether we be in uniform or the public service, to serve Australians and to keep them safe during times when we want to protect our values, our freedoms and that is such an important profession that we are in and now, as I leave the public service, I can proudly say that the public service was a continuation of my military service to our nation and that's something I'm very proud of.

Challenges for the Department of Veterans' Affairs

There've been many challenges during my career. It's not always been highlights as we've talked about but I think the most challenging period for me, there are two probably, two significant events during my time at DVA. Firstly, the pandemic, and leading an organization that is distributed across our nation. It's across Australia in every state and territory and when you go into lockdowns and you have different jurisdictions and different health requirements, and making sure we never lost sight of why we were here, what was our purpose, to support veterans and families but to look after your staff. I mean, if you look at how we as a nation came together, went into the lockdowns, worked from home, a lot of our staff were still serving veterans, serving the community, doing homeschooling, working off kitchen benches, working with remote access and they did that. I will always be proud of how DVA staff just continued to deliver to veterans and families during that time and look after themselves, be kind to each other. What a remarkable time and that was extremely challenging for many reasons but the second most challenging time for me was when the Governor General issued the Letters Patent for a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide. That was a time for me where we knew it was going to be confronting for all of us. We knew that the Royal Commission is so important because suicide in our community is something we need to address and we've known that, and we know that the work of the Royal Commission is going to be so important to find ways to reduce or to eliminate the risks and the suicide in our veteran community, but to make sure that we put in place all the support we needed for our staff and worked very closely with Defence because it is a very confronting issue and I know that anybody who might be listening to this can be confronted by suicide, but I just want one message, and that is there is support available and to never give up and to know that there are others in the community who want to support you if you are struggling and please, know that that support is there. So, those two significant events during the time as a leader in the DVA were really significant and important, that we never lost sight of our community and the reason that we're here.

Anzac Day

Anzac Day to me is one of our most sacred days in Australia and it's a day of significance where all Australians should come together and say thank you. Thank you for your service. Thank you for keeping me safe. Thank you for protecting our democracy, our freedoms, and our values. Anybody that is wearing a uniform or anybody that is wearing the medals of a family member, because as someone who is a family member myself and a veteran, families make sacrifice as well to support those who put a uniform on to serve our country and Anzac Day, to me, is such a special day and I love the dawn service where it is a quiet moment of reflection and it's never about celebration, but it's about commemoration and it's about mates then coming together to share their stories of service because it's the mates that will reach out to someone who might just need that little bit of extra respect and support just to remember that service. It's such an important day, and let's protect it.


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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Liz Cosson's veteran story, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 11 July 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/oral-histories/liz-cossons-story
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