Rachel Milsom's veteran story

Rachel Milsom completed school in Canberra. She joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in 1993 as a Reservist while still completing her undergraduate degree.

Over 3 years as a Reservist, Rachel worked as an Intelligence Officer supporting Caribous at the Operational Support Group, and on loan to the 5th Aviation Regiment. She also worked as an Operations Officer/Air Liaison Officer with No 35 Squadron RAAF, the Australian Army's combined arms 3rd Brigade and the Australian Army Reserve's 11th Brigade. Rachel participated in several military training exercises in this period, including the large-scale Australian Defence Force (ADF) operation, Kangaroo 1995 (K95).

Rachel joined the RAAF full-time at the end of 1996. As an Intelligence Officer, she had postings to the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO), No 82 Wing and the Strike Reconnaissance Group with F-111s, including supporting their role in East Timor in 1999.

In 2000, Rachel deployed to East Timor with the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). She was assigned to the Information Protection Branch of the Australian Services Contingent. Her other postings included Information Operations Squadron and as an Instructor at the Defence Intelligence Training Centre in Canungra.

Later, Rachel was a Flight Commander with Combat Support Tactical Intelligence Flight with No 87 Squadron. She worked with the Expeditionary Support Squadrons and Airfield Defence Squadrons. Then she was the Australian A2 in the Middle East Area of Operations for Operations Catalyst in Iraq and Operation Slipper in Afghanistan.

Her final postings were in Canberra at Joint Operations Command, the Defence Intelligence Organisation and the Air Power Development Centre.

Rachel left the RAAF in 2017 after 24 years of service. In that time, some of her other achievements include being ADF's overall female champion in snow skiing and bodybuilding. She represented the ADF in international snow skiing racing events.

Middle East

Transcript

Return from East Timor

I did find it hard settling back home. I found that, yeah, it was just, I felt like I just needed to jump back in and get on with things, but probably didn't recognise in myself that I needed a bit of time and probably a bit more support than I recognised in myself that I needed at the time, you know, hindsight's a great thing, but jumped into a different role when I got home. So, it was interesting.

I was doing a bit more public relations around F-111s. We were doing reseal-deseal inquiry at the time and we had some big exercises coming up, so I sort of settled in and really relied on my friends and family at the time and just sort of put it all aside, I think … So, when I first got back, I was still working in F-111s with 82 Wing and Strike Reconnaissance Group …

So, that was the wing responsible for 1 and 6 Squadron with F-111s at the time and back then it was Strike Reconnaissance Group, which eventually became Air Combat Group. So, it was a really interesting time sort of coming back to Amberley and then from there I ended up going down to Information Operations Squadron in Canberra.

Information Operations Squadron

We were working alongside our Intelligence Squadron, so working, looking at different parts of enhancing and supporting the way in which information is disseminated and collected, but also just denying, disrupting on the psychological operations side, some of the tactical electronic warfare side.

So quite a breadth of different skills. It was a brand-new squadron, so we were still trying to bed down where we fitted as Air Force alongside Navy and Army which already had similar tactical electronic warfare and information operations roles.

My job was working in psychological operations, so looking at doing some of the disrupting and denying on various exercises and trying to look at how we were going to support our commanders in using that as one of the tools in their toolbox when we were deployed …

Going back to, you know, World War Two, that's when you used to have your letter drops from the sky and use of the media to be able to demonize particular leaders or countries, political cartoons, all of those sorts of things are sort of on that realm of how you can change people's perception about either supporting or not supporting a particular country or decision maker or how things are being done.

So, for us on some of the exercises, we were looking at ways in which we could see if we could get into the decision-making loop of commanders by putting information out there that, to see whether it would affect some of the decision making.

So, it was a tool. It's heavily governed by, you know, laws of armed conflict and some of the ways in which, because obviously it's another form of attack, so, it was really making sure that what we were doing and the ways we were doing it was working for the Redfor side and then on the Bluefor side, making sure that we were getting popular support for decisions that were being done, making sure that we were presenting the right sort of stories about what we were doing to build and enhance and support whatever the particular exercise was as well, whether it was building a hospital or a road or, you know, using some of those examples from real operations that we've been on and making sure we were getting that out there.

So, we were building support … to see if we could, you know, put out there information about where we were located, whether we were or weren't, how strong we were as a force. It's really about still being able to have that element of surprise from our perspective, from our force side and making sure that, you know, we were keeping them on their toes and not being predictable, not continuing normal pattern.

So, it was really trying to help, you know, disrupt the flow and not seem to be doing the same thing that we've always done or putting out information that we were going to be somewhere else, you know, in a real deceptive way and, you know, that old story of, you know, flanking round the back kind of attitude of, you know, how we were doing something … So, mine was a pretty unique little role in that. There were lots of parts of that squadron in how they worked and supported Air Force, but that was my area … It was more for forces.

So, you know, trying to maybe discredit the decision making abilities of their own command, you know, it was more not so much from our perspective because we were very small trying to, because there's sort of the black and white and there's the grey.

So, the grey is sort of on the enemy side but then information operations, you would make sure that, say, your public affairs or your public relations arm is working in really closely with operational decision making to make sure things weren't getting out there that was going to give away what we were doing.

So, you know, some of it was very, it was more about having a a collegiate sort of approach as opposed to a stovepipe approach, making sure that, you know, we were all working together to support our commander's decision making and operational integrity and not release things that, you know, that we didn't need out there straight away or, you know, again, to protect not only the mission, but to protect our people … but it was just to see what we could do, how we could affect. So, it was still a very trial capability, but it was nice to be part of the beginning of that particular squadron.

Defence Intelligence Wing

It was one of those places I did a lot of my initial training and subsequent training through there and you always feel that you'll never go back to those places again and here I was four years at Canungra and really enjoyed my time there instructing. I did two years with the Air Intelligence Wing and then I did two years with the Defence Intelligence Wing and also got to do some overseas training courses for, as part of the Defence Cooperation Program for some of our neighbouring countries but it was a really interesting time when I went through my training.

We hadn't deployed. We hadn't gone somewhere for a very long time and really, the training that I was, you know, I was instructing when I got back, it was a different space. We were training, you know, our junior aviators and officers to deploy and so there was this real sense of importance around making sure that they were skilled and equipped to be able to go straight into a flying squadron and be able to brief confidently and capably to protect the squadron and to execute a plan and target the right things and so, in the end, there was a lot of a lot of responsibility in that as well …

When the courses are in, you know, there's late nights because you're expecting them to be, you know, preparing briefs to be able to brief a commander or aircrew and you've got to be on hand to be able to answer questions and, you know, nudge them in the right direction or provide a different perspective. So, they were really long days. Those courses were up to 20 weeks. We ran one a year alongside some of other courses but that that big course, that, Air Intelligence Operators course for officers was a really big course.

Living on base at Canungra

A lot of the staff that work there, a lot lived down on the Gold Coast but because of where the base is, it has a very strong sort of live in presence of students when they're there because it is a training base, you know, you do start making your own fun.

You use the mess a lot more. So, it's probably more of a traditional base in that way. You're at the mess a lot more. You're watching television there. You're going to the gym, you're going to the swimming pool, but you do go into town.

Trivia night at the pub was always a big one but, you know, it was a good base too, from being able to get away, get down the beach on a weekend or go exploring up Mount Tamborine or into some of the national parks around there. It was a good place to be able to switch off when you could and actually go and have a break somewhere from the training … I was there for quite some time.

The Defence Intelligence Wing courses that I did, it was sort of some basic analysis courses. So, I got to teach foreign students that came in, but I also got to go to Malaysia, Thailand and Philippines teaching those courses, which was pretty interesting, to their forces and sort of manage that through language barriers at times and had translators and just came up with some different ways of thinking and analysing information …

And what was really interesting is you would deliver the course in English and seeing the dynamics, particularly in some of those Asian countries where some of the older, more senior military personnel really relied on the younger ones that had better English.

So that was a real dynamic change for them as well and then when they went and did all of their group work or discussing of exercises, sometimes that was in their own language and so we weren't able to go around and really work out what they were doing apart from what we could see, they were putting up on the board or something. So, it was really interesting then sometimes to see their approach and how they would solve some of the problems in case studies that we gave them.

So, it was interesting … we did one particular course in Malaysia and it was just army and just male serving members and, you know, a lot of the younger officers wouldn't question, you know, lieutenant colonels, colonels in the room. You went in there and it was all old school teaching, you know, your single seat with the pull up a desk and they were all in rows and the first thing we would do is get them to sit in, you know, form little groups.

Well, by the end of the course, they were all talking and sharing ideas and you could really see that the more junior officers were willing to speak up and say, “Hey, how about this as an idea?” And you could also see that some of the more senior officers in the room were willing to listen, didn't necessarily take the opinions on board but, you know, but you could see that there was more interaction, which by the nature of just being able to have that group think on certain things, it does change the way in which you do your analysis, make your decisions.

So, from that perspective, you know, we saw that as a very successful course. The Philippines was very interesting because we had customs in there too, and we had some civilian defence personnel in there as well and those environments were really interesting and it was really chatty. So, almost chalk and cheese in the different approaches and then when we had some courses where there were multinational participants, again, that was really curious to watch how the dynamics of the varying nations and how they all worked in together and the different ways in which they presented information.

Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar

Because I'd had Zachary, my son, I hadn't been away yet. I hadn't deployed since East Timor and as an intelligence officer, I guess you do all of this training and also I'd been training young officers who had all deployed, that you just want to make sure, there's that feeling, that sense of, “I hope I can do the job when it really counts.”

All that training that I've had, that I can actually do what I've trained for and so there was this real sense of wanting to go, but then also that trepidation of leaving my son, he was only just two when I went away and I ended up going in as the A2, which was the lead air intelligence officer for both Operation Catalyst and Slipper and all of our air assets, both Air Force, Army and Navy in theatre.

So, it was a very big role and it was co-located inside an American Air Force command. So, I was sort of the liaison and the A2 at Al Udeid Air Force Base. It was huge, you know, I guess there was that whole, you rock up, everything's beige. It's the desert. There's just no green and just a sea of tents and just this amazing apron full of aircraft that are all sort of Tetrised in to be able to be there. There were over 15,000 people.

So, just wrapping your head around the fact that you're on a base with more people than is in our Air Force was just an astounding kind of number and then, you know, jumping straight in and then providing product to out to our units and making sure we're giving them the best intelligence information we can for them to disseminate to their aircrews that are going to be flying.

Like it was just, you know, it was quite astounding. So, we had, at the time, we had Hercs, P-3 Orions. We had Army helicopters that came in and supported medical evacuation in Afghanistan and we also had a radar head sitting at Kandahar in Afghanistan and then some support to naval assets as well that had air assets on board. I was actually in a co hut in a little room, which you could personalise a little bit.

They were bunks initially. I managed to break the bunk down, so it was at least a bed and then moved the furniture around, so, I felt like I had a little bit of floor, lots of, you know, you put lots of pictures up and, you know, you eventually go and buy sheets and a doona and all of those things to try and make it, at least, feel a little homey. Everything was always covered in that layer of dust and, yeah, the hours were long. So, the amount of time you actually spent there was very minimal, you know, we're working sort of six to six and a half days a week.

Recreation

We were co-located and living alongside all of the C-130 Herc Squadron that was deployed. So, we were in amongst other Aussies, even though we weren't co-located, working with them, we were working in the Combined Air Operations Centre. So, we were in a different part of the base, but being with them we were able to participate in some of their recreational things.

There was always a themed party going on. I was there over Christmas, so we managed to throw a Christmas lunch, which was really, really nice. We were, yeah, it was really curious. We had some, like the base itself was big, there were recreational areas, there was a cinema and there was McDonald's and a hamburger, like Hungry Jacks and a Pizza Hut and there was, you know, there were bars.

We had, everyone had a chit card that could get two drinks and there was a swimming pool, which, you know, everyone used to call Mantanistan, because there were all these guys that just used to go there to tan and, but it felt kind of normal in those moments where you could just sort of sit by water, water was sort of, water and anything green was always a big drawcard because it felt a little normal but I also, within the American side, I worked for a team of intelligence officers that were all female, which was really unusual.

So, I worked for a lieutenant colonel who was there A2 and she worked for a kind of full colonel who was also female. So, we would have some, she would throw a little dinner and we'd do that once a fortnight with her and some of the other Canadian and British girls as well. So, that was always, I really looked forward to that. It was a chance to sort of switch off and just talk normal things and then we were allowed off base sometimes, you know, with approvals. So, to be able to wander around a shopping centre and for me that was probably one of my favourite things to do because you would see families, Qatari families going shopping.

I remember one day there was this really young couple and they had their son with them who probably would have been a similar age to my son, and I just remember him sitting in the trolley, leaning back for kisses from Dad and, of course, those big signs of affection weren't so public, and I was watching and in the end they caught me watching. I sort of had to apologise.

I said, “Oh, I miss my son. He's at home.” So, there are little moments like that where you just sort of, that made it all worthwhile because otherwise the hours were long. The messes that we had, so many messes on base and everyone had a different theme depending on the night. That's how you remembered what day of the week it was, because you'd have Southern fried night or pizza night or some other weird Cajuny southern night where they had marshmallows in sweet potato and things that weren't so great.

My favourite meal was always breakfast because you could actually do oats and eggs and you could, and they weren't all sugary. I found a lot of the food really sugary and salty … I was there for Thanksgiving so I did get to see a Thanksgiving. We had Christmas and as Australians withinside the big air operations centre we used to put on morning tea and we would always have Tim Tams and that was a good currency withinside.

Assessing threat and risk mitigation

We were putting out daily intelligence reports. So, this would be a collation of looking at all of the threats, all of the attacks on aircraft and rocket attacks on bases, surface to air missiles, and looking at, you know, providing that collated amount of information, not just from our area of responsibility, but also looking at all of the provinces, pulling in our coalition information as well, and looking at it from Australian Rules of Engagement perspective.

It was also so that our commanders could make some decisions around the amount of risk they were willing to accept because some of the threats were high. We knew that there were surface to air missiles in theatre and on, and that was a high risk, but then you would have to look at what would be the likelihood that they would use those because they were so few or they might not have been serviceable and so through that, we were able to come up with some risk mitigation to be allowed to fly.

Otherwise, if you just had the threat at high, then, you know, we wouldn't let our aircraft off the ground. So, there was, you know, there was a lot of responsibility on my perspective to make sure that the information we're providing was correct, that we were providing that possibility and likelihood information for risk mitigation and making sure that we were questioning the integrity of the information coming in and not just taking it on face value, that it was a particular weapon that had been fired or a particular rocket that had been launched, you know, we'd look at some of the trending information, you know, because we'd been in theatre for a little while.

Is this normal for this time of year? Is this some, has the frequency increased? Are the attacks coming from different parts of the base? In addition to that, we were supporting the special operations guys on the ground too, making sure that they were getting the air targeting assets that they needed.

We were co-located with targeting and there were some big missions around that, too, and making sure that we were providing the information that we needed from an Australian perspective. Again, we had different rules of engagement and lots of armed conflict information that we needed to verify that was a little different to some of our coalition partners. So, again, another big area of responsibility around that too, targeting, yeah, it was tough at times …

They all came back into the intelligence surveillance, reconnaissance Division, part of the combined air operation centre, which, you know, imagine a big warehouse full of screens, everyone pulling in that information both from manned and unmanned aircraft. It all being collated. So, the advantage for us being co-located is that, you know, we could go and ask for particular information, work out where all of the units were, making sure that we were getting the best information, the most up to date information to be able to turn around and send out to our intelligence officers that were embedded with the various air units and do the briefings, you know, but at times it was hard.

I, there was, you know, there was a time where this one particular mission and we were listening to it, watching it in terms of, you know, bombs being dropped and then, you know, this feeling that there was this big elated cheer when we dropped the bomb on a designated target, which is our job. The cheering part, I found a little difficult to, you know, it wasn't very palatable because at the same time, for me, as a mum, it's somebody's son. It's somebody's dad at somebody's brother. He's doing what he thinks is the right thing to do. So, there were times like that, but it was, yeah, it was difficult as a girl inside that big organization.

Being under resourced

We're a small team. We had a team of four, yep, team of four and then within each of the squadrons, they had a small team as well. It really required, you know, there was a 24/7 presence, so the hours were long and I was one of the senior females of the Australian contingent that was there. So, along with that and one of the senior officers, so along with that came some other responsibilities.

If there was any female related issues, which sometimes there were, being on a base where there was alcohol and 15,000 people, sometimes there were behavioural issues that occurred and, you know, you needed to be on call for some of the girls.

Some of the Herc crew when they flew back doing a repatriation mission with a body and they wanted to download and sometimes, I didn't work directly with them, I wasn't part of the same squadron or in that chain of command, so they'd come and talk to me. So, there was work and there was the wider work and then there was how you decompress. So it was, it was a big, and then tried to interact with family at home, which just seemed so far away.

So, yeah, it was a really it was a tough, tough time … I guess the hardest part is trying to maintain our roles back home, manage the rotations. I was meant to be there for four month and so in my mind, when I agreed to go, I went, “I'll be there for November and December and it's Christmas and then before I know it, I'll be coming home.”

So, that was sort of how I, so, “It's only four months”, but I couldn't get a replacement in and I was on this week by week by week extension almost through to Easter, not knowing when I was going to go home, but also because I wasn't designated to be there for six months. I also didn't get my two weeks leave in the middle because I was on this week by week rotation.

So, yeah, it was really tough. We didn't, we were under resourced and I guess that's why it was really important that we developed those really strong connections with our allies so that we were relying on other information, but we were punching well above our weight in terms of what we were providing back into the collective bucket, but I think that's just part of the way Aussies are, we just worked and worked and worked and, yeah, it was, at the time you didn't, you don't think about it, you just do it because they were the resources that you had, but, you know, we could have done with more definitely could have done.

A visit to Kandahar

Yes, I went across to Kandahar to see my team over at the radar head and also to have a better appreciation as to how we were best supporting them there, you know, in the time that I was there. I think I was there for a week. I think we had four rocket attacks in the time I was there, you know, we're having to roll out of bed, hit the floor, put all your armour on, grab your rifle, and I was in a tent all by myself.

Crawl out to the bunker, hope at some point someone will remember where I am and tell me we could stand down, but those air signals were, yeah, it was definitely, it's a different feeling being over there versus where I had been and I think, too, there were times just to return back to Al Dueid for a minute, there were times where, you know, I felt people were really focused on what they were doing, for example, some of the aircraft squadron were just focused on getting the aircraft in the sky and recovering them, not really thinking about the mission.

So their big thoughts were, “When do we get to go into town to go into the souks to go shopping?” Whereas my head was always, “How do we support the teams that are supporting the guys on the ground and in theatre?” So, it was, so that sense over there you could feel there was that sense of a bit more sense of urgency, a bit more feeling of being on edge a little bit more, I think, at Kandahar, because we're in the middle of an active zone, you know, there was one day where I think it was the day we were due to go home.

We were in the herc ready to go and the air raid signal went off and we all had to sort of jump out of the aircraft, hit the deck down on the piano keys at the end of the runway and just wait to see where the rockets were going to land, you know, it was a definitely a different sense of urgency over there … or not just see the rockets land, like these were landing on base. So, they're landing in the base. So, this particular one was landing just behind where the Aussies were living and working but I knew, because of my job, that where I was lying, there'd been a rocket attack there two weeks earlier and the runway had been fixed.

Always looking for threat

We're always looking at threat. So, in intelligence, you know, you're always looking at the threat. What are their patterns of behaviour? What is their actual capability? How much, you know, what are they going to attack next? How do we keep our aircraft safe and our allies safe? How do, you know, we provide the right information to the commanders so they make the right decisions.

There's a real element of, you know, this is the picture but if you have a really good relationship with the aircrew or the commander that you're working with, you get to a point where you going, “This is the picture but you know what? My gut says this” and, you know, that's the human element in intelligence work and it's why sometimes we get it wrong, you know, the fear of the getting it wrong part is, if I get it wrong, it's not just, “Oh, we might have to limp home”, someone will die.

So there's that real element of, you know, responsibility … but no matter where you go, if there's an element of having to provide any sort of current intelligence, you don't switch off. You're always looking at what's happening in the world. Where's the next hot spot? Or, how might we have to be involved? And I did that for 25 years, you know, you don't switch off and you're always working at this sort of high level. There isn't much respite in that. People talk about respite postings, which I've never had in my whole entire life.

Health concerns

I got really sick, and I just think I was pushing my body. I was working long hours and when I was in Afghanistan, in Kandahar, I picked up an awful pneumonia. There's some reporting around it being a super pneumonia because of, you know, open burning of fecal pits and other chemicals and things that were located there.

That flight, after we'd been out on the ground and came home, I went straight back to work and I pulled a, I think I did 35, 40 hour shift to get some particular reporting out that we needed out. My team said to me, “You know, boss, you don't look great.” And I was sort of turning green.

I went home to my home, to my room, and started hallucinating. I rang our nursing officer because our doctor was away. They took me straight to the American hospital. Well, I can't remember much more after that. None of the medications was able to bring my temperature down. I didn't know this, but my dad had received a phone call from the American doctor to say, “She might not make it” and I was in hospital for two weeks.

So, again, there was this not concern for my own health, but I'm letting my team down because I'm sick in hospital. I'm going to lose my edge because I'm not going to be on top of the latest information. I'm, you know, I'm not useful right now as opposed to I need to take time to get better. So, there was, you know, there is that real element of having to be on all the time.

87 Squadron and Joint Operations Command

I was still with then, with 87 Squadron for another two years. So, I did another two years and, in that time, you know, there were lots of natural disasters. There was and some conflicts. There was the start of the Arab Spring. So, there was issues in Lebanon and Egypt and having to evacuate embassies and Australians and things.

So, we were still constantly preparing for that and then, yeah, 2011 I came down to Joint Operations Command and again I was in current intelligence looking at current operations, some to do with Middle East but I also, my job was looking after the rest of the world. So, there was Pacific and regional, there was Middle East and area of operations and then there was the rest of the world and basically the rest of the world was any other UN mission, any other, so, that was things like multinational force observers in Egypt.

We also had peacekeepers in Sudan and then, you know, ones and twos, they may have been embedded with a different nations and they might have been on a long look, say, with the Brits or with Americans or any natural disaster. Well, in that time, we had another big blow up in Syria. We had the tsunami in Japan. Again, it was relentless. It was a really, really busy, busy time and to try and, I had a small team again, I think there were only five of us looking after the rest of the world … and from an intelligence perspective, some of it is, you know, there's the environmental element can be a threat depending, you know, there can be disease.

There can be just general crime and security when a country's destabilised by a natural disaster. So, while it might necessarily be an enemy, there are still elements that you need to brief on to keep people safe. So, there's still elements that are required and so it was just, again, coming in to another job where you're at home, but you're at this sort of heightened level of responsibility all the time.

Snow skiing

I've always been an avid snow skier ever since I was little and I was really quite excited about the fact that I could take some time off work and go and ski for, you know, for the Air Force but it was also, it was a good break, as well as a good opportunity to do some networking and meet some other like-minded people but from different parts of the Air Force and so it was just another opportunity, I found, of being able to connect with the people that you're serving with.

But the Air Force comp was always down at Mount Hotham, and so we'd have a week down at Mount Hotham, racing, we'd have the ski school, instruct everybody, and then you'd race and then the following week you'd meet up with the Army and Navy, and you'd all race against each other and that was normally at Perisher and then there was the opportunity every few years to be able to go away with the ADF team if you were at that level and that was generally to Europe and you would race against some of the European forces, British combined forces and Canadians, Americans.

So, I jumped on board with that very early in my career and was the RAF champion for a number of years and was ADF champion for a number of years too. So, and got to go away once, early on in my career, I got to go to Europe and ski for six weeks, which was quite amazing. I think I did okay. A lot of them, they are mostly skiers that do a little bit of military service, particularly, I think the Austrians and the French because they've got national service.

So, a lot of them were Olympians and world champions that would do some military service on the side. Against the British forces, I beat a lot of the British girls, that was a good comp for me and some of the British boys and our own boys but, gee, it was it was an amazing experience and I guess it's one of the, you know, the happy memories that I have and some of the strong connections that I made through my time in the military and it was great as my career went on, because you got to say, like when I was deployed in in the Middle East, you know, some of the guys I'd skied with were the det commanders that I was supporting.

So, you weren't just working with them professionally, you had a friendship, and you were able to work with them and build that rapport and integrity of, and trust in a different way. So, yeah, so that was really quite amazing. Sadly, as I progressed further in my career, I didn't get to go as often because it just the timing was never great.

Bodybuilding

Bodybuilding came about in a really unusual way. I had been having a lot of trouble having children and ended up needing medical assistance to do that and I'd had some really awful losses and just felt my whole body was letting me down and so I jumped on board with one of these 12-week challenges to try and focus on something else for a little bit.

Then I did one and then I did another one, and then I met some girls that sort of said, you know, “This is what we do.” And I said, “ I couldn't do that and they said, “Well, why not?” So, I set it as a goal and I ended up doing the ADF competition and some state competitions.

I won the ADF competition as a novice … you build muscle as well, but it's more about the combination of the two together and then how you look on the day that you step onto the stage. Actually, all the hard work has already been done, what happens that day, you know, is neither here nor there really. It's all of that culmination of hard work prior and for me it was, you know, it was a good 12 months of hard work and, you know, and it was then within two months that I was successful.

So, you know, and the day that I left the Middle East, I got called over to the main theatre floor which had massive screens, warehouse sized screen, and as my farewell, they decided to put the picture up of me bodybuilding, you know, like, but it's some of those funny things that have happened in the time that you just think, you know, people value what you do, people respect what you do. People give you a hard time and normally that's a pretty good indication that, you know, they thought you're a pretty decent person.

Pride in service

In service I was very proud of my time and, you know, would march and would go and give speeches at schools and do all sorts of things when I was in uniform. When I had left the service and that wasn't by my choice, I think there's so much focus on the end of a career when you're medically discharged on the things that were broken as opposed to the amazing achievements and so I found it difficult to participate initially because I felt I was not deserving.

That's changed, you know, it's been a few years now and, you know, I am very proud of my service and I think as time goes on and you realise that who I saw as a veteran, that definition of a World War Two veteran or a Vietnam veteran, there are few World War two veterans left and those that are, Vietnam vets are also, you know, they're an aging population and most veterans are like me and I think that's taken a little bit to realise that and it's only sometimes when I say to someone that, you know, “I served just shy of 25 years”, they like, “Oh, wow, that's a really considerable amount of time”, “Oh, yeah” but it actually is. There's a lot in there to be proud of.

Keeping history alive

I think I certainly wouldn't have had the career that I had if it hadn't been for firstly the encouragement of my mum and dad and sort of a nod to my grandfather who had been in the Air Force. I think that was really important, too. I have a cousin serving in the Navy and now there's some of the next generation that are starting to join, their kids, my cousin's kids are starting to join and so I know that they have looked up to us as in our service.

So, I think it's important to be able to tell stories like this and keep history alive, you know, we don't have the old letter writing and things that used to happen back from the trenches and I think it's really important that we try and capture service beyond, you know, what you end up taking on your iPhone because it doesn't get shared in the same way and I think it's important that I provide this so that my son has a better understanding of what I did and then grandchildren one day. I think that's really important that we capture this and remember, I think it's the remembering.

East Timor

Transcript

Interest in the air force and learning French

I grew up in Canberra. My grandfather had been in the Air Force and I had a cousin in the Navy. So there had been a few military people in my family. And through year 12, I applied for the Australian Defence Force Academy in the Navy.

But I also applied for a rotary exchange year to go to Europe the following year as well, which I got, and I decided to head off to Europe. So that was in 1991, which was a really fascinating time to be over there, because the wall had not long come down in Germany. 

European Union was just forming and Maastricht Treaty had just been signed and I headed to Belgium and was in the French speaking part of Belgium. So when I came back, I really wanted to continue with my languages and became quite interested in international politics and so did an arts degree in European languages and European studies, and then started having a look at what I could do with that and Airforce Intelligence Officer was one that appealed to me. 

But through that time I was working in reserves while I was at uni. So that was really interesting, too, as an intelligence clerk. … I did French, so I continued my French right through my degree … I had done it in year seven. Like most people had done a bit of bit of French and a bit of German, and then I hadn't done it for the rest of my time. So living with a family and having to really learn it by ear and then came back and continued.

Working as a RAAF reservist

The way it works for Air Force is you committed to at the time was 32 days in a calendar year. So it wasn't quite like the army where you'd do a night, a week and then a weekend a month. It was more as required by the squadron. So I joined at 28 Squadron here in Canberra at Fairbairn and did a number of different things. 

So I got to work down in the squadrons, got to support the RAAF hot air balloon, got to do some really interesting things during that time, as well as supporting some of the exercises that came up. And from Canberra, I moved up to Townsville and not only worked in intelligence but also worked in air operations as well … I was working in Townsville, supporting Caribous and their PNG training flights out of Townsville. 

And then I also got to work with 5 Aviation Regiment as well. So I spent a bit of time with Black Hawks and Chinooks … airlift and short take off. They're not around anymore. In fact, most of the aircraft that were in the Air Force when I joined are no longer around. But that was a great little aircraft. 

And, you know, particularly for those remote areas up in Queensland and those short runways and things in Papua New Guinea, it was ideal, so great for things like humanitarian affairs and disaster relief and those sorts of things.

Working at operational support group

So mostly while I was going through uni, I was supporting operational support group, which is now combat support group in Townsville and doing briefs for the Force Element Group commander. So it would be on current situations around the world, new technologies emerging with air forces mostly. 

So, you know, it was sort of, I found it fascinating to be able to work in that space and then also got to do that with some of our exercises as well. So I was supporting again Caribous mostly through that time, helping them with their mission planning for the various missions that they were having to conduct.

Fast tracking officer training

The officer training was still done alongside permanent air force members. So we would go down at the at that stage it was Point Cook for the officer training school and we would do portions of the course in with the permanent Air Force courses. 

So that could be done over 12 to 24 months. But I knew I wanted to join up at the end of my degree, so I fast tracked myself and got through in six months ' time so I could graduate on parade with the courses that I'd gone through and I basically went through with two different courses that were two months apart, going through officer training, school, things like defence force, legal and in some of our, you know, workbooks style training we could do back in our squadrons with the training officer in the squadron. 

But all of our field activities, weapons, leadership activities were all done down at Point Cook I did ... There were still very few women and there was the feeling that you always just needed to put in 110% to prove yourself. But it was not an insurmountable thing, it was just, you just had to work really hard, I think. 

While the gender gap was improving, it still wasn't quite there and when I first joined, you know, there was still, I guess, you know, workplaces weren't quite what they are now and some of those unacceptable behaviour policies weren't quite as tight as they are now. So, you know, certainly there was tolerances that you had to make for certain behaviour and language … 

In my environment, in intelligence when I first joined through reserves, there was maybe one other. Most of the time, though, I was working independently or with a small team, and during that time I was always the only female … at the time in my last two years with reserves, I was working more than the 32. I had approval to work up to sort of 150. So most people actually thought I was full time on study leave. Not that I was studying as a reservist when I joined full time because I'd completed my officer training, I went straight into the air intelligence training. 

So that was at Canungra at the Defence Intelligence Training Centre. There were a number, there was a suite of courses that we did some with alongside Army and Navy, so some introductory course and then we went into an air specific course so that you could go and work in a squadron supporting aircrew, helping them do their mission planning.

Air battlespace management

I was an air liaison officer, so an operations officer. So helping with the air battlespace management and I was working alongside 11 Brigade and 3 Brigade. At the time, I think I was a pilot officer alongside all these army units helping them manage the air aspect of, you know, what they were needing to do, whether it was airlift, whether they were needing, you know, moving equipment around or people around. 

And it was with the Caribous and also with aviation, army aviation. So we had our Black Hawks, Chinooks and then we also had 161 Reconnaissance helicopters as well. So it was just making sure that that air and army interface was managed properly. So that was that was my role up there. 

I was at Weipa, so we'd gone from Townsville to Weipa on board Tobruk, HMAS Tobruk, so that was a really fascinating, almost full circle after having applied to, to Navy originally and then watching the ships and how the blue force and red force, so friendly forces and enemy forces, how they maneuvered in the sea and then when we got up to Weipa then setting up our command post along on the side of the airfield up there and roughing it.

F111 reconnaissance over Timor

We were briefing our, the executive and commanders on current political geopolitical situations around the world, so Timor was definitely one of those being on our doorstep. So we were aware, certainly from RAAF Base Amberley 's point of view, once INTERFET was starting, we were quite conscious about various squadrons and various personnel deploying to help establish the airfield at Komoro to enable C-130 operations in. 

I felt probably a little more aware just because of working in that space … towards the end of ‘99 we had reconnaissance F-111s working out of Tindal, providing some basic intelligence support, imagery specifically to forces in Timor. But it was quite an interesting process on how we got that support to the country … 

So they were flying into East Timor airspace, so international airspace, leaving Darwin and then into East Timor. The biggest things with the F-111s is they certainly have the legs to be able to get there. So they were able to travel the distance but they used wet film, it all wasn't digitised. 

And so, you know we had low scanner, high scanner cameras and some forward looking infrared, more precision munition sort of targeting pods that produced imagery as well. So we had to print those images off, have our imagery analysts mark them up, and then we would have an airman drive to Darwin, give them to a C-130 member and take them into country. 

So, you know, at that time we didn't have another way of doing it, that was our work around … where we were moving with things like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, because prior to that a lot of those force enablers, we relied on our bigger allies, on UK and US for a lot of things we'd been doing and it really highlighted that we needed some of those capabilities and technologies of our own.

Preparing to deploy in East Timor

It was looking at force protection, so making sure that we were protecting what we were doing over there and making sure that, you know, operational security was being maintained. That was the role that I went over in and having been an operations officer as well as having worked in that force protection space, because my role at Amberley at the time was working in force protection alongside our security police. 

So it was sort of a natural move to go into that section. But, you know, with all of the trepidation that you have going into something new, doing your job for real, it was a really interesting time to sort of pack up what we thought we might need for the time that we were going. And then we caught an Antonov in the middle of the night to Darwin and then did our preparation in Darwin for becoming more familiar with the country and what we were going to be doing over there. And then we went across on HMAS Jervis Bay, which was the catamaran that was leased. And so, next minute, then we're arriving in Dili and ready to go and I was stationed with the headquarters at the university in Dili.

Viewing the destruction in Dili

The smell of burning buildings still in the air and seeing the smoke, there was still a lot of smoke and smouldering buildings and that everything seemed really quite run down and that so much had been destroyed, you know. You could see it was such a beautiful country and was really, you know, you could see just how much had just been torched on the way out. And, you know, that was quite sad. 

And just looking at how we were going then to do that capacity building and repairing and restoring security and order there, it certainly hit home a lot more about what we were there to do and it was still quite unsafe. You know, we weren't able just to walk around the country and we were armed. We had, you know, live rounds in our weapons. All of those things was a complete change from sitting in an office.

Civil military liaison in Timor

So as part of our role, we were doing civil military liaison. So we would go out and talk with the people, get a sort of a feel for how things were feeling in the marketplace, whether people were starting to move around and feel a little more safe. That particular photo was up in Baucau on the northeastern side and the kids were gorgeous. But you would have seen in that photo most of them weren't wearing shoes. A lot of the clothes were too big. They were aid clothes. 

I'd bought some boiled peanuts. And so I was sharing the boiled peanuts with the kids. You know, the “Hello Mrs.” everywhere you went and wanting chocolate and things either it was all those things you hear was exactly what it was, but just this great spirit in the people, despite everything that had happened.

The significance of Anzac Day on deployment

We would have locals that would come and clean our compounds and listening to them, they were always so curious to see the blonde hair and see pictures of our kids or know what our lives were like as well. 

And I was there for Anzac Day and I remember being out on the point at dawn when we had our dawn service, looking out to the ocean and, you know, really feeling the meaning of Anzac Day being deployed and then going to a church service up at the cathedral where, through my broken Tetum and this lady's broken English sort of asking what we were doing there and why we had this church service and explaining that, you know, we were remembering, you know, World War One in particular and going in and supporting at Gallipoli. 

And she said, “Oh, just like you're doing here”, you know, it was that real sense of, you know, gratefulness and thanks and again, you know, it was just, it's one of those memories that now I carry into Anzac Day because it was just so meaningful, that first one being deployed.

Working at the orphanage

Doing that civil military liaison with the local people, I got to go down to the airfield at Komoro, got to move in and around Dili, went out to Baucau, got to fly down to the border, as well, with one of the Black Hawks, which was really quite interesting seeing what, you know, what the situation was down there for our troops on the border. 

And on our days off, we would do things like go and work at a local orphanage and read stories and dig vegetable gardens and … there were not many kids that you would see that hadn't been touched by the deaths that had occurred in those last few days before the TNI left. It was quite confronting really.

The $20 hamburger

So we were in the university. Most of the guys were living over in, just some of the buildings in, they'd set up their mozzie domes and structures and were living in those buildings. We had two Atco huts for the females that were deployed there. So that gives you a sense of just how few of us there were. 

And we were two or three in a Atco hut with our mozzie dome set up inside and then just our gear within each of those and, you know, so we were inside the Australian compound just for our own protection … there were a number of different messes around. We were very fortunate to have been right alongside the, the Aussie and Kiwi mess. So we had great food and you know, a good supply of things. 

From memory, isn 't it funny how you don't remember some things, but certainly a lot of people liked to come to the Australian mess because we had better fresh food, better bread and vegetables and things because obviously they were a little bit harder to get hold of even through the marketplace. 

So, food 's not one thing I remember, although I remember going into Dili one day and there'd been an Australian, you know, it was big news, there was an Australian that had set up a hamburger place and we were able to buy hamburgers for $20 a hamburger … A civilian guy that had set up and was making hamburgers. So, you know, we got to do that one day and that was a big outing to go get a hamburger.

Life in the compound

It was six months ' deployment. We had communications, but it was tough and I was working between 12- and 16-hour shifts. Home was tough. It was hard to ring home. We weren 't allowed our personal phones and back then they weren 't really a thing. Writing some letters home but really there wasn't a lot of opportunity, maybe once a week I would get to ring home. 

Sometimes the timings didn't work. It was just really, you relied on the people around you and that sort of became the norm over there. Other things we got to do. We had a film night, so you'd have, you know, a screen up and play movies. My shifts were, you know, I'd do a week of about five days ' worth of day shifts and five days ' worth of night shift and then you might have a day transition. 

So often I didn't get to join in some of those things, used to get a bit cranky if the PT in the morning was right outside my tent when I ‘d just worked a night shift but really it was just relying on the people around. And we could go over to the university, there was some other TVs and things over there, sometimes just for that change of scenery going over where the other Aussies were living and just having a bit of a break away from the compound.

Dress code in Dili

We were pretty much in uniform all the time. Inside the compound you could just be in a t-shirt with cam pants, but also it was wet season when I was there and mozzies were pretty prevalent, so, trying to protect yourself from the mozzies as well, but in and around us, so we had Kiwis near us, we had Fijians near us. 

There were some Pakistanis near us, so there were lots of other people. And I think, too, because of that, in and around the headquarters area, there were probably a few more wearing uniform just because of the nature of being right next to the UN headquarters. Out in some of the units, so, if I went across to the airfield where the RAAFies were, over there, because they had their own area, you know, it was a little more relaxed than where we were near the headquarters.

Networking with the local East Timorese

Because of the nature of the role we were doing, we weren't a whole unit that moved in and out, it was just ones and twos so that there was continuity in the support we were providing because we were providing 24/7 support. So, when I left, it was a matter of the next person coming in and they sort of shadowed you for a week and, you know, you try your best to impart what you'd managed to pick up and achieve. 

And, you know, I was very big on contacts and networking, so making sure that, you know, you hand over who's who in the zoo and where the best support comes from. At that stage, we were working very closely with some former East Timorese military as well. So, you know, making sure that we were working with them and that they knew who the new people were coming in. 

Some of them were translating for us when we were out and about, most of us had done some basic language, but just to make sure that nothing was lost in translation when we were out talking with the people but also it made the local community feel much more safe and secure and knowing that we weren't just coming in, we were working alongside, you know, their own countrymen as well, and that we were working together to help improve the situation over there. 

And it was really in that capacity building space that we were working with them. Most of them spoke English very well. So it was a really, you know, it was great and it helped us improve our Tetum as well … there were some Ni-Vanuatu that were there and we didn't have any French themselves in our area. But there were some other nations where French was a more natural second language than English. And so, you know, you used every skill to be able to work together, that's for sure.

The difficulty of post deployment adjustment

I had a post operational psych interview when I was there. We then caught a ship back to Darwin and then we were kind of left to our own devices for a little bit. And it was a little surreal at that point coming back and it probably wasn't as organized as subsequent deployments to the Middle East where there was a bit more support. 

It was sort of like, “Well, you're home now '. There were times where, you know, I was a little more hyper vigilant on what was happening around or loud noises because there were some scary times over there. There was, you know, some militia that were shooting in the streets when we were out one night. 

There was certainly things that we saw. There were places that we saw where women had been taken and abused. So there were things that you can't process in a normal way and that when you come back, no one else understands if they haven't been there, so there were some difficulties in this just getting on with the job but that was the nature of us having deployed, I guess, for that first time. 

That then started a suite of almost being deployed from then on … I was at that point, I was the only Air Force person because we were a tri-service team, I was the only Air Force person in our team. So when I got home, it was it, yeah, I was the only one from my base that was deployed in the headquarters. There were obviously others that had been down at the airfield, working in an airfield, airbase, support capacity and aircrew. But yeah, it was different, different environment.

Parents ' philanthropy toward East Timor

Because of my time away in Timor, my parents became very interested in the country as a whole and the situation that I described in some of the photos that I sent home and shared with them when I got home. They 've ended up doing some very philanthropic things through their parish, and Dad 's with Rotary and a few things. 

And so they've helped set up and rebuild schools and mum was a teacher and so they sent over teaching materials and Dad worked as a pharmacist and is sending over medical equipment. Still, to this day, they send a shipping container full of equipment and beds and desks and chairs and school supplies at least one to two a year since that time that I was there … and I've certainly said to my Dad that I would love to go back with him on one of the trips that he does to see where the country is now and see some of those places where I went. 

And one of the areas that they've supported is the orphanage that I helped set up, the vegetable garden. He said it's still there. So, you know, so that was a real, you know, really interesting thing to hear. And, you know, I'd love to see all of those places and see where they are now.

East Timor as a career defining deployment

I guess that time in Timor was really what shaped my career. As I said, things within the intelligence and intelligence surveillance reconnaissance and the platforms that Air Force then introduced after that, such as, airborne early warning aircraft and being able to manage those force enablers from an air power perspective, were the things that kept me and I were the most exciting things about my time. 

And I equally loved my Air Force only deployments, where I was at a base and aircraft flying around and the times where I got to work alongside the other forces as well and internationally. I think, you know, I wouldn't have stayed in for as long as I did if it hadn't been for that experience I had in East Timor.


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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Rachel Milsom's veteran story, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 23 June 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/oral-histories/rachel-milsoms-veteran-story
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