My Defence Story: Failures, Field and Finding my Inner Strength

Reading Time: 6 minutes

My Defence story is not unlike many others.  I enlisted, survived recruit training and went on to my training establishment.  It seemed pretty straight forward, though the real story is very different!

This story has more kinks than an old garden hose.  I’m telling it to shed light on the fact that when you want something desperately in your life, oftentimes it’s not going to be easy and there is a high chance that you will be faced with challenges, and at times, failure. But the hardships are only temporary so you must propel forward.

I enlisted into the Royal Australian Air Force on the 26th of March 2019.  On my enlistment day, I was optimistic and determined, but blind to the reality of the challenges to come.  After goodbyes to family and the choked back tears disguised as smiles, myself and my fellow recruits flew from Brisbane Defence Force Recruiting to 1 Recruit Training Unit at RAAF Base Wagga. 

I wasn’t joking about being blind to the challenges. It seemed that we would be served a hearty bowl of challenge for breakfast, lunch and dinner with a side cup of concrete to harden up. For me, my personal challenge had always been physical, and prior to being enlisted, I did physical training about 5 days a week in preparation for the course so I believed that I was fit enough. 

Turns out, I wasn’t. I failed my initial fitness test. 

My first failure

Bitter and embarrassed, I was “back-coursed” (held back into the next course) where I made considerable progress both physically and mentally.  I began to conquer all challenges and my confidence continued to grow.  But then there was a light at the end of the tunnel – graduation day was fast approaching. 

Air Force Recruits undertake a period of time ‘roughing it’ in the bush learning basic field tactics. I did five days out at base camp conducting a number of drills that simulated what life on deployment would be like.  It was like military-style work experience: those recruits interested in security and protection roles got exposure to what their future role might entail; those wanting to graduate into a medical role get to experience the fast tempo of a Combat Medic, and those hoping to enter into communication roles start practising radio chat, etc. But most of all, we filled, moved and stacked sandbags. Lots of sandbags.  Personally, I never resented the sandbagging component of field time; I found it somewhat therapeutic.

My first exposure to field time was in June 2019, during my least preferred season: winter.  Being a North Queensland native, I already disliked the cold so was pushed out of my comfort bubble. The first night was horrific, but I remained positive. The second morning broke and it was straight into ‘fire and movement drills’.  I felt self-conscious that everyone could see that I wasn’t physically strong enough to be at the same standard as the others. Regardless, I tried my best. 

But my best just didn’t cut it.  Towards the end of the drill, exhausted (and crying from being so anxious, tired and embarrassed), I felt the sharp pinch in my right shoulder.  Turns out that leopard-crawling through sand with my weapon caused my shoulder muscles to swell so much that it pinched the nerve.

This was my second recruit training setback.  I was back-coursed for a second time.

This was demoralising.  I remember being discharged from hospital and walking back into the Rehabilitation and Mentoring Section on base feeling completely deflated. I had nothing but my poorly washed uniform and I had to borrow clothes off a friend to sleep in that night.  I would be in the rehab section for an unknown amount of time. The aim was to rebuild my physical self, as well as mend the shattered confidence I now carried. 

Conducting physical training twice every day became my new normal. In place of ‘death by PowerPoint’, it was ‘death by burpees’.  Mentally, I hit rock bottom.  Like many others in the rehab section, I found watching my course mates graduating while remaining in training was hard.  I struggled to manage a single, acceptable push-up and it was both saddening and infuriating. My newfound friends in the rehab section understood with undisputable clarity how I felt after every single physio or doctors appointment.

 Finding my inner strength

It happened – I found my inner strength. It took all my focus, determination, resilience and motivation. Though my entire journey would not have been a success story if it had not been for the staff at the rehab section.  Their encouragement was instrumental to me getting stronger and re-entering the course. Most importantly, when the days seemed to never end and no considerable recovery was evident, they offered the reassurance that 1 Recruit Training Unit was a small dot on our (hopefully long) defence career timelines.

Overcoming physical hurdles and making a full recovery meant that I finally graduated on Course 13 of 2019! I was even chosen by the course to participate in the end of course speech. My course graduated on Wednesday, and by the same Friday we were shipped to our new units in preparation for employment training. 

I had greatly anticipated going to Latchford Barracks to become a Medic.  I was excited to study something I was passionate about in an organisation I had come to love. Unluckily for me, I was faced with a whole new set of challenges.

The ACER test..and a little surprise

I have always been good at English, but not so good at maths.  Despite all the long nights studying for the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) test, I failed and was placed on the later ADF Medic Continuum (given that I could pass the ACER successfully).  I studied with the support of a tutor and passed!

My perseverance paid off and I was proud of myself.

I loved what I was studying.  I was passing the assessments with the rest of my course mates and was enthusiastic about the concept of things like placement and lab practise. I loved the hands-on learning aspect of being a media.

Then I found out that I was pregnant with my first baby.

At a time that I should have felt overjoyed, all I felt was fear.  I was upfront with my staff and they appreciated my honesty.  I was also sick for the entirety of my pregnancy.  So much so that the education institute that we would get our Diploma of Nursing through noticed that I was on the ward with terrible morning sickness and discussed it with staff. 

I was presented with two options: stay on course, continue to miss days in class and eventually fail; or remove myself from the course before I failed academically. I chose to leave.

I felt backed into a corner and no matter what I suggested to continue my own progress and learning, my ideas were declined.  I was determined to not let me being pregnant stop me from achieving what I really wanted. I felt that same rise of fury.  That same feeling of deflation.  The same disappointment that compared with being back in the rehab section, though this time I was more mentally resilient and I knew it would be okay.

The End of the Beginning

I still haven’t got exactly where I want to be in regards to my career. I still have a very long way to go.  But, I have a beautiful little boy who takes up all my attention and now that I have him, I know that it was meant to be and I will always find a way around the challenges I face.  My baby is a challenge in himself (he is fussing in the swinging chair beside me as I write this piece). 

I can’t help but ask myself: if everything was easy, what would I gain?  Would I be as resilient as I am now? Would I be able to motivate myself and others?

From my experience, it takes grit, gut, sweat, tears and a whole lot of stubbornness to be able to achieve something.  My advice is to keep the end goal in mind at all times.  Every time you feel like throwing in the proverbial towel, remember where you want to end up.  Maybe it’s graduating recruit school, reaching a certain rank or going on an operational deployment.  Whatever the end goal is, have faith that if you commit and are willing to put in the hard work, it will happen.

Having the experience of failure under my belt has not been easy. I have complained, cussed and wondered why I can’t have a simple journey from one thing to the next.  Easy would be a nice change of pace from what I am used to. 

As much as no one likes to fail, failing for me has been crucial to my own personal development.  I have learnt through multiple failures that I can survive anything, that I have a unique predisposition to continue aiming for what I want regardless of what challenges try to deter my focus. 

I now understand with perfect clarity the meaning behind the saying “perseverance will prevail”.  Though not a common saying, I think it’s important to always have it in the back of your mind when going through times of hardship.  The key to my successes have not been a matter of luck, rather the attitude of my perseverance will prevail and I will get to my end goal.  If I can manage to overcome the challenges that I face, you are just as, if not more than, capable too.     

About the author

Aircraft Woman Jordan Keane is a mother of one and an Air Force trainee posted to Latchford Barracks. Having completed a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English before joining the RAAF, Jordan has always taken pride in her ability to write.  Most recently, Jordan has had the opportunity to write about her journey through Defence, adding a unique perspective about how each journey has its respective challenges and successes.