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Spotlight Her 2021

by Shamsa Lea and Lyndsay Freeman

Propel Her is excited to share our 2021 #SpotlightHer series, where we feature impressive women who serve in the ADF. Join us as we shine a spotlight on the silent achievers who contribute in inspirational ways in the defence of Australia. These women were all nominated by their colleagues as someone who inspired them … and we are pretty inspired too! 

Brodie Sweeney
Fixed Wing Pilot – Central Flying School

Nominated by: Sarah Hume

I am a Pilot with over 12 years experience in the Royal Australian Air Force. I have flown all over the world, including operations in the Middle East and humanitarian assistance operations flying as captain of the C-130J-30 Hercules. I am currently completing Flying Instructors Course at Central Flying School. On completion I will be a Qualified Flying Instructor. This will allow me to pass on my experiences and help others achieve their dreams. I am proud to say that I have enjoyed a successful flying and Air Force career while raising three children with my husband.

What empowers you? I am empowered by the dedication to improve shown by those I work with, as well as the adaptability and resilience shown by my family. I hope my future journey will allow me to empower others to surpass my achievements and enjoy a fulfilling and successful career.

Amber Johnson-Briggs
Craftsman Vehicle Mechanic – 5 Aviation Regiment

I joined Defence in 1995 and was placed into the Royal Australian Engineers (RAE). After nine years in engineers, two deployments to Timor Leste, I transferred to RAEME. Since then I have deployed to Timor again, but still love being a mechanic. The biggest thing I have faced is myself, when I struggled with Gender Dysphoria, which I had help with thanks to the ADF. I now live my true self as a trans-female. Since transition I have played rugby at the inter-Brigade competition, which was an amazing experience with inspiring women, and continue to work as a mechanic with the respect of my peers. To play rugby for Brigade and Army is a short term goal. I am aspiring to progress through the ranks into positions of leadership as I feel I have a lot to offer as I progress through my career.

Ali Withers
Staff Officer Grade One South West Pacific – Headquarters Joint Operations Command

I am currently the Staff Officer Grade One South West Pacific within current operations at Headquarters Joint Operations Command. I have been in the Navy for 19 years, and as a ship driver and Air Warfare Officer. I have spent the bulk of my career at sea as an Officer of the Watch, and Air Intercept Controller, and Air Warfare Officer. My career highlight has been my posting as the Commanding Officer of HMAS Maitland, an Armidale Class Patrol Boat. Last year I was privileged to be the Personal Staff Officer to the Deputy Chief of Navy – a role that gave me a unique insight into our senior leadership that I wish everyone got to experience. The year reinvigorated me and got me excited about our future. Sometimes I have to pinch myself at the amazing opportunities I have been afforded, with my biggest privilege and challenge so far just around the corner – at the end of this year I will take Command of the Royal Australian Navy Recruit Training school. I am passionate about the future of the Navy and the positive impact I can have on the organisation.

What empowers you? I have never fit into the traditional mold of a military leader. It has taken me, and I think the Navy, a long time to accept that this is not a bad thing. This is reflected in the fact that our leadership has empowered me to lead the next generation of sailors into our Navy.

Kelley Stewart
Gender Advisor – Headquarters Air Command

Nominated by: Azure Rigney 

I have maintained a strong connection to advocacy throughout my professional career of almost 30 years, enjoying the flexibility of moving between full time service, active reserve service with some time in civvie street. I’m proud of all my roles - from Environmental Health “Ratcatcher” to Midwife “baby catcher”, elected union delegate to elected local Councillor and Deputy Mayor, RAAF breastfeeding policy-writer to OIC of the RAAF Indigenous Youth Program, Equity Advisor to Safety Advisor. Most recently I am fortunate to be working as a Gender Advisor within the ADF to integrate a gender perspective into military operations to meet Defence’s commitment to the UN’s Women, Peace and Security agenda.

What empowers you? I am empowered by knowing I have made a difference, often in niche areas, but knowing that I have contributed to a significant difference for many individuals. I couldn’t have done it without the support of family, friends and a network of amazing colleagues.

Penny Baker
Officer in Charge – Air Base Command Post (Amberley)

Nominated by: Lorraine Morley

I have been fortunate in my career having had experiences that I could never have hoped to imagine. One of my most challenging was being posted to Headquarters Integrated Air Defence Systems (HQ IADS) at Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) Base Butterworth in Malaysia in 2001. I was the first female to take up a clerical posting within this unit. The reason why they had never had a female prior was the fact that I was in charge of a team of Muslim men and I had Muslim male bosses. I remember the Commander IADS saying this was ground-breaking at that time and especially as I am 6ft and blonde. Nothing subtle about that. On posting back to Australia, I was successful in gaining a position as a Facilitator at the Corporal Promotion Centre, RAAF Amberley. This was where I found my love for facilitating. My most favourite and influential posting was to the Adaptive Culture Team within the Directorate of Organisation Behaviour and Culture. I was the Coordinator of the Leadership Exchange and had the pleasure of influencing over 500 of our members in the art of social mastery. My ideal job (that is not yet created by I can dream) would be to travel around running social mastery classes and leadership workshops for the Air Force.

What empowers you? Support and respect empowers me. If I know I have the support, respect and backing of my chain of command or family and friends, I feel I can do absolutely anything. I had always thought that it was my rank that empowered me but it is definitely not. I thought I was brave to begin with but certain situations have presented themselves where I have really had to be courageous, especially standing up for what I believe. If I did not have that support and respect, I may have remained a bystander. I am not afraid to show how passionate I am about my beliefs on the importance of social mastery and great leadership and how proud I am being in the Air Force family. I always say I will talk to anyone, about anything social mastery/leadership as long as they listen, and even when they don’t.

Gulman Kaur Madahar
Air Traffic Controller (trainee) - School of Air Traffic Control

Nominated by: Dev Darpan

I was born in India in the small village of Badrukhan, Sangrur. When I was 9 I moved to Australia with my parents to start a new life full of ample opportunities. I grew up in Western Sydney in the heart of a multicultural community and I was immersed in many different cultures, which gave me a deeper understanding of the world overall. Near the end of high school my parents were pushing me to choose a stable career path and live a simple conservative life. However I had different ideas, I wanted to do something no woman in our family had done before and take advantage of the opportunities offered to me in this country. So I decided to join the RAAF. Joining the ADF is the best decision I have ever made! It took some time for my family and friends to understand and get used to the new ideas, but they are all fully on board now and love hearing the stories I have to tell. At ADFA I completed a Bachelor of Arts with Geography and History majors. Currently I am at the School of Air Traffic Control and aspiring to be a future ATC in the RAAF. My proud moment in the RAAF was the ANZAC day parade in Sydney when I marched with the Sikh veterans.

What empowers you? Not conforming to the norm. I struggled for the majority of my teenage years trying to fit in, to just be something the others can identify with easily. I wanted to be a good Indian daughter in the community and at the same time did not want to miss out on being Australian. It did not put me in the best place because I was constantly confused. When I joined ADFA, it gave me the opportunity to define myself on my own terms and to truly find an appreciation for both the cultures. The confusion that lingered around my identity was now my biggest strength. At that point I realised I had to become that motivation/influence I was always looking for in the world as a little girl. I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to change themselves to fit in or be someone so they can belong. Something small but very symbolic for me was seeing the names of Sikhs written on the walls at Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres. It instilled a sense of connection to history and made me proud to be a serving member in the ADF.

Philippa Williams
Marine Technician Submariner – Submarine Forces Safety Cell

Nominated by: Sioban Sturdy

I am a Marine Technician submariner who currently works at Submarine Forces in the Safety Cell; this is a role where I strive hard to enable Collins Class posted submariners to conduct their work efficiently and safely. This is work I am passionate about and I feel lucky to be supported in this professionally. My partner is also a submariner and has my back (as I write this he is cooking dinner and chatting with his daughters). I have made several very strong friendships in both the submarine and surface fleet and these are the people who listen to my ideas, offer advice and play devil’s advocate. Building a diverse support network is an essential foundation to growing your own capability; and there are many people, in many ways, that help me achieve the things I have achieved. I take an active role in making the path easier for others following in my footsteps; building a staircase rather than pulling the ladder up behind me. In my current posting, I am working on long-term projects that I hope will benefit the current and future generations of submariners.

What empowers you? Education, attitude and opportunities all play a big role in what empowers me. An underrated aspect of empowerment is just the ability to dig deep and keep going. Your first attempt at something is generally your worst attempt; keep at it and by the 10th or 20th go round you will be astonishing. It’s amazing how much you can achieve by not giving up.

Holly Hafner
Platoon Commander - 1st Recruit Training Battalion, Kapooka

I commissioned in June 2018 and my first posting was to the 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment. On completion of my Infantry Regimental Officer Basic Course I was fortunate enough to lead soldiers on Operation HIGHROAD as a Force Protection element in Afghanistan in 2019. Upon my return from Afghanistan I deployed on Operation Bushfire Assist 2020, helping those in the Bega Valley Shire Council who were impacted by aggressive fires. Both of these experiences afforded me the opportunity to represent my country, my Corps and my gender in what many would deem an unconventional role. I am proud to have led Australian soldiers on a warlike operation and I am constantly striving to pave the way for women and men in combat roles in the ADF. I recently took up a posting to the 1st Recruit Training Battalion. I am incredibly honoured to be a part of the recruit’s rapid transition into the ADF, holding myself to a high standard whilst enabling them to be the best version of themselves. I thoroughly enjoy teaching and instructing whilst inspiring those to achieve the unachievable. I think strong women are pivotal in roles like mine and I am truly proud to be where I am today.

What empowers you? I am empowered by the strong community Defence provides, having senior officers and NCOs who support my journey is underrated and at times potentially under recognised so I would like to take this as an opportunity to thank those people around me who have told me “I can”. I am naturally quite a stubborn character which meant that over the years when faced with adversity (or quite simply being told “I couldn’t”) – I did. I have been inspired by hard working men and women who have shown me that a little determination and perseverance goes a long way and I have been empowered to earn my seat at the table by a vast array of both positive and negative experiences. I intend on continuing my journey with the ADF in my role as an Infantry Officer, providing ab initio training to recruits and hopefully someday junior officers. I am passionate about personnel and capability management and I am excited about what the future holds.

Belinda Johnson
Chief of Staff - Military Strategic Commitments Division

Nominated by: Emma Bryers

One of the greatest things about a military career is the amazing opportunities we have, and incredible communities we work within. Over the last 21 years, I’ve had some unforgettable experiences - travelling to 13 countries and having the honour of serving as the Aide de Camp to the Vice Chief of the Defence Force. My most challenging, yet rewarding experiences undoubtedly lay in planning Non-Combatant Evacuation, Humanitarian and other Crisis Response Operations, and developing programs which support United Nations conventions and generate prominence for vulnerable women and children were. I remain passionate about the important work we do in these areas. It stretched me personally and professionally, and I feel fortunate to have been afforded the opportunity to build on these experiences through post-graduate studies including the most recent Women’s Leadership Australia - Advanced Leadership Program, which I highly commend to all women.

What empowers you? On reflection, it’s not what’s done, but the impact on others that motivates and empowers me most. It’s easy to get caught in the daily grind, to feel defined by rank. My experience has shown me that this just diminishes self-worth, and that empowerment is found with passion and purpose. My absolute career highlights are precisely those moments - seeing smiles on the faces of those who we provided access to running water, for the first time in their lives; and reading letters from those recognised with medals 20 years after their operational service. When you first set out on the journey towards these outcomes, you never imagine how much it means to others. This is our service culture. Last year, I had the privilege of leading a dedicated team who designed and implemented the Air Force Enhanced Career Management system. Their dedication to empowering individuals, helping them—and Air Force—realise their full potential was inspiring! My goal for the future is to build on this culture - one which doesn’t just talk, but acts, which recognises, rewards and build others up, and thrives on seeing others succeed.

Olivia Little
Electronic Warfare Officer, No. 6 Squadron

Nominated by Jenny Phan

I grew up in country Victoria in a small town called Wallan. I always wanted to join the Air Force since I was 10 years old and saw the F-111s fly at the Avalon Air Show. In year 12, I applied to the Academy and was rejected because my maths wasn’t up to the appropriate standard. Once I completed year 12 I decided to better myself and commenced a Bachelor of Aviation at Swinburne University of Technology. I completed two years of my three year degree before I was accepted as a Pilot and joined the RAAF in June 2011.

I found Pilot’s Course to be quite challenging and stressful. Seven flights before getting my ‘Wings’ I was taken off course. I was gutted. I decided I still wanted to try and fly in the services and put my application in for an Army transfer. Whilst I waited for a board, I was posted back to East Sale for 12 months in the BCP on base. I enjoyed this posting. I learnt a lot and the people I worked with were fantastic. When I finally got put on to an Army board, I flew to Canberra and sat the board which took all of 40 minutes from which I walked out of in tears. I was told to come back in 12 months with improved leadership skills. Deflated, I returned to East Sale where my supervisor told me if I didn’t commence an alternate course, I would be terminated from the RAAF. Without any significant life experience or another job lined up, I reluctantly commenced Air Combat Officer course at the School of Air Warfare (SAW).

I was quite jaded when I arrived at SAW. At this point it had been about 5 years since I joined back in 2011 and I had felt I had gotten nowhere and that I once again was starting from scratch. As I progressed through course I became more motivated to fly the EA-18G Growler. I’ll be honest, I didn’t crush course. I did okay and had my struggles, especially through the last couple of flights. When I graduated about a year later I was told I was going to Air Combat Group (home of the Growlers). For the first time in 5 years I was excited about my career and where it was heading. I felt like I had finally been given a chance.

After East Sale, I spent 18 months at 76 Squadron on the Hawk-127 trainer aircraft where my motivation declined again. I was sick every flight I flew on the Hawk-127 and started to wonder if fast jets were my thing after all. I persisted through it and was told after graduating that I would be going to Growlers and training with the US Navy over at Whidbey Island in Washington State. I was stoked. I spent 16 months on course over there with the most amazing people. It was an amazing experience and by the time I came back I was motivated to start at 6 Squadron.

Three years later, here I am. I am a Mission Qualified Category B Electronic Warfare Officer leading junior EWOs and Pilots into being the best they can be. I love Electronic Attack and I love the people at the squadron. They are motivated and amazing and I wouldn’t change anything for the world. It took me almost 8 years to complete training from start to finish. I have had many challenges along the way but here I am.

I am expecting my first child (a baby girl) in September as well with my partner who is currently posted to 1SQN. We are super excited! My intention is to come back to the Squadron after starting a family and become an information Warfare Instructor.I don’t know what the future holds, but everything happens for a reason and I am excited about where everything is heading.

What empowers you? I can’t boil it down to one thing, it's multiple. It’s to come to work every day and set a work ethic that is unquestionable. It’s to make sure that I maximise my life and career whilst I still have an ability to do so for the betterment of my career and family. It’s to encourage not just women but men to push themselves to strive and be better. It’s fear of disappointing my family, husband, work colleagues and friends. And now, it’s so my little girl when she is born can some day look back at these photos with her mum and be proud of her. It’s not just one individual thing, it's many.