Nursing soldiers

General Secretary Brett Holmes joined an army training camp to find out what it takes to be a nurse in Australia’s Army Reserve.

At the end of January Brett Holmes, General Secretary of the NSWNMA, flew on a Hercules military aircraft from Darwin to Kuala Lumpur. From there he travelled with a group of 18 Australian employers by bus to spend three days visiting an Australian military base in Malaysia called Camp Burma.

Representing the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Brett was there to observe Australian Army Reserve members undergoing training. His group took part in some of the exercises too.

“We saw live fire exercises and observed simulated urban warfare,” Brett told The Lamp.

“We were taken to a jungle survival camp and instructed in dealing with survival situations – how to set up shelters and how to safely work out what to eat.”

Brett was travelling as part of ‘Exercise Boss Lift’, a program created by the Australian Defence Force to show employers the training, skills and experience their employees develop while undertaking Army Reserve training. 

There were 18 employers in Brett’s group from South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria. All had employees undertaking training at the camp.

“The ACTU sits on the Defence Reserve Support national board. I represented the ACTU after it advised me that the Army has a shortage of nurses and is keen to recruit more nurses to the Reserve Force,” Brett said.

Nurses needed in disaster situations

Brett says he was interested in taking the trip because while “nurses are generally pacifists, and they don’t want to see people injured, the reality is that we do need a Defence service”.

“It is also the Defence service that is most likely to respond to major natural disasters, either here or in our neighbourhood.

“There is a need for nursing services in the Reserve Army, but nurses are also needed in community situations where disasters occur. This is what interested me and awakened me to the need to have some more discussions about this.”

There were over 100 Australian Army Reserve members training at the three-month course. Back home, their occupations are as diverse as real estate agent, car mechanic and public servant.

Brett also met two reservists who were on a break from their nursing studies. 

“I came across a couple of guys who were finishing their nursing degree but had taken up reserve training as another interest.”

Some of the skills reservists learn included battle planning and how to give concise and accurate instructions on what would happen on an exercise.

“We also watched them carry out some field exercises, including ones where they were training in urban warfare and hostage recovery.”

Brett said the training they observed really helped reservists to “develop problem solving, to think on their feet, and to continue to work in what would be stressful situations by learning the skills to look after your colleagues and yourself, to work as teams and rely on your colleagues”.

An opportunity to expand skills and experience

Rear Admiral Bruce Kafer, head of the Reserve and Youth Division, said the Boss Lift exercise gave employers a valuable first-hand insight into the benefits their employees can provide civilian workplaces. 

“Reservists’ training builds confidence, and develops problem-solving skills, leadership ability and other attributes highly valuable in the workplace,” he said.

Reservists at Camp Burma live in multi-bunk communal living with “fairly primitive but reasonable ablutions block” according to Brett.

“They learn to make do, and the site’s engineers were very proud of what they had achieved.”

Army Reservists are paid tax-free incomes while training, and employers can also be paid a weekly payment of approximately $1,500 to compensate for the absence of their worker. Higher rates can be paid to health worker employers.

“Commonwealth laws make it illegal for employers to disadvantage a reservist who undertakes required training throughout the year,” Brett says.

“In the public health system there are clauses within the award recognising the right to leave for defence service duties. Quite a number of a private sector agreements include these too.”

“Defence Reserve training is a good opportunity for beginning nurses to expand their scope of skills and experience. There is no doubt that there is training and skills development that is certainly beyond what the regular nurse would experience, and that can certainly benefit you in career development.” 

Nursing roles in the Army Reserve

While there are approximately 15,000 full-time members of the Australian army, those numbers are boosted by almost 50 per cent by active members of the Army Reserve.

Specialist medical services are almost exclusively provided by Reserves because regular doctors in the Defence Force don’t get the specialist training doctors in the health system get.

Nurses can join the Defence Reserves and use their skills in a central pool of medically-trained reservists, or they can also choose to join the Army Reserves as regular platoon members. Platoons have a medic within their group.

Brett says that all reservists receive basic first aid training.

“Everyone gets taught the basics of first aid, such as applying a tourniquet to yourself if you are shot, before you can be taken back to where the level of care steps up with medical support.”

Nurses in the Army Reserves train with and deploy alongside Regular Army colleagues on exercises and operations fulfilling the same range of roles.

As with regular Army nurses, the Reserve welcomes applications from a wide range of specialist nurses with
post-graduate clinical qualifications and experience. 

Brett Holmes on the flight deck of a C-130J Hercules aircraft during Exercise Boss Lift on 31 January 2018.