War Stories: Afghanistan Veteran Megan Cole
This is the Living History podcast, broadcasting live across the airwaves.
Mat: Hello everyone. Welcome to Living History and thank you so much for the huge response we had last week, in fact, the last couple of weeks to our podcasts on visiting Gallipoli. Gallipoli has been a bit of a trouble destination in recent years because there’s a little bit of turmoil there but it’s great to see that the travel warnings had been relaxed and we’ve really seen that people want to go to Gallipoli again and you really should. If you haven’t been to Gallipoli, get over there. It’s a really wonderful destination. Don’t be put off by people that say it’s not safe, or they are worried about Islam and all that stuff. Just ignore all that. The Turkish people are wonderful. Gallipoli deserves its place as our most iconic battlefield and you really should get over there if you’re in any way interested in the story of the first Anzacs. So come and visit. Go for Anzac Day. Come at another time of the year. Visit our website at battlefields.com.au to learn about the ways that you can go to Gallipoli and walk in the footsteps of the Anzacs because it’s a really wonderful experience for all Australians.
Also talking about Anzac Day but moving to France the saga, the on-again, off-again saga of the dawn service at Villers-Bretonneux, and if you haven’t kept up with this, we received about six weeks ago, a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs saying that in consultation with local people at Villers-Bretonneux, they decided that they would not run a dawn service anymore, that the dawn service will be moved to 10:00 AM, which is in keeping with how the dawn service used to be run in the early days of the dawn service at Villers-Bretonneux. For the last 10 years, it’s been a dawn service. Now they want to make it 10:00 AM.
I’ve got to say, I’m absolutely astonished at the ham-fisted way this was done by DVA. No offense to my friends at DVA, but I’m astounded with them knowing how important the word Anzac and Anzac Day is to Australia, to politicians, to all the stakeholders involved, that they would not consult with more people before doing this. So they spoke to their French colleagues. They made this decision about shifting the time of the service from a dawn service to 10:00 AM and then they simply advised that was going to be the case without consulting with tour operators, or as it seems that the government and Prime Minister, because as soon as the information came out there was a couple of press reports that exaggerated the effect. It was along the lines of the dawn service has been axed at Villers-Bretonneux and all sorts of alarmist reporting. Anyway, regardless of that, it went all the way to the Prime Minister as these things often do, and the PM stepped in very quickly to say it would remain a dawn service. So the on-again off-again dawn service is now definitely on at Villers-Bretonneux. It will be a dawn service this year and I’m very confident forevermore it will be a dawn service. But once again, I’m just astounded at the complications that ensued from this decision, and hopefully DVA will make will be a bit more consultative in the future when they make these sort of decisions.
Also, staying on the Anzac theme, there was a disturbing report I saw this week, which has, to be fair to the government, it’s been said that this is not true, but there were reports in papers that local RSL clubs would have to pay for traffic management to hold their own Anzac Day marches, which I thought was quite astonishing, and some clubs were saying they have to pay up to $5,000 so the council could bring people into manage traffic when the streets are closed down for Anzac Day marches. Now, of course, this is outrageous and pretty swiftly this is in New South Wales that this has occurred, and the New South Wales state government was pretty quick in saying, that there was a miscommunication. That wasn’t the case. Well, I certainly hope it’s not the case because I think that would be absolutely outrageous. I know we live in tight fisted times. I know pennies are needed to be pinched everywhere we can find them, particularly at government levels but charging RSL clubs to hold Anzac marches I think is absolutely outrageous. So I’m hopeful that it is correct, the reports that have come out saying that this is not the case, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed on that one and I’ll give you more updates as we go along.
In other matters, the sad news this week that Les Carlyon passed away at age 76 and I’m sure most of you know Les’ work. He was a former editor of The Age Newspaper in Melbourne, but he’s best remembered in this history space for writing a couple of absolutely fantastic books, particularly about the First World War. He wrote a book called Gallipoli, back I think in the early 2000s that came out, which I would write as one of the most accessible histories of the campaign. Although some of his historic interpretations were a little bit off, it’s a very approachable book and it’s the book I always recommend people read if they are saying I don’t know anything about Gallipoli. What’s a good history to read? So his book, his Gallipoli book, I think stands up pretty strongly as a fantastic overview of the entire campaign. And he was such a wonderful writer. If you’ve read any of his work, he just had such an incredible turn of phrase and he captured the emotion of that Gallipoli campaign and why it’s important to Australians in a brilliant way. So he will be very sadly missed. He wrote a follow-up book called the Great War, which rather confusingly was just about the Western Front. I’m not sure what sort of communication to go with these publishers, they named it that. I found that one a little bit more difficult to get into than Gallipoli, simply because the subject matter was so broad and he had to compress three years of fighting. And as anyone who’s studied the First World War knows, it’s difficult to get a succinct summary of what went on on the Western Front compared to Gallipoli just because the scale was so much larger on the Western Front. But it’s still a good book. The Great War is still a good book to get an idea of what the Australians accomplished on the Western Front.
At the end of the day, Les Carlyon was a really wonderful writer and a very patriotic Australian, and so he will be missed. So rest in peace, Les.
Moving on to today’s episode. Now I’m really interested to do this today. we’ve done a series of podcasts interviews recently which I’ve called War Stories which were basically interviews with veterans, and typically we’ve focused on older veterans – Vietnam veterans, couple of World War II guys I’ve been lucky to get in there, but it’s something that I’m a big believer in that the story of Anzac and the story of our veterans is not ancient history. It’s constantly being rewritten and thanks to the wars, the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, whatever your opinion is about those, we now have a whole new generation of people serving and going off and fighting for Australia, and I’d like to start to tell more of their stories as well.
So I don’t even know how I’m going to call this, whether I’m going to call it the new Anzac or something similar or whether it would just be part of our war stories series of interviews, but I do want to speak to more contemporary veterans about their stories because they have not been told very well. The nature of that fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan meant that even today, we don’t really know very much about what went on there, and we should know more about it because it’s an absolutely pivotal part of our recent Australian history.
So I’m going to do more interviews with contemporary veterans whenever I come across someone with an interesting story and I’m kicking off today with my beautiful partner, Megan Cole, who was in the RAF for seven years and served in Afghanistan and just has a really unique perspective on service, on why young people are volunteering to serve their country today, and it’s going to be great to talk to her. So, Megan thanks for joining us on the show.
Megan: Hi Matt. Thanks for having me.
Mat: Let’s talk about your story. What I want to do today is I want to delve into your motivations for serving, what you did in the Defence Force, the effects that had on you and your perspective as a young person in the Defence Force. So why don’t we start at the very beginning. How did you come to join the military in the first place?
Megan: Well, that started when I was pretty young. I have a brother who’s three years older than me and basically from the time he was a little boy, he wanted to be a soldier. So when he turned 12 ½, he joined our local Army Cadet unit.
Mat: What do you think was the reason behind that? Why was your brother Martin so obsessed with being in the military?
Megan: I actually don’t know. I know when he was a little kid, he used to play with those little plastic green soldier, little toy soldier men and he always had GI Joe action figures and he was always interested in watching war movies and that kind of thing, but I’m not really sure. My grandfather was in the army reserve and he told him some stories, but I’m not really sure where it came from. But as soon as he did get to that minimum age where he was allowed to join the army cadets, he was desperate to do it. And as I said, he’s three years older than me, so from the time he joined for the next three years, I watched him go off every Tuesday night in his army uniform and come back with all these stories about doing drill and navigation and making friends, and then going off on these camps a couple times a year, coming back pretty smelly and dirty and covered in camp paint but just talking about what a great time he had.
So I guess by the time I turned 12 1/2, a few years later, I thought it seemed like a pretty good idea to join the cadets as well. So I guess that’s probably the start of my interest in the military and then I was in the cadets for about six years. So over that time I developed more of an interest in the military and I always thought I would join the army, followed on from the army cadets, but obviously that changed a little bit but it was just always something I wanted to do from the time I was a teenager.
Mat: I assume you’re in your late teens now, you’ve finished school, had this whole cadet’s background. At what point in your journey did you start to say, yes, I’m going to do it? Because it is a big step. We know that cadets are good recruiting tools for the military and lots of people who do cadets go onto military service. At what point though in your life did you say, this is something I want to do, this is something I have to do and I’m going to make that step.
Megan: Well at the time you could apply for the military, I think it was 16 1/2 and I basically went on the day that I could at 16 1/2. I went down to the Defence recruiting center in Brisbane and I completed, it was called a JOES day back then, which was I think a Job Option Evaluation Session. So that was your very first initial step into joining the military where there was an aptitude test, a medical evaluation and a psychological screening, and that was the very first process. And at the end of that day, they basically gave you a list of all the jobs that they thought you would be suitable for. And then from that point you would sort of decide what you wanted to do and be allocated a specific recruiter to go down a path of a specific job, but that was the very first step and I took that step at the second; I could basically at 16 ½. So I was still in school. It was still a long way off before I actually enlisted, but the day that I could, I went and did that.
Mat: What was it you think that motivated you as a young person? Because most young people couldn’t care less about service for their country. When you first made that decision and as you went through that process of being accepted and deciding which branch you were going to go into, etcetera, etcetera, what was it that drove you to do that? Was it a feeling of this is going to be a fantastic career move? Was it a feeling of I want to give something back to my country, or was there a combination of both?
Megan: To be honest, it really had nothing to do with service of the country. I had so much fun in cadets. I made so many great friends that I still am very good friends with today. We went off to camps multiple times a year. It was like camping out with your best friends several times a year, playing in the dirt in the bush, shooting rifles, doing obstacle courses. It was great fun, and basically when I got to the stage where I had to start thinking about what I was going to do for a career, my feeling was that joining the military would be like doing cadets but getting paid for it. So that was really the basis behind it.
Mat: Was there any other options? Did you think about being a zookeeper or something else or was it always just I’m going to be in the military?
Megan: Well, it’s funny you say that. My initial feeling about joining the military was that I wanted to be a pilot in the Defence Force. My dad is a Qantas pilot and from the time I was about 15 or 16, he started taking me for some flying lessons at our local aerodrome. He ordered some books for me that were basics of flying and we started doing some theory lessons together and I had this bit of an idea that maybe I’d want to be a pilot. So when I looked into the military as well, I realized that they have some strict parameters to be a pilot in the military and one of those is height and I’m not the tallest person in the world, and unfortunately I was too short to be a pilot in the Defence Force. So from that point, I basically had to decide whether I would continue down the flying path with my dad or whether I would give all that up and go for a different career in the Defence Force,, and obviously the second option won.
Mat: So how did you decide on the IWAF, on the Air Force, out of all the options? How, what was it about the air force that drew you, particularly considering you were thinking about joining the army originally?
Megan: Well there were a few things that moved me away from the Army to the path of the Air Force. At the time when I was seriously going through the selection and recruiting process, my brother had already been in the Army for about three or four years by then. He wasn’t necessarily loving it. It wasn’t quite living up to his expectations and he wasn’t necessarily being treated the way that he thought he would be. So he had a few bits of advice for me about joining the Army, particularly as a young female. Also at the same time, I had a boyfriend at the time who was in the Army and so every day I spoke to him and I got to see his views on the Army and the way they were treated and the work that they were doing as well, and I started to think maybe that that wasn’t for me.
Probably the biggest thing was that when I had initially applied for the army, in the process I got to the stage of doing a selection board for RMC, which is for the Royal Military College in Duntroon to become an army officer. And I got to the stage of doing a selection board down in Canberra but unfortunately I’d had an ankle injury and they told me to come back in 12 months. So at that point I had an army warrant officer who was my allocated recruiter at defence recruiting in Brisbane. By the time I went back to defence recruiting after my injury had settled down, a good probably year or 18 months later, that recruiter had actually been posted out and I was allocated a new recruiter who was a young female RAF flight lieutenant. And she, after about a five minute conversation with me said, what are you doing? You will not like the army, and she basically within a very short amount of time talked me into joining the RAF.
Mat: Do you think she was right with that assessment?
Megan: Oh, definitely. And it’s funny, I actually ran into her in the Middle East when I was there, probably maybe three or four years later. I ran into her on a base there and I went up to her and I said, you may not remember me, but I am so thankful for the advice that you gave me. And I think that she definitely put me down the right path.
Mat: Well, tell us about that path because what you did in the RAF, your job was pretty interesting in the grand scheme of things. So tell us about your career in the Air Force.
Megan: Okay. So I joined the RAF as an AEA, which is Airborne Electronics Analyst. The job now has changed a little bit compared to when I was doing it, but an AEA is essentially a sensor operator which means you sit in the back of the aircraft. there’s a number of different types of aircraft that that could be and you operate the sensors that are vital for the mission. So the radar, electronic warfare systems, high definition cameras, acoustics for tracking submarines. There’s a whole range of things that you might be operating, but basically there’s a team of AEA on each aircraft and you’ll be sitting in the back and monitoring that equipment to make the mission work to gather all the information and complete the task that you’ve been assigned.
Mat: Well, as I understand it, on a lot of these missions, it’s the work the AEAs are doing. That’s the point of the whole mission, isn’t it? That’s the reason the plane is in the air and doing whatever it’s doing is because of the work that’s being done by the sensor operators.
Megan: Yes, that’s right. I don’t want to take away from the other people on the crew. Their jobs are obviously very important as well. But when you are assigned a task, a lot of that revolves around finding certain contacts, getting photographs of certain contacts, and that is the work that the AEAs are doing. If it is anti-submarine warfare mission, you know, tracking submarines. That’s done by the AEAs. Like I said, there’s a whole crew involved and everyone’s job is important, but the sensor operators really do make up the majority of the mission work.
Mat: What air-frame did you operate on?
Megan: I operated on the AP-3C Orion. The Orion has been, as far as I’m aware, mostly phased out now and been replaced by the P-8, but at the time that was the aircraft that I worked on and I absolutely loved it.
Mat: So just for our listeners who aren’t aware, tell us a little bit about the P-3 because this is the absolute workhorse of the Air Force, isn’t it?
Megan: Yes. So the P-3, it’s pretty old now. It was originally designed during the Cold War era as an anti-submarine platform. Obviously these days, that sort of work isn’t as important as it may have been 50 years ago.
Mat: It was based on the Lockheed Electra, wasn’t it?
Mat: Back in the 1950’s.
Mat: And I always say this whenever we talk about the P-3 is it just shows how the military makes use of its assets. Because imagine you went on a regional flight somewhere and when you checked in at the airport, you said, what aircraft are we boarding today? And they said it’s a 1958 Lockheed Electra. You would not get on that plane.
Megan: No. Not at all.
Mat: Yet the military finds ways of keeping these old girls flying and flying and flying, long after they passed the use-by dates in the civilian world.
Megan: Yes, that’s true. In saying that the fact that they’re old did occasionally cause problems. There were some times where they couldn’t fly the missions they were due to fly because of maintenance issues. But to be honest, even though they are old, they’re a great platform. Even though they may have been designed for anti-submarine warfare back in, like I said, the Cold War era, the modern military found a way to use them in a variety of different roles up until very recent times and they were very successful at doing that.
Mat: Well, there are stunning plane as well, just so elegant to look at it. They don’t make, I know it’s silly to say, but they don’t make planes like that anymore – turbo prop plane, the MAD boom at the back is a little bit odd. But just describe the nature of the plane for people who don’t…. I’d suggest you go and look it up because they are very beautiful aircraft, but tell us about the characteristics of the P-3.
Megan: It’s funny that you say they’re beautiful because I think they are and I’m sure anyone who has had a career working with them absolutely loves them. But I think if you asked guys in the RAF particularly that are used to working with F-18s or even older F-111s but those sort of fast jets, would probably look at the P-3 and think it’s maybe an old tank of crap. But I think they’re lovely. I think it’s a wonderful aircraft. Every time I saw one flying, even if I was on the base and one flew overhead, I just used to love watching it.
So it is, as Mat said, Turbo prop, four engines. It has a MAD boom, which Mat mentioned which is a Magnetic Anomaly Detector, which is part of the systems for tracking submarines. If you look at it from the outside, there’s a whole bunch of things that you might look at and think what could that possibly be used for? Like for example, there are a number of holes underneath the aircraft, which is where sonobuoys are launched from, again for tracking submarines. It has all sorts of sensors and antennas and equipment that it can carry. A bomb bay, which is useful for carrying life support equipment in the case of the search and rescue. So it’s a very capable aircraft.
Mat: Or it’s somewhere it can carry weapons as well. It can fire harpoons. It’s never actually had to do that in Australian service, but it can be if you are too aggressive.
Megan: Yes, it can be. It can be fitted with harpoons and torpedoes, I believe for anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare. But like you said, that’s never something that actually happened. But being in the military, it is something that crews did train for in the simulators.
Mat: So we mentioned that the military is obviously very good at adapting the equipment that they have, and I think the P-3 sums that up very well, how its role changed from specifically an anti-submarine platform during the Cold War. What sort of work did you do on the P-3? Because I should mention here that even if you haven’t heard of a P-3 you know of its work, because for example, I think it was back in the ‘90s when the British sailor Tony Bullimore went missing down in the Southern Ocean. It was a P-3 Orion that discovered him, and most recently of course was the search for, I think, MH-360.
Mat: 370.The Malaysian plane that went missing in the Indian Ocean. It was essentially the P-3s from the Royal Australian Air Force were the backbone of that search in the opening months when that plane first went missing. So what sort of jobs did you do on the P-3?
Megan: Yes, well that’s correct. Both of those things were big high profile missions that the P-3 took part in. Both of those were search and rescue, which was something that the P-3 has done a lot of and that could range from…. well, actually those two are perfect example of the different types of extremes in the search and rescue space, looking for one lost sailor compared to looking for a whole downed aircraft. So search and rescue was a big one. In the recent years, the P-3 was also used for anti-piracy, particularly around the Horn of Africa. It was used for anti-drug smuggling, anti-arms smuggling, fisheries patrols and then something that it was never actually designed for, but the IWAF adapted it for quite well was overland work over Iraq and Afghanistan during the Middle East war. So it was capable of a lot of different tasks and that was one of the great joys of working on it was that you had a variety of different roles. It was very challenging and there was never any chance to get bored working on the P-3 because you were always doing something different.
Mat: Where did this take you around the world? Because you did some pretty interesting and some pretty hairy deployments in your time in the Air Force. Can you tell us, I know some of it you can’t talk about because there’s all secret squirrel issues, but can you give us a bit of an overview of some of the deployments you did as part of a crew?
Megan: Yes. So that was actually one of the reasons I loved this job as well, and one of the reasons I wanted to do it was because I love traveling and I knew that on a crew with a P-3, you would get to do lots of travel. So in my time in 92 wing, which is the wing that operates the P-3s, I got to go to few different places around Australia. I travelled to Perth; I travelled to Exmouth in North West, WA. I travelled to Darwin multiple times and I also travelled to Victoria. as well as that, we did multiple trips out to Cocos islands, which most people probably don’t know where that is, but it is actually a territory of Australia and it’s classed I think as part of Western Australia, but it’s way out in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Tiny little islands, absolutely beautiful, untouched, but there is an air strip there that we got to operate out of quite regularly. As well as that, I did an operation out of Malaysia. I was lucky to go on an operation that was based out of the Cook Islands and then Western Samoa, and I also deployed to the Middle East as well, which was really great.
Mat: Let’s talk about some of those, as much as you can, about the specifics of those things. Let’s start with Afghanistan. That’s the red hot topic. What was the role that you were accomplishing there during the Afghanistan war?
Megan: Well our deployments to Afghanistan were pretty different to what most people who were deployed to Afghanistan would be doing. First of all, we were primarily based out of the UAE, and a big reason for that was that a lot of our work in the Middle East wasn’t actually over Afghanistan, but it was around the Horn of Africa doing anti-piracy. So that area was a good distance to be able to get to Afghanistan in transit or to transit down to the Cape of Africa and do the anti-piracy work.
Mat: So the anti-piracy is when pirates have taken over a commercial ship, and then you’d have to fly down there and identify what they’re doing.
Megan: Yes. That was a part of it. There was also side tasking involved with that, which was a lot of that was drug smuggling. The pirates to fund their pirate camps and their pirate activity, there’s a lot of drug smuggling between especially the coast of Somalia and say Yemen or Oman or even as far as Pakistan. So it wasn’t always necessarily looking for pirates themselves, sometimes it was looking for drug smuggling boats, which were funding those pirate camps. It could have been looking for cargo ships or container ships that had actually already been pirated and were currently under pirate control.
And then other times it was just looking for suspicious activity. Keeping an eye on ships that were going through there and making sure that they were safe. We obviously had direct communication with the Navy ships that were in the area and anything that we found that seemed suspicious, we would follow up with the Navy and then they would often go on board those boats. So it was pretty interesting work, something that you don’t really hear much about while you’re in Australia that there is such a big problem with pirates in that part of the world. But it was definitely important work because it’s a dangerous and very real problem for people that are traveling through that area on ships.
Mat: One of the characteristics of the P-3 it tends to operate alone. How was it just being in your aircraft, flying over pirate camps and looking for drug smugglers and looking for pirates?
Megan: To be honest, everything that we did when I was in the Middle East, I probably found the anti-piracy more nerve-wracking than the actual over land Afghanistan work, and the reason for that is as a maritime patrol platform, the P-3 would often operate at low altitudes above the water. To optimize the sensors, we would often be quite low to the water, as low as a hundred feet, and the P-3 is a very big, slow moving target and when you’re only 30-odd meters off the water, it’s not very far. So I’ve got to say flying around that area in a big, obviously military slow moving plane that low to the water was often nerve-wracking, and as part of being deployed to the Middle East, you are issued with all sorts of safety equipment and part of that for us were Kevlar vests. And often what we did on my crew operating in that part of the world on those missions would be that we would sit on our Kevlar vests because the P-3 did not have any lining in the actual fuselage of the plane that could protect it from firearms, and we thought that if we were in danger, it was most likely that something would come through the floor of the P-3 from sea level.
Mat: It’s amazing to hear you say that because people who have heard accounts of air crews since time immemorial relate to that. Guys going in on choppers into Vietnam, talking about sitting on their Kevlar, air crews during the Second World War during the bombing campaigns over Europe talking about padding their seats or reinforcing their seats. I suppose it’s a standard fear of crews of ground fire coming up through the bottom of the plane. It’s amazing that connection that you have. Even today, we still have those same basic endeavours to try and protect our own backsides, literally, on the planes.
Mat: Tell us about the Overwatch stuff in Afghanistan because that’s probably the flagship operation of the P-3 in recent years. The one that the P-3 has done that earned it the most respect, especially from our coalition partners. Tell us about that work supporting the troops in Afghanistan.
Megan: Yes. Well, the P-3 was involved in the Middle East for 10 years and the wing actually received a unit citation for meritorious, sorry, a meritorious unit citation for the work that it had done in the Middle East over a 10 year period. So the earlier years of that was Iraq which I wasn’t involved in, but Afghanistan was a really interesting campaign for us and the P-3.
Obviously we were flying, we weren’t on the ground, but with the equipment that we do have on board the P-3, we did have the ability to have direct communication with troops on the ground. So often we were working directly for the soldiers that were out on patrol. For example, we might be doing as you call it, over watch. We might be surveying an area that they were going to be going into and just clearing the area before they entered it to make sure that there were no ambushes or anything that looks suspicious.
Mat: And not just for the Aussies either, you worked with the Americans as well.
Megan: We did, yes. We did a lot of work for the Americans in a lot of different areas of Afghanistan as well, a couple of different provinces depending on who needed us on the day basically. I know from my crew and the work that we did, there was a few days where I can 100% say that the work that we did saved the lives of some of the men on the ground, just by information we were able to give them before they reached a certain point. So I think even though we weren’t on the ground ourselves, even though there was no direct hand to hand combat or anything like that for us, I still feel that the work we were doing was very important for the soldiers that were on the ground.
Mat: You certainly weren’t out of danger. You’ve told me stories of missile locks and threats of ground fire.
Megan: Yes. So, one of the things before you deploy the P-3 in Australia when it’s flying around Australia or basically anywhere else in the world other than a war zone is not usually fitted with flares. But we were told before we left that as part of flying in a war-like area that the P-3 would have the flare system enabled, which basically means that it has the ability to deploy flares as a missile decoy, and the system had an automatic function as well as manual release function.
Mat: So just so we’re clear, basically this is the last resort before a missile hits the plane is that flares are rejected, so the heat-seeking missile goes for the flares, instead of the heat of the engines.
Megan: Yes, that’s right.
Mat: The reason I want to say that is that if flares are coming out of your plane, you are in imminent danger. It doesn’t just do it for the heck of it when you’re flying around.
Megan: Yes, and it’s also part of our crew set up while we’re in the Middle East was to have, like I said before, where the AEAs usually sit on the P-3 there are no windows but towards the rear of the plane on the port and aft…sorry, port and starboard side, there are windows there and those windows both have a flare release button. So while we were on task over Afghanistan that was part of our crew dynamic was to constantly have members of the crew sitting at those windows and looking out with their finger ready for the flare release, if it came to it.
Mat: So, when you say looking out, looking out for missiles, you mean?
Megan: Yes. Something that could be a danger and not necessarily a missile but anything that could be a danger to the P-3. It could be another aircraft. It could be a range of things. But I know myself, I can’t speak for the other members of my crew, but I think I became pretty complacent with that after a number of weeks of flying. We had probably been in the Middle East for probably six or seven weeks and nothing had happened. We had had members sitting at those windows watching out. Like I said, the automatic flare dispense system is armed as well and nothing had happened. So I think I started to become a bit complacent, and then all of a sudden we had our first missile lock and flare launch, and I think from that point it kind of reminded me and everybody else on the crew that it was actually a real threat.
Mat: How many other females on the crew?
Megan: It was just me. When I was deployed to the Middle East, I was the only female. So there were probably about 15 people on my crew in the Middle East and I was the only female, which was pretty common. Most crews, if they had a female, would only have one. Some crews were all men but it wasn’t very common to have a crew with more than one female. At another part of my career, I did actually have another female on the crew for about six months, which was really nice but for the majority of the time, it was just me.
Mat: How was it being flying over Afghanistan during the Afghanistan war on an Australian plane, part of the coalition against the Taliban, as a female in her early 20s and the only female on a crew? It must have crossed your mind that if the plane got hit and you crash landed in Afghanistan. The fear of capture must have been immense.
Megan: Yes, definitely and that fear is reiterated with the training that you do, because we did have to do training and learn procedures about what would happen if our aircraft did go down and the process of us getting saved. Because you do go through that training, it does make you think, well, this is obviously something that is realistic that could happen.
Mat: I can’t even begin to imagine what the Taliban would have done in propaganda point of view if they’d captured a female coalition combatant.
Megan: It wouldn’t have been pleasant. That thought did cross my mind. The other thing is that the P-3 is not usually fitted with parachutes but flying over Afghanistan they fit the P-3 with parachutes. Before we deployed, we had a very small amount of training on how to use the parachutes that were fitted. But when I say small amount of training, none of that actually ever involved jumping out of an aircraft. So when my crew arrived in the Middle East, we had a discussion that firstly none of us had ever jumped out of an aircraft. No one had ever actually jumped out of a P-3. The parachutes that we had fitted, I don’t believe had actually been tested jumping out of a P-3 with the equipment that we would carry on us, which included it was called a Second Mark, which was like our life preserver vest, something we would wear while we were flying, which had a built-in life jacket as well as some survival equipment, and then any weapons that we were carrying.
So with that knowledge, knowing that none of us had ever skydived, none of us had really any knowledge apart from the basic theory they had given us months earlier in Australia before we left, we made a crew decision that if anything happened to our P-3 and there was a requirement to bail out, that probably our safest option was that we would all just strap into our seats and go down with the aircraft in the hope that we would survive the impact, and then at least in that case we would all be together. There wouldn’t be people scattered all over the mountains of Afghanistan, and that we would be near our P-3 which would be a big obvious target for the guys that were coming into rescue us. So that was the decision we made. Luckily it never came to that and who knows if it had might’ve been a massive disaster and the wrong decision but that was the decision my crew made, and I think that probably made it a little bit easier for me knowing that firstly, I would have been terrified to jump out of an aircraft. I’m pretty scared of heights and so I would not have wanted to do that. And I think that fear of landing somewhere far away from the rest of my crew, being alone in Afghanistan with the possibility of being captured by Taliban, I think was much scarier to me than the idea of going down in a burning plane.
Mat: Understandably. I certainly understand that. Talk a little bit about the work with boat people because you were in the Air Force at a time when there were huge numbers of people trying to get to Australia and let’s put the politics aside. Whether you agree or disagree with policies that mean boat people come at the end of the day, there are people on boats trying to get to Australia. It’s pretty hazardous work. Tell us about the work you were doing with boat people.
Megan: That’s one big thing I missed before when you asked what the role of the P-3 was. Border Protection is a massive part of the P-3 work, and for a long time that did mean looking for boat people. And as you said, there was a period for a couple of years where that took a very large amount of our time and budget and effort was dedicated to looking for those boat people, and I came up as an AEA right at the start of that time I think because right from my very first deployment as a trainee, that was the work we were doing and then for a number of years after that. So for a lot of that work, we were based out of Darwin on an operation called Operation Resolute. I also did some of that work based out of Lemont just near Exmouth in northwest WA and also out of Cocos Island.
So for a lot of the boat people that were headed towards Australia, their destination was Christmas Island which is not very far from Cocos Islands. So we spent a lot of time patrolling the area between Indonesia and Christmas Island looking for boats. It varied in the time that I was working on the P-3. There was a time I can remember, this was while I was still a trainee and it was my very first trip on Operation Resolute, and there were instructors that had been flying on P-3s for 10 years that were teaching me at the time and they had never seen a boat, people boat. They had never seen one in their whole career, and so we went from thinking all this obviously isn’t something that happens very often.
And I remember on one of these flights we found one. SIEV – that’s what they were called – Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel. And so like I said, I had instructors that had been working for 10 years and had never seen a SIEV and all of a sudden we found one and they were all, I shouldn’t say excited, it’s not really the right word but it’s that feeling of this is something that I’ve been looking for and looking for and working for years and never come across. So it was a pretty big deal. A few years later, working around the same area, I remember doing flights where we’d come across four or five every single day for day in, day out for weeks at a time.
Mat: What was the state of those boats when you come across them?
Megan: Most of the time they were pretty terrible. Most of the time I would look at them and think that there was no way you would ever get me on one of those boats. A lot of them, we actually found because they had called in as a search and rescue because their engines had flooded. The boat was taking on water. Sometimes in extreme situations, the boats had actually fallen apart and then all of a sudden there are hundreds of people floating around in the ocean, often who can’t swim or who are elderly or young children. So we would often get called into search and rescue for those situations. Sometimes the boats would be fine and we’d find them, we would report them and we’d move on but a lot of the times those boats were in absolutely terrible conditions.
You could say as we went over them, like I said before, we flew at quite low levels so we could see very clearly as we flew over these boats that they were crammed with far too many people for the size of the boat. Nobody had life jackets. I doubt they had working toilets or food or water, and it just would have been an absolutely horrible journey for the people on board.
Mat: Must’ve been pretty harrowing work for you to be observing that so close.
Megan: Yes, it definitely changed my opinion on the whole thing. I don’t want to talk politics but I’ve got to say that the opinion I had about boat people before I started that work is very different to the opinion I have now. Basically because after seeing what those people go through, I just think that there is no way you would put yourself and your family through that, unless you were desperate because there is no way that I would be getting on one of those boats even for a half an hour ferry ride, let alone to cross a big section of ocean.
Mat: I’ve long said that if you want to meet a person that will inspire you, you should talk to a female in the Defence Force because they are, in my opinion it’s such a boy’s club. It’s so institutionally designed not for females that when you find people who are females in the Defence Force, they tend to be pretty impressive. That by definition, the fact that they’ve made it that far, it means that they’ve overcome obstacles that other people don’t generally have to in the military. Talk to me about being a female in the Defence Force. Do you think it’s important that we have females in the Defence Force? Do you think the military is a better force now that it has females in it? How do you feel just about the entire concept of women in the military, given your experience?
Megan: I think that the military is better off for having females, definitely. I do still think that there is a time and a place for women to be working in the military. I don’t think that all situations and all jobs are appropriate for women. I think in general the military is definitely better off for having females. I’m a big believer in the military having standards though and people wanting to do a job have to meet those standards. Whether you’re a male or female, what race or sexuality or religion you are, I’m a big believer that if a standard is made that you have to meet that standard. I don’t like the idea and I’ve seen it in certain programs the military has advertised. I’m not a big fan of ‘we’ll do this so that it’s a bit easier for the women’ because I think there are a lot of women who have worked very hard to get to where they are in the military, and I think it is not very fair on them if all of a sudden women come through now and have things made easier for them. But in general, I do think that it is a better place.
It can be difficult being a female if you’re in a male oriented job. There are some mutterings in the Air Force, some cause in the army, some; I don’t know what they’re called in the navy actually. That’s terrible. Some groups in the Navy, which there are probably a much higher percentage of females than others. But I’ve got to say where I worked was not like that. It was very much a boys club, very high ratio of men to women, and so being a female in that situation can be difficult. I think there is definitely a feeling that you have to work harder to prove yourself. But at the same time, if you can prove yourself, I think you do earn the respect of people you’re working with because they know that it’s been harder for you and you still achieved.
So I think it is a hard thing for a woman to join the military and not just for the training or for the job but also for the lifestyle, for things that women often want out of life, you know marriage and families. The military has quite a high marriage breakdown. Obviously people deploy, people are away from their homes and their families and so that can be hard on anyone, but I think even harder on a young mother with children, for example. So it can be a tough job. So I think you’re right when you say that the women that do make it happen and have a great career despite all that, it means that they are really special.
Mat: Did you come across sort of institutionalized problems, older members of the Defence Force that didn’t like the idea of females in the military?
Megan: I didn’t really personally. I actually had a few occasions that were the opposite. For example, I remember one time that 92 Wing was holding some kind of family day or something with the P-3, and so often retired members who used to work on the P-3 would come in and they’d come down and have a look at the planes and talk to people they used to work with, and I remember on one of those days I was helping out, maybe driving buses around the base or something and got chatting to some older men who probably before I was even born had been flight engineers or something on the old P-3, and when they asked what I did and I said I was an AEA, they all were very surprised and went, oh, we didn’t have female AEAs when we were around. That would have been nice to have you on a crew, and they were often very nice about it. I probably can’t even remember the situations where it was negative because I probably just remember the good ones.
Mat: We should say as well, to be fair to the military; it’s not just the military that can potentially have an issue with young females because I’ve been with you on Anzac Day when you’ve been wearing your medals, and people have come up to you to tell you you’ve got your medals on the wrong side, that when you wear someone else’s medals that they’re supposed to be on the right side, not the left.
Megan: That one’s particularly annoying.
Mat: It does happen. It happened more than once.
Megan: I’ve had that a few times where someone and sometimes they’re quite agro about it. They come up and they say, oh, if you’re wearing relatives’ medals, you’re supposed to wear them on the right hand side, and they’re quite accusatory that you’re doing something wrong and that can be not very nice. I take great pleasure in telling those people that they’re wrong, but it is a big misconception that as a young female that you can’t have possibly earned those medals yourself, and I have female friends in the Air Force that have done much more than I have in the space of deployments and that kind of thing, and so I think especially for those girls being accused of not having earned those medals must be pretty frustrating.
Mat: Well, it’s a good tip for everyone listening. If you see anyone wearing medals on the left hand side, assume that they earned them, particularly on Anzac Day.
Megan: I think the funny thing about that is if you saw a 22 year old man in a suit on Anzac Day with a bunch of medals, you wouldn’t think anything of it. But all of a sudden you see a 22 year old female wearing them and for some reason, some people just can’t get their head around it, that it’s actually their medals.
Mat: Given all of that, what advice would you have for young women who are considering a career in the military?
Megan: I would say if it’s something you really want to do, then definitely work hard and go for it. It is a great career. It’s a great lifestyle. It’s very rewarding. Obviously there are countless different jobs you can choose from, but even that in itself means that there are so many opportunities for different things. The variety is fantastic. You won’t ever get bored because there’s just so much to do.
Aside from the actual job itself, just being in the military promotes a great lifestyle because you make great friends. You are constantly working with other people and I won’t speak for everyone because obviously you’re not going to get along with everyone, but in general, other people in the military probably have similar beliefs too. There’ll be a similar mind-set so you generally find yourself working with other people that you get along with really well.
The desire for the military to have fit and healthy people means that you get to have an active lifestyle. You get to stay fit. They promote sports and exercise. You work hard but you also get plenty of time off to rest, and I mean the benefits that come with it as well. The travel and the medical and being out of the military now and being someone that’s been medically discharged with some health issues, I can tell you how expensive health insurance is and how expensive it is having medical problems. But obviously when you’re in the Defence Force, they take care of all of that for you. So there are so many benefits that come with it. And I think just all in all, it’s a great lifestyle. If I had a choice, there’s no way I would’ve left. I would’ve stayed for probably until I was retirement age, because it just has so many positives about being a member of the military. I think as well, a big part of it is just having the feeling that you’re part of a club that is something a bit different, something a bit unique. You’re part of something a bit special. There’s a long tradition and a lot of history with the military and you get to be part of that.
Mat: Just finishing up, you mentioned that tradition. Do you feel a connection to previous generations of service people? I know that your squadron that you served in has a long and proud history going back to the Second World War. Do you as I call it at the top of the show a new Anzac, do you feel a connection when you go to Anzac Day and see those marches and see the old guys marching? Do you feel a connection to that previous Anzac history?
Megan: Yes and no. I think Anzac Day is probably the time when you feel most connected to the men who have fought in wars before you, because you’re all marching together and it’s a day for everybody, regardless of which war you fought in, how old you are, no matter how small or large a part you had in that war. It’s a day for everybody so I think Anzac Day you do feel very connected to those people.
But then there are other times where, and this is just my opinion, where I feel like they’re completely in another league if I was, and I have been lucky enough to talk to some World War II veterans, that I just feel like they’re in a whole other league and what they did was completely different to what I’ve done or what other members of the current Defence Force have done. It’s not necessarily a good or bad thing; it’s just the way it is with time changing. There are always is a connection because of the history and being part of, like I said before, you’re part of this special club that not everybody can be part of. So there is always going to be that connection.
But at the same time, I think every war is different. Every generation of military is different. The jobs change, the aircraft platforms change, the uniforms change, the rules change. So depending on when you were part of the military, I think it makes a big difference as well to the connection you have with the people before you.
Mat: It’s been really great. Thank you for sitting down with us. I’ve really enjoyed hearing your story. I’ve heard these stories before, but it’s great to hear them and to share them with people because I think it really is important that we hear the stories of the younger generation of Anzacs especially as time goes forward. So Megan Cole, thank you so much for joining us.
Megan: Thank you for having me.