OPINION: It's unusual to set a table, complete with cutlery, place mats and candles, knowing that it will remain unoccupied all evening.
But then again this is a military dinner, the protocols of which are mostly unusual to the uninitiated.
I've been to two in the last few weeks. The most recent was last Saturday; the 3rd Auckland & Northland Battalion's dinner. Guests included the Minister of Defence, Hon Dr Jonathan Coleman, the Chief of Army Major General Tim Keating and The Mayor of Auckland, Len Brown.
Brown got the feel of the evening in a heartbeat. This was his city, his people and, yes, his battalion. He made sure we understood that as he presented the new charter, granting freedom of the city, to the commanding officer.
Like the regimental dinner a few weeks ago, this occasion also had that beautifully set table that no one was seated at. It's set for the fallen as a mark of respect and remembrance. It's the one that gets furtive glances at the beginning of the evening and vacant stares toward the end as mates remember mates who died in the service of New Zealand on military operations overseas. Never more poignant than now.
At a time when the nation is asking questions about our continued commitment to Afghanistan, it also begs the question about how well our Defence Force is configured for the future. Specifically, where will all the troops come from?
Historically, we have drawn on New Zealand's workforce to augment our small but very effective standing army. They become reservists or territorials (a long outdated description) and serve under a limited engagement contract with NZDF. There is no suggestion that this will change if greater numbers are required for even a limited mobilisation.
During the Timor Leste and Solomon Islands operations, 15 per cent of our soldiers deployed were reservists. On returning from their tour of duty, they went back to their civilian occupations. Or did they? Well some did, others had no civilian jobs to return to because they had to resign before deploying.
Sure, some very supportive employers appointed temporary staff and held open their part-time soldiers jobs. But this is the exception; certainly not the rule. It's not the rule because of the cost and lack of financial incentive for employers to support military training.
When you join the army, you are offered a contract; usually with a three- to five-year term. If you perform it gets renewed, if you don't then you may be released. Most get renewed because of how they perform despite the fact that it's getting harder, financially speaking, just to turn up to training.
I always found it curious that the army required reservists to sign contracts without any liaison with their civilian employer, given that person and organisation has engaged their services on a full-time basis. Long gone is the Monday to Friday, 40-hour working week, leaving weekends and even evenings available for military training.
And yet it works - mostly. Today we have active employer groups who are charged with liaising with civilian employers.
The reality, however, is that most reservists don't come from the one place that can best support their service: large commercial organisations. Most come from small businesses, some from government departments.
Ironically, it's the government departments who, in my experience as a commanding officer of a reserve battalion, squeal the loudest when asked to release their people for promotions courses or operational deployments.
And exactly what size SME provides the most active reserves? The smallest - the self-employed. Despite all the commentary and criticisms of senior NZDF officers, most of whom have never considered the challenges of managing a dual career, the Reserve Forces are good. Not great but generally good. After being trained for a mission and when on operations, they become great.
And they bring a breadth of additional knowledge to the profession of arms given, mostly, they come from a broad range of civilian trades. Even recent history has shown how useful these skill sets are to support operations.
So if NZDF is the beneficiary of cost effective part-time soldiers who bring a raft of additional skill sets to the table, what is small business New Zealand getting in return? Leadership! Leaders trained to plan tactical operations and look after people. And small businesses need great leaders just as much as corporations - particularly if they want to grow.
NZDF produces great leaders. I'm the first to concede that some soldiers will need de-tuning and some will not make it in a fast paced commercial-cum-entrepreneurial environment. But most will.
Until Government modernises the existing legislation which protects reserve military service, the tensions and challenges between NZDF and commerce will remain. Instead of sweeping these issues under the carpet, it's time they were openly aired given the potential for an effective and enduring partnership that is so obvious to many.
This column is dedicated to LCPL Rory Malone, originally of the 3rd Auckland & Northland Battalion, together with his comrades who were killed in Afghanistan. LCPL Malone joined the New Zealand Army as a reserve soldier. The table is always set for you, Rory, and your spirit will be with us on each and every occasion. Ake Ake Kia Kaha - 'Onward'
- Tenby Powell is an entrepreneur and former commanding officer of 3rd Battalion, RNZIR. Follow him on Twitter at tenbypowell.
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