Courses for forces
Drive through Burnham and you may wonder what goes on behind the gum trees.
The answer, in a word, is training. For Burnham Military Camp is the South Island's main training base for the NZ Defence Force.
From a junior chef learning culinary skills in the camp kitchens, to a grizzled veteran of Timor and Afghanistan teaching soldiers how to drive Unimogs and LAVs, Burnham is all about training.
Behind those blue gums, young and not so young men and women train full-time, for a living, for events they hope will never happen.
Nicholas Todd, an 18-year-old private from Dunedin, is training as a chef. He could have trained at a polytechnic or in a bakery or restaurant. His schoolmates were surprised when he chose the army. He is glad he did - for the pay, the hours, the conditions, the camaraderie, the prospect of an overseas posting as he progresses through the grades.
Lieutenant David Pos is training in management. The army supports his extra-mural studies through Massey University while he gains management experience commanding a heavy-lifting platoon. Army vehicles get stuck and break down so an efficient recovery service is essential. He could have been a full-time university student but he has fond memories of living at Burnham when his father was a soldier. Now he and his wife and child live in an army house on the same street where he grew up.
Staff Sergeant Phil Stanbridge is a physical trainer. Soldiers need fitness to withstand hardships. Stanbridge trains in the camp gym, on courts and sports fields, while following the fortunes of his beloved Arsenal in English football. He devises and supervises training regimes for hundreds and manages a team of physical training instructors. He believes in all-round "functional" fitness that can meet any challenge. His training sessions would leave onlookers breathless. Try jogging up the road in full kit carrying two jerry cans full of sloshing water.
An intake of 100 navy, army and air force personnel is doing a two- year training course in emergency medicine at Burnham. They will emerge from the lecture halls and simulated battle sites to become the medics who provide first-response health treatment to the wounded.
Sergeant Bas Henry has served in overseas war zones. He has also seen tragic accidents involving army trucks on exercises around Canterbury. He trains and supervises a team of former soldiers with experience in the transport industry who teach and test driving skills. Soldiers learn to handle vehicles capably then progress to advanced training at a local quarry and in the rugged terrain of Tekapo Base in the Mackenzie Country.
Henry is proud of army driver training. He says drivers are better prepared than in his early days. Soon a whole new training course will start, as modern MHOV trucks come into service.
Sergeant Greg Fagg has been in the army 21 years and never stopped training. He is in the Emergency Response Troop, which deals with fires, crashes, hazardous substance leaks and other events. The army uses pyrotechnics and explosives so it needs a team with adequate skills and equipment to cover the risks. The troop works on a shift system that has staff available at all times. It responds to events outside the camp as well and is responsible for rural fire districts in Selwyn and at Tekapo. Fagg gains satisfaction from making a positive contribution to the wider community.
Having trained previously in several trades, Fagg says the army has taught him skills he could never have developed "in civvy street". He says "one of the beauties of army life" is that you can always find another job if you tire of one.
Other areas of training range from brass band to engineering. The camp liaises with government agencies and private training providers. It works towards unit standards. It provides a foundation that can prepare soldiers for future employment "in civvy street". The catch is, rich friendships and benefits of a military career can change their minds.
Training to fight and kill is an unfortunate necessity in a world of terrorism and unrest. Burnham is home to 2/1 Battalion of the Royal NZ Infantry Regiment. On my recent visit to the camp, I see infantry exercising in a mock-up Middle-East street made of shipping containers. Coloured smoke pours from windows as helmeted soldiers bearing automatic rifles practise moving from door to door and clearing buildings of inhabitants.
My visit begins in the early half- light of day. Car after car peels off the highway and turns towards the camp. A queue forms at the main entrance, where a security guard checks identities. They take security seriously here. As if to push the point, a military prison stands just inside the gate.
The camp occupies land similar in area to a small town, with extensive training fields and sports grounds beyond the perimeter, but bustles like a big town. It is of indeterminate population as numbers come and go by the hour, by the day, by the month. Some live here in barracks and houses, some commute.
They are a mix of military and civilian, women and men. The presence of navy and airforce personnel reflects the NZ Defence Force's gradual move towards a single integrated service.
Most at Burnham are army and everyone in the army is "a soldier first", from chef trainee Todd to base commander Major Peter Bowyer. Basic army training and regular drills are a requirement for all.
Listening to Burnham people talk is like hearing a different language. The vocabulary does not include words like car or truck. All things on four wheels or more are "platforms", from a 7-tonne Unimog to a half- tonne Navarro. People, activities, places, objects are referred to in acronyms which soldiers rattle off at speed. They call the training area opposite the camp "189". Why? Because it is a 189-acre paddock. The building where I meet Todd they call "Woes and Snows". Translated, it is the mess (dining and common room) for warrant officers and senior NCOs (non-commissioned officers).
I notice the name Gallipoli on a building down one of the streets that criss and cross the sprawling camp. Many buildings bear names of places where New Zealand forces served in war and at times of fragile peace. Today's soldiers are constantly reminded of those who went before them, with photographs in passageways of war heroes like Jack Hinton, VC. This is training too - cultural training.
Signs on walls remind soldiers they must be prepared to fight like their forebears when the need arises. This is why they are at Burnham.