On the frontline of Talisman Sabre war games

 abc.net.au  7/18/2017 4:37:47 AM 

Updated July 18, 2017 15:10:20

As a journalist embedded with New Zealand troops taking part in Australia's largest combined, joint defence force exercise, I was initially met with some suspicion.

More than 30,000 troops from the US, New Zealand and Australia are taking part in the biennial war games in Townsville and Shoalwater Bay for Exercise Talisman Sabre.

And while the scenarios are fictitious, the training opportunity is taken very seriously.

"When you came into camp with your camera, someone lent over and said 'It only costs $10 to get one of those [ABC] hats embroidered — she is probably one of the enemy'," one New Zealand private said.

"But you're not, so we are all good."

She said just like any other war scenario, caution was crucial.

"Especially in this exercise, because there are elements of insurgency in it and so any civilians who are involved, we have to think twice about them," she said.

Another Kiwi soldier said she was feeling the heat.

"We haven't showered for four days and we smell pretty bad — and we're going to be in here for another week," she said.

"We stink in this Australian winter that is hotter than our summer. I can handle having dirty hair and smelly clothes, but having smelly feet is the worst."

New Zealand's Lieutenant Jamie McBride said there was plenty of action, even at night.

"Essentially day becomes night and you don't stop — because the enemy likes to do stuff at night and so we do stuff at night," he said.

Lieutenant Harrison Brown said working with other countries was a valuable experience.

"You have to be on your game a bit more, and under NVG [night vision goggles] you can hear helicopters and see them flying above you quite low — it is completely different to what we do at home, so it is awesome," he said.

As the embedded journalist, I'm told to try and get a few hours sleep but am warned that if we come under fire, to run that way and shine a white light so all sides know I'm not part of the game.

Only red torch light is used to avoid being spotted by the enemy.

At 0300 hours we move under the cover of darkness, with troops using night vision goggles to navigate and drive vehicles.

The New Zealand soldiers say the intensity and scale of the exercise is demanding.

"The training area is huge, it's nothing that we'd ever get in New Zealand — I think this is three times the size of our training area, so it's pretty mind-blowing," a New Zealand private said.

"It is a massive scale for us to change up to, but it is good."

Private Justin Lawlor is a signalman with the Australian Army and he is working to help the New Zealand combat troop with their communications.

"You need to sleep when you need to sleep, eat when you need to eat, and get back to work," he said.

As well as dealing with the intensity of the war games, the troops are also coping with being away from home.

Lieutenant Colonel Hamish Gibbons has a wife and two young children and said being apart from them for five weeks was tough.

"It is a sacrifice to come away but it is also what we sign up to do," he said.

"I think it's just that belief that there is something more to life than just us — and wanting to serve, whether that's to serve our nation or our fellow citizens.

"But there are some people in the world who aren't very pleasant, and so being able to be part of an organisation that wants to make a difference and be a force for good … that's a good thing."

After just 24 hours of being a war correspondent, I'm eager to return home to the comforts of my bed and good coffee — clearly better suited to life as a journo in regional Australia than on the defence frontline.

Topics: defence-forces, army, shoalwater-4702

First posted July 18, 2017 14:37:47

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