What I wish I’d known: William Close

Image: Will Close (right) with his brother Tom We caught up with Afghanistan and East Timor vet, Vice President of Rose Bay RSL sub-Branch William Close to ask what he wishes he’d known when he was still serving.

 

Birthdays in East Timor

I applied to go to Duntroon while I was still at school, and started there in 2004. Like my father, I’d always been interested in the military and watching war movies. My great-grandfather served with the Light Horse in World War I and both my grandfathers had been in the Navy in World War II.

I enjoyed the outdoors and sport and even the discipline of school. It was at a whole new level at Duntroon of course, but I think the structure suited me. I’m not sure I would have coped so well with the freedom of taking a gap year or with going straight to university! I thought I could do five years or so and see whether I liked it, and then I’d still be young enough to come out and start a whole different career.

After 18 months at Duntroon I got posted to Townsville in mid-2005 and became an artillery officer. Then one day, as we were preparing to go out on exercise, we were told it had been cancelled and we’d be heading over to East Timor where there had been an attempted coup. We left that night.

I did two tours in East Timor, one as a UN liaison officer for the Army. The UN has a pretty different world view to the ADF so that was a very interesting experience. I had my 21st and 22nd birthdays in East Timor. For the first one, someone managed to rustle up a cake while we were doing rotations around Dili.

 

On patrol in Afghanistan

It wasn’t long before I was posted to Afghanistan. We left in May 2009 and were there for about nine months. I was sort of excited about it – while you don’t wish for war, when you’ve spent so much time training, you do want an opportunity to apply your skills.

I was an artillery forward observer as part of a mentoring task force of 10 to 15 Australians training about 30 Afghan soldiers, and doing patrols with them to try to locate the Taliban. They were a really mixed group in terms of ages, capabilities and enthusiasm. While it wasn’t a situation where you really made friendships, we definitely built up a level of respect and they were really funny to talk to and joke around with – all through an interpreter or the skerricks of Dari we had picked up. Their commander was a Captain and a real character, but he was killed along with eight of his guys when their vehicle hit an IED.

We made a difference to the people in the area we were located and 20 years is long enough for one generation to have had a different education. Maybe that will help change things. While it was a shock to see it all come to such an abrupt and disappointing end in Afghanistan this year, the writing had been on the wall for some time. I don’t believe that, as individual soldiers on the ground with the resources we had, there was anything we could have done differently and I don’t think it was a complete waste of time or of lives.

 

Transitioning out

I was a mid-level captain by the end of my tour, about 24. I felt like I’d had plenty of excitement and didn’t want to end up in a desk job – or at least not in a non-combat or non-artillery role. It was time to look at other opportunities.

Transitioning into civilian life can be tough. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a close-knit family to support me and I’d maintained friendships with guys outside of the ADF. I know not everyone is fortunate enough to have a family situation like that but I’d definitely encourage people coming out of the Army to build up a network of civilian friends or connections. Sports teams and clubs can be really great for that and give you a bit of the camaraderie you miss leaving the army.

And you have to back yourself a bit. Don’t worry if the first job you try doesn’t work out – that’s what happened to me. I did a couple of months in recruitment then moved on. Sometimes employers can be a bit unsure of taking on a veteran but the good thing is that your army skills translate really well to all kinds of different jobs. You will find something out there that suits you.

Joining the Rose Bay RSL sub-Branch has been a great way to keep in touch with that world and the people in it – you can always connect with like-minded people who understand your experience. I didn’t know anything about the RSL when I was in the Army. It was only by chance that a mate asked me to come along one day and that’s how I found out about it. But I think it would be really useful to join while you’re still serving.

 

What I wish I’d known

To be honest, I don’t think there’s anything I really would have done differently. Sure, if you had your time again there’d be stuff ups and mistakes you wouldn’t make. But I feel like I really made the most of my time in the Army. And that’s what I’d tell anyone coming through now: enjoy the moments, drink in the good times and know that you’ll be able to get through the tough times. It can be a real challenge: the training, being under a microscope when you’re being tested. But you’re not going through it alone. Nothing is so difficult that you won’t make it.

“It’s helped me hugely with my confidence and my decision-making abilities and in my career outside of the Army.”

The camaraderie makes it a really special and unique experience. What other job pays you to exercise and work with all your mates? And you’re always doing something interesting – riding in helicopters or armoured vehicles, seeing different places. You do have to accept that it’s not an experience you’ll be able to replicate in the civilian world. There’s no other job like it.

Yes, there are really hard parts. And I don’t miss getting up at 3am in the pouring rain to go out on a picquet for hours! But you tend to forget those things and remember what was great about it.

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