Tour of duty

Alumni, Headlines — By on October 11, 2017 2:22 pm

Alumna Lieutenant Colonel Esther Harrop speaks with Sharon Stephenson about her life with the NZ Army and her recent experiences in a country torn by war.

Here’s what Lieutenant Colonel Harrop remembers about South Sudan: the heat, the squalor, the unpaved roads that became rivers of mud after the rainy season. Not to mention the extreme poverty and violence, and the time an 11-year-old boy pointed a loaded AK47 at her.

“I’m making it sound so grim and at times it was, but it’s also a country full of the most beautiful people suffering from displacement and violence, from manmade famine and horrific abuses,” says Esther of her 10-month UN peacekeeping deployment.

The 45-year-old, who graduated from the University with a BCom in Marketing and Management in 1995, was working with former Labour leader David Shearer, who heads the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in South Sudan.

“I was the New Zealand Senior National Officer and Military Assistant to David, which basically involved advising him on the military aspects of what he was doing. David has amazing knowledge of the humanitarian sector in conflictridden places such as Somalia and Iraq, but this mission comprises around 70 percent military personnel, so that’s where my experience came in.”

Esther’s role included supporting David in Juba, the capital, as well as travelling around South Sudan, a country roughly the size of France, visiting mission members and humanitarian agencies and providing the conduit between the 13,000-strong military peacekeeping force, and their leadership.

“The travel was tiring, and testing, usually in helicopters, small fixed-wing planes and often armoured vehicles. The roads there are terrible so most long distance travel was by helicopter.”

Esther was the most senior female military officer at the UN base of around 2000 people, including 500 civilians. Because of the volatile nature of the region, all mission personnel were placed on a curfew (7pm-6am), but outside this Esther managed to drive herself to the market to buy food and have clothes made by a local tailor.

“We’ve had lots of training on how to handle ourselves in certain situations, so although I would never take an unnecessary risk, I’m not the the kind of person to hide away on the base all day.

When I had the chance I’d go out and interact with the locals as far as possible.” Even if that means a child waving an AK47 in your face?

“We learn how to de-escalate situations like that,” she says. Which is pretty much all she will say about that particular incident.

The mandate of the mission in South Sudan – which gained its independence from Sudan in 2011 after an earlier agreement that signalled the end of the longest-running civil war in Africa – is to protect civilians, investigate human rights violations, provide humanitarian assistance and assist in furthering the comprehensive peace agreement signed in 2013 between factions within the new nation.

Esther was one of only five New Zealanders and the sole NZ Defence Force member based in the capital Juba. Her personal goal when she left NZ was to make a difference: to leave the UN mission in better shape than she found it – which sounds like a huge challenge but proved less difficult than she thought it might have been.

“I know I made a difference to some of the men’s perceptions of women in the military. My presence took a lot of guys by surprise. I was working with Indians, Nepalese, Rwandans, Chinese: there are 52 different nations in the force. A lot of those nations don’t have female officers or if they do, the women are in specialist roles such as in the medical area, and are somewhat limited in the roles they fulfil on operations.

“I was upset at first that many of the men couldn’t even look me in the eye. But I was the deputy chief planner, responsible for developing plans for the operations of the UN forces in South Sudan. They had to work with me and do what I asked them to. It was a new experience for many of them to have a competent female officer in charge.”

On International Women’s Day a colleague phoned Esther with a heartening message about the males in the forces: “You’ve no idea how having a senior woman in the Force headquarters is changing their perceptions.”

As a woman in uniform, she was also able to relate in a different way with the local women and children: “The UN has made a big push to have women in peacekeeping,” Esther explains. “Many of the women and children in South Sudan (and other countries where the UN has military peace keepers) have been treated with shocking cruelty by men from various factions in ongoing conflict. The stories you only occasionally hear back here are true. Conflict-related sexual violence and villages razed by fire – torture, beatings and killings. They are often terrified by the sight of a man in uniform.”

Esther and other women in the force, were able to talk with them, to be accepted by them, to create respectful relationships of a kind that at times were closed off to her male colleagues. For most people, the prospect of being away from family and friends in one of the most politically and economically unstable regions in the world might not be terribly appealing, but when you’re the mother of four boys, the youngest only three years old, it can be even more difficult.

“I’m lucky I’ve got a lot of support from my husband Stephen, who was able to quit his job before this deployment to keep things ticking over,” says Esther. That includes the children and the couple’s 17-acre property in Pauatahanui. “It would be too hard to do what I do without his support.”

Before South Sudan there were two deployments to Bougainville, one of which saw her recognised as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) in 1999. There was also a threeyear stint with the Canadian Army and time logged at bases including Waiouru, Linton, Trentham and Burnham.

Before that there was a happy childhood in the Auckland suburb of Mt Albert, where Esther was the youngest of five. Along with her four brothers, she played an instrument (the French horn) and her accountant/musician father was keen for his children to follow him either into the world of music or number crunching. Esther chose the latter, signing up for a BCom in marketing with the vague notion of going into the corporate world.

Nothing in her background suggested a career in the armed services but nibbling at the edges of her university years were the Territorials. She’d been introduced to the weekend pursuit and discovered she loved being outdoors.

“The structured nature of the services also really appealed to me, as well as the idea of doing something that could make a difference,” she says.

From there it was a short leap to signing up for an intense five-day selection process with the NZ Army. Esther got through that and then spent a year at officer cadet school in Waiouru.

She did a few military history papers through Massey and chose her specialty – supply and logistics, which is how she ended up in Fort Lee, a US Army base in Virginia, where she spent 12 months completing a masters in science in logistics management from the Florida Institute of Technology.

One of Esther’s favourite roles since then has been her three-year secondment to the Canadian Department of National Defence, from 2009-2012, where she managed the Canadian Forces Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV) fleet both in Canada and on operations in Afghanistan.

“The Canadians had a large fleet of around 150 LAVs in Afghanistan and they had lost over 100 soldiers in those LAVs, basically because Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) would rip through the bottom of the vehicle. My role was to manage a team of engineers who designed survivability add-ons to the vehicles to ensure that soldiers would be better protected in an explosion.”

“I had limited French, but that didn’t stop us gelling as a team and we managed to outfit 120 LAVs with the survivability kits. As far as I’m aware, there have been no deaths in those LAVs since then.” Her efforts were also recognised with a Golden Anvil Award from the Canadian government.

Esther had barely returned from South Sudan when she was appointed deputy director strategic engagements (regional) and defence adviser Pacific. It’s a role that will see her foster New Zealand’s defence relationships in South East Asia and the Pacific – in particular Samoa, the Cook Islands and Niue.

It will, of course, involve more time away from her husband and children Nelson (12), Abraham (10), Solomon (6) and Wolfgang (3). But Esther is looking forward to it, and particularly the opportunities it offers her to further develop her leadership skills.

“I’ve always had a leadership mindset and the Army fosters that, as well as strong emphasis on team membership.

Last year I was selected for a New Zealand Leadership Institute programme at the University of Auckland, which was incredibly useful in bringing together all the strands of my leadership experience. It really encouraged me to carry on.

“As long as I’m making a difference, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.”

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