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In defense of our lovely army

Recently, Wairarapa played host to the New Zealand Army Wellington Company, Fifth/Seventh Battalion.

And I never thought I’d see the day I’d defend the defence force [I’m certainly not defending that horrendously inelegant, ungrammatical name], but never say never, I guess.

The unit deployed to Wairarapa included a couple of unimogs, a handful of four-wheel drives, and about 20 fit men and women not afraid of mahi – some of them Wairarapa locals, all of them part-timers.

When Cyclone Gabrielle became more of a ‘when’ rather than an ‘if’, the group made rapid tracks from a training exercise in Waiouru.

Commanding Officer Ian Auld said it was a swift exit.

“We’re civilians most of the time, but we had the week off work, and we knew Wairarapa would be badly hit,” he recalled.

“We pulled out of the exercise and came back to Wellington before boosting over the hill.”

And boost they did – cutting an impressive sight as they pulled into Featherston on the Wednesday night just as the rain began to fall in earnest.

Wairarapa was preparing for the worst, and the cavalry had well and truly arrived.

It was thrilling, but also reassuring.

However, reassurance was not a universal reaction.

Talking to some of the group as they loaded the second round of supplies for cut-off communities in Castlepoint and Tinui was an exercise in ignorance – for me.

Following questions about the state of the roads and the damage they had seen, I lobbed a weak: “I bet people are pleased to see you.”

What I got in return was a quizzical look, and: “I’ll let my superior answer that.”

Hm, that’s odd.

I prodded a little further and learned that “not everyone is always pleased to see the army turn up”.

Fair, but surely a crisis such as this would be the exception that proved the rule?

Apparently not.

Further conversations revealed that this reticence to engage with outright dislike and suspicion of the army is actually fairly normal.

The early days of the pandemic, our last National State of Emergency, was a classic example.

Troops on everyday exercises in Waiouru were subject to mounting suspicion.

They weren’t marching, suspicious minds concluded – they were mobilising with the directive to keep us locked in our houses.

I can almost see how you could make that leap.

Lockdowns happened, we were encouraged to nark on our misbehaving neighbours, people were arrested, and the army was tasked with enforcing managed isolation in quarantine hotels.

But standing guard at the end of our driveways? That feels a bit farfetched.

The army is far from reproach, mind you.

Whether you believe in having a standing military or not, at the very least there should be scrutiny – and criticism, when appropriate – of where government pumps money, particularly when there is a whole lot of ‘hurry up and wait’.

But in an event like this, this ready and willing workforce is worth its weight in gold.

Accuse me of wearing camo-tinted glasses, but when they’re handing out food parcels and shovelling silt from homes, it strikes me that feeling thankful, rather than threatened, is a much more appropriate response.

Mary Argue
Mary Argue
Mary Argue is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with an interest in justice and the region’s emergency services, regularly covering Masterton District Court, Fire and Emergency and Police.

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