How the military found its ‘target species’

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Rowers are top of the list when it comes to finding new recruits in the Armed Forces.

 

Roger Milne’s just taken his seat in the grandstand at Eton-Dorney. It’s 2006 and he’s there for the World Championships.

Free as a bird. He can see only blue sky stretching far into the distance.

He’s just sold the business he’s built over many years in Auckland. Life is full of infinite possibilities.

Suddenly, there’s a tap from behind.

The source of this brief return of a weight on his shoulders is asking him for help.

“Rog, would you like to, could you look after the race sponsorships for Maadi next summer?”

Why not! he thinks.

So when Roger returns to New Zealand he does some research and reckons there’s a big opportunity to pull in more nationwide sponsorship.

Don Braid at Mainfreight gives him another insight into the type of people those big organisations want to recruit from rowing.

“Rog, we aren't looking for truck drivers, mate. We’re looking for people to run our Shanghai operations in five years’ time.”

And then someone suggests the military.

So, Roger taps out a one-pager straight to the top - Jerry Mateparae, Chief of the New Zealand Defence Force.

The response is an emphatic yes.

Back then, each arm of the military has its own recruiting teams. It leads to a great game of one-upmanship.

First, the Army bring their LAVs (Light Armoured Vehicles) to Karapiro for Maadi in 2007.

Kids are climbing in and over them for a look.

Not to be outdone, as the Boys’ Under-18 final brings the regatta to a close late in the afternoon, the Air Force sends the Red Checkers low in over the old Eucalyptus trees by the finish line to really bring the house down.

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The royal NZ air force flew The red Checkers over Maadi at lake karapiro in March 2007

A couple of months later, Roger gets a call from a contact he’s made in the Navy, who also had a stand at the regatta.

“Roger, I just wanted to tell you, we've just come back into cell phone range after coming round North Cape last night on a cruise we're doing from New Plymouth back to the Naval Base at Devonport. I thought you'd be interested to know I've got 19 young people on board this cruise, and 18 of them came from rowing...from us being at Karapiro.”

“I just wanted to tell you these are 18 of the finest young people I have ever seen.”

Sergeant Glen Hayes leads Defence recruiting for the Waikato region from his base in Rostrevor St, Hamilton. It’s a unified effort these days but nothing has changed about the value young rowers bring to the military.

“I always use a term that my father uses when we go fishing: target species,” says Glen. “And you have at these rowing events, especially like your Maadi Regattas, Nationals, you have your target species - young, disciplined, motivated individuals who are used to working in teams.”

Glen joined the Army about the same time Roger Milne was pitching his idea to Lieutenant General Mateparae.  He was a combat engineer until moving into recruitment five years ago.

In that time, Glen estimates almost 20 percent of the intake has come from a rowing background.

Simon Dmitrenko grew up near the Black Sea in Krasnodar, Russia. He’s always felt an affinity with the water and found his happy place when his parents moved to Hamilton when he was 10.

His family was in search of a “better way of life” says Simon. “More fair, where people were firstly ecologically cleaner, a place where people actually follow rules, where you can sleep in peace, you don't have to [fear for] your life, your children, what's gonna happen to them at school.”

He joined the Navy after rowing three seasons for Hamilton Boys High. His highlight was winning three Maadi titles in 2019, in the Under 15 Eight, Octuple and Coxed Four.

He’s now stationed at the Devonport Naval Base where he is a Seaman Combat Specialist.

The things he loves about the Navy, are the same things he loved about rowing.

“It’s just something about the teamwork, like a movement together to achieve a common goal,” he says.

His parents weren’t initially hooked on the idea.

“In my home country, going to the military often means being in a very harsh, unfriendly environment where it's hard to survive because it's so big that human life doesn't matter as much, where in New Zealand it’s a lot more valued. They agreed to it mainly because of like how it would help me to grow up and [be] a better version of myself.”

Katie Perano’s also living her best life as an electrical apprentice (sapper) in the Army at Linton Camp in Palmerston North.

“My apprenticeship should hopefully finish in the next four years and then I post out to a new unit as a qualified electrician where I'm there for at least the next three years.  And yeah, once I'm there, definitely the opportunity to deploy and travel overseas.

She rowed up to Under 17 level at Sacred Heart Girls’ College in Hamilton.

Like Simon, she wanted to take some of the disciplines she learned from rowing into her career.

“I've found in the Army, it’s the whole team culture, everyone's there to support you, and you're all there for each other. In rowing those big boats don't move on their own, like, you've got to be really, connected with the girls you're rowing with and get along off water and on water to do well.”

And what may surprise, is the sense of independence she feels living on base.

“I love it. I love living on my own. I'm a very independent person. I've got really good barracks that have just been built, so they're very new and very nice. Yeah. And it's just five girls and we have a common room and bathrooms and all that.”

And then there’s the benefits of what Katie describes as an “out-of-pocket" (left field) career decision.

“I didn't know anyone in the Army. [But] I totally think it's something more people should look into. Just doing basic training was a life changing experience and the benefits that I've got from it - I'm gonna have no student loan or things like that. I feel like I've really set myself up for the future.”

“We take maybe two to three electricians a year in New Zealand,” says Glen. “Katie’s beaten a lot of other competition to get one of those spots. She's obviously done very well in aptitude. She's done very well in fitness. And she's interviewed fantastically.  I'd say a lot of that has to do with the foundations rowing gives you.

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Andy Hay

Andy Hay is a freelance producer, writer and rowing coach. He was cox of the world champion New Zealand eight of 1982 and '83. He is NZ Olympian #446. Email: andygohay1@gmail.com