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Army influences

This exit from the Hume Highway was very familiar to
me in 1971/72.
drove the 1,000 kilometres back from Melbourne to Copa today and didn't manage to squeeze in any exercise.  Whenever I drive to or from Melbourne along the Hume Highway, the first 100 kilometres up to Seymour and the Puckapunyal Army Camp turn-off, evokes strong memories.
One evening in late 1970, I was helping wash the dishes in my family's kitchen and listening to the radio when they broadcast the lottery in which marbles marked with all of the dates in the latter half of 1970 were drawn.  If you turned twenty in that half year, and the date of your birthday was drawn out of the barrel (22% chance), you were destined for two years of National Service in the Australian Army.  My birthday marble was drawn.  I was finishing my second undergraduate year at Monash University and could have sought a year's deferment, but I was living at home, riding a Honda 50cc motorbike (hardly a "chick magnet"), and perennially short of money despite various casual and vacation jobs.  The Army offered generous tertiary education support for ex-serviceman, and I wasn't philosophically opposed to the Vietnam War at the time, so I didn't seek a deferment and started my military career in April 1971.  I hoped to continue my running, but didn't really have any idea how practicable this would be.

Mug shot on arrival at the Officer Training Unit (OTU),
Scheyville, in April 1971 (I'm the one in glasses!).
The first two weeks of basic training, with about 3,000 other recruits in the 2/71 Intake, involved multiple haircuts, tedious chores, hours of marching and drill, and scary guard duty armed only with a bayonet.  It also included an officer selection process and I was picked to join 180 other recruits at the Scheyville Officer Training Unit (OTU) west of Sydney for a very intensive six-month training process.  There was a new intake every three months, so a senior class was already in residence.  On the second day at OTU, they had their quarterly cross-country race.  Despite not having run at all for nearly three weeks, I won the race easily and equalled the course record, despite stopping numerous times to wait for following senior classmen to show me the way.

Some of my fellow OTU classmates after we had returned
exercises in what is now Wollemi National Park
I have found right throughout my life that distance runners are a respected group in society.  Maybe this is because most people have competed in distance running events at some point in their lives and have a good first-hand appreciation of the discipline and effort that success requires.  My win immediately made me the best known recruit in the whole of the OTU and this proved to be of great benefit, so long as I didn't screw-up.  Cadets were continually assessed by all of the OTU staff who were required to carry around notebooks and allocate comments and ratings in different categories, such as "Cool Under Stress", on everything they saw.  Since they all knew my name right from the start, and because I believe there was a positive view of me after the race win, I think I got a head start on my classmates (although we never knew the results until the end of our course).  The pressure on the cadets was immense and continuous, and I quickly learned valuable lessons about personal organisation and concurrent action, which have stood me in good stead ever since.  There was another cross-country race three months later when the next intake arrived, that I also won, but my time was slower.  I'm sure I was the only cadet who ever finished their six months training less fit than when they had started.  I did get special dispensation to leave the camp area for occasional training runs, but we only had 30 minutes of free time each day, so 5km was about as far as I could go.  I was 4kg heavier by the time I graduated six months later, eighth in my class.

My OTU Class Graduation Parade, October 1971
The Vietnam War was winding down, and no graduates in my class were to be posted overseas.  Like many of my colleagues at the time, I was disappointed.  I didn't want to kill anybody, but I did want to know how I would handle the pressures and challenges of leadership in a combat situation.  I wanted to test myself.  Since an overseas posting wasn't possible, I requested a posting near Melbourne so I could resume my running career with my club and friends.  The Army, who thought I was a better athlete than I really was, tried to be accommodating and I was posted to a Transport Training Unit at Puckapunyal, 100 kilometres north of Melbourne.

Graduation from OTU
As a very green twenty year old Second Lieutenant, I was put in charge of seven NCOs and fifty recruits, and I often look back with embarrassment at how I handled my responsibilities (or didn't, as the case may be).  I was arrogant, self-centred, over-confident, immature and made many errors of judgment, though fortunately none serious.  I didn't really take the Army seriously.  I avoided tasks I didn't like, if I possibly could, and failed to lead by example in others.  My uniform was less than stellar, I took off to Melbourne on Wednesday afternoons "for a run", while the rest of the battalion participated in compulsory sport, and I couldn't be bothered getting my truck licence, despite leading a driver training platoon.  I was elected "Mess Member" at the Officers Mess, with responsibility for meal and wine selection, and couldn't care less about either.  I didn't drink alcohol or "party" (one reason I was put in charge of bar supplies), to the chagrin of my fellow junior officers, and once had twelve stitches inserted in my brow after being punched by one of them for resisting an incursion into my room with a fire hose.  I used to drive between Melbourne and Puckapunyal several times a week, often at high speed in my new bright orange Datsun 1600.   The police once booked me for averaging 102 mph over a 5 mile stretch (got off with a fine, unbelievably) and I had one serious accident in which my car hit and rolled a turning minibus full of construction workers (fortunately, no serious injuries or police charges).

Program extract from my Battalion's
Athletics Carnival in Puckapunyal.
The Army did gradually knock me into shape, and I credit them with teaching me several valuable life lessons, particularly the need to lead by example and not ask anybody to do anything you wouldn't do yourself.  On several occasions, I had to deal with the relatives of soldiers who had been killed in exercises or traffic accidents, and one time was base duty officer when a fellow officer attempted suicide in his barracks.  Later in my time at Puckapunyal, I was made Admin Officer for the Company and, among other things, had a roll in resolving the personal problems of 300 recruits and NCOs.  It was a real eye-opener for a middle-class boy from the suburbs, and gave me a much greater understanding of the lives others live, and their complications.

I did manage to get more serious about my running career, often training on the tracks and hills of the tank training range, or out along minor country roads, in the evenings.  I can also remember regularly dragging my platoon out for 5km morning runs.  I won races ranging from the 110m Hurdles through to the 5,000m in various divisional championships within the Armed Forces and represented them against the Universities.  On most weekends, I also ran in Victorian competitions with my club.

The length of National Service was cut to eighteen months from two years by the incoming Labor Government while I was on duty and I left the Army in October 1972, a little bit older and wiser than when I entered.  I was surprised to be asked to stay on in the Army when the time came for my discharge, but I had had enough and was keen to finish my degree and get back to serious running.