27 September 2023

Front and centre: How a Darwin soldier is blazing a trail for ADF women

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Kristy O’Brien* says a Darwin-based trooper is among only four women in Australia to pass the gruelling test that permits soldiers to serve on the front line.

Photo: 1st Brigade Army

Captain Angela Stokes (pictured) is softly spoken but, as one of the first women to serve on the Australian Defence Force (ADF) front line, she clearly has a will of steel.

The Darwin-based trooper is among only four women in Australia to pass the gruelling physical examination — which includes trekking more than 15 km while weighed down with gear and lifting extremely heavy equipment — that permits soldiers to serve on the front line.

Until 2013, women could not serve in the frontline infantry or the Special Forces, where they might be involved in close combat, or in armoured or artillery units.

That restriction was overturned by the Defence Force in what was seen as a huge shift in equality.

Captain Stokes said the implications of that decision would reach the top ranks of the military, because it would ensure women could get the combat experience usually required to take on key leadership roles.

“I do see women [getting] more into the senior roles because we have that more opportunity,” she said.

“Traditionally the higher-ranking officers have combat experience, and being precluded from combat roles means you don’t have combat experience.”

“Then it precludes you from a lot of jobs.”

“I’m happy that people are able to do whatever job they are physically and mentally capable of doing, regardless of any background — not just gender [but] their race or anything.”

“You should be chosen on your merit.”

Captain Stokes said she felt just as capable and respected as the men she serves with.

“I’ve had no issues, I’ve been treated very well,” she said.

Women make up 12.4 per cent of the full-time Army and 13.5 per cent of the part-time Force.

‘It’s very confronting’

Captain Stokes has served in various roles over the past 10 years, including a six-month deployment in Afghanistan where she was in charge of logistics in and out of Kabul.

“We have very limited aircraft, so we have a lot of equipment and people but no planes to put them on, so it was a lot of talking to other nations and negotiating with them for seats and cargo space,” she said.

She said she was fascinated by other cultures and a highlight of her time in Afghanistan was getting to know the locals outside of the base in Kabul.

While she was not exposed to fighting in Kabul, the threat of vehicle-borne explosive devices was always a risk, and she had to accept the dangers of the job.

“It’s very confronting — one of the things you have to do before you go is actually write a will and have [it] registered and with your family, and for a lot of young people that’s pretty confronting,” she said.

She said this Anzac Day she would be “remembering all those who’ve served before us and made the ultimate sacrifice”, but she would reserve a special moment for fallen and injured friends.

“One of my close friends is one of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan and I’ve known several who’ve come back with injuries, and it’s days like this you sit there and think about them particularly,” she said.

* Kristy O’Brien works in the ABC’s Darwin newsroom.

This article first appeared at www.abc.net.au.

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