Hidden Courage - My life as a female Australian soldier

My life as a female Australian soldier

Donna Bourke 22 October 2019

The following is an excerpt from Army veteran Donna Bourke’s book Hidden Courage – My Life as a Female Australian Soldier.

As a child I was a tomboy with a keen sense of curiosity, adventure and mischief. Around our neighbourhood, I was known as “that naughty kid” or a “bad influence” by the parents of other children on our street.

“We’re not allowed to play with you because you’re too naughty,” I was reminded many times. My outgoing personality, sense of fun and risk- taking certainly made me stand out, although I was by no means alone in my escapades.

Despite my reputation, I remained inquisitive and adventurous. I didn’t enjoy sitting around doing nothing. That was boring.

My high school years were littered with truancy and a lack of interest.  As expected, the truancy and my sub- standard school reports eventually caught up with me.

Our school career guidance officer asked my parents to come in for a parent-teacher interview to discuss my future at school.

Looking over her bifocals, the guidance officer, addressing my mother, started with, “Donna is very bright you know. But she is such a disruptive influence in class. Well, the classes she attends. I think it would be in everyone’s best interests for her to leave.”

She continued, “If, and I mean IF she should be allowed to stay, it’s best for her to stick to clerical studies, as she probably won’t amount to much more than a secretary.”

Upon the insistence of my mother, I was allowed to stay, however I left school halfway through year 12 and joined the workforce.

Hidden Courage - My life as a female Australian soldier

A few years later, I was unemployed and wondering where my life was heading. My Uncle David, who was serving in the Australian Army at the time, asked me what I was doing with my life.

“I’m not working at the moment,” I said.

“Ever thought of joining the Army?” he asked.

“No. I’m not sure I’m ready to move out of home yet,” I said.

“Don’t you think it’s about time you got off your arse, started behaving yourself and stopped being a dole bludger?” he said, in his typically abrupt way.

“I’m not a dole bludger. I just can’t get a job.”

“What about joining the Army?” he asked again.

“I don’t know much about the Army,” I said.

“It’d do you good. Give you some discipline. I’ll find out when they’re recruiting next and let you know,” he said gruffly and walked off.

I didn’t think any more of our conversation until the following week. My father came home from work and said, “Uncle David rang today. If you want to join the Army, you have to go in to Keswick Barracks to see him tomorrow.”

I went. A few short weeks later, at 20 years of age, I enlisted into the Australian Army.

Despite joining a peacetime Defence Force, I went on many years later to deploy both on peacekeeping operations in East Timor and as a combat soldier in Afghanistan.

Hidden Courage - My life as a female Australian soldier

My deployment to Timor in 2004 was the first time I experienced one of many ‘close shaves’ with death. Whilst conducting security patrols throughout Dili, myself and two team members were faced with a rioting gang, requiring me to aim my rifle at a young man whose intent was to kill me.

I raised my weapon, safety catch off and yelled at him, “Berhenti! Atau aku akan menembak!” (Stop! Or I will shoot!) – a phrase I learnt during pre- deployment training and which was written on our rules of engagement (ROE) cards.

He lowered his weapon but kept raising it ever so slightly. To our disadvantage, the East Timorese gang members were familiar with our ROE. He knew if he raised the bow higher than waist level, I would shoot.

I walked towards him. “Berhenti! Atau aku akan menembak!” I repeated louder this time.

I continued walking towards him, keeping him in my line of fire, finger on the trigger, my heart thudding in my chest.

I was focused on every movement of his body. I knew my two other team members had their areas under control. The mayhem around me was peripheral to the situation in front of me. I was confident in my shooting skills and although I preferred not to shoot him, I had no hesitation in doing so.

He lowered his weapon and ran away. As a soldier, I would have done what I had been trained to do under our ROE. I am grateful though that I didn’t shoot this young man and suffer the consequences of having his death on my conscience for the rest of my life.

This incident, and many others while on active service – good and bad – often had me thinking back to when I was known as the “naughty child, the bad influence” or the girl who “wouldn’t amount to much more than a secretary”.

I achieved so much in my Army career, had the best job in the world and met some incredibly interesting people. Although I am now injured and was medically discharged from the Army because of those injuries, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Hidden Courage - My life as a female Australian soldier



Donna Bourke is a recently retired Australian Army Intelligence Warrant Officer. She enlisted in 1979, attending the Women’s Royal Australian Army Corps (WRAAC) School. With her military career spanning three decades, Donna worked as a communications and cipher operator, computer technician, manager of intelligence operations, senior intelligence analyst, human intelligence operator and interrogator.

Donna deployed six times during a nine-year period, to East Timor and Afghanistan and also on border protection operations. Severely injured during her operational service, Donna was medically discharged from the Army in 2016.

Her courage, strength and tenacity to live a positive life outside of Defence shines through in her recently published memoir Hidden Courage – My Life as a Female Australian Soldier.

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