Ararat's Tim McOwan has served us well

Mardi McOwan, Major General Tim McOwan and the late Noel McOwan at the ceremony in Canberra last year.

Mardi McOwan, Major General Tim McOwan and the late Noel McOwan at the ceremony in Canberra last year.

ARARAT - It is hard to encapsulate in just one service award what a distinguished career Ararat born and Marian College educated Major General Tim McOwan has had.

So, the 55-year-old who is now approaching retirement has taken the time to very candidly reflect on where he has been and where he might go as his time in the armed services comes to an end this year.

Here are the questions posed by journalist Ben Kimber and the extended responses offered by Major General McOwan.

Just a brief overview of your career since you graduated from Marian College in Ararat? 

I left Marian College in 1975 and commenced my career at the Royal Military College (RMC) in January of 1976. I had been awarded a scholarship to attend RMC the previous year and, upon arrival, commenced studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree through the University of NSW. 

During my time at RMC, I represented the College in Australian Rules Football, Cricket, Athletics and Rifle Shooting. I was captain of the Third Grade team for two years running and frequently played in the Second grade team but never really hit the big time of playing for the First Grade Team.

I also learned to play Rugby, albeit rather inconsistently, as my fellow cadets frequently asked me to play in their rugby teams when they were short on players. 

"Just mark the ball, Tim and run straight down the sideline as fast as you can...don't kick the ball and don't attempt to pass it". I received broken ribs and fingers playing "Aussie Rules" but was knocked out twice playing rugby at College. 

Suffice to say, learning to take the tackles in rugby was a "hard won" experience. I was also an active and inaugural member of the Army Alpine Club where I first learned to climb firstly rock but later snow and ice. Climbing was to become a passion of mine over many years and during my time at RMC rarely a summer weekend passed where I did not climb on the local cliffs. 

After graduation in 1980, I asked to join the Infantry and was selected to join the First Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR) in Townsville, North Queensland. The First Battalion was then the Ready Response Force for the Army and so we were required to do many things in order to maintain our ability to deploy at short notice. 

During my time as a young Rifle Platoon Commander in Townsville I also spent a great deal of time in the jungles of North Queensland with my Platoon. In fact at the end of my first year in Townsville the Paymaster drew me aside one day to inform me that of all the personnel in the Battalion I had spent more time in the Jungle than anyone else. 

I became very good at leading my Platoon, particularly in the Jungle, and learned a huge amount from men who had fought in Borneo, Malaya and Vietnam.

During my time at RMC, I had first met men from the Special Air Service (SAS). They impressed me with their abilities and their approach to "soldiering". They were universally pragmatic and extremely competent and their soldiering skills were always impressive. 

At that time I resolved to attempt selection with the SAS and set about doing this in my second year in the Battalion. I participated in a selection board and a series of very demanding physical tests in order to be permitted to attempt selection for the SAS. 

I passed the initial pre-selection board and was permitted to then attempt selection for SAS service. Eventually along with about 150 soldiers and 25 other officers I commenced my "selection course". 

At the end of the selection course 18 soldiers and myself and one other officer were selected. 

The sole indication that I had that I had been successful was that I was directed along with the other officer to go and wash a truck. While I was washing the truck I saw the unsuccessful officers and soldiers being boarded onto buses and sent back to their units. 

Shortly thereafter we were told to get our kit and get into the backs of the trucks in order to go to the Parachute School in order to commence our long SAS training.

No congratulations were offered and it was the first indication I had of the real essence of SAS service which was that you had to continually prove yourself through your competence and ability. There were never any accolades when you were in the SAS. 

In later years as a Commanding Officer of the SAS I drafted an ethos for service in the SAS and the first of those tenets was "The Relentless Pursuit of Excellence". 

I had met Dominica during my last few months at the Royal Military College and I continued to see her throughout my time in 1 RAR when she was studying at the Australian National University. She went on to study Mandarin Chinese at a University in Taiwan and after her return to Australia we decided to marry. 

So Dominica and I embarked on a life journey together that asked a great deal more of a spouse than many other careers. During our marriage she has always been the stalwart and "anchor" in raising our children, Johannah and Samuel, and in supporting me at all times. She is also a very successful senior public servant in her own right.

I joined the SAS in 1982. During my time in SAS I was to serve variously as a Vehicle Mounted Troop Commander, an Operations Officer, a Counter Terrorist Troop Commander a Squadron Second in Command the Adjutant of the SAS Regiment and an Officer Commanding a Squadron before finally in later years becoming the Commanding Officer of the SAS Regiment. 

I had joined as a young First Lieutenant before being promoted to Captain in order to assume my first appointment and left SAS as a Lieutenant Colonel having commanded at all levels from SAS Patrol Commander, through Troop Commander, Squadron Commander and then the Commanding Officer.

My later military career involved a variety of senior command and staff appointments in Army and Joint headquarters and the Headquarters that commanded the SAS and Commando Regiments, Headquarters Special Operations Command. 

I became the Deputy Special Operations Commander and eventually the Special Operations commander during a time of unprecedented operational activity.

The countries you have been to and served in? 

My operational experience extended from the early intervention on East Timor in 1999 through the Solomon Islands and the Middle East to Iraq and most recently Afghanistan. Clearly, there were also many other smaller operations which invariably involved the SAS but which will likely never be written about. 

One of my medals carries the clasp "Special Operations" for service on some of these operations. This is not well known by many as a form of recognition but is highly regarded in the Special Operations community.

After my time as the Deputy Special Operations Commander as a Brigadier, I was sent to the US as the Chief of the Defence Force's Liaison Officer to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In this capacity I was the liaison man between our Chief of Defence and the highest ranking military officer in the US, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. 

The job was fascinating and provided insights into aspects of the US Department of Defense and the intelligence agencies that no other individual could gain. I served in the Pentagon in this capacity for two years, again during difficult times, as we drew down in Iraq and commenced more intensive operations in Afghanistan. 

This was a very difficult time for the US, particularly the Marines and Army, as they were losing many young men and women in Iraq on a daily basis. The sight of the caskets lined up outside the chapel on a daily basis at Arlington National Cemetery will always be in my memory.

I returned to command the Australian Special Operations Command comprising eight separate units and about 2700 soldiers including Commandos, SAS Troopers and Special Operations Engineers. 

Our operational activity did not abate and the operations in Afghanistan became much more focused and precise as the years of operational experience honed our modus operandi. 

The Taliban were no longer able to operate in Oruzgan Province in Afghanistan in the almost certain knowledge that "the bearded devils" would capture or kill them. 

During this period we had many young men wounded and injured and many killed. The deaths were always the most difficult as I felt so deeply sorry for the families of the fallen. I still keep in contact with many of these families.

Following this appointment I was sent back to the US, this time as the Defence Attaché to the United States of America and the Head of the Australian Defence Staff in Washington DC. 

Bit of background on your post to Washington over the last three years?

In this capacity I am responsible for maintenance of all aspects of the US-Australian Defence alliance covered by the ANZUS Alliance. 

The appointment has a very broad remit involving Army, Navy and Airforce and several other less well recognised responsibilities. For instance all major equipments such as the Joint Strike Fighter, the new CH47 Chinook helicopters, the Aegis radar systems and many, many other equipments are purchased through my staff in Washington. 

I am also responsible for liaison with all the Defense Intelligence Agencies, the Joint Staff in the Pentagon and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. In this capacity I am in the Pentagon or other US Government agencies on an almost daily basis.

Have you got in US President Barack Obama's ear at any stage?

No, I haven't met with or been directly involved with President Obama, although periodically I do deal with the White House National Security Staff. 

The President is kept very "close hold" by the US administration and carefully protected at all times. 

I have however had regular contact with the Secretary of Defence, Chuck Hagel, some contact with the Secretary of State, John Kerry and contact with all the intelligence agency heads. 

Clearly, I am in the Pentagon very regularly and my contacts in that building are at the highest levels.

The most thrilling, exhilarating and rewarding experiences along with the proudest moment having served in the military for so long?

I have always been on operations in either Afghanistan or in East Timor. I did not serve for any protracted period in Iraq although I clearly have visited there on a number of occasions.

The most exhilarating experiences have been both on operations and during training with the SAS. Both have on occasions led to periods of "sweaty palms" and "the jitters". Those who have experienced this will know exactly what I mean. Not always pleasant at the time... but invariably a feeling of huge relief in retrospect. Suffice to say I have had my share of very close calls.

The most rewarding experiences have unequivocally been when I have been in command of Australian Special Forces soldiers, both Commandos and SAS soldiers. It is a real privilege to command such dedicated, tough and impeccably trained soldiers. I always enjoy the Australian soldiers irreverent and laconic sense of humour. Australian should rightly be very proud of the young men and women that serve their country in the services. They often come in for select criticism but the reality is that they continue to give for their country…and this is not common in this day and age.

The Proudest Time: When I was awarded the Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) by the Governor General, Quentin Bryce and my mother and father were able to be there to share the recognition with my wife and children as well. 

It meant so much for me after so many years in the SAS and the many challenges that I and my family have had to meet over so many years. I was very happy to share this with Mum and Dad in particular.

What is the role your parents and large family have played in your life?

My parents taught me very early in life that moral courage does matter. Over the years I have been fortunate to see the close correlation between men's moral courage and their physical courage in battle. 

My father and mother also went without a great deal to educate my brothers and sisters and me. This education set me on a path of formal education that continues today. 

I now have several Masters Degrees and other tertiary qualifications but the most enduring and important attribute has been a questioning and interrogative mind…an active mind.

Growing up in a large family in what would today be considered austere surroundings, although I never remember wanting for anything, certainly fitted me well for the Army. 

I couldn't believe that I had as much warm water as I wanted and two eggs for breakfast every day if I wished when I joined Duntroon. All I had to do was my military training, something which I found interesting and, frankly enjoyable, and my academic studies which at the time I largely resented as they took me away from my military training.

I also had to tolerate senior non commissioned officers yelling and swearing at me…but unlike many of my peers this was pretty well de-rigueur as I had worked in the shearing sheds as a young whatever was handed out in the Army was not that difficult. 

I do remember being in a constant state of sleep deprivation for long periods though…I suppose this is normal for young men and it was to set the standard for the years later when on operations when sleep was always in very "short supply".

Your parents mentioned a brush with death in East Timor, what was that all about?

East Timor is not the only place where I have had "brushes with death" but suffice to say it was a very personal experience that perhaps I will, hopefully, forget one day.

The hardest thing about your career?

Unquestionably this is coping with, accepting and managing the loss of life in the Army. 

Being in the SAS or Commandos one grows very close to your compatriots and serving brethren. 

The loss we feel is very real when one of our own is lost in battle or even in training. We all serve in the Army and particularly in the SAS and Commandos in the knowledge that one day your luck may "run out"…but the families and loved ones don't ever make this psychological "pact" or easily accept that this may well be the outcome of their son's or husband's chosen career. 

The loss felt by the families and their loved ones is always "heart wrenching".

I suppose I should say that it's also been a physically tough lifestyle which has consistently asked more of me than most other careers.

What does the future hold for you?

Dominica and I have a farm near Jindabyne in southern NSW. We both enjoy this very much but I will leave the Army at some point, probably in the next 12 months after 38 years service. 

You won't be surprised to hear that I don't intend "resting on my laurels". I expect that I will be working at some level in the Defence, security and intelligence world somewhere in government or in the private sector. 

I am also keen to continue to work overseas in whatever capacity that I can - "He who has not travelled has read but one page of the book of life".

What is your message for people thinking about a career in the military?

Like the Nike advertisement says..."Just do it!" You won't regret it and I can guarantee absolutely that you will learn about yourself and others in a challenging environment where you will make great friends, usually for life. 

If it's not found to be entirely to your liking, then you will have recognition on your curriculum vitae that says "this individual is prepared to meet challenges head on and has worked in a disciplined environment". 

But believe me I can count on one hand those who have served that say that it was a bad experience.

The Ararat Advertiser thanks Major General McOwan for taking the time out of his very busy schedule to respond with such detailed and dedicated responses.