Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Half a century of service in the NZ Defence Force

NZ Army Brigadier Rick Ottaway. File photo / Brett Phibbs
NZ Army Brigadier Rick Ottaway. File photo / Brett Phibbs

With two grandfathers gassed in the trenches of the Great War, and a father who battled Nazis at El Alamein, Rick Ottaway never consciously made a career choice.

Raised in a military family, at a time in New Zealand when every household had in some way been affected by war, he just "kind of gravitated" into the Army.

But little would he realise that it would come to consume his life.

Brigadier Rick Ottaway has just retired from the New Zealand Defence Force after a staggering 51 years' of service.

It makes him one of the Army's longest ever serving members.

"His is one of only a handful of careers I could mention which demonstrate such loyal and lengthy service to our country," Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Tim Keating said in tribute of Brigadier Ottaway today.

The 66-year-old has seen many changes, most for the best.

The soldier saw action Vietnam, two post-war postings to the old colonial "fortress" Singapore, and training postings in Australia. He even spent time working at the New Zealand High Commission in Canberra.

But most recently, he served as the General Manager of Veterans' Affairs New Zealand (VANZ) and Secretary for War Pensions.

His work in what is the most significant rewrite of veterans' legislation in 60 years, the Veterans' Support Bill, would be a "lasting legacy of support" for thousands of current and future veterans, Veterans' Affairs Minister Michael Woodhouse said.

"The fact that Rick's public service has spanned more than 50 years speaks for itself," Mr Woodhouse said.

"From Vietnam, to Veterans' Affairs, he has served New Zealand with impeccable honour and loyalty."

Brigadier Ottaway was born in Auckland on Waitangi Day, 1948.

He attended Mt Roskill Grammar School and enlisted with the Army in 1964 as a cadet with the Regular Force Cadet School at Waiouru.

"I guess I just gravitated towards it. It just seemed like a good thing to do," he told APNZ this week, reflecting on his career.

"It was an attraction. School cadets, like so many other young men, sparked my enthusiasm."

He attended Officer Cadet School and graduated into the New Zealand Army Service Corps in the rank of Second Lieutenant in 1968.

After he was commissioned, he went off to Singapore and served with the infantry battalion before being posted to Vietnam for a 12-month tour of duty in 1971/72.

He was with the 1st New Zealand Army Training Team that advised and mentored the South Vietnamese Army, based where the Mekong River crosses the Cambodian border into south Vietnam.

At the time, the Americans and their allies were fast winding down from the controversial conflict.

At Easter 1972, the North Vietnamese Army made a major push.

Brigadier Ottaway, like so many old soldiers, is reluctant to provide too many details, which are perhaps better served over a late night pint.

"It was an interesting time to be there ..." he says carefully.

"That was what we trained for. I suspect that's what we wanted to do, what we were keen to do. I mean, if you didn't really feel that, then you were probably wasting your time joining in the first place.

"You can argue about the rights and wrongs later, but at the time it seemed like a good challenging thing to do, so you get on and do it."

After another Singapore posting, and training roles at Burnham, Waiouru, and Linton, he completed a top brass training college in Australia before joining the New Zealand High Commission in Canberra.

On his return to New Zealand in 1990, he took command of the Ready Reaction Force.

That period of his career is one of his most fond recollections.

"It was then that we really started off with the deployments that have been the feature of the last 20 years," the father-of-two said from his Wellington home.

"Whilst I was there we raised and sent troops to Bosnia and Somalia. It was a time when the Army changed pace and took on a somewhat different role from what we'd done earlier on. We just got on and did it, and I think we did it very well."

The Army has evolved and changed with the times well during in his time, Brigadier Ottaway believes.

One of the most important progressions, he says, has been in the identification of post-traumatic stress disorders suffered by some returning soldiers and the professional help that's now available for them.

"There is a far greater willingness now to accept that the consequences of war can lead to long lasting effects."

Brigadier Ottaway was due to retire at the end of the year, but thought the timing was right.

He'll still be involved with the military, helping organise the Gallipoli centenary celebrations which will take place next year.

And he also has time to reflect on what has been one of New Zealand longest, and impressive, military careers.

"People might look at me and think, 'My god, he's only had one job his whole life ... '

"But it's not really been like that at all. I've had as many jobs as most people, except it's been within one organisation."

Asked what he will remember most from his time, he's quick with the reply: "It's been a great organisation to be a part of, whether you're in uniform or within a civilian role. It's been very satisfying, all because of the relationships I've built up with a huge amount of fine people. You can't pay money for that."


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