Te Awamutu woman Irene Wardlaw has just got back from an overseas trip of a lifetime that she says not many people will get the chance to take.
In early December, Irene, 68, travelled to conflict zones in the Middle East to give out annual Royal New Zealand Returned & Services Association (RSA) Christmas gift parcels.
For 78 years, the RSA has been sending gift parcels to give deployed New Zealand sailors, soldiers and airmen and women a taste of home during the holiday season.
The $80 parcels are sponsored by retailer Pams and include peanut slabs, chocolate biscuits and liquorice, among other treats.
Irene, who has volunteered with the RSA for 11 years as a welfare and district support coordinator, was the first female and support services manager to be selected for the trip.
"It was a privilege and an honour to be selected," Irene says.
"To me the parcels are all about support and looking after the service people."
Irene was nominated for the seven-day trip by the RSA National Office and was then approved by the New Zealand Defence Force, which recalled her back into service for one week.
While in the Middle East, Irene's stay included a Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) camp with New Zealand soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula called South Camp, that housed 12 different nations.
South Camp is located on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula and overlooks the Red Sea.
A big portion of Irene's time overseas was spent in the air, clocking up 44 hours of flying time between all her destinations.
As well as overlooking the parcel hand-out, Irene spoke to the soldiers about how the RSA can support them and their families, including the RSA's Poppy Appeal.
"I was also there to let soldiers know what support is available for them or their dependents if they are to ever have any problems or issues back home," Irene says.
Irene says the experience and seeing the soldiers' working environments has better equipped her with the knowledge to best help younger veterans of operational service when they return home.
"Being able to see where they are working has made me realise what they have been through," she says.
"After my talks with them I was able to come home and I have already put things into place for some people."
Irene was a part of the Royal New Zealand Army Nursing Corps (RNZANC) in the 1970s after studying nursing at Cook Hospital in Gisborne.
She now volunteers for the RSA and is the district support coordinator, looking after the Waikato, Bay of Plenty, King Country and Coromandel districts as well as the Cook Islands.
Her key role is to advocate for and provide support services for all serving and ex-service members of the NZDF, as well as for their dependents.