Story and picture by Alistair Gray
Lt. General Mark Evans AO DSC (Retired) and U3A Vice President Juri Linins
One of the great benefits of writing for the LOCAL is the many interesting people you meet, all with a story to tell. Meeting Lieutenant General Mark Evans (Retired) was no exception. Here was a man who worked closely with Major General Peter Cosgrove, then as Brigadier commanding the 3rd Brigade on operations in East Timor during Operation Warden and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for distinguished command and leadership. Mark Evans served in the Australian Army between 1976-2011 and as Chief of Joint Operations between 2008-2011 when he retired. Mark, an old friend of U3A Vice President Juri Linins, was on Bribie to give a lecture and bring alive his experiences in East Timor for those completing the U3A program ‘Australia in 12 Wars’ tutored by Juri Linins.
Wow! What a talk! What an extraordinary leader! It is great to see U3A bringing such high quality speakers to the Island. My only regret was the presentation wasn't filmed so the many fabulous insights about a recent Australian military involvement in East Timor could be shared and kept for future generations and form part of the U3A learning library. After Mark's presentation, I had an opportunity to chat and ask him a few questions.
About leadership and the challenge of managing a large team.
What was important at the time was that most of the Brigade, not all of them, had never been on active service. It was quite unsettling for people because nobody knew what we were going to do, which created ambiguity and uncertainty. I think it was necessary to appear calm and steady at least. I think that calmness and steadiness and not overreacting, cascade down. They often say that an organisation looks like its commander, manager or boss, by how they carry themselves. The most important thing was calmness and a measured approach.
The Army has a command mentality in many ways but in a situation where you are all feeling your way and have your discipline, would you be open to a lot of communication? Pretty critical, I would have thought.
Yes, you are right. As explained in the presentation, before we went into the mountains for seven weeks. What we did during that time was establish relationships and get the measure of all your commanders and know who goes off and gets angry. You then brought them together as a team because I needed people who were stable when things went wrong and who just kept going without complaint. We just had to get on with it.
I find it very interesting with the parallel of business, government challenges and the concept of calmness. I think these days when there are problems, people are pretty explosive.
I observe the same. Here's what we would do every day. We would sit down and go through what we were going to do so that every person understood what we were doing, it was quite a collaborative approach. We would check everyone was happy with what we had achieved and with what we wanted. At that point we've had everybody's vote. Now it is my turn, and when I say we've going to do this, that is what you are doing. It was collaborative but at the same time, I was directive.
Looking over your career, what would you say was your hardest day?
The hardest days were when we lost people. The buck stops here. It is accepting responsibility and I am not sure people are so good at that. I think you know with the deaths of Australian soldiers or citizens, it is tough. You think what could I have done better? But you see, you have to accept that as part of your military life. Those are tough days when we lose people in action and everything else fades against that.
What do you say was a career highlight for you?
There are so many. I am a very positive person with the ability to turn a story of adversity into a triumph. Timor was one of those highlights. Becoming the Head of Operations was a highlight. But as I said there are so many small things, like one of the soldiers saying something nice. Timor in terms of operations and having the strength and support.
What would your advice be for someone looking to join the armed forces?
I think it is a wonderful profession. What I liked about it was the camaraderie and teaching about life, how to deal with problems and problem-solving. You meet so many great people and develop great friendships. For example, I have just walked the Kokoda Track. A friend of mine called me and invited me to join him, to which I agreed. We had done the SAS course together in 1976. When I say I will be there, I will be there and he knows that. That's what makes the richness of management.
Tony Abbott has talked about conscription and compulsory military or community service in the last few days. Do you have any views?
I can't comment on conscription because I know there are many issues around its mechanics. But what I can say though, is that if you give, it enriches you. So, I am saying that service to your country in whatever form is a good thing and I recommend it.
Veteran's mental health issues?
Yes, I was challenged. You can't put your template on other people's trauma and understand what other people go through. I am positive about what the government has tried to do for veterans. I think it doesn't always play out well but the intent was right. I believe there is a positive understanding in the community. There is a big lesson for us, if you put your forces in harm's way, there is a cost. And if you put a monetary value around that cost it would almost be too expensive. You know there is a cost, a human cost. And you need to know that before you send anybody into action.