As Australia’s only female Navy helicopter pilot to fly in Afghanistan three times as part of Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) in the role of aircraft captain and formation commander, Kate Munari led teams in some of the toughest conditions any workplace can present.
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Q and A with Kate Munari, aircraft captain and formation commander (Ret’d), RAN
The veteran navy pilot joins Defence Connect journalist Nastasha Tupas to discuss leadership and teamwork, critical decision making, how she has capitalised on her military experience to forge a successful career in the civilian corporate space, to empowering women for whatever comes across their professional or personal paths. Munari joined the Royal Australian Navy at the age of 18, through the Australian Defence Force Academy and completed a Bachelor of Science degree. Qualifying as a helicopter pilot in 2006, her skill and dedication to flying led to her being selected for a four and a half year posting to the Royal Navy, UK. There, Munari flew as part of Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) who fly in support of the Royal Marine Commandos.
Defence Connect: Let’s rewind and start from the beginning, what got you interested in joining the ADF?
Kate Munari: I guess as a kid, I was into everything, but then I wasn’t into any one thing in particular. I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do. I knew that I did not want a nine-to-five job, that was never going to suit me. Interestingly, the Defence Force recruiting team came to my school when I was in year 11. I attended that presentation, and I was just hooked from the moment I saw it. It looked exciting, there were adventures to be had and it definitely was not going to be a nine-to-five job.
DC: When you initially applied for the ADF, did you experience any roadblocks?
KM: When I first joined, I wouldn’t have said there were any roadblocks. However, there were still a couple of areas within defence that were off limits to females, which has since changed. I guess [for me] it was just the normal challenges of joining to be a pilot.
There are so many tests, so many interviews, such a lengthy process, but then again, I’m quite happy with that challenge. That’s what I wanted to do. I was quite motivated to step through all those challenges to get in.
DC: How did you navigate a male dominated workplace and advance your career?
KM: Job competency is key. Focus on your skills, your abilities and your gender should never be viewed as a limiting factor. There is nothing about your gender that will stop you doing a job. You’ll be trained to fulfil whatever role comes up, and you’ve just got to back yourself, if it’s something you want to do, and you believe you’ve got the ability to do it, then go and give it a go.
DC: What was your experience like as a pilot and leader during your military career?
KM: I loved being a military pilot. Part of the job fundamentally comes with a lot of responsibility, like straight up, you’re responsible for the lives of your crew, the passengers on board in this multi-million-dollar helicopter. So, I found that was a motivation for me to do better and work harder, to just try and be the best pilot I could be because I had that level of responsibility — so that was a real positive. For me, even in light of recent events in Afghanistan, my three operational deployments are still without a doubt the highlight of my military career.
DC: What has stuck with you the most during your deployments?
KM: My deployments as part of Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) were the pinnacle of my career. Most spend years training for the possibility of going operational. When I got that opportunity, it was what I’d wanted. You are working at your peak mental and physical performance while you’re out there. I enjoyed rising to that challenge and meeting the everyday challenges that came whilst we were out there in Afghanistan.
From a bit more of personal perspective, it was an adventure with my mates. The people I worked with are the only people who ever really understand what it was like being out there and what you were faced with, what you had to deal with to achieve your mission. Some of my closest friends are still the people who I deployed with to Afghanistan, so I take that away as well.
DC: How do you tackle making tough decisions quickly under enemy fire?
KM: There’s a lot that goes into making decisions in those sorts of moments. First off, focus on what you can control, and let go of the rest. Don’t waste your time thinking about the ‘what ifs’ or the ‘I wish,’ [scenarios] in relation to the things that are outside of your control. I just think there’s no point in even wasting your time and effort on them. Focus on what you can control and make the best of those situations. Those decisions that you can make and put your input into, those things that you can control. That’s really important. I guess, another one is always work hard and give everything your best effort because sometimes you don’t get a second chance.
This is actually something I cover during my motivational speaking, which I also do as another job. The short version of it, is, during those moments, focusing on the here and now and what needs to be done in the here and now is key. Maintaining situational awareness of everything around you that goes into making that decision, and then making a decision, and making it the best decision you can in that moment.
I don’t mean to simplify. When I speak about it, there’s a whole lot more behind it, but they are the things in that moment that you’ve really got to do. I often get asked that sort of question when I’m doing speaking engagements, because a lot of people are like, how can you possibly switch off all the all those crazy thoughts that could run through your head in those sorts of moments, and actually make a good decision?
I’ve had years of training, and it is about focusing on what needs your attention in that moment. That really is key. The moment you start thinking about the people down the back, or what happens if something goes wrong?
As soon as you go down that path, you get distracted from making that decision, and it will affect your ability to make that decision. So, you just got to stop yourself when your mind runs away — and it takes practice.
DC: Which of your military skills have been the most transferable to your career now?
KM: If you put me in a box for my service, I was a helicopter pilot. However, I’m now a motivational speaker and an air accident investigator. None of those jobs were on the list of the standard things you can do when you leave the military. When people transition from the military, they’ve probably had years of training, acquired skills, and experiences, but military personnel don’t know exactly how their skills translate. So, I think veterans transitioning into a civilian career do need help in that sense.
It’s not that we don’t have the skills, we just know them by a different name, or we had just used them in a military environment — but the skills are just as relevant, we just need to translate that into civilian space. I feel everyone who leaves defence can find something that’s relevant to their experiences.
The military equips people with so many different skills. For me, everything from my leadership skills, and my personnel management skills to communication, decision making, and even critical thinking apply in my current roles as a motivational speaker, and as an air accident investigator.
It is good to see that Defence has done some work in this space and worked with numerous civilian organisations to educate them as to what military personnel can bring to the party, but I also think there’s still work to be done in that space.
DC: There has been a national conversation about bolstering support for veterans that are transitioning out of the ADF in the areas of mental health and job opportunities, do you think this should have been as prominent in the past as it is now?
KM: I guess it’s topical now with all that is happening in Afghanistan.
It just needs to be said that for those individuals who served in Afghanistan, what’s happening now, it doesn’t diminish your efforts at the time. As military personnel, our service was called upon to go, try and fulfil the mission. I think it’s worth noting that every defence service person is going to be different. They’ll be dealing with mental health challenges differently; some may need support when they get out; and some don’t need any support when they get out.
When personnel are still serving in the military, that’s when I think more effort, perhaps, could also be put into looking after people’s mental health… whilst they’re still in defence, still surrounded by all their normal support networks and their normal routine and structure. To me that’s a better time to be dealing with any issues.
Like I said, it’s very tough. Veterans’ mental health was topical before the Afghanistan situation shifted as much as it has. The best way to put it is, the current situation is not in the control of the individuals who once served in Afghanistan. As individuals we did the best job that we could at the time and just because the ultimate mission may now have failed, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth trying for at the time, and it doesn’t diminish the efforts that were put in at the time.
It needs to be remembered that we were out there doing a job, the job that our countries had asked us to go and do, to support a mission that we believed would make a positive impact. The efforts we put in are not diminished by the outcome at the end, because we went there, did our best, we tried, and it was worth trying for.
DC: What would your advice be to women who want to apply for roles at the ADF, those who are currently in the ADF who want to advance in their careers, and women aspiring to be leaders in their industries?
KM: I had a really positive experience throughout my military career. Then, I was outnumbered heavily by men, but my gender wasn’t a limiting factor for me. It didn’t really enter my mind, it didn’t stop me trying to be a pilot, even though when I joined, there was only one female pilot in the whole of the Navy. I never let it stop me, I never let it hold me back because I didn’t focus on gender as being an aspect that would limit me.
It’s better to go for something than cross yourself out for something that perhaps isn’t a factor at all. That’s how I always looked at it. Like I said, job competency is key. Often, the reality is that it’s not actually gender that’s going to stop you doing anything, it might be something else, like not having the right skills to do whatever job you’ve gone for.
Rarely is gender a factor on its own, it shouldn’t stop you from doing something — unless you let it.
This article originally appeared in the Defence Connect maritime special edition, which can be viewed here.