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Fijian-born Auckland soldier commands NZ Army construction troop in Tongan exercise

For Lieutenant Jokaveti (Sue) Waqanivalu, being in Tonga’s remote Ha’apai islands with the New Zealand Army’s Exercise Tropic Twilight reminded her of her home country Fiji.

28 May, 2024

As the Construction Troop Commander, the former Auckland Girls’ Grammar School student had a key role in the annual humanitarian exercise, which saw skilled tradespeople support local projects that will help boost the Pacific kingdom’s resilience to natural disasters.

Lieutenant Waqanivalu moved to New Zealand when she was four years old and grew up in south Auckland.

She said the Fiji village she’s from was not unlike those in Ha’apai.

“As soon as we arrived at the wharf and I saw how similar it was, it made the tasks feel a lot closer to home,” she said.

While looking after 37 personnel on deployment was at times a steep learning curve, Lieutenant Waqanivalu said her Fijian heritage meant she had a greater understanding of local ways.

“You make do with what you have out there and you needed to tap into the local networks.

“There was a lot of problem-solving on the spot, something I was very proud of my team for.

“It was fulfilling work, watching the walls go up, the lights turn on and the plumbing switch over.”

Tropic Twilight, which is funded by New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, returned to Tonga for the second year in a row to support the kingdom’s recovery from the 2022 Hunga Tonga - Hunga Ha’apai eruption.

Skilled military tradespeople work on the roof of a building. One soldier hands a drill to another under blue skies,

Lieutenant Jokaveti (Sue) Waqanivalu was the Construction Troop Commander for the New Zealand Army’s contingent deployed on Exercise Tropic Twilight, in Tonga.

Four skilled military tradespeople work in a roof in front of puffy white clouds and blue skies. One soldier extends a tape measure across a beam.

Skilled military tradespeople supported local projects that will help boost the Pacific kingdom’s resilience to natural disasters.

Two soldiers in high vis work on an improved water collection system.

New Zealand Army’s contingent work on water storage while deployed on Exercise Tropic Twilight, in Tonga.

Almost 60 NZ Army personnel were joined this year by soldiers from Tonga, Vanuatu, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Australia, United Kingdom and Japan, spending five weeks in the Ha’apai islands completing health and construction projects.

The main projects for the New Zealand unit included the installation of a new accessible ablution block and kitchenette at the Ha’ateiho Community Centre, and updated electrical work and an improved water collection system for the Meteorological Centre.

They also provided a new playground, improved water collection system, and an upgraded bathroom at Pangai Government Primary School and a refurbished playground at Koulo Government Primary School.

“The community has been so supportive of the work we are doing. Hospitality is important here and they have been bringing us food every few days on site,” Lieutenant Waqanivalu said.

Now in her 10th year with the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), she still remembers taking the bus to Waiouru Military Camp for basic training.

“My parents thought I was going to university and on that bus ride, I remember thinking, what was I doing? But once I finished and marched out in front of my family, I knew I had made the right choice.

She has also reached many sporting achievements in her military career, representing the NZDF on the international rugby stage.