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Navy training from a mother’s view

Jo Priestley writes about the tugs on the heart mingled with pride and celebration as her teenage son trains as a Navy sailor.

11 December, 2023

My son, Alex Greig, 18, has just graduated from his Navy recruit course, BCT 23/02 at Devonport Naval Base in Auckland. From here, he will begin training on base as a chef.

As a single parent with one child, the recruitment and enlistment process has been a rollercoaster of emotions. Pride that he’s chosen such a wonderful career, and sadness that he will be living in another city, 6.5 hours drive away.

The journey has been different for us both. Alex’s journey was one of excitement, mine was a feeling of impending loss. Alex looked at the Navy with a view to travel, camaraderie, and pride at serving one’s country. I scrutinised the Navy as a potential employer and caretaker of my son. Alex researched recruit training and life on board a ship. He wanted to know what a chef got paid and whether he could advance in his career.  I researched war zones and health benefits. But we both came to the same conclusion – the Royal New Zealand Navy was the right fit for us both. The Navy would mould him into a strong, resourceful, independent and confident sailor, and they would care for his emotional, physical and psychological needs in lieu of his family.

Our course was set. The Navy it was.

During Alex’s recruitment process he received great support and advice from the recruitment team in Palmerston North. The best piece of advice they gave him was to join Force Fit - fitness training held twice a week, run by the Defence Force. Alex told me later that if he hadn’t gone to Force Fit, he probably wouldn’t have passed the entry fitness test, and said it made training as a recruit much easier.

There were some compromises along the way. I insisted Alex stay at Feilding High School until he was recruited and to complete NCEA Level 3. I felt it was important that he didn’t close any doors while he waited, just in case his life took a different path. I compromised by not nagging him about results, and perhaps, unsurprisingly, his grades were excellent. However, in the middle of Term 3 Alex was accepted into recruit training. He left school, and we started planning for his departure in August.

Another compromise was using the last few weeks at home to get our house and lifestyle block ready for solo management. Alex worked hard gib-stopping and painting his room and outside we put up a few extra fences to help me manage the animals a bit easier.

It’s hard planning for the departure of someone you love. There’s excitement mingled with apprehension and sadness. But my planning brain took over and we put all our energy into putting together everything he needed to take with him. Shorts, jandals and gumboots were traded for shiny black shoes, shirts with collars, a tie, a belt and a new jacket for shore leave. A note to other parents - Kiwi parade shoe polish is not made any more but is available on Amazon; see-through shower caps can be hard to find; and a squeegee for the tiled shower will come in handy. And don’t forget plenty of writing paper with stamped envelopes, as the only communication you will get from your recruit in the first month or so is letters.

Before we knew it, we were at Palmerston North airport, ticket in hand and lots of last-minute photos and videos, hugs and tears. I harked back to my own departure for my big OE after finishing Uni and waving jauntily at my family as I went through the departure gate without a backward glance or care in the world.  Now it was my turn and it felt like karma.

One of the hardest things to cope with initially was not knowing when I would hear from Alex again. We knew he would have to surrender his phone on arrival, as the Navy set about settling him in to his new normal. As a parent I knew that having no contact was best for the recruit and I understood the reasons behind it. However, getting an unexpected call on Father’s Day (LOL) was wonderful. The next contact was about attending Church Day and the 18 hours of shore leave that would follow.

During this time Alex turned 18.  He was allowed a phone call home, and he told me how they’d sung Happy Birthday to him and made it special for him during the day. I smiled and didn’t mention my own birthday coming up in four days. Let him enjoy his cake.

Sailors in training smile for a photo in a tent, all wearing blue overalls, camouflage vests and tramping pack.

Alex Greig (taking a knee, front right) during Basic Common Training.

Church Day was a revelation. Along with other teary parents lined up with cell phones held high, we watched with pride and swelling hearts our loved ones marching down the road towards us. The absolute concentration on their faces, the precision of their marching, and the smiles when dismissed and they could greet family, was a sight to behold. My son was now a man, walking with other men and women proud to serve their country. He was now part of something bigger than himself.

Church Day showed me how much pride recruits have in Navy history and in tradition. Alex took me to the Devonport Naval Museum and showed me the ship his unit was named after, the HMS Achilles. We walked around and looked at the pictures of sailors that had served before him, so much more real now he was wearing the same uniform. A sobering moment as I mentally pictured Alex serving during WW2, his image in place of one of the other young people pictured on the wall, sailors that might not have survived.

I went home happy and reassured. Apart from being too skinny, he was thriving in his new life, and as a parent that’s all you want to see. The other revelation I learned during Church Day leave was the existence of a private Facebook group called the “Royal New Zealand Navy Leadership Development Group”. How had I not known about this? All the pictures and updates I had craved for in those first few weeks were right there! I saw his first day, some of his new teammates (oppos), his first fitness test, training exercises including lying in a muddy pond in the middle of the night, and best of all, his attestation. To whoever takes these photos, thank you so much, and keep them coming. They are a life raft to family adrift at home wondering how they’re getting on and missing them so much.

Now he’s graduated, and I’m looking forward to having Alex home for a few weeks before he leaves to start his training at Devonport Naval Base as a chef. 

Looking back, the process has been equally joyful and painful. I allowed myself to feel the emotions, good and bad, and then focused on the positive aspects of this new chapter in both our lives. I reminded myself that he had worked hard to achieve this goal, and I needed to support him. I reminded myself that I had raised this wonderful person, and the timing was right for him to explore the world. Meanwhile, I’ve started a travel fund, just in case Alex goes somewhere exciting and gets shore leave, and wants a visitor, well, you just never know what life holds.

Explore a career in the Navy here