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Sword of distinction goes with pride of service

When Midshipman Sean Keven became the first ever officer to receive the Dick McBurney Sword of Distinction, it was during his intake’s graduation day in December. It’s only now that he’s had a chance to appreciate the story behind it.

30 January, 2024

In July Navy Today ran a story on Lieutenant Commander (rtd)  Dick McBurney MBE and his desire to donate his sword to a deserving officer, someone who had ‘lower deck’ origins like LTCDR McBurney and was now Commissioning From the Ranks (CFR).

MID Keven was one of five officers in Junior Officer Common Training intake 23/02 who had previously served in the ranks. As the top overall CFR graduate, he was presented with the sword, as well as the Commodore Davis-Goff CBE, DSC Trophy, traditionally presented to the best CFR graduate.

The sword stays on display at the Leadership Development Group but any time in his career MID Keven, and subsequent awardees, are entitled to request the sword and wear it for ceremonial occasions.

LTCDR McBurney, originally from Northern Ireland, joined the Royal Navy in 1948, commissioned in 1963 and served in the Royal New Zealand Navy from 1972 to 1981. He and his wife are retired in Waikanae.

The sword, purchased from renowned Naval outfitters Gieves of London, is made by noted German swordmaker Eickhorn Solingen.

It’s quite likely LTCDR McBurney and MID Keven joined the Navy for the same reasons: a desire to leave a small town and see the world.

“Wellsford is a very small town, with not a lot to do,” says MID Keven. “I was looking at the Air Force initially as an avionics technician, but the recruiter pitched the idea of an electronics technician in the Navy.” He didn’t think of himself as a very confident person back then, so it was a big step.

I looked into the Navy and thought, why not, let’s go for it. I knew this would help me grow into someone I could be proud of. And nearly five years on, it’s been the best decision I’ve made.

He joined in early 2019, completing Basic Common Training (BCT) and trade training. He was then posted to HMNZS TE MANA, which was undergoing its Frigate Systems Upgrade in Canada.

“Again, it was someone selling me an idea. While in Canada, my divisional officer suggested I might be a good fit for officer training.” He’d found he liked being challenged, out of his comfort zone, and finding new opportunities to grow. “And the Navy gives you very good opportunities for that.”

It meant nearly six months of officer training. “It’s interesting – as a rating, you’re taught to do stuff, and be efficient about it. So the biggest thing for me was changing the way I thought. As an officer, you step back, look at different factors, juggle the team and the task. It’s a lot more dynamic as you solve problems, rather than be focused on one task. And in JOCT, instructors are a lot more hands-off, letting you figure things out. But if you muck it up, they rein you in and show you.”

MID Keven will now train as a Weapons Engineer Officer. That means a three-year Engineering degree at university, followed by a two-year weapons engineer course in Australia. He will likely post to frigates after that.

It’s hard work, but what he’s noticed is how well the Defence Force manages work life balance for its people.

“There’s always opportunities to take leave, or get away from work for something important. As a whole, the NZDF tries really hard to accommodate its people interests and wishes, especially in the regards of family and sports.”

This was particularly brought home to him when he asked if his partner could be with him in Canada.

“They said, let’s do it, and they made it happen. Considering I was an Ordinary Rate at the time, this was very surprising. We spent over a year in Canada together, in our own apartment, with plenty of opportunities to travel and see the country. It was an amazing experience and is just one instance of what the Navy has to offer.”

Training, study and travel are all great benefits, he says. “But arguably the best thing is being given the opportunity to be part of an organisation that doesn’t care about making the most profits, or expanding their reach to more clients. The Defence Force cares about protecting New Zealand, her interests, and her people. I feel a lot of young people are lacking purpose, community, and a challenge, all of which the Defence Force offers in spades.”