Denise Oakenfull always wanted to be a policewoman. After finishing school she worked in the Police Records department at the Wellington police station. Back in the 1970s you couldn’t join the Police until you were 21 and it was recommended to her that she should join one of the defence services to gain experience. 

Initially Denise joined the Royal New Zealand Navy but while on a drivers course at RNZAF Hobsonville she met her husband to be and changed services to the Air Force. 

In 1977 the RNZAF passed an order for equal pay and equal rights, this meant females could now re-muster to different trades that were previously closed off to them. Denise straight away applied to the RNZAF Police.

“I like working with people and I’ve always had an investigative nature, I want to know what is happening and why,” said Denise.

“I questioned a lot of things and I was interested in understanding why people behave the way they do. Corrective measures work in some situations but in others sometimes being able to walk in the person’s shoes and understand their thinking can go a long way. Policing is a very person-focussed job.” 

Graduating from the three month police training course in Wigram in April 1978 saw Denise become the first female member of the RNZAF Police. 

Denise recalls the years on the job as tough but rewarding “You couldn’t be a meek and mild female in this trade, you needed to have a thick skin. In saying that I loved service life and I enjoyed working in the police trade, it was a great job.” 

After five and a half years, and the birth of her second child (there were no maternity uniforms in the early 1980s), Denise hung up her uniform and returned to civilian life but her career with the Air Force wasn’t finished. Denise went on to be the Instructional Techniques instructor at Ground Training in Woodbourne for six years.

For the past 14 years Denise has worked for the United Nations all around the world, from Haiti to Bangladesh, Pakistan, Somalia and Darfur as a Field Security Adviser and Security Trainer.  These roles she says wouldn’t have come about without her Air Force experience.

“The skills I learned and the confidence I gained as a young woman in the Air Force definitely contributed to me being able to make a difference to the safety and security of UN personnel,” said Denise 

“I’ve gone on to get a Masters degree in Terrorism, Safety and Security and have been able to travel to places most New Zealanders will never visit. At the end of it no matter what career you chose if you love what you do, use your common sense and do the hard work needed, it will put you on the right path to reach your goals.”

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