Opinion by Political Reporter Patrick Gower
There could hardly be a worse advertisement for the New Zealand Defence Force right now.
Willie Apiata, VC, quits - and doesn't even get so much as a goodbye from the top brass.
Yes, the Army's poster boy just walked on out - like over 900 other servicemen and women have in the past two years.
It goes like this - morale is in the doldrums, there's a pay freeze and the Government's cost-cutting reforms have really hurt.
All this adds up to people just not wanting to work for the armed forces as much as they used to.
And now the departed includes none other than Willie Apiata - just how symbolic is that?
His departure from the SAS was broken to the public by a muttering Defence Minister on the way to Parliament yesterday.
The Defence Force then rushed out a bland statement - I strongly suspect they did not know what to say.
And finally it put something out on behalf of Apiata himself.
It was all very disorganised - there was certainly no military-style precision.
It all points to there being some deeper issue to Apiata's departure.
As the rumour mill has it, he's been arguing over getting some extra leave to be with his family (denied by the Government).
And then there are rumours about discipline issues and the like (also denied by the Government) that always circulate when there's a rushed departure like this.
The nature of the release does nothing to quell those - and when they are not true it's simply not fair on Apiata.
Or maybe Apiata's departure relates to pay and conditions - the rest of the Armed Forces are certainly complaining.
Are our SAS and the associated special forces’ soldiers remunerated properly?
Do the SAS have the right numbers to ward off attrition issues?
Are there the right pathways for experienced career soldiers like Apiata to stay in the services?
I'm really surprised there was no exit strategy for Apiata.
There's no special role designated for him, no matter how small to keep him attached to the forces - for want of a better description, some sort of "cushy retirement number".
Apiata is going to work for the High Wire Trust - it works with troubled youth.
But the Government/Army has its own programme - the so-called "boot camps". Wouldn't Apiata have been the ideal man for this?
A roving role up and down the country - he could have been put in a "civilianised role" and paid a decent wedge.
Clearly the Army had no plan for dealing with Apiata - its been a shambles.
And the very least, they should have given him some sort of send-off where he could extol the virtues of a career as a soldier.
Maybe the Defence Force muzzled him because they didn't want media asking about morale and pay issues?
It's clear that Apiata still loves the SAS - he's staying on as a reserve.
Maybe he didn't want a big send-off - but that doesn't stop something a little more organised than yesterday.
And what about the amount the Defence Force has pumped into the marketing and PR "brand Willie"? On those grounds alone it's a loss to the balance sheet.
The clumsy goodbye to Apiata is not a good look.
Put it this way: I can't see the NZRFU acting like this when Richie McCaw finally calls it a day.
Whatever the reasons behind this, Apiata's final salute from the top brass was not befitting of the great man's deeds.
Response from Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Rhys Jones:
Patrick, I can assure you and the public of New Zealand that Corporal Apiata, V.C. will get the send-off from the Defence Force that HE wants.
I think if the New Zealand public has learnt anything about Willie since he rose to prominence for his remarkable act of gallantry, it is that Willie is an incredibly humble man who has never sought the spotlight for himself.
Where he has made public appearances and supported causes, these have been where he sensed he could make a difference to his community and New Zealand.
So too it is in the way he wishes to leave the Defence Force. As Defence Force leaders we will first and foremost be guided by Willie’s own wishes to make the transition to his new role beyond the Defence Force in his own quiet and deliberate way.
As Chief of Defence Force, I believe he has earned that right. As to the “rushed” way you claim the NZ Defence Force handled this issue, our statement was of course in response to imminent news media stories we became aware of.
It was not the Defence Force that sought to initiate a story but your own brethren. Again, our statement was in accordance with Willie’s wishes.
With regard to the other innuendo and gossip you speculate about in your “opinion piece”, all I can do is refer you again to the statement that Corporal Apiata, V.C. made through the Defence Force yesterday afternoon.
As regularly voted one of New Zealand’s “most trusted New Zealanders”, I hope Patrick that you will take Willie’s word on this matter - if not my own - that he left his fulltime military role under good terms, and will continue his long association with the Defence Force as a Reserve Force member:
“This has been a decision that I have not taken lightly and it is one that has taken me many months to make. I am leaving to pursue my goals and to grow with my family. I am very proud of my service with the NZDF and I am very grateful for all of the support I have received from the NZSAS and the NZDF.”