Damian Cantwell is now the ACT Electoral Commissioner, having left the Army in 2017 as a brigadier. Though his is a full-time job he finds time to also command the 9th Brigade, which comprises assigned Army Reserve forces in South Australia and Tasmania. His advice to other Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel transitioning into civilian life is to fully prepare yourself before leaving the ADF, and recognise that civilian life and possible continued service in the Reserves has many benefits.
Damian Cantwell comes from an Army family. He is one of eight children, and remarkably he has four brothers who have served in the Army. His wife was also in the Army, as was one of his two children.
Damian joined the Navy as an officer in 1980, straight out of school, and four and a half years later he transferred to the Army.
‘It wasn't until I was in the first week, at Officer Cadet School at Portsea, in the middle of winter and zipping myself into a sleeping bag in a tent in the freezing cold wind that I'm thinking, oh my God, what have I done?,’ he laughs. ‘That was probably the only five seconds of regret I’ve ever had. I loved [the Army]. It was exactly what I was looking for … I've been very fortunate in the opportunities that have been given to me at every level.’
His 33 years in the Army included a range of operational, command, regimental, staff and training appointments in Australia, the UK, the USA and the Middle East. He deployed to Bougainville in 1994, Kuwait and Afghanistan several times, including in 2009 when he coordinated security and support to the Afghanistan Presidential elections. He was a trainer at places like the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies, and served as the Chief of Defence Force’s Liaison Officer to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon, among many other appointments and postings.
He left when it became clear to him that he wasn’t going to be promoted any further.
‘You expect to [get] two or three postings within each rank at the senior officer level after which if you're not going to advance, then you can expect to be asked to transition into the Reserves. You can’t stay for ever. You’ve got to give the opportunities to others coming up behind you.
‘So, I knew it was coming. It's sometimes difficult to accept it, but you've got to move on. You’ve got to get ahead of it. So I looked around and wrote a couple of job applications; not something senior officers or most people in the Army are accustomed to … You have to actually look for opportunities yourself; not just wait for them to come to you.’
‘Army’s administration of their senior officers as they transition out from full-time service is very, very good. They give you enough time to plan your exit … [but] there’s a bit of self-help required. I had attended a couple of the ADF transition seminars for the senior leadership group. I recall people saying: just think about where you want to be at. You've got a bit of a choice, you don’t have to leap at the first job you’re offered.
‘I looked to those areas where I could continue to provide some form of service or contribution to the broader community.’
As Electoral Commissioner, Damian is responsible for: the conduct of elections and referendums for the ACT Legislative Assembly; the determination of electoral boundaries for the ACT; and provision of electoral information, education, advice and services to a wide range of clients.
It was the same commitment to service that led him to also find time to command 9th Brigade.
‘It was [First World War General Sir Harry] Chauvel who said that every day in the service is a privilege. Every day in command, all the more so. That’s why I do what I do.’
Investing in your family
Damian hiking in Tasmania with his wife Susan.
‘There is a burden upon military families. Not everyone recognises that. DVA does. Government recognises it. [My family and I have] had numerous postings; we must have moved 25 times in all … I think my kids both coped well with it. I think it was a broadening experience for them. Though not all kids think that way.
‘Sometimes, you can just assume that the family will always be there and fully supportive. It’s a big presumption. So whenever you can, reinvest in your family. Make time for them. You can’t always be there for them but when you have the opportunity to be there, make sure you are fully [present].
‘A senior officer I knew would get home, put his phone away and not look at it for at least the first three hours. That three hours was family time.’
Damian’s elder brother John rose to the rank of major general before he discharged due to post-traumatic stress that he’d been struggling with for some 20 years. He recounts his experiences in his book Exit Wounds.
‘[Serving in the ADF] doesn't come for free and it cost him a lot,’ says Damian. ‘He's had the courage to battle through some of those challenges. Nowadays, he’s okay. He’s getting all the support and he’s out there and doing well. But he has had some very difficult times … it’s important to understand that if it affects someone of that rank it can affect anybody.
‘The [ADF] is much more alert to helping us build resilience. The network is more aware of how we can perhaps lend assistance and the first message is, it's okay to ask for help. The national R U OK campaign underlines that as a society we're more aware of these sorts of stresses. In that regard, DVA has also played an important role in assisting members and veterans.’
‘Whatever your rank, get ahead of transition … So early on, plan the next five years out.
‘And transition is not in itself a bad thing. It can be a very enlightening and liberating experience once you see other opportunities where you can apply yourself. Or perhaps where you want to continue serving as a member of the Reserves.
‘It’s a chance to retain and develop some stability as well. You don't have to move every few years. And it’s a chance to reinvest in your family as well as yourself.
For tips on transitioning successfully, see the Leaving the ADF page on the Defence Community Organisation website.
If this story has raised any issues for you, please contact Open Arms – Veterans and Families Counselling, which provides support for current and ex-serving ADF personnel and their families. Free and confidential help is available 24/7. Phone 1800 011 046 (international: +61 8 8241 4546) or visit www.OpenArms.gov.au.