Georgeina Whelan enlisted in the Army in 1985, a year after she finished school. More than 30 years later, she transitioned from the Australian Defence Force (ADF) as a brigadier after a remarkable career in which she specialised in military disaster response and Defence health, deploying to such war-torn or disaster-stricken places as East Timor and Banda Aceh.
In August 2019, Georgeina was appointed the first female Commissioner of the ACT’s Emergency Services Agency (ESA) – an organisation that has hired several other former ADF. Her advice to transitioning ADF is: learn the language necessary to sell your skills, and take full advantage of the transitioning programs provided by Defence and DVA.
Georgeina joined the Army as a way to escape the western suburbs of Sydney and to broaden her horizons.
‘I was in Bankstown shopping centre one day when I saw the recruiting van and I walked in,’ she laughs.
She signed up for the minimum three years, convinced she would leave after that. But after two years serving in the Psychology Corps, she realised she wanted to become an officer. Having passed out of Royal Military College – Duntroon, she soon joined the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps.
‘The Medical Corps at the time was one of the very few corps where women had an active role. I saw it as an opportunity to be in the real Army, and do what I thought was the important stuff: operations.’
In 1998, she was operations officer of the 1st Health Support Battalion as it prepared to deploy to the Papua New Guinean town of Aitape, which had been struck by a tsunami. She played the same role the following year when she deployed to East Timor. In 2005, she was the commanding officer of a field hospital sent to Banda Aceh in Indonesia following the Boxing Day Tsunami.
She found her time in Aceh to be life-changing. Soon after arriving there, she discovered that the local doctor she’d been working with for the previous week had lost his entire immediate family in the tsunami.
‘He still felt that his role was to try and salvage what was left of this hospital to continue to treat the 70-odd thousand of the 300,000 that weren't killed … You catch your breath and you start realising it's not all about you.’
Georgeina, other Australian soldiers and local East Timorese at a concert in Dili, 21 December 1999. Australian War Memorial, P04504.034.
Leaving the ADF
Towards the end of her career, Georgeina became the Director-General, Select Strategic Issues Management for the Chief of the Defence Force (CDF) before becoming the inaugural Chief of Staff, Australian Defence Force Headquarters.
She decided to transition partly because the demands of the job were taking their toll on her four kids, one of whom has Down Syndrome and a severe medical condition. But also because she reached the point as a brigadier where the only promotion available to her was as Surgeon General – a post only doctors have ever held. While her superiors, including the CDF, encouraged her to stay and apply, she felt the promotion wasn’t going to happen.
‘I was at a point where I had broken a fair few glass ceilings, with a small group of other women: a) getting to brigadier, b) getting to brigadier with four children, c) fulfilling three or four roles that traditionally had always been filled by doctors but I sort of knew I wasn’t going to be Surgeon General. I just had to toss up what was important in life for me.’
It was while on long-service leave that Georgeina saw an advertisement for Chief Officer of the ACT’s State Emergency Service (SES). She successfully applied and began the role in October 2017. In May 2019, she was promoted to acting Commissioner of the ESA (of which the SES is a part). In August that year, she was permanently appointed to the role.
She is thrilled to be the first woman in the job.
‘I think working in a community such as Canberra, you can really make a difference. But the [other] benefit of this job is that when I'm home, as my children now say, I’m present.’
Georgeina as Commissioner of the ACT’s Emergency Services Agency.
‘What I say to people is don't sell yourself short. I probably would have left a couple of years earlier if I’d had the confidence to leave. But like a lot of ADF members, you don't think your skills are transferrable and because you're institutionalised for so long, you don't realise for a while that you can operate very well outside that system.
‘Defence does give you the skills that can be readily applied outside. It's just understanding how to apply them because it's a slightly different language in terms of how you describe your skills or what your role was.
‘Defence really trains us well. Our education is good, our leadership development is good, our critical thinking is very sound. Our personnel management skills are very, very good. So we're actually quite a good commodity.’
Georgeina points out that this doesn’t just apply to senior officers.
‘If you walk the floor here, you'll see a number of my staff with campaign medals and deployment experience. There are career pathways out there that you can adapt your skills for, regardless of your rank.
‘I think some of it's a confidence thing as well. What I have found is that the Defence transition program is only as good as you make it. It was far better for me than what it would have been 10 years earlier.
‘I went to my GP and had my transition medical with my new GP. So I'd say to people, take the time to understand what your entitlements are and set up a plan for transition and make the most of it.
‘A lot of people carry a lot of health baggage and don't declare it. Even leading up to transition, I was really suffering from very severe panic attacks. And I just thought, you know what, I'm a senior officer. I need to declare my health issues and get them sorted because quite frankly, if I didn't, I wouldn't be in this job now.’
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.