Jan-Maree Ball joined the RAAF at the age of 19, attracted by the work ethic shown by a group of trainee pilots she knew. Having been commissioned as an officer, she became an air traffic controller until after seven and a half years she transferred to the Navy. Another seven and a half years passed before she resigned from the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in 1996, when she had twin sons.
‘My husband had left the RAAF and had a job that involved travelling extensively,’ she says. ‘He was away 75 per cent of the time. I take my hat off to parents [with twins, who work] but fortunately for me his income enabled me to stay home.’
Jan-Maree found transition to civilian life to be fairly straightforward.
‘It was easier for me because I worked nine to five in the Navy. And I hadn’t deployed. I had also worked full-time before I joined the ADF.’
Her children also gave her a clear focus. However, what she missed was a sense of community. She was living in Sydney while her extended family were back in her native Western Australia. So she went to a nearby church to join a playgroup for her kids and met people that way, as well as others in her local community.
In recent years, Jan-Maree has interacted with ADF personnel and veterans pretty much every day. This has enabled her to identify two factors that make for a successful transition to civilian life.
‘Firstly, they need to have connections – a network around them to provide support. A friend to talk to; a family they can lean on, though not necessarily biological family. So they’re not going out into the world on their own. If they can maintain a connection to the military that’s great, but it’s not essential as long as they have some kind of community to replace it with. That’s where I often see people struggling.
‘The other thing is that they need to have a purpose, whether it be a job, a volunteer organisation or study. The ones that really struggle don’t know what they’re going to do. Perhaps, what they did in the ADF doesn’t easily translate. If they are able to prepare themselves by getting recognition of prior learning sorted out, and thinking about what they’re going to do, and doing some study, they are going to adjust a lot better. The ones who worry me are those who are medically discharged without the opportunity or wherewithal at the time to prepare.’
Aussie Hero Quilts CEO Jan-Maree Ball presenting a quilt to outgoing Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Leo Davies AO CSC.
Aussie Hero Quilts
In 2012, Jan-Maree established Aussie Hero Quilts which makes personalised quilts and laundry bags for serving ADF personnel. As of late 2019, its volunteers have made 11,000 quilts and 22,000 laundry bags. Almost every quilt or bag is personalised with something of significance to the person receiving it, such as their name, the crest of their unit, images of their loved ones, hobbies or passions.
‘Our quilts and laundry bags are a connection to home,’ says Jan-Maree. ‘They’re gifts that say thank you for your service and the sacrifice that you have made to be apart from your loved ones. Our quilts do not have to be works of art, but all are works of the heart.’
She says the experience and skills she acquired in the ADF have been hugely beneficial to running Aussie Hero Quilts.
At the end of her ADF career, she served as a staff officer to the Surgeon General of the ADF.
‘And that was right up my alley. It required organisation skills, which is one of my fortes. It turned out to be perfect training. As was the junior staff officer course where I learned how to prepare and give presentations. Every time I stand in front of an audience to speak, I credit my officer training with giving me the ability to do it confidently and professionally. The organisational skills, the ability to draft documents and letters has been fabulous training for what I do now.’
Looking back at her 15 years in the ADF, she wouldn’t change a thing.
‘I’m incredibly grateful. Most of my girlfriends from school still live in my home town. I experienced things I would never had experienced; it gave me the skills and confidence I would not have had otherwise. It’s made me who I am today.
‘I don’t think I really appreciated my defence family soon after I left. But now 24 years later, I’m incredibly grateful for them. When my house burnt down in 2016, it was the ADF and my Aussie Hero Quilts family that picked me up and supported me and made it very clear I was not on my own. I see the connections between people in Defence and veterans and it’s something really special.
‘The defence force has come a long way in terms of accepting women. When I was in the RAAF … as a 19-year-old, I was the only female in my officer course with 21 men. I went on bivouac as the only woman, including the instructors. There was a lot of sexual harassment. Nothing physical, but it was humiliating. I don’t condone it but it made me tougher; I’m proud that I got through it and didn’t let it beat me.
On Australia Day 2016, Jan-Maree was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for her work with Aussie Hero Quilts. It was an experience she found ‘absolutely overwhelming’.
For more about Aussie Hero Quilts, see the article ‘Making all the difference’ in the Spring 2019 issue of Vetaffairs.
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.