Raised on a dairy farm in the Upper Hunter region of NSW, Don had a good childhood but was expected to pitch in from an early age.
‘I was close to my family, and we never wanted for anything,’ he says. ‘But you were always doing something. It built a resiliency in me because at a young age you were entrusted to do certain things if you proved that you could do them. So you might be charged to start the afternoon milking at the age of 12, or trusted to plough a paddock.’
His parents hoped he would remain in the family business, but Don wanted to see the world. He finished school at 16, spent a year working on the farm full-time, then enlisted in the Army in January 1979.
Don took to the Army immediately, and found the skills he’d learnt on the farm, the routine and demanding lifestyle very familiar. He remained in the Army for the next 40 years.
‘It was the mateship, the sense of belonging, the sense of purpose,’ he says. ‘Purpose is really important in a person’s life. That’s one of the challenges people face when they transition, especially if they’re not leaving by their own choice.’
Don encourages anyone transitioning from the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to engage early with DVA.
‘Ask the questions and seek the support. Plan for your transition, consider all your options and follow the bouncing ball through the process. You also have to prepare mentally for transition. It’s often challenging but stay determined to get through the process. Actively engage with your transition coach, listen to their advice and go to all appointments.’
By 1999, Don had been promoted to Warrant Officer Class One.
The following year he was selected to attend the US Army Sergeants Majors Academy in Fort Bliss, Texas – first as a student for a year, then as an instructor.
In 2004, he was deployed to the Sinai as part of the Multinational Force and Observers, overseeing the terms of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. For his service there and with the Royal Australian Armoured Corps, he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2007.
In 2010, he was sent to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to join the Headquarters for Joint Task Force 633 – the headquarters for Australia’s Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO). There he provided direct support to its then Commander, Major General John Cantwell AO DSC.
As he and General Cantwell visited ADF and Coalition personnel in Afghanistan, Iraq and the broader MEAO, Don saw first-hand the impacts of war on service personnel and others.
In July 2015, he was appointed as the 10th Regimental Sergeant Major of the Australian Army (RSM-A) – the Army’s most senior soldier. The role was a demanding one. Don was in effect the right-hand man to (now) General Angus Campbell AO DSC who was then Chief of Army. But it was a huge honour.
‘I never dreamed of becoming RSM-A,’ he says. ‘My best advice for those aspiring to higher things is to do the job you’ve got, really well, take care of your people and respect others.’
Don was promoted to Member of the Order of Australia in June 2018. He transitioned from full-time service in September that year with a view to retiring but was asked to consider becoming the Repatriation Commissioner. This came as a bit of a surprise because the position has traditionally been occupied by more senior retired ADF personnel.
Don was appointed in mid-2019 for a period of five years. The Repatriation Commissioner is a statutory appointment, which means Don is technically not a public servant and is therefore not a departmental official. The Repatriation Commission also comprises the President (DVA Secretary Liz Cosson AM CSC), Deputy President Kate Pope PSM, Commissioner Gwen Cherne, Veteran Family Advocate and Defence Engagement Commissioner Stuart Smith AO DSC.
‘The members of the Commission help administer the Veterans’ Entitlement Act to make sure that veterans and their families receive the benefits, entitlements, treatment and recognition that is warranted under that legislation,’ he explains. Don is also a part time member of the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission.
A significant part of his job as RSM-A and now as Repatriation Commissioner is gathering ‘ground-truth’. In the Army, it was talking to personnel across the services; now it’s engaging with veterans (serving and ex-serving), their families, carers, ex-service organisations and others – listening to them and feeding their collective views back to the Minister, the Commissions and DVA.
‘For the majority of veterans and their families, DVA’s processes are pretty seamless. But for some, those processes can be long and convoluted. And with that comes stresses. Having said that, mechanisms have been introduced that are designed to take pressure off, particularly in the mental health area. There’s the Veteran Payment, for example, Provisional Access to Medical Treatment and Non-Liability Health Care. But there's more to be done. Is the system perfect? No. But it’s well positioned to provide support for veterans and their families.
‘One of the frustrations I currently have is with what I call the “hope-takers”. People who have a very negative attitude towards government, DVA and other agencies. What they may not realise is that their very vocal negative positions take hope away from the very people who should be reaching out and looking for support. I have no issue with personal views, but negatively influencing others may actually put them at risk. By saying “Don’t trust DVA or stay away, they won’t help you”, it removes hope. And hope is that one thing that we all need in life.
‘So, when needed, I strongly encourage veterans and their families to get in touch with DVA and other support agencies to see what supports are available. They’re ready and waiting to help.’
Corporal Spinks (standing) at Armoured Centre, Hopkins Barracks, Puckapunyal, Victoria, around 1988.
As RSM-A chatting with deployed troops in the UAE, around 2016.
As Repatriation Commissioner with Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell AO DSC, Canberra, February 2020.
With Vietnam veterans on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Binh Ba, 2019, Australian War Memorial, Canberra.