How a Navy Officer found his land legs in Afghanistan

Published on LEUT Kelli Lunt (author)

Location(s): Kabul, Afghanistan

Topic(s): Operation SLIPPER

Lieutenant Commander Paul O'Hara in his full protective kit in Kabul, Afghanistan for Operation SLIPPER. (photo: Unknown)
Lieutenant Commander Paul O'Hara in his full protective kit in Kabul, Afghanistan for Operation SLIPPER.

When LCDR Paul O’Hara was selected for an Operation SLIPPER deployment, little did he know he would end up being land-locked in Afghanistan.

LCDR O’Hara first deployed to the Al Minhad Air Base (AMAB), United Arab Emirates to work within Headquarters Joint Task Force 633 and then had his tour extended to provide support to the Assistant Commander in Kabul.

Leaving his role in HMAS Penguin as the Training Consultancy Manager, LCDR O’Hara initially arrived in October 2012 to AMAB for a three-month tour.

“I was initially posted as the AMAB Visits and Protocol Officer for three months and responsible for looking after temporary, civilian, uniform and VIP visitors to the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO). But I was asked to extend and fulfil the role of Staff Officer to Assistant Commander JTF633, Afghanistan (ACOMD-A), Brigadier Peter Short.”

“I know it is uncommon for a Naval Officer to be deployed on land-based deployment in Afghanistan, let alone a Training Systems Officer.

“At one stage I was the only Navy person at the Headquarters in Kabul but when I left there were three. Kabul was far harsher than anywhere I have ever been before but having completed the role I feel a tremendous sense of pride knowing I have been apart of something that was set up to help a new nation find a meaningful way forward.

“Afghanistan was also an amazing experience but for an old Navy man like myself I can't survive out of water too long and with no coastline to boast of in Afghanistan, I was really a fish out of water!”

Of deploying to the Middle East Area of Operations, LCDR O’Hara said it was something he had sought his whole career.

“I joined the Navy 40 years ago, just after Vietnam finished and hadn't managed to see any Operational Service despite repeated attempts when I was on HMA Ships Stuart, Parramatta and Ballarat in 2009-2010 as the At-Sea Training Officer.

“All of those ships sailed directly for the Gulf after I posted off.”

In preparation for the new role, LCDR O’Hara completed a specialised driving course for the armoured civilian vehicles in Kabul as well as advanced weapons training and urban environment awareness for the local area.

“There are no driving licences in Afghanistan. Everyone just gets behind the wheel and drives so trying to adjust to driving on the right hand side of the road and not trying to hit any of the approximately four million people on the roads was challenging.”

LCDR O’Hara, a Training Systems Officer, was presented with his Australian Active Service Medal with International Coalition Against Terrorism (ICAT) Clasp; Afghanistan Medal, NATO Medal with International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Clasp and the Returned Servicemen Badge by Commander Australian Fleet, RADM Tim Barrett at a presentation on Friday 12 July.

LCDR O’Hara said it was a great honour to receive his medals from COMAUSFLT upon his return to Australia.

“I was unable to receive my medals directly from the Commander I worked for on operation due to timing but I was really honoured to receive my medals from such a senior Naval Officer,” LCDR O’Hara said. “Having COMAUSFLT present my medals and recognise the land-based roles Navy personnel fulfil on operation was really significant.”

Although deploying was a career highlight, being promoted while in theatre was another significant milestone for LCDR O’Hara.

“I celebrated joining the Navy 40 years ago just after I arrived in Kabul and I was also lucky enough to be promoted in theatre. The Commander Joint Task Force, MAJGEN Michael Crane personally presented me with my rank slides at AMAB which was a big thrill for me.”

Upon returning to Australia, LCDR O’Hara has revisited his training foundations in the role Manager External Evaluation at Training Force Headquarters at FHQ, Sydney.