"My resilience stems from learning how to start again"

From a nomadic childhood, to the youngest Australian Defence Force Academy cadet and now the new director of Veterans SA, Catherine Walsh shares her stories from along the way.

Where did you grow up?

The first years of my life were spent in regional SA, where my parents were small business owners. My dad had a background in construction and has always been a very practical problem solver and clever with his hands while Mum worked in state government and private enterprise. My parents decided to purchase a bus which Dad converted into a mobile home for Mum, Dad, my sister Susan, our two dogs and me to live in while travelling around Australia for three years. 

As my parents were both so versatile in their skills and experiences, they were able to obtain work in regional towns and we would stay for a number of months. Susan and I attended the local school during these times, but otherwise my first three years of primary school was by correspondence. I remember going to the local post office to pick up parcels of workbooks that were completed under the tutelage and discipline of my mother. The last place our family lived interstate was Ballina in northern New South Wales before returning to South Australia during the Bicentenary. 

Upon reflection this all sounds like a rather hippie lifestyle, but that was not the life we led. It was an adventure that, in my formative years, was an early introduction to a diverse range of people - you never know who you would strike up a conversation with in a caravan park. I developed a lasting curiosity in the richness of people's stories from all walks of life. 

Of those people you met, who left a lasting impression?

I was fortunate to meet people whose life experiences and background were so different to those of my family, it was an education in the truest sense of the word. If I look back, I guess these foundational experiences were my origins of empathy and respect for others. If we had not lived this somewhat nomadic life, I imagine my childhood would have been shared with others who had similar lived experiences to me – by virtue of where we lived, where I went to school, the opportunities or limitations that come with living in small towns.

One of my lasting impressions from our travelling years were the couples in their 20s, who we met in towns like Kalbarri and Albany in southern Western Australia. They had such a carefree approach to life and appeared to have such freedom and complete agency in the decisions of what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go. Seeing this firsthand made me realise that I could also pick my own adventure in life, and that when I grew up, I did not have to live my life a certain way or be pigeon-holed because it is what others expected. If someone told me where my place in the world would be, I did not have to accept it blindly.

One memory of kindness that has always stuck with me was from when we were living in Albany. My family struck up a friendship with a young surfer from Wollongong called Greg who lived near our bus, and he gave me a picture he had drawn just for me. It is a vividly coloured cartoon owl, stuck on a roughly hewn backing and frame that he had also crafted. As there was no expectation or anticipation of the gift, and it was so thoughtful, his generosity has stayed with me. I still treasure this picture, and it has always featured on the walls of the many homes I have lived in.

What were the challenges of being so transient?

I found it hard always being the new kid. I went to six primary schools and through two distance education systems in seven years. Thanks to our family travels, I learned how to make new friends and quickly settle into new environments – school, sporting clubs and the like. Those early experiences set me up for my professional life in the military, when I moved from city to city, and also my subsequent public service career, where I have moved into new teams and new roles every few years. It always feels like starting from scratch, and like that first day of school all over again, that nervous excitement and anticipation. That said, it was also a positive adventure! Those two feelings can coexist. My resilience stems from learning how to start again, and knowing that I could.

What's your most vivid childhood memory?

I remember all sorts of experiences from our travels around Australia – bunkering down in the bus in Tom Price (Western Australia) when a cyclone nudged us; seeing long road trains sharing the roads with us (we called them the Christmas Express); amazing sunsets over the west coast and seeing Sturt's desert peas in the red sand.

Our home in SA was in the Adelaide Hills. I remember riding my bike around our block with Susan or racing dangerously down the big hill to the bottom of the street. My bike was blue and Susan's was green, and both had the familiar "donk donk" noise of spokey-dokes (does anyone else remember those?). In winter we would have the weekly pilgrimage to Woodside in the inevitably miserable and cold weather for netball matches and then huddle round the combustion heater to dry off once we came home.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I always have admired people who knew early in life what their calling would be. At high school I found myself at the intersection of believing that anything was achievable and the practical reality that I probably could not make a living out of my love of history. I settled on wanting to study law, and took a roundabout route that saw me only achieving that ambition a few years ago. 

In Year 12, the Australian Defence Force recruiters visited school and spoke about the opportunities that existed in the military, particularly undertaking university at the Australian Defence Force Academy. My grandfather served in the Second World War, and I did not have any other connections to the military. However, the recruiters were very compelling and before I knew it, I commenced my career as an intelligence officer in the Royal Australian Air Force.

Catherine and sister Susan ready for school in front of their bus in Tom Price, Western Australia in 1986.

Catherine and sister Susan ready for school in front of their bus in Tom Price, Western Australia in 1986.

Catherine and Susan in Albany, Western Australia in 1986.

Catherine and Susan in Albany, Western Australia in 1986.

Catherine with her mum, dad and sister, at her farewell luncheon, thrown by the Governor-General in 2006.

Catherine with her mum, dad and sister, at her farewell luncheon, thrown by the Governor-General in 2006.

Second year at the ADFA: Catherin in her RAAF ceremonial uniform for the 1998 graduation parade at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.

Second year at the ADFA: Catherin in her RAAF ceremonial uniform for the 1998 graduation parade at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.

What has been the most pivotal moment in your life?

Deciding to join the RAAF and heading to Canberra to attend university at ADFA was a big deal for me. I was going into a totally different environment, away from my small and close-knit family. When I look back on that decision and the path it took me, I am incredibly appreciative for the wealth of experiences and variety of remarkable people who influenced my life to make me the person I am today.

What's been your biggest challenge in life?

I always find this question difficult, as there are the challenges that are life's curveballs, or the challenges I made conscious decisions to pursue with the uncertainty of what will happen next.

In the past 12 months, I have come up against two great challenges. First was walking the Kokoda Track last year, which was the most mentally confronting experience for the months leading up to it, and then the ten days actually in PNG. I do not think I could ever have felt fully prepared for the Track, no matter how much I trained. It was certainly physically demanding, and there were times I felt like giving up. I discovered a lot about myself and how, for me, success stems from self-belief and literally just taking one step at a time. Nothing can take away that feeling of climbing up the side of yet another hill and then looking up and seeing the Owers' Corner monument, knowing I had made it. 

The second was only a few months ago, when I accepted my current role as Director Veterans SA. To come home to Adelaide after so many years and take up a role where I felt I could bring my skills and strengths to bear for the benefit of the Defence and veteran community who were pivotal to my professional and personal growth through my early career. Any change brings some apprehension, but this transition into a new environment was complicated by the uncertainty of COVID-19 and that the first five weeks were spent entirely working from home, peering at people through the camera on my Surface Pro. This was the most unorthodox start for any new job, and it was challenging for me and I suspect many of my colleagues and the Veterans SA team as well. 

Tell us about your career and the places it's taken you.

I have enjoyed such a remarkable professional life, both in the RAAF and other careers and ventures I pursued. The years I was in the full-time Air Force took me across Australia and overseas on operations and exercises. I have been to San Diego, a nuclear submarine base in Scotland to be part of the headquarters on exercise, Egypt for Arabic language training and to the Middle East for two tours with our maritime patrol aircraft, including part of the inaugural headquarters in 2003. 

I also spent 12 months as the aide-de-camp to the Governor-General, which afforded me the privilege to be in the same room as some of the most clever people and powerful decision-makers in their chosen fields. That role was humbling as I met brilliant and generous people who just did what they did because that was the right thing to do and they never sought recognition or accolades.

Even though I left the full-time Air Force, I am still an active reservist with the best job ever – I am part of the ground crew team that supports the RAAF Hot Air Balloon, which travels the country and delights thousands of Australians every year.

Tell us about being aide-de-camp to the Governor-General and what that entailed.

When I worked at Government House in Canberra, there were three aides-de-camp, one from each branch of the military. We would work with businesses, across government, with the diplomatic corps and community organisations to ensure that the protocols around the Governor-General's attendance were all in place and then often accompany Their Excellencies to these events and activities. Government House also used to receive many visitors, from one-on-one calls to investitures (when people receive their honours and awards for Australia Day, the Queen's Birthday and other significant occasions), to hosting visiting heads of state from other countries, to school groups who would come to Government House as part of their visit to Canberra. As an ADC, I would support each of these activities. The visiting school tours were always so much fun. It was my job to talk to the student about the constitutional roles of the Governor-General, and as I was in my formal service dress (long sleeve tunic and the aiguillette – the golden rope adornment around my right arm and over my shoulder), most questions ranged from my shiny patent shoes to the famous people who had called by Government House.

Can you tell me about a couple of those brilliant and generous people you met during that time?

The investitures were always such a special occasion, as this is when Australians recognise their peers for the contributions they make to our great country. The background stories and selfless acts of community service of many recipients of the Medal of the Order of Australia really stand out to me. I vividly remember one lady who had been a foster mother for more than three decades; she had dedicated her life to fostering because that was the right thing to do, not for accolades. It was a real honour to see an everyday Australian recognised for her extraordinary achievements and her deep commitment to children. 

Being part of the Vice-Regal party visiting community groups and regional towns was also humbling. Etched in my heart forever is the loud and passionate singing of the national anthem by the CWA ladies, which remains one of the most moving experiences of my life.

Catherine with former Governor-General Michael Jeffery and Mrs Jeffery at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Catherine with former Governor-General Michael Jeffery and Mrs Jeffery at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Tell us about being the youngest ever ADFA cadet. It must have been quite an experience joining the RAAF at just 16.

In retrospect it was a huge decision for the RAAF to let me join and study at the Australian Defence Force Academy at the age of 16 – I didn't realise it at the time! I was always the youngest in my class at school, so this felt no different, but I guess being away from home and at the edge of adulthood made my youth compared to the 18-year-olds seem more stark. The social maturity gap was significant – I was very naive when I left home, yet whilst I missed my family dreadfully during those first weeks and months, I developed strong friendships with people who looked out for me, and I felt supported by the institution and the people within it. Regardless of age, it is jarring to leave the comforts of home and suddenly be in a strange place where there is such focus and value placed on seemingly trivial things like shoe shining and tight hospital corners on newly made beds, after having ripped said sheets off a perfectly fine bed at 6am, slinging them over your shoulder, running out onto the landing and yelling reveille (wake up) at the top of your lungs before then remaking the bed. I think that despite my age, the challenges, frustrations and sense of achievement I felt in those initial few weeks were common with many of my older peers.

Tell me about studying law. Why did you decide to make good on that dream later in life?

There were two elements that made me commit to studying law, which took me ten years part-time. That is quite a commitment, especially in the middle years when I wondered if I should just let the dream go, or keep pushing through for what still seemed like an eternity. The first element was that studying law remained an unresolved interest for me. The second element was that my early professional experiences exposed me to many different facets of the law, opening my mind to how much legal frameworks touch our everyday lives. Through those lived experiences, I wanted to strengthen my understanding so I could be more considered in my job and also better understand the world I live in. 

What do you hope to achieve with Veterans SA?

Veterans SA has a strong history of supporting our community of those who have served and their families, and in that sense, the future of the agency will continue in this way. My focus is on strengthening relationships with our existing community who support current and former serving military members and their families; and collaborating with non-traditional partners across South Australia and across all levels of government. Quite simply, it is about working together for the benefit of our shared community.

It is about telling the stories of ex-military members who make significant contributions to the South Australian community every single day, from volunteering to delivering high value outcomes in a variety of jobs, to being a reliable neighbour and friend.

It is about ensuring those who have served and their families know how to access the information and opportunities that are right for them, at the time they need it. And it is about responding to the now, as well as planning for the future, to ensure our most vulnerable community members get the appropriate support they need – provided by the people and organisations who are best-placed to do so.

What's it like to be back in SA? What did you miss most while you were elsewhere?

I haven't been out and about much yet, but I have already had a number of trips to the beach given it has been 15 years since I lived near the coast – I didn't realise how much I missed it! I missed the familiarity of the city where I grew up, and whilst many things have changed, some fundamentals like the easy way of living, the ample green spaces and cosmopolitan cafe scene haven't changed a bit. 

What brings you joy?

I love this question! Joy springs eternal in three ways:

Spending time with my family – both those I am related to and also my extended family of amazing friendships I have collected along the way; those people who you would do anything for and know they are right there next to you when you need them most. 

Seeing someone reach their potential and the confidence that brings. It is a privilege if I am able to help someone realise their most fulfilled life.

Those moments in life when there is connection with strangers who lose themselves in innocent fun – the awe of watching fireworks together or the shared delight and surprise at watching a performer in the Mall. Most recently for me, it is seeing local sporting teams coming back on the ovals and fields in my neighbourhood, which were silenced when I arrived due to the COVID19 restrictions. That freedom to enjoy the outdoors will never be taken for granted again.

Who inspires you?

I am inspired by the curiosity and fearlessness of small children, who marvel openly about the things that, as adults, we take for granted or hurry past. Seeing a big grin light up a child's face inspires me to enjoy that moment with them. And I feel genuine gratitude for that reminder every single day.

One thing we don't know about you? 

A few years ago, I set myself a goal to run a half marathon in every Australian state and territory within a 12-month period. At that time, I had never run more than 5km consistently. I am not a natural or gifted athlete, so such a decision probably bemused my family and made me more resolute to succeed. I trained consistently for the first half marathon, here in Adelaide, and I exceeded my own expectations with a sub-two hour time. This spurred me on and before I knew it, I had registered and booked flights for Melbourne, Tasmania and Queensland. You see, it is not just about the course and how fast I could be – it was an in-built mini break every time, so the destination was equally as important as the run itself! The best was in the Northern Territory, in the middle of the year, running in plain sight of Uluru for the whole 21km. As it was such a small field competing in the race, there was such a sense of community and cheering each other on, and it will be the only time my name will be called as I cross the finish line!

My South Australian Life is a first-person series, published each Sunday. Read our previous profiles here.

Competing in teh Outback half marathon near Uluru in 2017.

Competing in teh Outback half marathon near Uluru in 2017.

Across the finish line.

Across the finish line.