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Possibilities of life after ADF

Profile image of Soldier On Ambassador Jody Hillier

A twist of fate brought Jody Hillier to Soldier On. Travelling from Canberra to Newcastle on a tiny nine-seater plane one day in 2018, Jody was approached by a fellow passenger. “I never travel in uniform,” she says, “but I did on this particular day because I had to get to a meeting.” That uniform was what prompted Soldier On’s Prue Slaughter to introduce herself at the luggage carousel. 

“She said, ‘Let me come and meet you and tell you all about us!’ We met for a coffee and the rest is history.” 

At the time, Jody had no plans to leave the Air Force. Raised in Queensland and having worked a few jobs in local businesses that had closed, Jody was initially drawn to a military career for the job security it offered. She enlisted in the Air Force in her early 20s and never looked back. 

A distinguished 25-year career took her all over the world – from RAAF Base Amberley and VIP transport 34SQN in Canberra, to fast jet acquisition programs including the Australian Super Hornet and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program, with which she spent four years working in Washington DC. 

“There was always something special about everything I did, and I always made the most of it,” she says.  

“You go through it all together.” 

In 1999, Jody deployed with the International Force East Timor (INTERFET), Australia’s largest overseas military deployment since the Vietnam War and the first time Australia had led a major international coalition. 

In Timor, she spent her time supporting Air Movement activities. At its peak, 40 aircraft would land and take off daily, bringing critical supplies to support the troops on the ground, medical support for locals, fuels, and moving ADF personnel in and out of the country.   

Jody says she holds East Timor and its people in a special place in her heart, along with the friendships she formed while there. 

“You go through it all together,” she says. “They’re your family, they’re your friends, they’re your confidants. They’re the first people you see in the morning and the last you see at night – whether you want to or not!” 

In 2019, a plaque was laid in East Timor to commemorate the ADF who had served there and the 20-year anniversary of the country’s independence. A party of serving INTERFET veterans attended these commemorations, Jody amongst them. She laughs as she recalls the trip. “When we were going over, they were saying, ‘These people are all old. Haven’t you got any young people?’ And we were like, ‘We were the young people!”  

A lot of moral courage  

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program is a United States Department of Defense initiative to create a fifth-generation fighter jet for use by multiple branches of the U.S. military and its NATO and other allies, including Australia. In 2014, Jody was posted to the JSF Program Office in Washington DC. From that base, she spent four years working within the Supply Team and international Site Activation for the US and its partners, which meant constant travel to sites around the world to ensure they were set up for successful aircraft operations. 

“It takes confidence and a lot of moral courage,” she says. “Large groups of local military folks and the large US team all sit in a room and you’re the person everyone is looking at to provide the answers. You have to be able to stand up and provide the response on behalf of the program office.” 

Transitioning out 

Jody returned to Canberra in 2018, where she was posted to the Integrated Logistics Support Manager role for the Australian F-35 Project team.   

With frequent travel taking its toll and two young sons at home, she soon found herself ready for a break, and in late 2019 she took long service leave. A few months later, as COVID restrictions slowed the pace of the world, Jody had some time to consider her options.  

“That period was a largely positive experience for me,” she says. “It meant no traveling at all – it meant staying put! And changing the thought processes about all those things that had been important for so long and just weren’t anymore.” 

With the possibility of a deployment or posting on the horizon, Jody and her husband sat their boys down and asked them what they thought. “They said, ‘No, we don’t want you to go away, especially on a deployment for six months,’ and that just sealed it. I knew it had to be about my kids and my family. And I knew I could have a future outside of the Air Force.” 

A “detoxing” period 

While she looks back on her service with very fond memories, Jody readily admits there was an adjustment period upon leaving. Without the ever-present structure of the military gone, many transitioning veterans can find themselves feeling somewhat adrift.  

“I call it a detoxing period. You’re finding your own doctor, realising that you’re in your own home and you don’t have to move… It’s a weird thing, and for me it happened during COVID as well, so I think I had a double whammy. 

“You really look for familiar things, and I think the comfort of Soldier On being there just gave me that perspective,” says Jody. “It was a constant for me when everything else was changing.” 

Despite the challenges, Jody was always confident she could transition into meaningful employment outside of the ADF and found herself with several job offers. “I had such relevant skills coming out of the military,” she says. “The military gives you such good training, and because I’d worked as part of a global program, I had desirable experience.” 

You have to see it to be in it 

In her current role as Head of Operations and Delivery for BAE Digital Intelligence (DI) – a role she describes as dynamic, challenging and extremely rewarding – Jody is as busy as ever, though the travel she does these days is a bit different, with rides in the back of a Hercules replaced by the comforts of commercial airlines. It means more time at home with her family – including the newest member, Ivy the Cavoodle. 

“We got a puppy in January of 2020 when I took long service leave,” Jody says. “My son said to me ‘Can we get a dog?’ And it was the perfect time. What a gift she was. She’s definitely a COVID dog and she feels abandoned now that I work back in the office more!” 

Sitting within the Leadership Team for BAE DI in Australia,  

“I feel supported and engaged, which is extremely satisfying,” she says. “And in an uncanny coincidence, I started with BAE DI on the same date that I started my Air Force journey, only 28 years later!”  

A strong advocate of workplace diversity, Jody wants to be a visible example to others that veterans don’t just come in one shape and size.  

“I’m not the typical veteran,” she says. “When I’m in the pub on ANZAC Day, people are looking around for a guy with medals, not this petite blonde woman. I really feel we have to present options to younger women so they can see that there is a pathway for them into the military, through it, and life after it.” 

Jody remembers her first visit to Soldier On HQ in its old home in North Canberra. “I think I was the first person to point out that at the time there wasn’t a single photo of a female veteran on the wall, and they were horrified! 

“To be in it you need to see it, you know? And there are plenty of female veterans out there – just Air Force weren’t being represented. I was really keen to help get more women representatives involved from all three services, so other women veterans can acknowledge themselves and their contributions.” 

Soldiering On 

Soon after leaving the Air Force, Jody took part in Soldier On’s annual March On Challenge. It was one of her first experiences of the Soldier On community, and a profound one.  

“There were a bunch of women in the team doing these hill climbs up at Mount Kosciuszko,” she recalls. “I went up and stayed with them and went on team walks, which were really enlightening.  

“Some women were ex-military, some just wanted to raise money for veterans. During that period of uncertainty leaving the Air Force, it gave me this feeling that I would be OK. That there were like-minded people around me.” 

As an incredible Soldier On Ambassador, Jody is now part of that community of support for veterans. “I bring my experience with Soldier On into every business I work with,” she says. Her current employer, BAE, is one of Soldier On’s biggest supporters. 

While her employment transition was smooth, the experience isn’t the same for many veterans, as Jody is all too aware. “Many of my mates in the military have so many skills that are so broad that they don’t really know what to do next.  

“I always point them to Soldier On and tell them to go to these networking events, talk to these people. They’re so welcoming. And they can help.” 

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