Shepparton’s Michael O’Callaghan has had a decade-long career in the defence force

By Madi Chwasta

The Middle East is always on alert for border disputes, terrorism and potential war – and that’s on an average day.

In the Sinai desert, that vast buffer between Egypt and Israel, the mercury will be around 40 degrees C when Shepparton’s Michael O’Callaghan arrives.

That’s hot, but not as hot as the job he is there to do for the next six months.

But the army captain says the Sinai has at least one upside – on his deployment to Afghanistan eight years ago, he was part of a military coalition trying to end a bloody and protracted war.

In the Sinai he will be joining the Multinational Force and Observers, an international peacekeeping force overseeing the terms of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty from the Australian contingent’s base at Sharm el-Sheikh.

At almost 14,000 km, it’s a long way from Shepparton, where Captain O’Callaghan was raised, but in his mind the only downside to the distance is that his wife Callie, at their Adelaide home, will give birth to their second child without him by her side.

It’s also a long way from the Bunbartha farm where he grew up before finishing school – not his favourite subject – and launched himself into an ever-changing cycle of jobs and locations.

Michael said he finished Year 12 at Notre Dame to start a hospitality traineeship at the Sherbourne Terrace Hotel in downtown Shepparton, a qualification that helped satisfy his wanderlust; working bars and hotels around the country and then the world.

“Every couple of years I’d get itchy feet with hospitality,” he said.

“I got bored with the location I was in.”

But after a stint managing a hostel in London, he grew bored of the lifestyle.

“I hated having to start from scratch every time I had to move,” he said.

“I came back to Australia and decided I wanted to do something that allowed me to travel and find a stable career.”

At work: Captain Michael O’Callaghan briefing agency members at South Australia’s Royal Adelaide Hospital in support of the Government’s COVID-19 response. Photo: Department of Defence.

Somehow, that all spelt Australian Defence Force in general – and the army in particular.

He searched for the words to make sense of it all, and eventually settled on “a clean and dramatic shift”.

Dramatic is as good a word as any – when you go from dodging complaints about table service to potentially dodging bullets and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

“Being in defence from hospitality is as dramatic a shift you could ask for,” he said with a chuckle.

And the 42-year-old's life is about to take another turn.

Currently in Adelaide, Captain O'Callaghan will join Operation Mazurka – the operation name for Australian involvement in the Sinai – in just a few weeks.

He will keep going as long as the army will need him - at 42, married, with one son and a daughter on the way, and a wife in Adelaide, the thought of scratching those itchy feet and settling down has not crossed the captain’s mind.

This year alone, he’s supported the fire rescue effort on Kangaroo Island, and worked closely with the Royal Adelaide Hospital in planning its role in the state's COVID-19 response.

Other highlights have been jumping from a plane strapped to a parachute and leading his platoon down the main streets of Wodonga.

“There's no other job you could do that one day, and the other day provide support to a community fighting bushfires,” he said.

But his deployment to Afghanistan in 2012 was, he admitted, in a realm of its own.

“That feeling of walking off the plane there won’t ever leave me,” he said.

“A real sense of reality hit me in that moment. All the training I had done to be a logistics officer – it came to a point where it was all for that moment. It was a highly rewarding experience.”

As one of six children on that Bunbartha dairy farm his early years were an endless round of helping out on the property – and school.

“(The farm) was all I knew, and there was always something to do,” he said.

“I had all those things that I then took for granted, but now crave. I had the space and the freedom to jump on a motorbike and go anywhere I want.”

When Michael decided the military was the best next step, he thought he would throw in the dishtowel, and pick up a rifle.

“I’d never met anyone in my life who was a current serving member until I walked into the (Australian Defence Force) recruiting office,” he said.

“I initially thought I wanted to be an infantry soldier.”

He then realised how naïve he was.

“After a conversation at the office, I found I might get career satisfaction as a direct entry officer in the Australian Defence Force,” he said.

“I wanted to be a leader and a manager, and I thought being a soldier was the only way to do it.”

He enlisted and trained at the Royal Military College Duntroon as a 30-year-old staff cadet in 2008.

His biggest concern wasn’t the violence – he wasn’t scared of using a gun, having grown up on a farm. Instead, he was afraid he would be in an environment where there was “a lot of yelling”.

“I thought it would be like old movies of the military,” he said.

“But I was happy to find that never really happened.

“The use of sharp tone and increased volume did occur, however it wasn’t my experience that it resembled the movies that characterised a ‘boot camp’ as being unnecessarily aggressive.”

Briefing for COVID-19 response: Captain Michael O'Callaghan. Photo: Department of Defence.

Graduating in 2009, Michael was commissioned as a logistics officer with the Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (RAEME) – the branch of the army responsible for making sure wherever the army goes it has everything it needs – from firearms to food, with equipment all serviced and ready to go.

“I know I’ll always be a RAEME officer,” he said. “But every couple of years my role changes.”

In one of those karma moments, Michael’s roles across Albury-Wodonga, Darwin, Sydney, Adelaide and Afghanistan have involved “nine-to-five” desk work - something he had tried to avoid most of his adult life.

“My role right now is a lot of corporate governance and paperwork,” he said.

“Two years ago I was in Sydney in an office working in the HR department, and this year I'm working in a team providing logistics capability.”

While he’s in the Sinai, he’ll be working in a "human resources role" helping look after the needs of the 27 Australian personnel operating there, while supporting the contingent commander.

“There’s a well-established organisation working there, and I'm looking forward to offering support,” he said.

And even though Michael will be in the Sinai at the same time as the birth, he approaches the subject with an unshakable pragmatism.

It doesn’t help that he has no real choice – deploying is an integral part of his work.

“Certainly, when Callie and I talked about it, there’s a sense of apprehension at leaving her behind,” he said.

“But that apprehension goes away very quickly when we talk about the plan we have in place when I do go.”

“The family support network Callie has here (in Adelaide) will provide me that sense of ease.”

Growing family: Michael O'Callaghan with wife Callie and son Thomas.

While six months might seem like a long haul, with a baby due as soon as he is back, he will be off again.

Although this time the whole family will be going and Michael won’t be redeploying - he’ll simply be relocating.

To south-east Queensland, where he will become a sub-unit commander on promotion to Major.

“It's what I've been working towards,” he said.

As for what’s next for this serial nomad, well, he’s not really sure just yet - but like the rest of his life, he’ll leave it up to his gut.

Something which has pained his parents, who still live in Shepparton, throughout the years.

“Mum is obviously worried, as any good mum would be,” he said.

“But they're very proud.”

Rightly, it is also a career for which Michael himself is also proud.

“Something that was said to me in Duntroon is the army is made up of individuals,” he said.

“If you don't understand each individual has their own story, then you'll never understand how to lead and manage them.

“It's all about communication, and it's something you fall back on so often.”

And it’s a skill he said was honed in the hospitality industry.

So while his eclectic CV might at first glance appear somewhat disjointed, it turns out to be anything but.

His life – from the farm, to hotels, to the defence force – has been about connecting with, and serving, people.

“Being able to put the uniform on and provide support to those people in need,” he said.

“You get to directly or indirectly support the community.

“And my career in defence hasn’t disappointed.”