As thousands pour in for Talisman Sabre, quiet campground livens up in small Australian town

A Royal Australian Army soldier works atop an armored vehicle at Camp Rockhampton in eastern Australia during the Talisman Sabre exercise, Sunday, July 14, 2019.


By CAITLIN DOORNBOS | Stars and Stripes | Published: July 14, 2019

ROCKHAMPTON, Australia – Ten cars lined up Sunday outside the Rockhampton Airport, their occupants eager to catch a glimpse of the U.S. and Australian military helicopters taking off for Talisman Sabre exercises in nearby Shoalwater Bay Training Area.

The airport is just across the street from the Australian Defence Force’s Camp Rockhampton, which this month is the busiest it’s been since the last Talisman Sabre two years ago. What otherwise would be a simple, fenced-in campground in the town of 80,000 springs to life for the biennial event.

Thousands of troops have moved through the camp over the past month, readying their equipment and learning their training scenarios before heading off into the “bush,” the forested rural area of eastern Australia. This year’s version of the exercise – with troops both foreign and domestic – is the largest yet.

Across the base, different stations are assembled. In one, incoming servicemembers go through Talisman Sabre orientation, including a special safety briefing on the dangerous Australian wildlife found in the training grounds. In another, Australian soldiers sort and pack their gear, rations and other necessities while American troops make final adjustments before heading out. In the middle of the base stands a large open-air mess hall that can seat 1,000 people at a time.

Aside from packing and organizing, another major pre-exercise operation that happens at Camp “Rocky” – as the locals call it – is specific to the nature of the training area. Before any vehicles can leave for Shoalwater Bay, they must be washed thoroughly in a process called “weeds and seeds” to prevent contamination of the environment, said Australian army Maj. Jessica Luciani, who commands the theater gateway.

Shoalwater Bay is in a conservation zone close to national parks and the Great Barrier Reef. That means precautions are taken – especially with foreign vehicles – to guard against cross-contaminating or otherwise damaging the area’s plant life.

“It’s a large, beautiful area. We do hardship to it during Talisman Sabre, so this is our effort to minimize it,” Luciani said. “It does require a bit of sensitivity to it.”

Even though Talisman Sabre lasts just a few weeks every other year, the Australian Defence Force invests heavily in the operation.

“It’s a very quiet base outside this exercise,” Luciani said. “A lot of the infrastructure here was built specifically for this exercise.

Maj. Lucas McKennariey, a combat team commander with the Australian army’s 4th Brigade, said the camp has come a long way since the exercise’s early years, when he’d sleep on the ground next to his hulking Bushmaster Protected Mobility Vehicle. Now, troops sleep in large 12-person tents in neat rows atop mounds of specially poured concrete.

“This has been set up to support more forces [for Talisman Sabre],” McKennariey said. “It has been growing to keep up with the size of the exercise.”

McKennariey first came to Rockhampton for Talisman Sabre in 2007. Most of the camp infrastructure was designed specifically to support the massive biennial event that just keeps growing.

What originated as a bilateral exercise between the United States and Australia this year includes Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, with delegations from India and South Korea observing.

Australian army reserves trooper Kon Thon, a 19-year-old full-time university student, said he was eager to work with other nations’ militaries to see what the servicemembers can learn from each other. Even before most of the action had begun, he said he was already amazed by working around his American counterparts and impressed with their equipment.

“This is my first time seeing them out. I drove past their vehicles, and I’m just getting my head around what is possible,” Thon said. “We’re used to our systems, but could [the U.S. systems] work better for us?”

Soon, Camp Rockhampton will calm down again as most of the troops enter the field. The height of Talisman Sabre activities begin this week with amphibious beach landings and other activities in Shoalwater Bay. The troops will be back again for a short time before they disperse to their home states and countries.

Then the small camp will return to its mostly quiet nature until Talisman Sabre 2021.

Twitter: @CaitlinDoornbo

Royal Australian Army soldiers taking part in the Talisman Sabre exercise sort their gear before packing their tactical vehicles for a trip to Shoalwater Bay Training Area, Sunday, July 14, 2019.

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