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PME in the Mess – The Anglesea Barracks Experience

Ben Gray’s recent Cove article ‘The Importance of the Military Mess’ reinforces the importance of the Mess in developing and sustaining the moral components of fighting power. Building on Ben’s thoughts, this article is concerned with the development of the intellectual component, and how the Anglesea Barracks Officers Mess (ABOM) has implemented Mess PME in response to COMD FORCOMD’s directive earlier this year.

The membership at ABOM is incredibly diverse. It’s tri-Service, and 89% of the ordinary members are Reserve officers. Mess members are drawn from some 27 different units, with many of them being geographically dislocated from their higher headquarters. Developing a Mess PME Program for such an audience is not a straight-forward task. We needed something that provided enough of a professional challenge for our full-time members, but which also accounted for the fact our part-time members need to juggle work and Army commitments as well as PME. And we needed a program that was generic enough to appeal to members from a range of backgrounds and working environments. The lack of a single unit mission to provide a unifying purpose or focus for PME in the Mess also proved challenging.

So what did we do?  After appointing a Mess PD Officer, we decided that ABOM PME would be delivered along three lines of effort. First, we scheduled ‘after hours’ sessions, thereby maximizing the opportunity for our Reserve members to attend. In the hope of making things interesting and ‘fun’, we also sought to avoid the traditional one-way monologue, focusing instead on mutual dialogue. We reviewed selected films (e.g. Lions for Lambs, and We Were Soldiers), and then discussed the issues they raised in some detail. And we held book discussions supported by resources like the Cove article on The Junior Officers Reading Club.

Our second line of effort was the practice of ‘fireside chats’. Directly after morning tea each pay Thursday, we (literally) sat around the fire in the Mess and discussed issues of professional interest. The group addressed a range of topics: gun control; the continuing applicability of manouevre theory; the concept of ‘power’; trusted autonomous systems, and rear area security. The variety of Services, appointments, backgrounds, experiences and organisations represented at these chats ensured the discussions were robust, interesting and entertaining.  The value gained from tri-Service participation at the O4 and O5 levels was apparent from the very beginning, and cannot be overstated in broadening the thinking, understanding and outlook of the officers who attend.

Key to both these lines of effort was the safe and non-threatening environment the Mess provided. Everyone who attended was able to contribute, and there was no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ position. We aimed for a rank-flat approach, which worked very well. The other important factor was limiting the preparation required beforehand. With the exception of the book discussions, participants didn’t need to complete any preparation; in order to benefit from these activities all that was required was an open mind and a good attitude. This ‘PME-light’ approach helped to encourage attendance, and maximized the contribution of participants.

The final line of effort was to ‘piggy-back’ on other PME events. CoveTalks were live-streamed into the Mess, and the recordings added to the Mess’ PD Facebook page. Additionally, the CO of the local ARES infantry battalion (12/40 RTR) held monthly unit PME sessions in the Mess on Tuesday Parade Nights, attendance at which was open to all mess members.

Has it been successful? The question of success is an interesting one, as it depends on the objective that is being measured. Noting the challenges with the ABOM demographic, and the entirely voluntary nature of the Mess’ PME activities, the Mess Committee commenced the program with a very modest objective. The aim was to provide opportunities for mess members to consider and discuss issues of professional interest. In that respect, it has certainly proven successful. Mess PME participants have been able to discuss—and think—about issues they might not have considered in detail previously, or which they had not considered for some time. A pleasing side-effect has been that PME activities have encouraged the development of relationships, and mess attendance by those who had not previously been regular, thereby helping to build the Mess ‘family’.

However, there always remains room for improvement.  Our next objective is to increase attendance levels. Commanders in the Hobart region are very supportive of the need for PME, and of the work that the Mess Committee is doing. We will be doing more to translate this support into command ‘encouragement’ for individuals to attend. Another key factor is providing PME events that pique people’s interest, and we’ll be doing more work on this into 2018.

Conclusion. As the COMD FORCOMD Directive on Mess Policy states, the Mess “… is an important part of Army’s collegiate approach to PME, supporting a culture of continuous, shared professional development.”[1] To date, the experience of the ABOM in implementing a Mess PME Program has been overwhelmingly a positive one. Our PME activities are regular and frequent; we are focusing on discussions that encourage shared learning, and the Mess ‘family’ is much stronger as a result. While there is still some way to go, the ABOM PME Program is making a positive contribution to the development of the intellectual edge.

[1] COMD FORCOMD Directive 2/17, ‘FORCOMD OFFR/SNCO Mess Policy’ para 15

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