Having someone believe in you can make a difference to where you go and what you achieve, Kelli Milmine says.
Mrs Milmine (42), who was born in Oamaru and attended Waitaki Girls’ High School, was passionate about one thing – riding horses – when she was young, and gave no real thought to what she would do with her future until a friend mentioned the New Zealand Air Force.
“I was a horse rider – that took all my time,” she recalled.
“I hated school. I was good at stuff, but I hated it. I really had no ambition.”
So she followed her friend to an air force recruiter.
She applied to be an accounts clerk with no real expectation to be accepted, so “plan B” was applying for a supermarket job.
A short time later, she was told she was in the air force and given seven days’ notice before she began her 20-year military career.
“I had never been on a plane.”
She began accounts clerk training at the air force base in Blenheim, where her ability with maths was spotted, and she was sent to Christchurch for further tertiary education.
“I was really lucky to do it – lucky that someone saw something in me that I didn’t.
“I basically topped the course.”
Accounting soon lost its appeal. Mrs Milmine thought of applying to be a navigator, but was told by a supporter she should shoot for a pilot position, because if she missed it, she could always become a navigator.
She was accepted and began training as a pilot in 1996. She started flying planes in 1997, and helicopters in 1998.
“I was so lucky that someone saw something in me, but it wasn’t easy.
“It was very hard.”
In 1999 she was sent to Timor-Leste (formerly East Timor) as part of a peace enforcement mission.
New Zealand military representatives were there as the citizens of Timor-Leste voted to become independent for the first time since Indonesia’s 1975 invasion and occupation.
Mrs Milmine’s first memories of Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste, were the dust and the insanity of the place.
“When we were first there, it was just gory.
“It was hard. I remember getting there on the first day. We all had drinks before we left in true military fashion.
“We got into Dili at 5am and it was stinking hot. I remember collapsing in a pool of sweat.”
The air force set up camp for about six weeks at Dili airport before being relocated to the town of Suai.
“It was very busy.
“We had people giving birth in the helicopters, stabbing victims …”
While in Timor-Leste she helped rescue an Australian unit trapped in a river after taking an armoured personnel carrier in too deep, and flew aid and delivery missions.
She did two tours to Timor-Leste and believes the New Zealanders made a difference.
“It was a big learning experience in life. It started me on a journey of growing up.”
She enjoyed her time in the military, and said she would not have been able to do all the interesting things she had achieved without people taking a chance on her.
Life in Oamaru is a bit quieter. Mrs Milmine is working for Ray White, and presents community noticeboard bulletins on 45 South.
EDITOR’S NOTE: “You may recognise her as 45 South’s news anchor, or from real estate signs around town, but there is much more to Kelli than you might expect.” – Melanie Tavendale