Alumni Update

From nurse to Deputy Head of Mission at the Australian Embassy in Afghanistan

Jonathan Ball

Bachelor of Nursing, 1995
Deputy Head of Mission, Australian Embassy, Afghanistan
Jonathan Ball
Jonathan Ball

Jonathan Ball’s career is the epitome of extraordinary. He attends diplomatic meetings with the President of Afghanistan, has served as a soldier in the British and Australian armies in places such as East Timor and Northern Ireland, set up a professional ambulance service in Baghdad, and managed natural disaster response teams around the world.

After initially leaving the Army to pursue a nursing career, Jonathan was enticed back as an Infantry Officer which he served as for another 11 years, before moving on to AusAID and eventually the Australian Embassy in Afghanistan, where he is currently the Deputy Head of Mission.

Jonathan explains his remarkable career, which has taken him all over the world, shares the most challenging situations he has been involved in and why Syria is his favourite place in the world.

Please describe your position as the Deputy Head of Mission in Afghanistan.

As the Deputy Head of Mission (DHOM) I am responsible for providing support to the Ambassador and managing the Embassy on his behalf. As the DHOM I manage our political, development, corporate and security teams. Post security is one of my most crucial roles and involves working with our own security staff as well as the contracted security team that actually provides our physical security. I also engage with the Afghan Government, the international diplomatic community and local and international non-government organisations (NGOs). Due to the peculiarities of Kabul, I actually spend half of my time in-country as the acting Ambassador or Chargé d’Affaires. As the Chargé, I am responsible for all Australians in Afghanistan, representing Australia at high level events, and engaging with senior members of the Afghan and international community.

What is like living in Afghanistan, including any misconceptions?

The Afghan people are a wonderful collection of cultures. They are generous, polite and welcoming. Some people would have you think that they all pose a threat to Australia, which just isn’t the case. The level of danger we face – as diplomats - is probably misunderstood. The threat is extremely high (including shootings, bombings, kidnapping and rocket attacks) but the security that is in place to keep us safe is second to none.

What does a typical day involve?

I get picked up from home in the morning by an armoured vehicle and body guards and driven to the Embassy. The day usually involves a series of meetings with Afghan Ministries or other embassies, coalition military forces, NGO’s or even the President. Moves away from the Embassy, to attend meetings, are always done in armoured vehicles with normally between four and eight bodyguards, depending how far from the Embassy we are venturing. Following a meeting, I will then report back to officials in Canberra (if it is deemed important enough) by email or through the diplomatic cable system. Daily, I will look at all the meetings and moves the Embassy is scheduled to do the next day and approve or decline them depending on the latest security updates. At the end of the day I am driven back home, normally with just enough time to get ready for one of the four or five official dinner functions I attend every week.

Briefly explain your journey from studying a Bachelor of Nursing at UniSA to becoming the Deputy Head of Mission, including how you transitioned from an Infantry Officer to the Iraq Programme Manager (responsible for $60M budget)?

While serving as a soldier I completed the Special Forces Patrol Medics course. I found the subject interesting so when I decided to leave the Army I thought a career in the medical field would be good. During the final year of my nursing degree I was offered a position in a newly formed unit in the Australian Army. As I had had some regrets about leaving the Army, I thought I would give it one last chance before starting a nursing career. The step back into the Army lasted another 11 years. Army service took me to places such as East Timor and Bougainville, and although I was posted as an Infantry Officer I used my nursing skills and qualification to provide medical assistance to local communities and work in military hospitals or clinics on an adhoc basis. In 2007 I was posted to Darwin and having achieved most things I wanted to in the Army, I decided to leave and stay in Canberra where I was then posted as a Senior Instructor at the Royal Military College Duntroon.

I successfully applied for a job with AusAID and asked for the vacant Iraq Programme Manager job, mainly due to the fact it was Iraq at the height of its troubles, and was as close to being in the military as I was going to get without wearing a uniform. The job required me to manage our development program to Iraq totalling over $24 million a year. This included supporting multilateral organisations such as UNHCR as well as identifying, planning and funding projects as diverse as agriculture, health and law and order. That job resulted in me being posted to Baghdad for 18 months following two years on the desk in Canberra. One of my biggest achievements was setting up a professional ambulance service in Baghdad in conjunction with International Medical Corps, a medical based NGO.

Following my time in Baghdad, due to the combination of my military and health training, I specialised in disaster response. This specialisation resulted in me being seconded to Jakarta as an advisor to the Indonesian Disaster Management Agency for two years. It also meant being contracted by the United Nations as a disaster response specialist resulting in UN deployments to disasters in places such as Pakistan, Laos, Sri Lanka and Burma. On returning to Australia, as Director Humanitarian Operations, in 2012, I managed about a dozen overseas disaster responses including our response to Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, Philippines in late 2013. This response included the deployment of a 50-bed surgical hospital (Australian Medical Assistance Team) from the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre, based in Darwin. The combination of my nursing, diplomatic and military skills perfectly aligned to allow the hospital to be established in Tacloban and treat thousands of patients over the following month. This deployment was a highlight of my disaster/nursing career, as still being registered; I was able assistance in surgery, triage and outpatients as well as doing my actual Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) job as Mission Commander.

Following my time working in disasters, which coincided with the DFAT and AusAID merger, I shifted to the policy (rather than development) side of DFAT and when the opportunity came to apply for the position of Deputy Ambassador to Afghanistan, I took it.

What is the most challenging natural disaster you have been involved with?

Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines due to the scale of destruction and the number of deaths, as well as the ongoing need to make life and death decisions regarding the treatment of individuals based on what limited resources were available. In addition, the complexities involved in establishing and managing a large field hospital in a location with no power or water combined with lots of players all trying to secure the same resources, including space, made the deployment very challenging.

Have you witnessed any situations that have made you impressed with humanity?

Probably the Philippines. I landed in Tacloban about 36 hours after the typhoon struck and for the next month every few minutes a plane would land carrying relief supplies from all over the world. It really highlighted to me that if humanity wants to mobilise to help each other we can and we can do it quickly.

During each natural disaster, I am often in awe of people who had absolutely nothing giving away their relief items to those whom they believe, needed them more. Or even just watching our own soldiers going hungry to make sure local children had at least something to eat.

Where is your favourite place you have been to and why?

Syria, because of the history and the people. Work took me to Syria on a variety of occasions and I loved it so much I took my wife there on our honeymoon in 2010. Unfortunately, Syria turned into turmoil about six months later. If we opened an embassy in Damascus I would be the first to volunteer.

What is the most challenging place you have been to and why?

I really can't identify the most challenging as everywhere is different. Disasters are challenging because of the death and destruction that surrounds you, whereas places like Iraq and Afghanistan are challenging because of the threats you face and the lifestyles you live in order to mitigate those threats. As a soldier, Northern Ireland was a challenge because of the hatred displayed by some while you were doing your job. Whereas some of my diplomatic roles have been challenging due to the people you sometimes have to deal with and be polite to, despite being fundamentally against everything they stand for.

Do you have any advice for recent graduates?

Only you can determine what your future holds and don't expect your employer to make decisions based on what’s best for you. Don't be afraid to challenge yourself and try something new, life is more fulfilling that way.

What is the best piece of advice you have received?

Prioritise looking after the people who work for you over pleasing those senior to you and that includes prioritising family over work.

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