In the world of Australian defence, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) stands as a symbol of courage, honour, and resilience. But behind the tough exterior of these brave servicemen lies a common challenge that we all face: navigating the complexities of life.
We sat down with three RAAF servicemen - Connor, Liam, and Pedro - who openly chatted with us about their involvement in the Top Blokes program.
Recognising the need for change
With 16 years of RAAF service, Sergeant Connor has seen the struggles young blokes in the Defence Force face today. Connor along with his colleague Sergeant Pedro, realised that mentorship through shared stories and experiences could be a powerful tool for empowering the next generation of servicemen.
"One of the things we noticed is how social media doesn't show you what's really going on," Connor said. "We thought we could mentor them by sharing real life stories and helping them navigate life's challenges."
Pedro added, “Connor and I did a Defence leadership course and there was an amazing talk about the development of a male’s brain aged 15-25 years old. We wanted to start a cultural change in the force and help others look at our behaviours.”
Connor's motivation also stemmed from the desire to prevent anyone from experiencing the devastating loss of a mate to suicide. "I've had mates die by suicide – I didn't want anyone else to feel like that would be their path," he said.
Connor and Pedro heard about the Top Blokes ‘Lift the Load Challenge’ on the radio and decided to start researching more into the organisation. They reached out and explored the possibility of creating a program for 18 to 24-year-olds within the RAAF.
“We started the approval process internally and everyone we spoke to immediately said we needed it. At every level of approval, we were met with lots of excitement. The Defence Force does have other mental health programs, but this program was unique – it was one where we would engage and commit our guys for eight weeks straight,” said Connor.
“When we heard about Top Blokes, I thought this looks awesome. I wish I had this when I was growing up. 70% of our workforce between the ages of 18-25 are male. Let’s try and get something for them – some mental tools they can use long term,” said Pedro.
And so, the program began. Once a week for two hours, Top Blokes qualified youth workers, Aaron and Danny spent the next eight weeks working with 13 RAAF guys discussing everything from budgeting and financial management to sexual health, porn and healthy relationships.
Embracing growth and mentorship
The RAAF demands technical prowess, quick thinking, and resilience, but it also comes with stress. Liam highlighted the importance of learning from colleagues and RAAF role models.
"Being part of the Top Blokes program surprised me," Liam admitted. "The problems all us blokes faced were remarkably similar, reinforcing the importance of having the program."
“I wasn’t really sceptical of joining the program but maybe a bit confused about what it was all about to begin with. Was it about trying to make men better? I’m 100% willing to do that. I’ve always been interested in this space.”
The Top Blokes sessions left Liam feeling invigorated and motivated. “Our relationships with our facilitators grew. Seeing our higher commanding officers do the program as well was really valuable and listening to them be vulnerable too. They led by example. Now I want to step up and be a role model for others coming through the ranks too. “
The program opened Liam’s eyes to the value of vulnerability and how it's essential to break down the stigma surrounding emotional expression and mental health.
“It improved my understanding of what young blokes might be thinking or feeling. It’s helped me engage with guys and ask them 'How you doing?' 'How you feeling?'” said Liam
“A young guy might realise that he has a problem, but then to actually do something about it? He won’t do that. The Top Blokes program created that bridge for many of us – a bridge between realising a problem and actually doing something about it,” Liam added.
Added Connor, “One of the biggest turning points for the group was during the healthy relationship discussions. We had a lot of engagement in this, and Aaron and Danny really broke that down for us. The lads came back the week after sharing how they are now on the same page with their partner, they were listening and understanding their partners concerns and needs better. One guy even mended a broken relationship he had with his father.”
Better force through emotional intelligence
"As I climbed the ranks, I found immense satisfaction in helping the junior ranks," Pedro said. "But attending the Top Blokes program took my understanding to a whole new level."
The Top Blokes program facilitated discussions on masculinity, emotional expression, and explored the need for men to stand firm in masculinity but also lean into the traditional feminine traits of kindness, caring, nurturing and empathy. This newfound understanding transformed Pedro's interactions with his own children, allowing him to encourage emotional expression and create a more emotionally intelligent family dynamic.
“My 10 year old son was moving schools and started to cry. Now, if this had been 10 years ago with my older son, I would have said ‘you’ll be right’ and I would have dismissed his feelings. But this time I was able to identify that my son was showing me emotion. I thanked him for sharing his feelings and told him I was really proud of him. He gave me a big hug and told me he loved me. We are strong because of that.”
Pedro believes that Top Blokes has the potential to not only benefit young males in the Defence Force but also to foster a more emotionally intelligent workforce that recognises unconscious biases and strives for inclusivity.
“I have no doubt that the Top Blokes program is going to benefit not just younger males in defence, but the entire defence community.”
We are really proud to have worked alongside the RAAF. Working with the RAAF has not only helped these young servicemen navigate the challenges of life but also fostered emotional intelligence, encouraged vulnerability, and broken down the barriers of traditional masculinity.
As these RAAF servicemen have shown, investing in programs like Top Blokes can truly transform lives and create a more supportive and inclusive defence community.
You can find out more about our program for older males by checking out Building Blokes.