Initially, Cook Islander Lance Corporal Thomas Harrison didn’t realise how much he had taken for granted while growing up on the island of Aitutaki.
All the little things like being able to walk to the beach, the casual attire and the “somewhat slowed lifestyle tempo”.
And the food, he says - raw fish and the infamous mayonnaise potato salad are the first island delicacies that come to mind.
Harrison grew up in Amuri on Aitutaki and attended both Araura Primary and College. His mum is from Atiu and his dad is Australian and they both worked at the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa.
Growing up in Aitutaki was pretty “normal”, he says.
A gifted rugby player, he moved to New Zealand in late 2013 on a rugby scholarship at Rangiora High School in North Canterbury.
“Rugby was fun and I do play it now and again, mostly league now though and the highest grade rugby I played while at high school was North Canterbury U21 Colts,” he says.
“After that I slowly drifted my focus away from a career in sports.”
Harrison never considered enlisting in New Zealand Defence Force while he was at school.
In fact, he was more interested in joining the Royal New Zealand Navy or the police force.
However, he couldn’t become a police officer without a New Zealand driver’s licence.
By chance, in 2014 he attended a careers expo and the New Zealand Defence Force was there.
“I was there with a mate and I remember this Army guy call out to my friend and I saying we were huge, both at least 6’3 at the time, and should join,” Harrison says.
“I’m not sure if this was some recruiting tactic but it obviously worked!”
He enlisted into the Army in February 2015 and is based at 2nd/1st Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment at Burnham Military Camp.
Harrison got his New Zealand driver’s licence while on recruit training and he now has eight classes or endorsements, which means he can drive light through to heavy vehicles. He has also completed a number of other courses.
“Joining the NZDF was a massive eye opener. Without sounding too clichéd, I have met people from all walks of life, and I have personally liked learning new things from people who were somewhat overlooked or not taught back home,” Harrison says.
The New Zealand Defence Force has created an atmosphere of endless learning for Harrison, whether that be work related or otherwise.
He has been deployed to Iraq and been involved in exercises and responses including the Kaikoura earthquakes and the Port Hills fires.
“A highlight for me has been being able to gain life experience, as there is always something you can learn from someone else,” he says.
“It can be trade or work specific, in the field, with weapons, or just plain life knowledge that you don’t get taught at school – such as taxes, insurance and mortgages.”
With one older sister living in Auckland and an older brother now living in Finland, the last time he was in Aitutaki was December 2019 for Christmas and New Year’s. In March this year he was in Rarotonga for a wedding.
“I do try to visit at least once a year and always look forward to meeting family and friends once again,” he says.
His advice to anyone thinking about a job in the army is to get rid of the stereotypical thoughts that you have about this career path.
“This is mainly because of the many Hollywood movies that we Islanders love to binge watch. It’s never exactly what you see on TV,” he says.
“When I was at Araura College I kind of wished someone would have informed me that you could be an electrician in the Army, a pilot in the Air Force or an engineer in the Navy.
“I want to show people back home the New Zealand Defence Force is very approachable and a rewarding career path.”
Harrison has a simple message for his fellow Cook Islanders who may be considering joining the New Zealand Defence Force.
“Once you finish basic training you’ll be rewarded with many benefits. For me initially, the perks of getting paid to get fit, study and work seemed all too good to be true,” he says.
“While there will be challenges along the way, like any job, you will be well catered for as long as you can maintain the high standards expected. Kia pu kuru o vaevae. Kia mokora o kaki - Stand strong with your head held high.”