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Trailblazing Tongan makes Australian naval history

Paridhi Bakshi

Indigenous women series: Royal Australian Navy officer Rose Apikotoa says Pacific people shouldn't let their cultural background hold them back from chasing their dreams.

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

This article is part of series we are publishing this week focusing on indigenous women in New Zealand and the Pacific.

Rose Apikotoa has made history by becoming the first woman of Tongan heritage to reach the rank of Commanding Officer in the Royal Australian Navy.

She’s been selected to be the next Commanding Officer of the HMAS Moreton military base in south Queensland.

Born in Sydney, Apikotoa joined the Defence Force Academy in 1997 completing her undergraduate studies, then obtaining a double master's degree in military studies.

During her early days in the navy, she specialised in navigating vessels, including patrol boats, minehunters and frigates.

Among her career highlights she has successfully circumnavigated Australia, mentored female rugby players and been deployed to the Middle East.

Apikotoa now has 1000 reservists and 150 permanent navy personnel under her leadership at the Royal Australian Navy base located at Bulimba on the Brisbane River.

When she started out, she says her father at first did not approve of her joining the services.

"My father looked at me and said 'no, stay at home, study and get married'."

However, her father's disapproval did not prevent her from achieving her goals.

“My fear of failing was bigger than my fear of disappointing someone else."

When she was a teenager, Apikotoa was introduced to the military by her cousin's husband Russell, who was serving as a medical officer in Tonga.

"I wonder if they realise the impact they had on me because Russell took me to sea on ships, an experience I wouldn't have any other exposure [to].”

Since then, packing her life into a suitcase, Apikotoa has never considered returning home and never looked back.

She acknowledges the moments of homesickness but keeps focused on her goals.

Apikotoa also offers support to people from the Pacific who may not have the confidence to see themselves rising up the ranks.

"I have never been the Dux to any school, I just know exactly what I need to do to get to the next goal."

Hero image: Royal Australian Navy officer Commander Rosemarie Apikotoa. Photo/ Royal Australian Navy Facebook page/ OIS Ollie Garside © Commonwealth of Australia

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