Keen to see the impact of Willie Apiata VC’s work, veteran journalist Sue Foley travelled with the war hero as he took his Values programmes to schools throughout the country.
The command is firm, the voice calm but direct, and instantly about 30 teenagers stand to attention in a way that probably surprises even them.
They may have never moved so fast before in their lives, but then it’s probably the first time they’ve been issued such a command by one of Aotearoa’s genuine heroes - Willie Apiata VC.
The 30 participants are all pupils of Ruapehu College in Ohakune. Despite their large classroom windows framing a picture-perfect snow-capped Mt Ruapehu, all eyes are to the front, centred on Apiata who, as a Westpac Ambassador, is introducing them to something very dear to his heart: his Values school project.
The aim is to reach as many young people as he can, over time, particularly those showing promise but at risk of going in the wrong direction. This is something he can clearly relate to and this clearly resonates with the young people he talks to.
He is well aware that, like him, a number of the teenage boys in the room will not have fathers in their lives. He talks to them openly about the need to think carefully about the choices we make in life and why it’s so important to set your values around what matters most to you.
Apiata holds three areas very close when thinking about his own values.
First, family. If you make a choice, what impact is that going to have on those close to you? It’s a question he leaves hanging in the air for the pupils to think more deeply about.
“In fact, write it down,” he asks, indicating the Value cards he has provided.
As all pupils obediently take note and start frantically writing I can see their teacher wishing silently that she could perhaps have him more often in the classroom.
Apiata then covers off his other two remaining values: the institution of being a VC holder and thirdly, the institution of the New Zealand Defence SAS.
While Apiata automatically garners respect when he enters a room, you always know there will be one person who will push the boundaries and this time, unsurprisingly, it’s one of the young lads who not so innocently asks “Have you ever used your gun?”
In a very calm tone Willie looks directly at the young lad and says “Respectfully, you don’t ask that question”.
Later the young boy comes up and apologises, which Apiata really appreciates and points out as an example of what he wants those present to take away from the session. Think of your actions, the impact they will have, and does this fit in with your value of showing respect?
The subject of tone is something Willie feels particularly strongly about and as the father of four boys is also highly experienced at putting to use.
“You don’t need to shout, you don’t need to raise your voice to be effective,” Willie points out. “If you keep a calm but strong tone people hear you, if you shout all they hear is noise and ironically, it will have less impact.”
While it’s clear Ruapehu College is extremely pleased to have him, Ohakune actually holds special significance for Apiata as it’s where his mum spent the longest period of her life growing up.
Her mum is buried there and Willie took the time to plant a tree by his grandmother’s graveside. His grandfather was involved with forestry, native timber mills and farming/fencing while his grandma and siblings worked in the market gardens.
Apiata may be a hero to all of us but there is no question his hero is his mum, although seeing them together the pride seems equal. The values of respect, integrity and responsibility sit strongly on both shoulders.
For his Values project, Apiata has already visited numerous schools across the country and is looking forward to visiting many more in 2021.
Always intensely private, there are many stories Willie will never share about his life in public, but in the classroom, he understands by sharing his own story verbally it opens up the active young minds in front of him to what can happen if you make the right choices, no matter what background you come from.
As he hands around his medals and Victoria Cross, he is optimistic that when the students hear the challenges he has overcome, at least some of these teenagers will see themselves in him and it will make them think of who they too could become.
At another school there is a 16-year-old who has a warm smile and a curious mind. It turns out that neither his father or grandfather has ever held a paid job. Willie asks him what he wants to do and, without hesitation, the teenager replies: “A paramedic in the army”.
The teacher whispers quietly to me: “This is a boy who could easily go down the wrong track but I think just listening to Willie, this could just be the moment that boy breaks two generations of being on a benefit and gains employment.”
There is no question it is not just on foreign battlefields that Willie Apiata VC is saving lives.
*This article originally appeared in the NZ Herald/Westpac NZ magazine “2021” on January 1.