Rolling out COVID-19 vaccinations in her home town has been a career highlight for Yaegl woman and Army air dispatcher, Corporal Ashleigh Shannon.

In September, Corporal Shannon was deployed with Operation COVID-19 Assist to Lismore in northern NSW to support remote vaccination clinics in nearby towns and communities.

The clinics are essential to protecting Indigenous communities in the region from COVID-19, including Corporal Shannon’s own family in the town of Maclean.

“I joined the Army eight years ago and never thought I’d get to go home for work,” Corporal Shannon said.

“I got the opportunity to do the Welcome to Country for my home town, which is definitely a highlight of my career.”

During her Army career, Corporal Shannon has deployed to the Middle East region on three separate occasions, and flown on humanitarian airdrop missions to remote islands in the west Pacific.

The opportunity to return home with Defence came when she was assigned to Operation COVID-19 Assist in August.

“Normally, I would go home once a year around Christmas, but was not able to last year due to being on a deployment,” Corporal Shannon said.

“We were in Newcastle for three weeks, and I heard my boss talking about sending a team to Lismore, and discussing how many people they would need there.

“I went to university in Lismore, although I didn’t know if I wanted to ‘go home’ if I wasn’t going to be able to go home.

“When I found out we would be setting up a clinic in Yamba – which is only about 10 minutes from Maclean – then I definitely wanted to go.”

Staging out of Lismore, Corporal Shannon was part of a four-person ADF team supporting other agencies, including NSW Health, NSW Police, and Aboriginal medical services. 

Each day, they drove for up to 90 minutes to establish a vaccination clinic within communities.

Aboriginal liaison officers with NSW Police – some of whom are Uncles and Aunties within the local communities – were an essential link between the vaccination clinic and the local community.

On September 17, Corporal Shannon had the opportunity to revisit her home town of Maclean, where her parents, two younger sisters, and nanna live.

“My dad and one of my sisters were among the first to get vaccinated, too,” Corporal Shannon said.

“I’ve had people I went to school with in Yamba and Maclean come through, and even some of the people we work with, like some of the Uncles, have kids who I’ve grown up with.”

This month, Corporal Shannon will complete her duty with Operation COVID-19 Assist, and expects to return to her duties as an air dispatcher.

But the experience of returning home for work will remain a career highlight, having also allowed the ADF to make a positive impression on local Indigenous communities.

“Sharing information about my home town, and the local people with my team, has been really amazing,” Corporal Shannon said.

“The team have been really open to learning about the communities and listening to stories from the Elders.

“It’s really good to be able to give back – we’re getting so many more people being vaccinated than we thought.”