Q&A with Lieutenant Colonel Lee Turner

December 2014 Vol 14 (6)
Lee Turner has nursed in Kosovo to Northern Ireland. Find out more about the head of New Zealand's defence force nursing services and what he listens to when doing a bit of DIY painting.
Job Title: Director Nursing Services and Director Health People and Processes, New Zealand Defence Force


Lee Turner

Where and when did you train?

I trained in the UK at Southampton, 1987–1990.

Other qualifications/professional roles?

BSc(Hons) in Military Nursing Studies, PGDip in Defence and Strategic Studies and a Masters’ in Health Service Management.


When and/or why did you decide to become a nurse?

I came to nursing after a few years of doing other jobs; I was influenced by volunteer work with various charities. I still remember asking my mum for guidance/advice on applying to do nurse training and getting a “well, why don’t you?” – not quite what I expected!


What was your nursing career up to your current job?

After completion of training, I worked as a staff nurse on the regional cardiothoracic unit in Southampton. The first Gulf War occurred, which sparked the idea of military nursing. So for the last 23 years, I’ve been in uniform in various clinical and management roles. Two years ago, I was appointed as Director Nursing Services for the New Zealand Defence Force.


So what is your current job all about?

My current role has me based in Wellington, in Defence Headquarters, providing senior nursing input to policy, governance, career management, remuneration, and anything else that I’m asked to do. The role now has a broader health outlook, rather than just nursing. Being the only military nursing leader in New Zealand, there is a fair amount of international liaison as many of the issues are unique to the military environment so a wider network is needed.


What have been amongst your most rewarding experiences as a military nurse?

Too many to name. I believe it’s rewarding just being a nurse, but to add on to that, being in the military, representing your country, and making a difference, both overseas and within country, has given me variety and a really rewarding career.

Next year (2015) is the centenary for the Royal New Zealand Nursing Corps so I’ve been meeting more and more nursing veterans, which has been not only rewarding but also quite humbling.

What were your toughest nursing postings?

While we were deployed in Kosovo, an old farmer and his sister were admitted after being shot while tending their crops – they were shot because of their ethnicity. These were just two of many but I remember trying to comprehend why and find some logic. I quickly realised that I just had to get on with the job in hand.

Professionally, some of the biggest challenges were in Northern Ireland. I was the sole nurse and senior clinician providing primary health care and emergency care to the base and the surrounding region. There was a significant risk of going beyond your abilities and/or scope but also having to make the decision on where your sick/injured went, balanced against the ongoing military operational limitations.

These postings, along with the likes of Afghanistan and Banda Aceh, were also some of the best experiences. These postings are also hard due to missing out on your children growing up, but home support is essential for all defence personnel.

Name three things that you get to do nursing in the army that you would never get to do in civvy street?

Weapon training, parade commander for a 100 man (person) Royal Guard of Honour, and your patients are also your work colleagues (therapeutic relationships and professional boundaries galore).


What do you think are the characteristics of a good leader? And are they intrinsic or can they be learnt?

Wow, if I had the answer to this, I’d be worth a few dollars! There’s a plethora of books and articles on leadership. However, it’s a bit like a diet where there isn’t one solution for all. There are the obvious, like honesty, being a good team builder, strategic thinker, and leading by example. However, a leader should know their strengths and weaknesses and have the ability to adapt their approach to different situations/people. Leaders don’t always get it right, but when they don’t, they need to own the mistake, and if possible, fix it.

Born or bred is another huge topic; I’d argue there’s definitely a bit of both.

What do you do to try and keep fit, healthy, happy and balanced?

Exercising regularly is a military pastime. It certainly helps to get rid of some of the daily stresses and contributes to being healthy. I’m sure wine can contribute too!


Helping to keep me sane, busy or on task outside of work are?

Living on a lifestyle block, there’s always something to do and animals are great for keeping you levelled, although my wife and children are good at that, too!


Which book is gathering dust on your bedside table waiting for you to get round to reading it?

The Penguin History of New Zealand by Michael King, I got about a quarter of the way through when I first arrived in New Zealand but never got back to it.


What have you been reading instead?

The most recent read is Exit Wounds by John Cantwell but most recently listened to (whilst painting – incredible, I know, but yes, a man doing two things at once!) is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.


What is your favourite meal?

A good hot curry!

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