From deactivating landmines to president of Lions Club

NEW ROLE: Newly elected Lions Club of New Brighton Alastair Rankin served more than 50 years on and off in the New Zealand Army. He stands at an old army base next to the former Addington Jail where he was between 1973 to 1975 and 1985 to 1998.

After more than 50 years serving on and off in the New Zealand Army, Alastair Rankin has taken charge at the Lions Club of New Brighton. Georgia O’Connor-Harding reports

Alastair Rankin isn’t afraid of a lot. From deactivating landmines in Cambodia to helping monitor borders in the Middle East,­ not much fazes the semi-retired army captain and Lions president.

Mr Rankin, 68, was elected to the role last month. He was a part of the 2/4 Battalion until February.

So taking on a leadership role is nothing new for Mr Rankin, who has also been president of other Lions clubs. It will be his second time at the head of the New Brighton Lions, of which he was president in the late 1990s.

He has had a long association with New Brighton, first joining the Lions club in 1984 before relocating to Wellington in 2000.

He rejoined the New Brighton Lions about four years ago.

Sinai Desert, near the Suez Canal March 1987

While living in Wellington, he became Lions Club of Newlands president, before he moved to the Lions Club of Whitby in Porirua.

He said it was not long before he was elected president in Whitby.

He has also been zone chairman for a range of Lions clubs, including Christchurch Seaview, Ferrymead, Lyttelton and Pegasus.

His goal for the New Brighton club is to raise membership.

“There is no criteria . . . all you have got to do is want to do something useful for your community,” he said.

During his time in the army, Mr Rankin worked for a year at the Cambodian Mine Action Center in 2004, training and re-training de-miners. He was also heavily involved in operations in the minefields.

Landmines are a big problem in Cambodia and are a legacy of three decades of warfare, starting with the Cambodian Civil War in the late 1960s.

The remaining landmines are discovered using a metal detector and burned. Mr Rankin said while he trusted the de-miners to have cleared the area, when he first began working in the job, there was “a bit of trepidation”.

He said hundreds of landmines were uncovered every day.

“I was standing a few feet away from a guy who stood on one and it blew his foot off,” he said.

But he said driving in Cambodia was more dangerous than working on the minefields.

Many of the main roads had only just been tar sealed when he was in the county and there wasn’t a lot in the way of road rules, he said.

“We never drove at night out in the countryside. It just wasn’t worth it, cows would just walk out onto the road,” he said.

Mr Rankin spent about five of his military years overseas.

He was posted to Singapore from 1976-1978, working in the communications centre for New Zealand Force South East Asia.

“I liked south Asia. The two countries are very different. Singapore was very quick to go ahead and Cambodia was only just going ahead and that was because of the war,” he said.

He worked with the New Zealand training advisory team for the Multinational Force and Observers in the Middle East, which was monitoring the border between Israel and Egypt in Sinai.

His job was to help train the United States, Fijian and Colombian troops on the border.

“The other nations have different ways of thinking and different ways of doing things. Doesn’t mean it is wrong. It is just different and you can learn from it,” he said.

Mr Rankin said he learned the most from working with the 101st Air Assault Division, ­a division of the US Army trained for air assault operations.

“They were brilliant . . . they were particularly good at aircraft recognition. When you are on the border and the jet flies over you, it flies over very quickly
and you have only got a split second to say what kind it is,” he said.

He comes from a military family and joined the army when he was 16-­years-­old, seeking adventure, “excitement” and to get away from Blenheim where he grew up. Mr Rankin said joining the army “wasn’t a shock to the system” as compulsory military training was practised for males up until 1972.

He retired three times – the first was after 21 years of service and he wanted to provide “stability” for his children.

Now that he has semi-retired, he is involved in part-time project work writing reports on issues in the army such as driver fatigue.

Having spent time overseas, Mr Rankin said he now has a “fairly relaxed attitude” to life.

“It is a lovely place in New Zealand . . . it is lovely to be able to go into the bush, sit down and know there are no snakes or scorpions,” he said.