Mercenary Mum, by Neryl Joyce, is an autobiographical account of a young woman’s journey from army brat to Australian Army officer to private security contractor in Iraq — and becoming a single mother along the way.
In the beginning of the book, Neryl tells us about some of her childhood experiences: growing up in a military family, their time stationed in Papua New Guinea, living in Singleton (NSW), and (later on) in Canberra.
Joyce enlisted with the Australian Army at the age of eighteen. She did her recruit training at Kapooka (NSW), enduring the rough treatment dished out by the “seccos” (section leaders), and keeping up to par with the physical training. Joyce admits that her level of fitness was the lowest in her platoon — something which wasn’t helped by her developing stress fractures in her left foot — but she steeled her will and powered through it.
Joyce passes on some words of wisdom for those facing difficulties in life: “Never give in when things start getting tough. Don’t take the easy way out. Nobody respects a quitter. If you can’t keep up, then keep going until you can catch up.” (p. 27)
She became a dental assistant, doing six month’s training, after which she was posted to Brisbane. However, suctioning the drool out of patients’ mouths was not what she really wanted to do.
After giving a year’s full-time service to the Army, Joyce moved on to part-time service.
From suction to truncheon
Impressed by a presentation given by the Military Police regarding their work, Neryl did some on-the-job training with them. She loved it, and subsequently signed up with the MPs part-time.
Working as an MP wasn’t enough for Joyce; she started a university degree in Cairns, and also started working part-time in a Woolworths supermarket as a checkout chick. But life wasn’t going to be an entire success for her — she got a live-in boyfriend, who turned out to be a bit of a druggie (and then a lot of a druggie). Even worse, she found out that he had a past history as a gang thug. She was even more unimpressed by her boyfriend when he refused to step in to stop one of his druggie buddies from beating up his pregnant girlfriend. Joyce dumped her loser druggie boyfriend (a waste of space, and a waste of two years of her life). She decided to join the Army full-time.
Joyce did the MP basic course, got a new (and improved) boyfriend, and was posted to Townsville. When a coup occurred in Cambodia, she was dispatched there to help with the evacuation of civilians.
Neryl became engaged to her boyfriend Bruce, became pregnant, and had a son (Kane). Within ten months of Kane’s birth, Joyce had moved to Canberra, and was attending the Royal Military College (Duntroon) to be come an Australian Army officer. She graduated 18 months later, and her and Bruce organized their move to Brisbane, where they would both be working for the Army. However, when Neryl arrived in the Sunshine State, Bruce told her that he didn’t love her any more, and left. She had gained a commission, but lost a partner — life was like a game of snakes and ladders, with some rather jolting ups and downs.
She struggled on with her life, despite her loss. Although she had joined the Army medical corps, to enable her to have a stable family life, all of those plans were in tatters. Joyce asked for a transfer to the Military Police — and she got one, a year and a half later (sometimes things move slowly in the Army).
Being appointed to lead a platoon of MPs in Brisbane had its own challenges, but she was up to the task. During that time, she completed the close personal protection course (training in bodyguard roles). Joyce conveys the need for female Army leaders to be above par in their performance, just to be considered as equal to the males.
Off to Iraq
However, Neryl found that she wanted more out of life than being an Army officer provided; she wanted more adventure. So, she left the Army, and signed up to be a private security contractor in Iraq, protecting people whose lives were under threat from the Iraqi insurgents.
In November 2004 she handed her son over to her ex-boyfriend (and his new missus), and headed off to Iraq.
The team of security contractors she joined was a multi-national bunch, with people from various Western countries. At first glance, her new team seemed okay, but there were some obvious cracks in its professional façade. The leader of the counter assault team (CAT) was also its medic, its vehicles weren’t armoured, and she had been issued an AK-47 instead of the superior M-4 rifle which had been promised.
Using soft-skinned vehicles outside of the highly-fortified Green Zone (the International Zone, where the US Army was based, along with various other foreign organizations) was running the risk of being shot up by insurgents or falling victim to an IED (improvised explosive device); it wasn’t a good idea.
In the Red Zone (outside of the Green Zone) vehicles were driven at high speed (to minimise the risk of opportunistic attacks from insurgents), bridges and overpasses were watched carefully (in case insurgents were waiting to drop bombs or grenades onto vehicles passing underneath), and nearby buildings and rooftops were continually scanned (in case of snipers or other attackers — they would even shoot rocket-propelled grenades at target vehicles).
However, the biggest danger to people living and working inside of the Green Zone was from mortar attacks, which occurred on occasion.
The team’s accommodations were less than basic. For example, the toilet pipes didn’t work properly and the sewerage had to be siphoned out by a “poo truck” every three days; the toilet didn’t have a seat; and, worse of all, the toilet pipes couldn’t handle clumps of toilet paper, so all used toilet paper had to be deposited in a bucket. This was not fancy living.
The team was tasked with protecting the nine Iraqi electoral commissioners — escorting them from their homes, guarding them in their offices in a convention centre, and being their bodyguards at official functions.
More cracks began to appear in the team’s professionalism. Joyce found out that team members could end up being sacked if a team leader took a dislike to them (no matter how good they were at their job). Also, the company had (in the past) hired ex-bodyguards with no military experience. Her first project manager resigned after being forced to run an operation in an unnecessarily dangerous fashion, with a team being sent into a danger zone with only one armoured vehicle.
When their CAT vehicle broke down on Route Irish (a major road in the Red Zone), it was abandoned, whilst the occupants jumped into other vehicles and returned to base. The team then arranged to tow it back, returning to the disabled vehicle with no back-up and no contingency plan. When they informed the US checkpoint guards of their intention, the guards clearly thought that they were crazy. Indeed, it was a mad plan; usually Western teams would travel along Route Irish at high speed — but here they were, fiddling around with a broken vehicle, out in the open, making themselves convenient targets for any insurgent sniper who decided to take a pot shot at them. They checked the CAT vehicle for any bombs that may have been planted on it during their absence, then attached a tow cable to it, and towed it away. They were lucky, as no-one shot at them; but, when you carry out operations in a haphazard and careless manner, you can’t be lucky all of the time.
Joyce was particularly useful in Iraq for protecting female clients. She developed a close working relationship with “Number Three”, a female electoral commissioner. Neryl’s work with “Number Three” showed the rest of the team just how good she was at her job.
However, yet more cracks appeared in the team’s professional façade. The team’s three leaders all decided to go on Christmas holidays at the same time; they put an untrained and unprepared member in charge of the unit, and left. Also, when the team had to guard “Number Three” during a speech she was giving at the Babylon Hotel, there wasn’t even enough radios available for all of the team members, which led to some problems. Later on, it transpired that some of the team members (including the team leader) were snorting cocaine. That didn’t bode well.
Whenever “cool” missions came up, the command staff took on the security roles, but they didn’t bother to help with the day-to-day drudgery security work.
The team had still not been issued with M-4 rifles (despite promises being made), so some team members resorted to buying their own M-4s. On top of everything else, the team leaders were partying until all hours of the morning, causing operating personnel to have a lot of sleep deprivation.
The lack of professionalism on the part of the company was not impressive. The drug-taking, constant partying, and the problem of unprofessional team leaders becoming more and more slapdash at organising missions meant that the team was likely to be heading for a fall.
One day, after a particularly botched mission, Joyce refused to do any more missions organised by the team leaders. As a valuable asset to the team, she wasn’t fired, but was given an administration role, along with the standard work of protecting the electoral commissioners; so, she wasn’t going to be endangered by missions arranged by slapdash cowboys.
With the team being so dysfunctional and unprofessional, Neryl decided to partake in the unprofessionalism, and had a couple of romantic entanglements. However, the team leaders decided to use her flings as an excuse to get rid of her, since she had been very critical of their cowboy ways. Relationships between team members were a banned practice, so she was informed that her services were no longer required (her fling was not the real reason for her dismissal, and was only an excuse, evidenced by the fact that her lover wasn’t even reprimanded, let alone sacked).
Whilst Joyce was waiting to go back to Australia, one of the cowboy team leaders took a unit out on Route Irish; due to their lack of armoured vehicles, along with ineffective leadership, three of the team were shot and killed by insurgents.
In better company
After a few months in Australia, Neryl returned to Iraq, this time to work for a different, and more professional, private security company. Her team did various missions, and all was well.
The team even did some unsanctioned missions, like the night it was decided that they wanted some ice-cream, so the team got fully kitted up (guns and all), grabbed a vehicle, and headed out into the Red Zone to visit an ice-cream store that stayed open until late; the team escorted the designated buyer into the shop in a tactical diamond formation, the icy-cold necessaries were purchased, and the team returned to base with their goodies, all without incident — Operation Ice Cream was a success. (As with any other sally into the Red Zone, they could have been killed by insurgents — but sometimes you have to take a risk to savour the good things in life.)
After a month with the new team, the company’s commander decided to move Joyce into the Green Zone to a place where she wouldn’t have to share the facilities with men (a more “female friendly” environment). She was to be a bodyguard, and transport clients within the Green Zone.
There was a barbeque one night for personnel from several companies; it was a good opportunity to network (which could be essential for lining up future contract possibilities). Unfortunately, a scumbag from her own company drugged her drink, and subsequently raped her.
Later on, at the hospital, a urine test was carried out (which was clear of drugs), but a blood test wasn’t done. Therefore there was a lack of evidence against the rapist; however, with the (alleged) rapist refusing to answer any questions, the company fired him, and he went home to the USA, to live with his wife and children, as if nothing had happened. It later transpired that he had previously raped three other women, and got away with it. Some of Joyce’s friends volunteered to take care of the offender for good, but she declined their offer.
It took a long time for Joyce to psychologically heal; she was having nightmares and problems sleeping, but in the end she did heal (not that anyone fully gets over such a trauma). She was promoted to site leader, and was professionally doing well.
Things are looking up
Some time later, close to the end of her contract, Neryl was pushed into attending another barbeque. She had been avoiding social events after the rape incident, but was cajoled into attending this one. As it turned out, she met a nice Australian chap, named Paul, and they got on like a house on fire.
When her contract ended, Joyce headed to the airport, to return to Australia, but the road trip was not without incident, as a roadside bomb (an IED) was set off, with the intention of killing everyone in the vehicle; however, as it turned out, the IED was apparently faulty, and the blast only shook the vehicle. It was about time Joyce had some good luck.
Neryl returned to Iraq yet again. Her new clients were two Yugoslav women, and they all got on great. She met up with Paul again, and things were going well for them.
When she finished her contract, she returned to Australia. When Paul finished his contract, he returned as well, and they moved in together in Perth, and got married, sharing their home with Neryl’s son and Paul’s two children. It’s good that the story has a happy ending.
Joyce’s book is a well-written account of a capable woman living in what is traditionally though of as a man’s world. It is an easy read which gives us an insider’s view of Army life and of working as a security contractor in a war-torn country. If you can get hold of a copy, then do so, as it’s well worth a read.
Title: Mercenary Mum: My Journey from Young Mother to Baghdad Bodyguard.
Author: Neryl Joyce.
Publisher: Nero (Schwartz Publishing): Collingwood (Vic.), 2014.
(A second edition was published in 2019.)
Kristin Shorten, “Neryl Joyce writes book ‘Mercenary Mum’ as a mother who became a Baghdad bodyguard”, News.com.au, 28 September 2014
“Meet Neryl Joyce: Woman. Mother. Wife. Soldier.”, Mamamia [an edited extract from Mercenary Mum]
Tim Clarke, “From single mum to Baghdad bodyguard: Neryl Joyce’s life story set for the big screen”, The West Australian, 4 February 2019
“The Mercenary Mum”, Studio 10 (on YouTube), 3 October 2014 [a brief interview with Neryl Joyce]