A former Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) veteran is preparing to test his limits and trek the Kokoda Track to raise money for Police Veterans Victoria (PVV).

RSL Victoria is proudly sponsoring Dean Fechner as part of The Next Step, a PVV campaign to assist police veterans ease into post-service life and ensure they are recognised and supported in the same way as Defence veterans.

Dean’s professional life started in the RAAF straight out of school, following a strong family history of military service.

Both his grandfathers served in the army during World War II. He also had an uncle who was a Rat of Tobruk; another served in Gallipoli, and another was a Prisoner of War in Changi.

Dean graduating from the Victoria Police Academy in 2000 with his parents and daughter.
Dean graduating from the Victoria Police Academy in 2000 with his parents and daughter.

Dean said, “I’ve heard all the stories forever and my dad wanted to be in the Defence force but couldn’t because he had tuberculosis as a young kid, so he didn’t get the opportunity.”

Keen to pursue a career as a pilot or as a policeman, Dean decided to enlist in the Air Force. Initially training as an electrician, he later realised that wasn’t what he wanted to do, so he requalified as a physical training instructor in the late ‘80s.

Dean has maintained his strong belief in the power of sport and physical fitness, something that has helped him throughout his career and personal life.

“It was such a good job. I got a mix of services, everyone from lower level up to the Chief of the Air Force for a fitness test. It was such a diverse range of people and such a great bunch of people as well.”

However, once his daughter was born in 1995, life changed.

Wanting to provide her with a more stable environment than that of a Defence force family, he decided to leave full-time service and explore life outside the ADF.

After working as a personal trainer, Dean and his family moved to Victoria, where he kickstarted a career as a police officer with Victoria Police.

"The skill that I took away from it most was communication. How to talk to people, how to read people, how to have conversations with people, how to deal with people who have gone through the worst day in their life, how to talk to angry people and calm them down."

Dean Fechner

One of his proudest moments involved talking a person down from the West Gate Bridge, which was not the first and only time he was involved in saving a life.

“I think my experience in the Defence force and police had set me up to sort of be ‘comfortable’ in those situations. I never got into a position where I panicked and didn’t know what to do. I’d work my way through it.”

It’s a stark reminder of the similarities Defence force personnel share with first responders, who are also often faced with confronting scenes or in precarious environments.

Dean and his family relocated to Sydney, which saw him pivot to a career in government security and police training.

It was during this time that Dean worked at prominent landmarks and deployed multiple times between 2006 and 2009 to train the Iraq National Police.

“It was certainly different to downtown Sydney,” he said laughing.

“It was a war zone at the time…there were people getting killed in roadside bombs and those sorts of things.”

Having come through this and so many other life-experiences mentally and physically unscathed, what proved to be most difficult was overcoming significant health challenges, including open heart surgery in 2018.

His health scare also prompted him to study for a psychology degree, with the intention of wanting to give back to first responders in the mental health space.

Now ready to put his body and mind to the test, Dean has volunteered with seven others to take on the Kokoda Track – 96 kilometres through rugged terrain and mountainous regions, in the hope of raising $96,000 for PVV.

“My open-heart surgery caused me to have some mental health challenges. So, this [Kokoda Trek] is part of that process to get back to what is normal, I suppose.”

The Kokoda Track, also known as the Kokoda Trail or Trek, is a historic and challenging trek located in Papua New Guinea.

Preparing to embark on their Kokoda journey in August, Dean and his fellow trekkers are in peak training.

“I have no doubt in my mind that it’s going to be hard because of the conditions, the heat, the hills.”

The trek follows the footsteps of the World War II Kokoda Trail Campaign and is a popular destination for hikers and history enthusiasts.

Approximately  625 Australians were killed along the Kokoda Trail and over 1,600 were wounded. Casualties due to sickness exceeded 4,000.

RSL Victoria wishes Dean and the rest of the team the best of luck in August!