The first time I saw death in my Army career was on Operation RELEX in early 2001. Two elderly asylum seekers had drowned after their boat had sunk off Ashmore Reef. Divers from the Royal Australian Navy brought the bodies to the side of the ship where me and some mates waited with body bags. We zipped the bodies up and stored them in a refrigerated container on the top deck of the ship where they would stay for a few days until we could have them airlifted back to land. We watched as the bodies spiraled up into the air, hooked onto the aircrafts winch, the bodies bouncing off the side of the ship as she moved in the rough seas. My mates and I laughed. We didn’t know what else to do. We were 18 years old.
As we approach ANZAC Day in 2020, we are confronted with a very foreign way of life. The pandemic that has a grip on the globe has changed the way we live our lives and we will never go back to the way it was before; life moves too fast for us to try and live in the past. The current social gathering restrictions imposed on society will prevent Australia’s traditional ANZAC Day commemorations from occurring. No huge gatherings at dawn services on the beaches, no city marches, no Essendon vs Collingwood at the MCG, and no 2-up at the local RSL. Whilst we sit and ponder how we will commemorate ANZAC Day 2020 in the midst of a pandemic, we need to take a breath and remind ourselves why we commemorate ANZAC Day and what it means it us as individuals and as a country. ANZAC Day is about a new beginning, unifying a country, the birth and continuation of a legend, and death. I want to share a story that is both unique to me but unfortunately common to many, a story about the death of a soldier.
Mid 2011 and into early 2012 I deployed to Afghanistan as part of a Mentoring Task Force with the 2 RAR Task Group. From the outset, we were told straight up by our commanders that some of us would not come home alive. A couple of weeks out from deploying on 23 May 2011, our company was watching the news and heard SGT Brett Wood, MG, DSM was KIA as a result of the explosion of an improvised explosive device (IED). We were already seeing the grim realities of the war and we hadn’t even left Australia yet. On my arrival into the Middle East, the first activity that our task group conducted was a ramp ceremony for LCPL Andrew Jones who was KIA on 30 May 2011. On 22 August, PTE Matthew Lambert was KIA as a result of an IED explosion. Matty was the first of four Australian Soldiers to be killed on our tour. On 29 October 2011, CAPT Bryce Duffy, CPL Ashley Birt and LCPL Luke Gavin were all KIA as a result of a ‘green on blue’ incident in a patrol base south of Tarin Kowt. This was the darkest day I had experienced in my military career, and my experience was listening to the whole incident unfold on the radio, so hardly anything to complain about, right? You’re right, I didn’t complain about it, I didn’t complain or curse anyone (other than the Taliban) about any of the experiences I had in Afghanistan. People die in war, and when you are there you learn to block out the emotion and push on.
On my return to Australia I continued to push on with life and integrated back into normality. In August 2012, the majority of the Regiment (that wasn’t deployed) was in the field. I had remained behind with some of the key appointments including a good mate Sean who was my patrol commander in Afghanistan in 2011/12 and who was now the Operations Warrant Officer. On 29 August 2012, another ‘green on blue’ incident had occurred in Afghanistan. Reports were that a soldier from our regiment had been KIA and me and some other members of the regiment would be assisting in the repatriation. LCPL Stjepan ‘Rick’ Milosevic (Milo) was one of three Australian soldiers KIA as a result of gunshot wounds. What Sean and I were about to embark on would see our individual experiences in Afghanistan arguably be seen as insignificant and burn an everlasting emotional story in our minds.
It was the mid-morning on 5 September 2012, Sean and I with some other members of the regiment drove to Kelly’s (Milos’s wife) house to meet up with her and the rest of the family. We met Kelly and their two daughters, Sarah who was 8 at this time and Kate who was 6. We were introduced to Milo’s brother Milan nicknamed ‘Wog’, and Milo’s mother and stepfather. We were all off to RAAF Base Amberley because as Sarah and Kate would tell us “Daddy is coming home today”. We drove to Amberley and as we approached the entrance the streets were lined with QLD locals who were parading signs and banners with words like ‘welcome home digger’, ‘duty done soldier’ and ‘RIP Heroes’. I had mixed feelings at this point; who are these people? They don’t even know Milo or the other boys. It’s great that they’ve come out to pay their respects but why all the commotion? A self-centered feeling that thankfully didn’t last for very long.
On arrival into Amberley we entered the mess precinct and as we walked through the door the big screen TV was streaming the news and had a photo of all five soldiers that were killed on that dark day. It just seem to play on loop and was playing it part in the increasing sadness of the occasion. It was unnecessary and was switched off at the wall resulting in complete silence for a couple of minutes after. We made our way into the terminal and this was about the time that Sean and I split, Sean stayed with Kelly and the girls whilst I remained with Wog and Milo’s mother and stepfather. Wog lived out in a town called Quilpie, about 500km south of Longreach in outback Queensland. The man was tough as nails and not once had he showed any sign of sadness. He would easily hold a conversation and was regularly asking questions about the day.
The terminal was setup beautifully, all three soldiers who were returning home today had photos on display along with their medals on the insignia cushions. There are moments in life when you see events that you just find it difficult to understand and talk about later. On seeing the picture of their dad, Sarah and Kate rushed over to the frame and immediately began to talk to their dad’s photo about what they had been doing whilst he had been away. They recounted ‘the best time’ to their dad with big smiles on their faces, whilst all we could do was turn away and try not to break down. We positioned ourselves outside once we heard that the aircraft was landing, and the bearer parties made their way out to the apron.
As the coffins came off the aircraft draped in the Australian National Flag, Wog asked me which one his brother was in. I paused for a few seconds to make sure that when I spoke my voice would be clear, I spoke and pointed simultaneously towards Milo’s coffin. Wog said nothing and then broke down. To me, this was the moment that Wog realized his brother had been killed and life would never be the same. We took up our positions behind the bearer party and marched into the terminal with the three Australian Soldiers and their families. Each family was escorted into a temporary shelter which we stood guard out in front. The coffins were taken inside the shelters and with the company of chaplains the families were able to say their final goodbyes. Sometimes it’s not what you see that will haunt you forever, it’s what you hear. As I stood guard in front of the three shelters that day, I could hear the spine-tingling cries of the families as they were confronted with their loved one lying in a coffin.
The ceremony was over, and we all boarded the bus and headed back to Kelly’s house. I don’t remember the bus ride back, but I do remember saying our goodbyes to the family at Kelly’s house and then not talking much to each other on the way back to Gallipoli Barracks. I understand the ceremony and protocol but being with the family through the whole ordeal of the homecoming and then to end it with a handshake and a hug was difficult. In the Australian Army way, families that lose their loved ones receive enduring support and this was certainly the case with Milo’s family.
Every ANZAC Day since that day I have worn a hero bracelet for Milo. I only wear it on ANZAC Day for some reason and at the end of the day I take it off and goes back on my shelf on display. I do find it incredibly difficult to talk about and emotions tend to take over. I have kept in touch with Wog and we caught up for beers in his hometown of Quilpie recently. The crazy thing about this story isn’t that one soldiers death is more significant than the other, it’s the fact that I never knew LCPL Milosevic. I had never met him or his family before, and I didn’t even know Quilpie was a town in Australia.
With ANZAC Day nearing, I thought it would be appropriate to not only talk about Milo but also Matty, CAPT Duffy, Ashley Birt, Luke Gavin and all the service men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in war and on duty. ANZAC Day isn’t just about the ceremony and the good times with mates, it’s about remembering the fallen. Whether you knew them or not, their death unifies us as a family, and they turn from a stranger to a brother or sister who will never be forgotten. In this crazy time that we find ourselves in, make your ANZAC Day in 2020 count and remember the ones that gave their life for our freedom.
Lest We Forget
Written by Chris Sharp