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Thursday 8 December, 2016
While I didn’t quite see a tear in his eye, I do recall with clarity his hand shake and the “congratulations son” with a slight quiver in his voice. Looking back I wondered if the quiver in his voice was a reflection of his pride or perhaps a fear that one day, with a rifle in my hand and a flag on my shoulder, I could be treading a boot in a desert on the other side of the world. When my son Preston was born, many years before I joined the Army Reserve, I finally understood the fear and pride one can have for their child. A pride in who they are, and a fear of what you can’t protect them from; even more so if that son had to march off to a war on the other side of the world.
This moment with my father after my graduation parade came to me while I sat on a couch waiting for my job interview with Veterans SA. After a significant stint in Local Government a change was afoot and working in communications for the Anzac Centenary in Veterans SA seemed a great fit; a once in a lifetime opportunity to tell the stories of the Anzacs – a story that started on the cold and bloody shores of Gallipoli and in some part continued through to my father’s 20 years of service and to my own short stint as an Army Reservist.
The interview went well and a week later I got the phone call to say the job was mine. Almost a year later, I’ve been consumed in these stories. Researching men and women who have, over the last 100 years, shaped the country we all enjoy today; even if most people don’t pause to reflect on them outside of Anzac Day. Before starting at Veterans SA my knowledge of Australia’s military history was sketchy at best. Having served at 3rd/9th Light Horse (South Australian Mounted Rifles) for four years I knew a little bit, but outside of Anzac Day and Remembrance Day my knowledge was limited.
But once I started digging a little deeper, having conversations, reading and researching, I discovered a wealth of stories fit for any Hollywood screen. A day I will never forget was the first time I met Bill Corey OAM. I shook his hand as he looked me in the eye; a true gentlemen. Months later, for a website article I was writing, I found myself researching the Battle of El Alamein where Bill served in World War II. Only then did I really understand the strength in Bill’s handshake.
Another was a Wednesday in February earlier this year, where I spent the day researching the story of Vivian Bullwinkle for an article about the Bangka Island Massacre. Sitting on the train on the way home I wondered why I had never heard this incredible story before. Looking at the faces of the strangers around me – I wondered how these people could go about their everyday lives not knowing about the bravery of this wonderful South Australian? Later that evening I read my article to my family over dinner, including my 13 year old son and 10 year old daughter…and my father.
A normally raucous family dinner fell silent.
Another moment I will take with me when the Anzac Centenary concludes, is that of a conversation I had with a local Port Augusta resident at the Cheer-Up Hut last month. After noticing an image of a “Dead Man’s Penny” in the Hut he looked on with amazement and proceeded to tell me that he had one of these at home. We sat down and investigated the RSL Virtual War Memorial website where I walked him through some research, digging deeper together. Eventually we found that his great uncle had fought in World War 1, survived Gallipoli, and died on the Western Front. A new world opened up for him, and as he shook my hand and looked me in the eye, he said thankyou with a quiver in his voice.
Digging deeper into these stories shapes us and helps us to understand who we are as a community. My father, who served 20 years in the Royal Australian Air Force, could only do so because of his uncle (my great uncle Frank), who fought for the Italians in World War II, was sent to Australia as a POW and worked in Cudley Creek until the war was over. Being freed and in Australia, my great Uncle Frank then moved to Carey Gully, where he found himself working to save enough money to bring over my Grandfather, who with the aid of Australian sponsors came to Australia. My grandfather Giuseppe worked for three years separated from his wife and four children, eventually paying back the sponsors and saving enough money to bring over my Nanna, father, uncle and two aunties.
Years later, at the age of 19 my father enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force and my early childhood was littered with memories of my father coming home from work in a glistening navy blue uniform, hanging his hat on our hat stand. Our family home has photos of my father in uniform on proud display. When I see my father at the RSL, and we share a gun fire breakfast on Anzac Day each year, I now understand that quiver in his voice on that cold day in Kapooka when I marched out as Trooper Natale.
I never deployed overseas as a Reservist, but my four years in the Australian Army taught me that our country was built on the bravery of a few, with a freedom now enjoyed by the many.
My first year working on the Anzac Centenary project has taught me that our hard won freedoms survive only in the stories we share and understand. The importance of digging deeper helps us to appreciate the Australian legacy given to us by the likes of Vivian Bullwinkle, Bill Corey, and the great uncle of a bearded truck driver from Port Augusta.
Lest we forget.