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Think Piece: Extended Family

Thursday 5 October, 2017

Today a purpose built, first class, modern facility that will meet the mental health needs of veterans well into the future was officially opened by the family of a fallen solider.

The Jamie Larcombe Centre.

Named in honour of Sapper Jamie Ronald Larcombe, recognising not only Jamie’s service and sacrifice but also that of his family. Jamie was killed in action on 19 February 2011.

Since commencing my role with Veterans SA in December 2016 I have had the privilege of spending some time with Jamie’s parents while organising aspects of the Centres opening. The respect that I have developed for this family knows no bounds.

On September 9th I attended a dinner with the Families of the Fallen.  These are family and friends of the young men who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. I was apprehensive about attending the dinner.

Earlier in the afternoon I found myself watching my daughter, thinking about each family who had lost a son and wondering if I would be able to cope if I found myself in their position; I’m not sure I could.

I didn’t know what to expect, I was conscious of saying something wrong; should I or shouldn’t I mention their sons?  My concerns proved unfounded.

I sat with the family of Sergeant Andrew Russell, the first Australian solider to die in Afghanistan in February 2002.  Another wonderful family.

Looking around the room at dinner that night, watching the mothers, fathers, widows, aunts and uncles, I started to question how we remember the families left behind when we lose one of our defence members.

Once the coffins have been lowered and the Australian National Flag folded and presented, life returns to normal unless there is a direct connection with the families.

Once or twice a year, we pause, we remember the fallen.  But what about those who are still here; those who got that knock on the door; those who now have to face every single day with a part of themselves missing; those who have to get up each morning and keep on keeping on because, regardless of the fact that their life has been irreversibly changed, life does still have to go on.

Aside from the fact that these people all became members of a greater defence family when their sons signed up to defend our country, they may never have met.  I am positive that given the opportunity they would give anything to have never met.  But due to seemingly intolerable circumstances, they have.  An unwanted but very much loved and needed extended family.

Nowhere will you find a group of more resilient human beings than those who make up the Families of the Fallen.  The strength and support that these families provide each other is beyond anything I have ever witnessed.  They lean on each other, a shared experience that no one should have to endure, has bonded them forever.

Their eyes light up when they speak of their sons, their chests heave with pride as they recite stories, they freely share tears and laughter.  While there is understandably, an ever present sadness, I saw no lingering anger.  I have never met a group of such inspirational people.

Each morning when I arrive at work I look at the pictures I have on my pin board, these two pictures are representative of the men we have lost in Afghanistan.  I say good morning to them, and now their families are a part of my morning thoughts too.  They will never know the profound impact meeting them has had on me, but I am eternally thankful.  They have unwittingly taught me to live lighter, love harder and appreciate every single day that I get to spend with my loved ones.   A valuable lesson for each and every person, albeit tragically at someone else’s loss.

Lest We Forget

Chantelle Graham joined the Royal Australian Navy in 1997 and discharged as a Leading Seaman, Combat Systems Operator in 2003. Chantelle’s service included a posting to the Australian Joint Intelligence Centre at Maritime Headquarters in Sydney and her first sea posting was to HMAS Tobruk from 1999 to 2001 serving in East Timor and the Solomon Islands. On discharge Chantelle completed a 12 month full time reserve posting at the Joint Electronic Warfare Operation Support Unit at DSTO RAAF Base, Edinburgh. In 2006 Chantelle commenced employment with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, where she gained considerable experience in several business areas, including Income Support, Community Mental Health, Community Nursing and finally in the Veterans Access Network and Corporate Services area as Manager. During this time Chantelle also held a position as an Australian Site Liaison Officer for the Anzac Centenary commemorative activities in Turkey. She is a member of the Veterans Advisory Council and in December 2016 was appointed Deputy Director, Veterans SA.

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