Well this year before we head off on our morning drive to Kings Park, I thought I would have a chat with the kiddies about what the day really stands for.So I thought they should read a story I noticed in the local paper, and so I thought why not pop it on here, and so here it is.
The Australians huddled in a lane way of an Afghanistan village, tired and hungry.The soldiers had spent a long morning uncovering enemy stashes of weapons and supplies. They joked about the nearness of death, their silent stalker on each of these patrols.
Well, they tried to. They’d been here so long, perhaps too long, in part because Sappers Darren Smith and Jacob Moerland were so damned good at their jobs. Smith came with his kelpie cross, Moerland with his metal detector.
Smith was 25 and pining for his wife and little boy. His other love, Herbie, was the bomb detection dog conscripted from an animal rescue shelter. Moerland, 21 and soon to be married, was the blonde with the cheesy grin.
The village lay in the “dead ground” west of Patrol Base Wali, in the Mirabad Valley in the country's south, marked by a rock feature that resembled a shark fin. Any sortie in the zone called “the box” could without warning become the “nastiest day of your life”.
The patrol had piled the haul in preparation to blowing it up. The soldiers couldn't carry it all back to base. A warning countdown was set to begin.
Smith and Moerland mulled with the patrol's medic, Lance Corporal Mark Hughes-Brown, then 30, a dedicated smoker who shook out a Camel, one of his last in the pack.
He'd had 20 minutes sleep the night before. In recent months Hughes-Brown had been stabbed by Afghan patients and had treated rag dolls who once were children. He'd forgotten how to laugh.
"How many of those you got left?" Smith asked him.
Hughes-Brown gave his friend a cigarette. The medic opened a can of tuna. Smith said that Herbie was hungry. Hughes-Brown's stomach was rumbling. But he threw the can to the dog.
The team bickered about stuff, such tension was contagious. The duo had fossicked together for four or five hours, each in body armour that doubled as a microwave. They had been here so long, they now expected the village’s exits to be booby-trapped with improvised explosive devices (IEDs). There might be an ambush as well.
Normally, Hughes-Brown, known as HB, trailed Smith on patrols, which often string out and divide. This time, he was still trying to secure the medical bag when he heard a blast about 200 metres ahead.
He recalls a voice on the internal comms: "Yep, wait, we definitely have a . . ."
Then, shouts: "Medic! Medic! Medic! Medic! Medic!..."
Then, his own rasp: "No, no, no, no, no..."
As usual, the bomb detecting pair had led the patrol along a path out of the village, known as Sorkh Lez. Snowy, with blue eyes that jump out of photos, scanned the wheat fields and mud brick compounds. Smithy clicked and whistled to Herbie, who was off his leash.
It was just after 11.10am on June 7, 2010.
Perhaps the sappers spotted a telltale wire or a clod of mud turned fresh in the pan of wet earth. Whatever the case, the bomb lay next to an aqueduct in a spot that amounted to a bottleneck. IEDs had been planted in every exit of the village: the patrol was doomed to encounter one.
Smithy had called Herbie. The pair stood together beside or behind Snowy, who was crouching. Children laughed and squealed nearby.
HB had survived three IED explosions himself. The insurgents had got better at making booby traps. Earlier on, their homemade bombs tended to be buried too deep, or didn’t detonate.
This blast sounded louder than the previous ones. The cloud ballooned bigger. This blast threw up more than dirt. Chris Masters, on another patrol kilometres away, heard a “sickening thud” and saw “a column of white smoke (lift) through the clear air."
"Medic! Medic! Medic! Medic! Medic!..."
"No, no, no, no, no..."
HB stumbled towards the smoke in a direct line through an empty field. Training overrode self-preservation: it always did. He had to be “over” his patients.
But his route had not been cleared of IEDs. HB became aware of shouts ordering him to stop. He paused, panting and shaking, and waited for searchers to clear the ground ahead. Step. Scan. Step. Scan.
He knew it was bad. But he didn't know who was hit and how many. One? 10?
A senior soldier at the crater site pointed and shook his head. Snowy was probably dead, a witness now says, “before he hit the ground”.
The patrol consisted of about 35 men. At least one had been blown off his feet. Frag - shrapnel - had whizzed past others.
Jangled by the blast, the soldiers tensed for the tat-tat of an enemy machine gun or the whine of rockets. They braced for an ambush that would never come.
Herbie was missing. His body was later found riddled with frag. Smithy was missing, too: it took time to register he was in the aqueduct.
His mates had pulled him from the silty shallows by the time HB arrived. Smithy was blinded, disoriented and hit in the legs, abdomen, chest and head. HB didn't know who he was, not until he spotted the dog lead hitched to Smithy's pants. Here was a patient. But here, too, was his mate.
Smithy fought HB and his two combat first aiders in his confusion. Bandages and needles splashed into the mud: a cannula spiked HB's arm.
Smithy not only wanted to live - HB had had patients give up on life with lesser injuries - he wanted to return to work. He asked after Herbie: HB told him Herbie was searching for secondary bombs.
A "fallen angel" dispatch had been issued for a medivac helicopter. "The bird's coming, the bird's coming," HB told Smithy. He checked his watch. He scanned the haze on the hills. He plundered his medical pack.
Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes. Out of Smithy's earshot, HB shrieked at Warrant Officer Kev Dolan, again and again: "Where the f--- is my chopper?"
Smithy asked the medic to tell him if he was ever about to die of wounds. Smithy wanted a last chance to say some final words.That last chance was now. HB had already revived him, with CPR, out of sight of the men. It was 30 minutes or more since the blast. HB leaned in close to Smithy's face.
Smithy apologised for making HB work on him. He had two breaths left. He said he loved his family.
At about the same moment, the two-year-old Mason Smith woke up in Brisbane, screaming: "No Daddy, no Daddy, don't go, no Daddy."
HB was still trying CPR when the Blackhawk landed. After it took off, HB bumped into an infantry soldier who recoiled at the sight of him. Blood clogged HB’s mouth and nose.
HB shoved the private in the face and stomped back to the wheat field where he had lost Smithy. At some point, he threw down his helmet.
He pocketed Smithy's Leatherman all-purpose tool, which Smithy cherished. HB figured it now belonged to Mason, the little boy now being comforted by his mother.
HB steadied himself on the shoulder of Corporal Jeremy Pahl, Snowy and Smithy's section commander, and vomited blood ingested from the CPR.
"I've just lost two of my best mates," the soldier said.
"I know you have, I've lost two of my good mates, too," HB replied. HB was falling into a daze of guilt that would not pass, even though outsiders would see no grounds for guilt.
More than two-and-a-half-years later, HB is resigned. His brain may always be stuck in overdrive. He didn’t know that then. HB WOULD lose 16 patients on his Afghanistan deployment. He is reconciled with 15 of these deaths. Some were Afghan children who faded slowly. Some were less banged up than Smithy.
HB now smokes too much and won't remove the black metal wrist band - Always Besides You - that someone ordered to commemorate Smithy and Snowy. Dozens of people around Australia sport the same bracelet.
Some of the bereaved, jammed into a vortex of loss, are set to be friends for life. Some will never meet. Some have fallen out. Yet they are united. They won't forget. HB wears the band with a sad twist - he won't forget that he "f---ed up", even if he didn’t.
Lives have edged forward without Snowy and Smithy. They must, somehow. Snowy’s fiancee Kezia was due to marry him in November, 2010.
She now has a child to a new love. Smithy's widow, Angela, was a bridesmaid at her wedding. They are close friends, as are Angela and Snowy's mother, Sandy. Angela herself got engaged late last year.
She wasn't expecting to find a new partner. Certainly, she didn't seek to. Her partner had met Smithy and he was close friends with Snowy. The three of them served together at Patrol Base Wali. He is close to Mason, who comes home from school each day to a house filled with photos of Smithy.
Angela and Smithy had "the chat they had to have" before he left for Afghanistan. If he didn't return, he told her, he wanted Mason to have a father figure. He didn't want her to be lonely. "I know you'd pick the right person because you picked me," Smithy said.
HB 33 has just bought a house - he doesn’t want the world to know where - to “fallback, regroup and recover”. He wants to work, and has done contract paramedic jobs, but finds being honest about his state of mind muddles his job prospects.
HB doesn't often booze or invent slights to rage against. But he is stuck in a moment, or in a time, really, when being at war became the closest thing to being at peace, and being at home is being at war with yourself.
HB finds himself researching combat treatment articles online. He compares medical advents with Smithy’s injuries and ponders what he may have done differently. He has bombarded doctors with hypotheticals. “My brain goes into overload, playing the what-if game,” he says. “I’d love to turn it off. But I can’t.”HB, a 13-year army veteran, didn’t quite finish his 2010 deployment. He couldn’t: on the last four patrols, he was prone to panic attacks, which he says endangered other men. His emotional spiral wasn’t just about Smithy: he has photos of an IED roadside blast that killed 10, and close-ups of dying US soldiers. But he goes back to that morning in his mind. Again and again.
HB WAS tricked into attending a barbeque in Brisbane. He thought he was going to the house of a mate of a mate.
He didn’t know that someone wanted to meet him. He twigged only when he walked through the front door, when he saw the family photos.
“Oh my f---ing God,” he thought. “I’m in his house”.
When Angela Smith appeared, she hugged him and started to cry. HB didn’t know what to do or say. So he recited the loop that played in his head.
I failed my job. I failed you. I failed your son. I failed Darren.
No, Smithy’s widow told him. You didn’t fail. You gave him more time than he otherwise could have had. You got his last message to me. Thank you.
HB started to cry, too.