I hit the base at Holsworthy with a very, very big thud. My unit was away on exercises and were due back in a week or so. I was assigned my quarters which were actually quite good. My own little townhouse all to myself. Compared to sharing with my fellow trainees in dorm style rooms for the past 6 months it was great to finally having some privacy.
After about a week the unit returned from their exercises. I had been spending the week familiarising myself with the base and our unit’s work area and doing odd jobs in preparation for their return. The following day I was introduced to our commanding officer and this is where the shit’eth, hit’eth the fan. The CO had my army personnel file in his hands and was absolutely tearing shreds off of me. I’m not sure what was in the file – perhaps I can ask for this now under the freedom of information act – but I am sure it had comments about my lack of desire to remain in the army during my basic training and also my knee problems from Puckapunyal. While 20 years later I don’t recall exactly what was said I do remember the CO questioning why the hell he had been sent someone with the knee problems that I had and the fact that I had the physical restrictions preventing me from taking part in a lot of the base activities. I was sent out of the office the most depressed I had ever been. Way to go, CO, don’t worry about welcoming a new member and making him feel at home in new surroundings.
So life on base was ordinary. I don’t have a lot of memories from this period except for 2 main ones.
As I was not able to do a lot of the other work the other soldiers in my unit were doing I was assigned a hell of a lot of guard duty. The guard shifts were 12 hours long starting at 7am or 7pm. I remember celebrating my 18th birthday doing the 7pm to 7am guard duty shift. It was a cold night and I was certainly not keen on walking around the base checking doors and reporting in via the two-way. But I did it. I also remember when I wasn’t walking around the base that night, I was manning the front guard station, listening to the FM radio for entertainment and company. It was actually the week that John Farnham released “Chain Reaction” and on the night of my birthday I heard the title track from that album at least 4 times on the same radio station. By the end of my 18th birthday I knew that song by heart. Luckily I was, and still am, a massive Farnsie fan.
I made a really bad decision not long after that. I was very unhappy. I had no close mates in the unit although the guys were pretty good, but being sick of the day to day guard duty and painting of rocks I had had enough. This was not what I signed up for. I remember thinking back to the ads on TV showing adventure and excitement. I certainly wasn’t seeing it so I made a drastic decision. I packed up my suitcase and left.
I packed up all of my civilian gear and left any army issued gear behind. Using an alias I rang Qantas and made a booking to go home to Brisbane. I arrived home and went to mums place and told her what I had done. It was a Friday night and I knew my absence wouldn’t be known until Monday morning when I didn’t turn up for roll call. Around about 9am on the Monday morning the phone rang and I remember calling out to mum to tell them I would be back at midday. Mum said I was there and put me on the phone. I was asked if I was ok and I responded with “yes’’. I was then ordered back to base and was to make myself known at Amberley Airforce Base which is located just outside of Brisbane, where I was to be flown back to Sydney by the RAAF asap. Later that day I arrived back at the Richmond Airforce Base after hitching a ride on a cargo plane. Damn, I was hoping I might get sent back in an F1-11 or something. No such luck!
I’m not sure what my thought process was at the time and when I think back I guess I had gone a little bit insane. Who in their right mind packs their bags, books a ticket in his mother’s maiden name and flies home and not think there would be drastic consequences? Well, me apparently.
I was actually treated very well by my CO when I returned. He sat me down and had a chat with me and probed me on my intentions and why I had gone AWOL. I explained that I was unhappy and that I was homesick. I explained that even though specialists were treating my knees, my life in the army was not what I was hoping for. He asked me to think about it over night and if the next day I wanted to be discharged I would be. Like I even needed to think about it but I said that I would. The funny thing was that on the plane trip home I had come to peace with the fact that I was where I was. I had signed a 4 year contract and I just had to suck it up, grow up and do my job, no matter how shitty it was. However, the next day I was front and centre in front of the CO and I informed him that I wanted out. He said, “done” and I was sent on my way a couple of weeks later.
I was given a dishonourable discharge and this was mainly due to the fact I had gone absent without leave. I returned my army gear except for my slouch hat and a few other ceremonial clothing items. I was given the discharge and 9 months after pledging my allegiance to the Queen of Australia I was once again a civilian.
From when I started in the army weighing in at 76kg, I had stacked on 14kg. I weighed 90kg on the day I was discharged. My knees were shot and I was now living a sedentary life style. There was a big change though. I was a different person. I now had discipline. Not that I was a bad kid in school. Far from it. I was never in the wrong crowd or in trouble with the law. I just lacked focus and discipline when it came to school work. So I did what any other person in my situation would do. I went back to high school and repeated year 12. This time though I passed with flying colours and was accepted to attend University to study Education.
I really wish things turned out differently. I am sure that if my knees didn’t stuff up that I would have stayed in the army as I would have been able to do so much more. I look back and regret the phone calls home. The weekend leave without a pass. The stress I put on my family and friends.
I am a huge patriot of my country. Australia is the best place on earth. I had an opportunity to represent my country. Not as a sportsman on the sports field, but on the battle field if it ever came to that. I would defend my country and would give my life for it if that is what it took for Australia to be free. In leaving the army in the manner in which I did I feel I dishonoured those brave diggers who gave the ultimate sacrifice in all of the wars Australia has fought in, particularly the diggers who fought at Gallipoli in 1915. Boys younger than me gave their lives on foreign soil so that many years later I would be given every freedom my great country affords. I forgot about those guys 75 years earlier who died terrible deaths, while I was crying for my mummy.
Regrets are strange things. Each decision I have ever made in my life has led me to this point here and now. I love my wife and I love my kids and decisions I made 20 years ago enabled me to meet my wife and have my kids. Without going into any detail if I hadn’t have joined the army I know I would not have met my wife and therefore be as happy as I am and the proud father of my two kids. That being said, I do regret the manner in which I conducted myself and the way in which I left the army. If I could have my time all over again, I would do it all differently. But I can’t. So what matters now is how I live my life going forward. I attend the Dawn Service each Anzac Day and I take my eldest daughter with me to teach her about the sacrifices the brave diggers have been making to keep us free since Australia first went into the theatre of war. Next year my youngest daughter will start attending the Dawn Service with us as she will be old enough to start understanding the importance our armed services play in keeping us free.
I now wish I had have stayed in the army. I am sure my weight issues would never have eventuated as my knees would have healed with the correct care. I didn’t end up going to Uni but instead worked in the hospitality industry which contributed to my weight issues (all my fault for making bad food choices – I’m not trying to blame anyone or anything here as it was all me). I would now be able to hold my head high instead of lowering it slightly when I see our brave diggers walk on by. I want to make it right but I don’t know how. I have thought about writing a letter to the defence chief and apologising for wasting their time and money way back in 1990. I doubt it would do any good. It might make me feel a little better though. I’ll have a think about it.
This concludes my 3 part series – “I was only 17”. The title of this series is based on the Australian Music Group, “Red Gum”, who have a hugely successful song titled, “I was only Nineteen” which is a song about an Australian soldier who fought in Vietnam. You can find it at iTunes.
Thanks for reading and if you have any questions or comments please leave them below. I am more than happy to talk to anyone who is unsure if a career in the army is for them.