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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.
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Welcome to my next chapter in the story about my time in the Australian Regular Army. Click here to read Part 1 – Basic Training.
The bus trip to Puckapunyal from Kapooka took around 5 hours. The journey was one of reflection, looking back at the last 13 weeks of basic training including the highs and the awful lows. However there was an air of expectation on the bus. We were no longer known as ‘recruit’ as we now had our ranks. Amongst us were Sappers, Troopers, Signalmen and my rank of Privates.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I had been accepted into the Royal Australian Transport Corp and was on my way to Puckapunyal to complete the 13 week Basic Drivers Course. Immediately upon arrival I noticed that the strictness of Kapooka had been replaced with a somewhat relaxed feel but this was still a military base after all and there was still a requirement to be disciplined.
One of the main points of difference was that we were in training with soldiers from bases from all around Australia. I formed a friendship with a corporal by the name of Robert Grant. Rob was a great guy who was very easy going and became a great mentor to me. He was married and lived in NSW and half way through the Basic Drivers Course we would go for a road trip to his home to meet his wife. This road trip enabled me to drive long distances for the first time ever.
Before joining the army I did not know how to drive. I didn’t have my licence, however I did have my learners permit. My best mate, Mark’s mum, had given me a couple of lessons and other than one disastrous attempt driving my drunk mates home from our school formal graduation party, I didn’t really know how to drive very well. This was one of the main reasons I requested to join the Transport Corp as I sensed an opportunity to learn how to drive and avoid getting my head shot off on the front lines if we ever went to war. Smart thinking, huh? You betcha!
So the training started. First off we were taught how to drive the Army Land Rovers. They were all manuals – that’s stick shift for my American friends. We were taught how to double clutch and drive straight and safely. My first attempts at driving resembled a rabbit on speed! Bunny hopping up and down the training track. I kept apologising to my instructor but he said it was all good. He was a corporal and explained that they actually preferred the 17 year olds to train as that meant they didn’t have to untrain bad habits previously acquired.
Before long I became adept at driving the Land Rovers. No probs and I became quite proficient. Well I suppose it shouldn’t take that long to learn when that is our full time job, driving all day, every day. The next challenge was driving the Army trucks called Unimogs.
As you can see these are a bit bigger than a standard Land Rover. 16 gears, 8 forward, 8 reverse. The double clutch technique we were taught for the Land Rovers was actually in preparation for use in the Unimogs. They actually were quite easy to drive. The only thing extra I recall having to remember was to make sure when turning to make sure you went a little wider than normal to avoid hitting the kerb with the rear wheels which I failed to do once driving the troops into a McDonalds!
One part of the actual training that has stayed with me for life, other than the actual skill of driving, was a video presentation we received before our very first driving lesson. We were shown a video of car crash accidents with the dead bodies still in the smashed cars. We were also shown video of a crash accident victim’s autopsy. For all of us, this was our first experience seeing dead bodies. While it was only on film, the impact has stayed with me since then. I can still see the horrible and tragic images of those poor people who died so suddenly and in such a horrific way. On a side note, I would go as far as saying that this video should be shown as a compulsory requirement of driver training for all people, not only those in the military. I am sure it would help reduce the road toll.
There was only one incident though which almost cost myself, my instructor and the 20 odd troops in the back of the carrier our lives. Towards the end of the training course, we were on a week long tour of Victoria. It was my turn at the wheel and we were driving through some hilly terrain. Going downhill I tried to change into a lower gear but couldn’t get the truck into gear. We were gaining speed and I was beginning to panic as there was a deep decline off to the side of the road and I didn’t want to be responsible for the death of 20 odd people including myself. The truck just would not go into gear and the exhaust brakes did not seem to be responding too well. Faster and faster we went until finally with the assistance of the instructor, I was able to get the truck back into a low gear and we continued on to our destination without further incident. I was a little worried though as running through my head was a statement which I had been told early in the training course – “Always give the guys in the back a good ride or they may pull you out of the cabin when you’ve stopped and give you a hiding”. So this was going through my head as we were pulling into camp. I got out of the cabin and went around the back to lower the back tail gate with a fair bit of trepidation. The guys got out and thanked me for the ride. Phew! I avoided an ass kicking.
I was restricted in what I could actually do physically during this training at Puckapunyal. As I mentioned in my previous post, during basic training I started to get a lot of knee pain in both knees. The army doctors diagnosed that my symptoms were brought on by running in boots as they were not very shock absorbent and going up and down the 3 flights of stairs numerous times a day. The impact of my knees was quite hard and as a result I had constant grinding in them. The doctors put me on restrictions until further notice. The restrictions known as a CHIT prevented me from doing any physical activities. This included marching, drill, PT and any other physical activity other than walking.
Then one day I was caught playing racquet ball with Corporal Robert Grant and was hauled in front of my commanding officer where I was given one hell of a reprimand. I was disobeying orders by playing sport. When you disobey orders you can be arrested by the MP’s and put into the stockade. I had heard about the Aussie version of military prison. Essentially the military prison on base was an exercise yard with bunks built on the sides. In the middle of the exercise yard were two different coloured lines approx 5 metres apart. Let’s say they were blue and green. At any one time one of the MP’s would call out one of the line colours and you would need to rush to it and stand to attention. After an amount of time the MP would call out the other line colour and you would need to run to it as quickly as possible and again, stand to attention. The amount of time you would need to stand to attention on one of the lines would vary. It could be 10 seconds or it could be an hour. This form of punishment might take hours to complete or it might take minutes. It could happen at 2am or in the heat of the day at midday. I’m glad I never found out. I was so scared shitless to be sent to jail for doing something like playing racquet ball. I was 17 and while it may have been a bluff from my superiors, I wasn’t about to take the risk.
So from that day on during my Basic Drivers course, I didn’t disobey any orders. I completed the training but found myself very unhappy and a lot of this unhappiness was due to my inability to be active. I was so fit when I joined the army. I was 17 and 76kg. I worked out that I would exercise for at least 2 hours a day when I was in school. This was achieved by riding my bike to and from school (30mins), playing touch footy at lunch time (30 mins) and spending at least an hour day at the park across the road from home kicking the footy with my mate, Denis or at football training. I was always on the go. Now for the first time in my life, I was inactive and hating it. My mates in the training course were supportive to a degree but I felt ostracized when they were able to PT and drill daily and therefore I did not feel part of the team. This is also the very beginning of my weight problems which regular readers will know have plagued me ever since.
I also had a very bad case of tonsillitis during training and spent 4 days in hospital which was miserable. So the high I found myself on when I arrived for this second stage of training was fast evaporating and I found myself again, wishing I was at home and out of this nightmare.
As the training was drawing to an end, we were asked to nominate where we would like to be posted to on a full time basis. Of course I requested Enoggera in Brisbane, close to home. I was informed this was unlikely and the only reason for soldiers being sent home was if they had their own family there. A family which included a wife and kids. I had neither and soon found myself heading to Sydney and the Holsworthy Army Base and my new life as a fully trained soldier.
The final and darkest chapter of my army life occurred in Sydney and it would go on to shape the man I would become.
I was only 17 – The Final Chapter…..Click here.
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