He was my first. Another redhead-like me.
Every time I drive down Fussell Lane, I think about him. I wonder what may have been. I wonder how his parents are. I wonder if his best mate and his mate’s wife would have gone on to do such amazing things if he had stayed on the chosen path.
He was my first. And dear God I wish he’d been my last.
It was November 2008 and I had been in Baghdad for a week. It still felt surreal. I had always wanted to follow history on both sides of my family and serve. And now I was in Iraq, in a war zone, but as a civilian. I was unpacking my bags on a gaudy and peeling bedside table with a faux gold inlay made in a cheap imitation Louis XIVth style. It looked like palace furniture from a Disney princess film. My daughter would have loved it. Don’t you have furniture envy? Fluffy did.
My accommodation was in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, albeit one of the smaller palaces of the Al-Faw complex. The complex was renamed to Camp Victory by the Americans when they occupied Baghdad. ‘My’ palace had the standard dictatorship’s decor… a sweeping marble staircase, elaborate chandeliers and high ceilings and windows. The marble bathrooms all had bidets, which had been disconnected and now served as toilet roll holders.
My daughter would have felt like Princess Sofia the First were it not for the multiple steel bunk beds and sandbags lining the huge windows. And the stench of the poor plumbing. (Apparently threatening workmen that their families would die horrible deaths if you didn’t complete projects on time wasn’t really good for quality control or morale. Who’d have thought?) And although it has since been given back to the Iraqis, I can’t see anyone doing a review of the palaces in TripAdvisor any time soon.
The Remembrance Day ceremony that year was held on the roof of one of Saddam’s palaces. I can’t tell you just how smug the irony made me feel. And while the relentless Middle Eastern sun, hot, but without the Australian ozone deprived sting, beat down on the white stones creating a headache inducing glare, it was the most moving Remembrance Day ceremony I have ever been to. I was here…I was contributing. This Remembrance Day had a personal significance.
In the past week I had swapped grass for sand, sand and more fucking sand, which got into everything and everywhere. I had swapped my beloved heels for steel capped boots. Swapped regular working hours for days that just blended together and were only divided into sleep (little), eat (three times a day, if you missed the time you missed out) and work (a lot.)
I had really only just settled into this life when I got the news. Thursday 27 November 2008. We had lost another Australian. Serving as part of the Special Operations Task Group while in Uruzgan province , Afghanistan. Lieutenant Michael Fussell stepped on an IED. He was killed instantly. He was 25.
That evening, as we walked the 1.5 km to the mess, we were subdued. We had lost one of our own. My Australian military colleagues held their guns a little tighter, a little closer. I found myself critically aware of the holes in the walls as we walked by…left by the successfully aimed and exploded incoming rockets.
The Americans wanted to sit with us, the Australians were known for their sense of humour. But that night we had had none. One of my friends tried to explain the loss. “Did you know him?” we were asked. Nope. But he was an Australian in a war zone. So he would always be a mate. And on a dry base, we couldn’t even have a drink to remember him by.
Lieutenant Michael Fussell was my first. I took his death personally. It happened on my watch. And even though there was no way for me to have controlled the tragic outcome…you don’t forget your first.
I’ve always had an indescribable admiration for people who can overcome such gut wrenching loss and make something great. Something to benefit others. It is the ultimate act of selflessness to me.
John Bale lost his best mate on 27 November 2008. Despite his loss, John looked for a way to support those who survived the IED’s blast. He quickly realised there was no easy or accessible way for members of the Defence forces, or the public, to show their support for those wounded in battle. With his wife Danielle, they reached out to his fellow soldiers and enlisted the help of Cavin Wilson. In 2012 they decided it was time to start an organisation that connected these men and women to the wider public. To honour his fallen mate in the best, most Australian of ways, John and Danielle founded ‘Soldier On’ to support wounded returning soldiers. Their motto is “We will always have their backs.”
On 26 June 2014 the Governor-General opened Soldier On’s third Centre, located at Milsons Point in Sydney. The Centre was named the Michael Fussell Reintegration and Recovery Centre. Nothing will bring Michael back for his family or friends. But his best mate and ‘Soldier On’ CEO John Bale has done a damn lot of good in Michael’s name. And that brings me a sort of peace. That Michael’s death is a still a terrible loss…but not a complete waste.
Fussell Lane in Gungahlin, ACT wasn’t named after the Afghanistan Michael Fussell- but a soldier from WW1 who died in Gallopoli. But I always think of the red headed Michael when we drive back from grocery shopping. He’d be 32 now. Would he have been married? Would he have had children? Would he have had multiple Middle East deployments on deployments like they all did? If so, how would be have adjusted when getting home? How scarred would he have been…and would you have been able to see them? Would you have known that he needed your support? What would he have thought of his ADF mates’ so called recent 1.5% ‘pay rise’ which isn’t even keeping up with CPI?
I won’t ever know. No one will. I have learned to let go of the guilt and accept things I cannot change. But I still feel a great sadness driving down Fussell Lane and I know I always will. But I know a difference is being made in his name for those wounded veteran survivors coming home.
One day my daughter and son will wear miniatures of my Operational Service Medal. And when they are older I’ll tell them about Lieutenant Michael Fussell.
That he was my first.
Lest We Forget.
Please consider donating to Soldier On this Remembrance Day.