It had been years since I’d been to an Anzac Day service. I’d been put off by the cold weather, the dark morning, and the inevitable rain. I’d also become more than a little embarrassed by my inability to attend any sort of service celebrating success, recognising loss or honouring others without crying. And by crying, I mean blubbering mess. But I had soft, fond memories from my childhood of those cold, wet mornings, standing among sombre adults, watching old men march by in suits and uniforms, medals flashing from their chest. I remember understanding that those men and women were heros, of the real variety. No superpowers to call on when their back was against the wall, just an ability to draw on stores of courage and determination to protect and survive. And I recall clearly how my heart would swell at the sight, the emotions inside me too large for the child I was.
So at 0400 hours on the morning of April 25, 2008, when I climbed into my designated up-armoured vehicle in Baghdad, I was a heady combination of apprehension and enthusiasm. Alongside my colleagues, wearing suits and sneakers under our body armour, we were headed to ‘The Cove’ for an emotional awakening.
It was not lost on us how eerily quiet Baghdad was that morning. There was no c-ram (i.e. no rocket attacks) for the entire ride in, ceremony and ride back. It felt like a Christmas armistice, but we all knew it wasn’t. It was just luck. The birds were waking up in fits and starts and the temperature was rising. Already I could smell and taste the dust that was part of my daily life in Baghdad. But at least I wouldn’t have to worry about rain.
Soldiers were leaning idly against concrete blast walls and tanks, talking in hushed tones suited to the pre-dawn hours. As VPs and guests arrived from the US, UK and AU, there was a rumour spreading, partially confirmed, that General Petreaus would also be joining the service. A friend had told me that I should read the Counterinsurgency (COIN) Field Manual before I went to Baghdad (which I did) and I was wishing I had it on me so I could get a signed copy. I was not above seeking autographs in warzones or on Anzac Day – that manual, just like these men, represented the many angles of what we were trying to achieve. General Petreaus was known as a smart operator and when, rumour fully confirmed, he had arrived there was a tangible buzz across the camp – rightly so. As he worked his way through the men and women waiting for dawn, the image of a fox came to mind.
The service was nothing short of beautiful. Set against a backdrop of concrete blast walls and military vehicles it was impossible to actually see the sun rise, but standing in a war zone with the men and women who actually represent those tragic and inspiring words, I understood for the first time why people get up at unGodly hours, why they make the pilgrimage to Gallipoli and why I cry. I stand here because of someone else’s sacrifice.
I’ve seen what these men and women can do. They will run all day and all night carrying their weapon and pack, they will go without creature comforts and sleep, they will eat rationed meals that taste like cardboard, they will travel far from their families and loved ones, and they will risk their own life and liberty to protect that of others. And I know that as long as someone is left behind, they will come back and get that person out… and for that “I will remember them”.