Once upon a time

We all have stories that shape us, make us better human beings or even ones that your friends will remember for a lifetime. That’s why I’d like to introduce a simple story what happened to my platoon while sitting on the East Timorese border in December 1999.

If you haven’t gathered already, I joined the army; in April 1997 for three months of basic Army training, then three months to become an infantry soldier; in which I got to complete twice due to a fat knee with cellulitis.

Moving forward two years it was our platoons (2nd Battalion 3 Platoon) turn to rotate through one of the many forward border controls for roughly a month. If you can imagine a large river bed spanning 300m across which winds through the mountainous hills of a third world country during the monsoonal season, that’s just a start.

We were lucky to have stretcher beds already on location, and the former platoon had already dug small trenches (20 cm deep) to stop the mad rains from flooding our little sleeping areas. Above were two hoochies buttoned together, tied to trees and pegged to the ground where two blokes would call home for the duration, when weren’t on patrol or manning the gun piquets (watching outwards).

On our first deployment, all mail sent to a soldier from Australia had free postage. So if you were lucky you’d end up with some extra food or something to bide your time.

Having a father who previously toured Borneo twice and Vietnam twice knew how valuable little care packages help moral and keep boredom to a minimum. With the help of my younger sister Louise, they put together the best care package one could hope for.. packed in a small cardboard box they managed to fit glitter, bright red lipstick and several colours of toenail polish. I’m sure there was more stuff in the box, but I am remembering memories from 16 years ago.

My mates thought this was a real cracker and encouraged me to become the woman they always wanted. It was desperate times: no chicks only blokes so I decided to hide the package and go back to my duties like a good soldier. In these years as a soldier, I was known to be slightly nutty, fit as a fiddle and often marched to my tune. “What’s that Corporal..?”

So after nine or ten days of much-loved duties, I can remember sitting on the stretcher bed leaning back on my pack playing around with that lovely care package from home… we all do strange things when alone. Schembri, who had been in the military for less than six months, came back into the taj-ma-hoochie expressing ‘What the fuck are you doing’, with a weird arse look on his face.

There I was with shirt unbuttoned, lipstick circles around my nipples and a tremendous love heart around my bellybutton sprinkled with glitter. This wasn’t an attempt to lure the young guy onto my stretcher or join our feminine crowd, but more to fulfil a weird sense of humor.

Since our platoon was still tactical, I buttoned my shirt and proceeded to remove my left sock and boot in the opposite order, and decided on a bright pink fingernail polish to make my feet look more attractive, all in amazement of Shitbrick (suitably named Schembri).

Fifteen minutes later we were sitting having a great laugh at the small things in life.. ‘partly because I was painted like a glamor doll’ waiting for the nail polish to dry before beginning on the next foot.

You never know when something is going to happen and when it does it just does. While laughing the loudest explosion went off, and we both hit the deck so not to get fragged or shot, this is where training and instinct comes in. I was pissed!! Schembri looked across with an oh my god look on his face, and started to juggle his webbing, flak jacket and rifle in an attempt to get them all on at once, it was a sight to be seen.

We had every reason to shit ourselves, the noise and vibrations that come from an explosion are something you will always remember. Still pissed. I yelled ‘fuck my toenails are still wet’ slid on my boot and the rest of that stuff they trained you to use and was running out to the piquet where Niccoles was manning the machine gun.

Within twenty seconds two to three hundred were running across the river bed straight towards us. We were told the day before that there were local markets on the west side of the border and to check the people who passed our crossing… you know they could be carrying dangerous things.

With this mass of people dashing towards us, we sat low behind a mound of sandbags just in case. This is something I’ve only ever experienced once, and it’s very unnerving having hundreds of people running at you. Niccoles hastily said ‘should I shoot, should I shoot?’. My response was ‘Nah not yet’.

With 20 Australian soldiers, rifles and machine guns aimed at this mass charging across the riverbed, things could have got messy real quick, plus we’re not Victorian police officers.

The mass of people moved 100m upstream in what seemed a better route for them, our eyes like dinner plates we looked for anything that could be a danger; in this confusion, there were the old, young, women and children plus those who were wounded being dragged or carried in any manner possible. I think a few world records would have won on this day.

From what I hear 3 Section overall did a fantastic job handling the wounded while the Sarge and signaller organised an evacuation of the critically injured. All up there were three Casualty 1’s and six other wounded. Luckily no deaths but I’m feeling real sorry for the guy who got fragged in the jugular and awful for the guy caught a fragment through his scrotum and leg artery; he would have been a bleeder for sure!

This shook a few people up, especially the guys from 3 Section and we were luckily enough to have a day off in Balibo a few days later for Christmas.

Reports from the locals say that a militia threw a grenade into the markets making them move shop awfully quick back to East Timor where there were better signs of safety. As for the Timorese, this is something they have been dealing with for the past 25 years, they then dispersed back to their towns and villages to continue life in a broken country.

In our short four months in East Timor, we came across many situations, but this being my fondest, which I have added as one of life’s great experiences. Overall, I enjoyed my first tour and would have loved to stay longer in East Timor and continue learning more about the cultural differences, the Tetum language, patrolling in the killing humidity and not having a fresh feed for the first month. Now if you throw a Ration Pack my way expect it to be returned with a swift kick.

So far I have been lucky not to suffer from PTSD and account that to my upbringing in the country and seeing things as a normal progression of life. To my mates keep in touch, it’s always great to remember the stupid shit we did as youngsters.

The moral of the story is be stupid; it makes life more fun.