On the 31st of May back in 1999 I joined the Army. I joined part-time, but back then both part- and full-timers (Regular Army) did the same 45 day basic training together, over in New South Wales. During the final stage of assessment in Perth one of the recruiters and another hopeful soldier named Macca (who was also originally from Carnarvon! What?!) ran with me and helped me finish the beep test; I was rubbish at it, was in fact on my third attempt. We were the only two to pass, and after we were sworn in we had a celebratory drink with his dad and brother who were there as well.
Macca had just finished school while I’d already finished uni – he was one of the youngest recruits and I was one of the oldest. We flew to Melbourne, met the bus and recruits from the rest of the country, and drove another few hours to the training centre near Wagga Wagga (“Wogga Wogga”) in NSW.
Our section commander was an Infantryman and so heavily muscled he looked, as Billy Connolly would say, like a condom full of walnuts. His outside/angry voice physically blasted you backwards. “Infantry – God’s Army! SMASH’EM!” Every one of us new recruits looked at him when we first arrived and thought ohhh shit. But we all loved him within a week; all of our corporals were great guys as long as you didn’t piss them off. One let the guys watch the odd footy game in his office, another did hilarious impressions of Mike Tyson; “amma baktha.”
Our safe sex lecture I remember was great fun, even though us scumbag recruits weren’t allowed to bonk each other anyway. Learning to shoot was an acceptable substitute, especially blowing apart water-filled targets with an F89 Minimi (a kind of machine gun). We competed to see who was fastest cleaning their rifle and practised our thousand yard stares. We talked and laughed and became a team.
We did a shitload of ironing; I fucking hate ironing. More than I hate the beep test. We had a barter system happening amongst the recruits; Macca turned out to be a champion Iron Man, and all of us who sucked at it and kept getting in trouble from the corporals used to shine his shoes and polish his brass and he’d iron and fold our stuff for us. (Not any old folding mind you; you needed a ruler.)
My corporals taught me I was to be a ‘choco scab scraper’ (Army reservist medic). Others were to be ‘chooks’ (signals) or perhaps ‘egg flippers’ (cooks) but anyone not Infantry was a ‘pie scoffing pogue.’ We had some good times and heard many wise words to live by from our esteemed corporals…
“Pain is just weakness leaving the body.”
“Sharp as a fuckin’ bowling ball.”
“If you don’t like it, if you can’t handle it, come down to my office – you can sign the papers and we’ll fuck you right off!”
…Classic motivational catchphrases. I’m a parent now and who knows – they might come in handy again someday.
Our corporals were generally reasonable, but if we were too slow getting changed, or left a locker open or a light on – they’d let us have it. We always knew we were in the shit when we returned to the lines and all the lights were off with the soundtrack to ‘Romper Stomper’ turned up so loud we could feel it through our boots. Then the next hour would be bedlam, filled with cycles of marching, bedmaking and quick changes by stopwatch, and whatever other fun bullshit they could come up with.
We eventually earned the right to a drink or three at the boozer on weekends. One Saturday night a still unidentified ‘Black Ops’ team sneaked out of our lines after lights out to steal a door from the vacant floor below ours. This was to replace the one that’d had a hole *accidentally* kicked in it by one of the boys after having a few at the boozer. But they got caught when the staff did a room check and we got Romper Stompered again. I think they went easy on us that time because of the awesome teamwork and initiative displayed in trying to steal a door and their skill in avoiding the corporals downstairs… hearing them tell it they would’ve put ninjas to shame, rolling commando-style under beds and whatnot. Er, not that I know anything about it.
We pack marched to the top of a distant ridge and told dirty jokes around a blazing campfire under the stars. We had a blast learning why you don’t cook your tinned rations on the fire without opening the lid first. We compared blisters and had a laugh at our dodgy talent show. Then hiked back again early the next morning, the sounds and colours of the bush muted by midwinter . I turned 24 and it was a very different birthday with lots of new experiences; circuit training, interval training, and rappelling. And obstacle courses both on the ground and in the air. And using a bayonet. One day Thommo hit his head going through a muddy water-filled tunnel and we didn’t learn until a couple of days later that he’d fractured his neck and had to suspend his training, which meant leaving us. We were shattered.
I’d been given the nickname ‘Colonel’ on our first or second day when I accidentally called our platoon leader ‘colonel’ instead of ‘corporal’. (Duh, Gomer Pyle.) But I think it stuck mainly because my maiden name was ‘Sargent’ and the corporals hated calling me ‘Sarge’. Yes, I know, I was Private Sargent. Fantastic hey?
I might not remember all the names – or have even known many first names – but I remember all of the faces. Thommo, Hughesy, Macca, Smithy, Diz, Mog, Knoxy, Banjo, Deano, Flemmo, Jo, Karen. The bloke from Darwin who could put away enough Jack Daniels to sink a Collins Class submarine. The guy with the massive cross tattoo on the back of his leg. The ex-cop. The square gaiter. (Hilarious!! c/- Knoxy: “Bend your knees not your elbows!”)
We all went our separate ways to our different units and corps. I kept in touch with a few for a while, and worried about the Regs when they were sent into East Timor as part of INTERFET only two months after marching out. I watched the news every night to check if there’d been any casualties, praying I wouldn’t see a familiar face. I hoped the chances of it ever being someone from our little platoon were pretty slim.
Afghanistan, Thursday the 30th of August 2012. That was the worst single day of combat losses for the Australian Army since Vietnam. Five soldiers lost their lives in two separate incidents; three were shot by an Afghan wearing an Australian uniform and two more killed when their ISAF Black Hawk helicopter crashed in the Helmand province. They revealed the identities of the fallen soldiers the following week – and one of them was Macca.
His name was Mervyn John McDonald, and he’d made it to Lance Corporal in the Commandoes; he’d been deployed overseas ten times and was on his sixth tour of duty in Afghanistan when the Black Hawk he was riding in went down.
We’d all been a platoon for only 6 ½ weeks but that was enough time for everyone to figure out who the special guys you could count on were, and Macca was definitely one of them. He was one of the quiet ones, but I remember him just the same; he had this positivity and amazing self assurance about him, for all he was straight out of high school. Like he could handle any shit thrown at him and knew exactly what he was doing there, even if some of the rest of us wondered for ourselves sometimes. Rest in peace Merv, aka Macca – I’m very proud to have known you.
Our Army, Navy and Air Force personnel are courageous, committed, professional, and do an incredible job, and deserve our wholehearted support, especially on Anzac Day. To our men and women still out there, stay safe.
Below is the moving farewell of the five fallen soldiers from Tarin Kot airbase in Afghanistan.