“Once he’s gazed upon her, a man is forever changed– Lord Huron
The bravest men return with darkened hearts and phantom pain
Ages come and go but her life goes on the same
She lives to see the sun and feel the wind and drink the rain.”
As I held the phone on Christmas day 1997, I looked down at my hand and paused a moment to reflect on how this had all begun. In only six months I’d gone from nowhere to this moment without ever suspecting that it was even a remote possibility. Looking at my hand that day I remembered that this had all begun with a stranger’s hand in a place 1000 miles away.
I suppose that people would have called me a bit of a tomboy and I was comfortable with that. I had always loved sport and competition, rowing, rugby, etc so I was excited to be able join the Army Reserves when I turned 18 and still be able to study biology at University of NSW full-time. It was the best of both worlds. I joined a Medical Corps unit that paraded in the Sydney inner-city suburb of Randwick which was not far from my accommodation, job at the local bakery or the UNSW itself.
The training I received in the Reserves was unlike anything I had ever done before. I revelled in the physicality, discipline and the comradely. There were also plenty of other girls at Brigade Headquarters – especially in Medical Corps – but the weight of numbers in the army was always with the guys. I really enjoyed their company, so I didn’t mind a bit.
But my love of “guy” things didn’t mean that I wasn’t also interested in guys. And some of the girls were more interested than others. So, when we were alone, we still did all the girl stuff (talk about the guys) that you might expect.
I was only a couple of years out of my all-girl high school, living away from home and finally being able to be an adult and make my own decisions. The world was at my feet, and I had a smorgasbord of options to choose from, including how hard I studied, worked, trained and whom I saw.
As I was a full-time student, there were always options for extra Reserve training. So, when the offer came to go to the Land Warfare Centre in Queensland and spend two weeks in the jungle doing infantry minor tactics I immediately leapt at the offer.
The plan was for the Brigade to send a rifle company to the LWC. The Company would be made up of soldiers from all corps which meant that I would get to play rifleman for two weeks, not a medic, which was outstanding. We sent four people from our unit: Greg, who’d be the actual Company medic; Sue, who would be a section commander; and Lisa who, like me, would get to be a rifleman.
We formed up at the Engineer Barracks in Penrith for two weekends of lead up training which involved lots of physical training (PT) and learning all the Infantry drills and skills. There were plenty of Infantry guys there to help us out and I was enthusiastic to learn all the new skills including weapons and field craft.
Our officers for the field were 2nd Lieutenant Highman and Lieutenant Holland. 2Lt Highman was a loud, confident, typically Australian blokey-bloke while Lt Holland was thoughtful and softly spoken.
We flew up to Queensland from Richmond in the back of an air force transport plane. It was exceptionally loud in the hold, but I was so excited that I didn’t mind at all. The two-hour trip seeming to fly by in an instant.
When we arrived in Queensland, we were bussed up to the LWC in Canungra, high in the mountains overlooking the beaches of the Gold Coast. Our accommodation for the two weeks were tents and beds that looked like they had been made in the 1940s. But has I had come to appreciate in the last two years of army life, anything is better than sleeping in the dirt.
I was having a great time at the LWC: learning new skills, making new friends, and getting paid to do it. Each night we girls would retire to our tent, talk about the day and then, as regular as clockwork, Lisa would inevitably start talking about the guys. She seemed to be on a mission but had a fixation on one particular guy. She must have sensed our boredom with her obsession and attempted to deflect a bit of attention by dragging us into the conversion by asking if we had our eye on any one of the guys. We usually gave polite, non-committal answers but then one night Sue unexpectedly said, “Lt Holland.”
It was odd that Sue had said that because we hadn’t had much to do with our officers since we arrived and Lt Holland even less so. The LWC staff had been conducting all the soldiers training while the officers had been doing their own specialist training during the day. We would see them around the lines in the morning, night-time and also for PT but beyond that our contact with them was limited.
2Lt Highman was always around, keen to lead the way, loud, confident and very alpha. Lt Holland was more of a shadow. Silent and watchful, leaving the soldiers to themselves but taking command when the situation required it. I hadn’t given any thought to which leadership style I preferred but began to find myself thinking that 2Lt Highman was a little too self-assured and, as each day passed, becoming increasingly more curious about what made Lt Holland tick. I eventually did start talking about him with the girls but, at that stage, the possibility of anything happening never even crossed my mind.
After a week of training, we were sent into the field in a mountain rain forest on the Queensland and NSW border named, unsurprisingly, the Border Ranges. The field phase was great but tough. 2Lt Highman was a good leader but, as a rifleman, I didn’t have any direct contact with him. I saw him occasionally giving me odd looks and, as I was new to this Infantry stuff, I wondered if I had done something wrong.
I learned that week that, the in the field, an infantryman’s life was restricted to just my section and often just one or two faces for days at a time. The terrain, foliage and tactical situation also meant that we were operating in silence or speaking in whispers the whole time. I loved learning new skills and putting them into practice but by the fifth night I was beginning to miss my former medic’s life of a warm tent, a noisy HQ and a conversation with more than one person that was above a whisper. I was ready to get out of there and back into the real world.
On the last night in the field, we came back to Company HQ, in preparation for our move home to our tents the next morning. As we approached CHQ, I spotted Lt Holland waiting to guide us into our final position. I don’t know what happened, but I felt my heart skip a beat the second I saw his face, even though it was covered in cam cream and unshaven. I just felt myself going all gooey inside. And then, obviously happy to see us for the first time in days, he smiled. I had never seen him smile before. His eyes lit up and I was smitten. From then, until the moment we got back to the lines, I just kept staring at him whenever he was around. The rest of the world just stopped seeming to matter.