image

ONE
WOMAN’S
WAR

AND PEACE

A NURSE’S
JOURNEY IN THE
ROYAL AUSTRALIAN
AIR FORCE

Wing Commander
Sharon Bown (Ret’d)

image

 

 

 

For my husband Conway, and our precious boys,
Tiberius and Austin

For the men, women and families dedicated to the
service of Australia
.

CONTENTS

FOREWORD

PREFACE

PROLOGUE

1 OFFICER TRAINING SCHOOL

2 DEPLOYMENT TO EAST TIMOR

3 FAR FROM HOME

4 RETURN TO EAST TIMOR

5 ‘MAYDAY!’ ‘MAYDAY!’

6 BROKEN AND BANGED UP

7 LOSING MUM, LOSING FRIENDS, LOSING HOPE

8 WORKING FOR THE MINISTER FOR DEFENCE

9 ‘HOW DOES THAT FEEL, COPPER?’

10 TAKING COMMAND AND AFGHANISTAN

11 THE DARKNESS

12 THE DAWN

EPILOGUE

ABBREVIATIONS, ACRONYMS AND TERMINOLOGY

INDEX

FOREWORD

 

 

I have worn their blood. So many of us have worn their blood.

 

Two sentences with immense power and resonance. They were quietly spoken in pre-dawn darkness to thousands of Australians assembled at the Australian War Memorial for Anzac Day 2014. With quiet, awkward humility and abiding reverence they were the words of Sharon Bown. Behind her, onto the front of the Memorial were being projected the images of the men killed in Afghanistan whose blood she had ‘worn’.

None of us present will ever forget the power of the moment.

Proudly wearing her Royal Australian Air Force uniform for the last time, more than anyone else she conveyed in that one speech all that military service represents. She conveyed the courage and price paid by those who wear the uniform of our three services in the protection of our nation and its values. She also laid bare her own humanity and that of those whom she treated leading a critical care team in Afghanistan.

Courage comes in many forms — physical, moral and emotional. One Woman’s War and Peace manifests all three. This is Sharon Bown’s remarkable story.

Pulled from the wreck of a UN Bell helicopter in East Timor, soaked in aviation fuel with crushed vertebrae and a broken jaw, this RAAF nurse was determined to return to work as soon as she could. Carrying both the physical and psychological pain of this near-death experience, twice in 2004, she returned to work as soon as she could. She helped choose the medical team to assist in Nias after the 2005 tsunami. Then she endured the agony of learning some of those closest to her whom she had selected had been killed in the Sea King helicopter tragedy. She would deploy to Bali after the second bombing in 2005 to provide expert nursing care. She lost and found love, suffered the death of her mother and then, whilst working as my Aide-de-Camp when Defence Minister, her police officer father was shot on duty.

Sharon Bown was determined that these major life events — despite her post-traumatic stress — would make her stronger. And they did. She writes that being ‘broken’ gave her the ‘opportunity for growth’ and to be ‘more complete’ than she had been. In then exploring the extent of her capabilities, she is testament to the truism that it is not what happens in life that determines its value, but how you deal with it.

The operating theatre in which Sharon worked in Afghanistan and her description of it says much about the Australian character. The Australian Special Forces had presented her team with an Australian flag. She hung it on the wall inside the operating theatre. It would be the last thing these men would see when they went under and the first thing they would see when they awoke.

The most poignant description of her remarkable work there, however, is that of an eight-year-old Afghan boy shot in his home by a stray bullet, curled up as he slept. Describing it as her ‘darkest hour’, she writes:

We lost a child. A child who cried for someone or something in his mother tongue as we put him to sleep for surgery. A child who cried to a room full of strangers who could not understand his pleas.

It has taken a great deal of courage to live the life she has in the uniform of the Royal Australian Air Force. But perhaps it has taken more courage for Sharon Bown to tell it.

In doing so, she has told the stories of all those remarkable men and women who serve, each in their own way — for us. She gives us a unique insight into the cost of that service and the price paid not only by those in the uniform, but those who love and support them.

There are many books on ‘leadership’ and an entire industry of people purporting to teach it.

Leadership can’t be taught, but it can be learned. It can be absorbed through reflection on the lives and leadership experiences of others. Some lead from position, others from principle. Sharon Bown has done both.

Character derives from the Greek word meaning ‘the impression left in wax by a stone, seal ring’. It is informed by values — worthwhile intrinsic virtues. Above rank, influence, wealth and everything else stands character.

One Woman’s War and Peace is a story about character and leadership. One woman and the lives she has touched are an inspirational testament to power of character. Wing Commander Sharon Bown (Ret’d) has done the Royal Australian Air Force and the nation it serves proud.

 

Hon Dr Brendan Nelson AO

Director, Australian War Memorial

PREFACE

 

The following story is an account of events drawn from the memory of a single person: mine. Memories of experiences and life events are as specific as they are personal to those involved. Events evoke different reactions, different emotions and hence completely different viewpoints and memories for each individual. The following story is my story. It is my account of my life experience. I acknowledge that I did not live through these events alone, but I hold dear the way in which I survived them as an individual, and the way in which my life has altered as a result.

With great pride, I concede that my story defines me and my family as collateral damage of the proud and honourable mission of the Australian Defence Force: to defend Australia and its national interests. I am not bitter, nor do I regret the sacrifices I have made in the service of my country. I understood the risks involved at every stage of my service career and I have been free to choose to proceed or withdraw at any time. I am accountable for my choices and I believe it is this personal acknowledgement, made during the course of my recovery, that has enabled me to prevail as a survivor of my service and not a victim. I acknowledge that not all survivors are free to make such choices, nor are they always supported to do so. In the service of Australia, the unintended casualties that result do not only occur in the Australian Defence Force, but also within Australia’s emergency services, including police, fire, ambulance and the state emergency service.

I hope that in sharing my story there may be a greater acknowledgement and acceptance of these casualties, which result from the continued protection of our unique and precious way of life. While we must always continue to commemorate and honour those who have died in the service of Australia, we must never forget those who have willingly paid the penultimate sacrifice. Indebted to their sacrifice, may we, at the very least, do them no further harm.

I would like to express my thanks to a number of people.

To my husband Conway for his continued encouragement for me to document my story and for his invaluable suggestions, editing and graphic design. Without his insistence that my story should be told, this publication would have only ever existed on my bucket list. I reserve the right to continue to shake my head at his constant cajoling.

To my parents and grandparents, who have always believed that I would make the right decisions in life and who have ultimately provided me with the greatest example of living life in the service of others.

To Doug and Cate Rawlinson, better friends you would rarely find. Through my trials and tribulations, they have always been there.

To my good friend Wing Commander Lara Gunn. I thank her for her friendship, counsel and comradeship. Her presence throughout my Air Force career, from our first, faltering steps at Officer Training School until now as I embark upon my civilian life, has been of great comfort.

To Squadron Leader Kay Wiseman, my friend, my confidante, the quiet presence throughout my journey who has taught me how to be stronger and faster than I could have ever imagined I would be.

To Air Commodore Michael Paterson DSM, my mentor and friend, without whose wise counsel and support I may not have always been able to overcome the hurdles of my Air Force career.

To the Hon Dr Brendan Nelson AO, for his unfaltering belief in the value of telling the stories of the men, women and families of the Australian Defence Force. Mine is just one of many.

To Gabriela Leite-Soares, my alin feto Gabi, a shining example of the possibilities of the remarkable youth of Timor Leste.

To all that have supported me along my journey and to those who believed that my story needed to be told. Thank you to AUSMTF2, Melissa Bingley, Sharon Boobyer, Colonel Ross Bradford, Sergeant Maria Brown, Group Captain Gregor Bruce, Captain Gemma Coenen, Dr Janice Cudmore, Dr Greg Day, Wing Commander Michel and Paul Devine, Squadron Leader Alexander ‘Sandy’ Donald, Wing Commander Nicole dos Santos, Major General Anthony Fraser CSC, Dr Stephen Frederickson, Wing Commander Doug Gow (Retd), Group Captain Bill Griggs, Dr John Groemer, Jo Harding, Jasmine Healy-Pagan, Group Captain Annette Holian, Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston AK, AFC (Ret’d), Greg Jack, Belinda Johnson, Cherrie Johnston, Squadron Leader Karen Knewstub, Dr Martha Landman, Dr Michael Likely, Helen Ross, Group Captain David Scott, Air Vice Marshal Tracy Smart AM, Kath Thomas, Christine Upchurch-Neal, Dr Matthew Voltz, Wing Commander Ross Wadsworth (Retd), Group Captain Michele Walker, Dr Patrick Weinrauch, Colin and Nat Young, and to the late Roy and Jan Paine.

Lastly, I am indebted to the Royal Australian Air Force — my military family and an organization that took me in, trained me and allowed me to meet so many outstanding people and experience the wide range of life events that have shaped me. Some experiences were horrific, some disappointing, but for the most part they were rich and rewarding. The motto of the Royal Australian Air Force is Per ardua ad astra, which translates as ‘Through adversity to the stars’. I may have struggled through adversity to reach the stars, but the struggle was well worth the effort and for any reader thinking of a career in the military, I hope this story encourages you to do so.

 

Sharon Bown

Wing Commander (Ret’d)

Townsville, Queensland, 2016

PROLOGUE

 

Lying face down in the mud I felt pain searing through my body. Mere seconds before I had been perched 3 metres above the ground, balanced precariously on a crashed Bell 212 helicopter, stuck rigid, and in excruciating pain. Another desperate survivor had pushed against my broken back and toppled me forward, freeing me from the wreckage. But there was an agonizing price to pay. I landed in the mud, the raw edges of my shattered bones grinding against shattered bone. I struggled to cope with such acute physical pain, unlike anything I had ever known, and I could hear the harrowing scream of the helicopter’s engines dying behind me. My fuel-soaked flying suit clung to my skin and I knew I was still in extremely serious danger.

Dazed, I struggled to lift my head from the mud. My flying helmet was heavy and my neck muscles began to constrict in response to the life-threatening jolt they had endured moments before. Through the relentless tropical rain, the scene that lay before me only intensified my fear: a modest mountain village, a concerned yet humble people, and an impoverished country. As the helicopter had plummeted towards the trees I had made my final farewells to those I loved and accepted that today would be the day I would die. I didn’t. But at a cost. The pain of survival seemed unbearable, even compared to an impending death.

‘I don’t want to do this. This can’t be happening,’ I thought.

I rested my head upon the earth and closed my eyes.

image

Australia’s Sphere of Interest
Australia’s security relies on its Sphere of Influence and Sphere of Interest being stable. Any instability in the region is of great concern to the Australian Government, and the Australian Defence Force — as an instrument of Government foreign policy — will often find itself deployed to areas within the region.

CHAPTER 1
OFFICER TRAINING SCHOOL
January 1999

 

Australian military service had always interested me. Possessing a fairly conservative nature, though, I never thought I would be suited to the nomadic and potentially dangerous lifestyle of the Australian military. At high school I listened eagerly to the recruiters as they explained the financial benefits of having the Australian Defence Force, the ADF, fund your university degree. I daydreamed about serving my country in the long-revered tradition of the ANZACs but, alas, at seventeen years of age I did not yet have the spirit of adventure, or the courage that had spurred those fine young Australians into action some 75 years earlier.

I was the third of four daughters born to happily married parents. My father was a police officer and my mother stayed at home to care for us until my later primary school years, when she returned to work as a nursing aide caring for the elderly and infirm. We had a humble and happy childhood and my parents worked hard to give us every opportunity they could afford.

image

RAAF Bases mentioned

Unlike many female students of my generation I loved science and math and the physicality of team sports, such as hockey and netball. So it might have seemed out of character for me to pursue nursing, a career in the female-dominated ‘helping’ profession. But I wanted to make a difference in the lives of others and I watched in awe as my mother showed how compassionately this could be done. In choosing nursing, I became the first person in my family to attend university. By the age of 23 I had completed my Bachelor of Nursing and was living a comfortable life in Tasmania with my boyfriend of five years.

Ironically, given my comfortable existence, my eventual decision to join the Royal Australian Air Force, the RAAF, arose from the very conservatism that had earlier held me back. I had been working as a Registered Nurse for three years and was enjoying the challenge of perioperative work in the operating theatre — providing nursing care to patients before, during and immediately after surgery. I loved the nursing specialty I had chosen yet began to feel that, even though I was still a very junior clinician, I already possessed the knowledge, skills and experience that could assist those less fortunate than myself. I also realized that I was working in the hospital where I had been born and might end up being groomed to take over from my baby boomer colleagues. So I started to look for adventure.

At work I listened to the plastic surgeons and some of the more senior nurses talk of their humanitarian work overseas and I felt that it would be many years before I would be ready to accompany such an elite team. At the same time, I sensed a growing urge within me to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need, to travel overseas and discover other cultures, and to find an existence so removed from my own that I would fully appreciate the world into which chance had delivered me. I had witnessed the great Ethiopian famine of 1984 from the comfort of my parent’s living room through the safety of a colour TV screen and, like so many other Australian children, my mother had frequently threatened to send my uneaten dinner to the starving children in China. Superficially, I knew that there was suffering in the world but I wanted to experience a greater depth of life and with an intensity that would not disappear with the switch of a channel or be diluted by another unwanted mouthful of cabbage.

It was the Air Force that would become my passage to this dramatically different world and bring me close to the immense suffering of others. It also taught me something else: the mostly unseen sacrifice of those who serve their country.

I was proud to have an opportunity to serve my country, to have the skills and experience to do so and a level of health and fitness such a position demanded. Asked why I chose the Air Force and not the Navy or Army, I would jokingly reply that my favourite colour was blue. Indeed, my favourite colour is blue, but that was certainly not why I sought to join the Air Force over the other services. I suffer from motion sickness at sea so I was not keen on spending extended periods of time working aboard a ship in the Navy and, as my family had enjoyed at least four weeks of each year camping, I was not attracted to the amount of time Army Nursing Officers spent under canvas in the field. I was, though, drawn to the aeromedical evacuation role of the Air Force Nursing Officer.

The Air Force not only offered me the opportunity for defence service but a unique and exciting opportunity to learn a type of nursing new to me; one that enabled the rapid delivery of healthcare to those in need. The prospect of flying into places to get patients out and nursing them in the back of an aircraft provided me a great adrenaline rush and sparked my interest in the role. With a quick phone call and a follow-up visit to the Defence Force Recruiting offices in Hobart, I was past the first hurdle, promptly recruited into the Air Force, and scheduled to undertake officer training.

My first memories of Officer Training School (OTS) were of a not-so-brave, young civilian nurse standing on the edge of an oval at RAAF Base Williams (Point Cook) in Victoria. Here I was within the boundary of the oldest continuous serving military airfield in the world and readying to join the great tradition of Air Force Officers who had already had the privilege to serve within its grounds. That was all very well, but right then I was hoping that no one would see the tears in my eyes or hear the quiver in my voice as I attempted to gulp back the emotional lump in my throat and reassure my parents and boyfriend that I had arrived safely and that I was okay.

I saw no need to tell them that I had fallen asleep in the taxi from the airport, blindly trusting a driver who, in broken English, had thrust a street directory at me and told me that I would have to show him where to go. The small-town, timid Tasmanian girl who had absolutely no idea of where she was going, in any sense, had set out on her adventure and was feeling a sense of fear. I felt so far outside my comfort zone and far from my family, my friends and my boyfriend. My life back in Tasmania had been so comfortable that I had an overwhelming desire to call another taxi and board a flight back home. I quickly reminded myself, though, that if my new sense of isolation, trepidation and doubt were part of the adventure I had sought, it was meant to be.

Officer training was challenging but it was not terrifying. It would turn out to be one of the most enjoyable times of my life, helping me evolve from a shy girl into a confident woman prepared for adventure and rewarding me with friends and colleagues to see out a career and maybe even a lifetime.

On my first day of training, as we gathered as a group outside the accommodation block, a male voice barked from out of nowhere, instructing us to ‘form up’. Everyone around me moved almost instantly to stand in neat rows on the edge of the roadway. I, not having any idea what form up meant, naively followed and stood among them. It was, of course, a very military thing to do but to me it seemed odd as we had not yet been issued uniforms and were still in an array of civilian clothes.

Despite our military formation, the individuality of our group was evident with its mix of gender, race and physical attributes; within 24 hours, that individuality would be less obvious when we would proudly adopt the uniform of the Royal Australian Air Force. While form up seemed easy enough, the authoritative voice then shouted even more commands that were foreign to me: ‘Attention’, ‘Left turn’, ‘By the right’, ‘Quick march’. All of this spurred the otherwise neatly formed group around me to change direction and begin walking, arms swinging and in perfect time with each other. They were marching; I, like some weak member of the herd, was flailing around in their midst, one out-of-step stride behind, doing my utmost to simply keep up. I suddenly realized that I had a great deal more to learn than I might ever have expected.

I continued to feel like a fish out of water for the first few weeks of training, but my colleagues were quick to assist. The Directing Staff (DS) were even quicker in their own way, presenting themselves as the common enemy, espousing the one-in-all-in philosophy that also translated as ‘one screws up, all will suffer’. I learned to do many things with precision: to march, to iron, to tie my hair in a bun. I soon understood that there was never any reason to have my hands in my pockets, and that showering quickly was not only a necessary part of what some might call the ‘bastardisation’ process, it also saved on making too much mess that I would later be obliged to clean up.

I could iron my bedclothes while they remained on the bed and clean my room so it appeared no one lived there. There were a few colleagues who at the end of the course had not once slept in their bed for fear of having to make it again. A chaplain on the course ahead of me described the moment when he knew officer training had changed him. Standing at attention at the end of his bed awaiting the critical assessment of his DS, he spotted a dead cockroach on the floor. The chaplain pounced on it, sweeping it up in an instant to secret it away in his uniform pocket before the DS inspection would reveal him to be a poor example of an Air Force Officer. As he stood at attention, cockroach securely hidden from sight, he asked himself, ‘Where else in the world would I shove a dead cockroach into my pocket?’

I was far from being considered for the Officer Qualities Award at the conclusion of training, but that was okay by me. I worked hard to be what was known as the ‘grey man’, the person who blended into the group, not at all drawing any attention to themself. More notable than these ‘military achievements’, it was during officer training that I gained my career-long nickname of ‘Coops’, from my maiden name Cooper; I made the most of my grey man status to become incredibly good at a murder party card game known as Mafia; and I became renowned for the head shake. Apparently when I disapprove of anything, I shake my head, something I learned about only from living and working with the same group of people for fifteen weeks.

I was pleased to have kept and, indeed, gained some personal traits, despite having worked so hard to adapt to the stringent standards of dress and bearing required of a military officer. For women, long hair was to be secured in a bun and short hair cut above the collar and secured neatly behind the ears. Hair was required to be of a natural colour and make-up neutral. Fingernails were to be short and not coloured. The only jewellery allowed was one small stud per ear, a plain wristwatch and no more than two rings per hand.

As the daughter of a police sergeant, the structured and certain way of life in the Air Force was not a surprise for me and I was good at following rules. Also, my nursing career had taught me a lot about dress standards, time management and working within a team. I could see some of the others were finding the transition a little harder, struggling to get out of bed on time and to dress themselves to the required standard. This was the time when we learned to care for each other. Those with previous military experience helped those of us with none and we quickly learned teamwork, appreciating that it was benefiting us all.

As the course progressed, I began to relax a little and enjoy myself more. I had begun to make friends, including fellow Tasmanian Lara Gunn. She was diminutive but driven and had entered the Air Force as a pharmacist. To look at her, one would not expect that she would choose the life of an ADF officer, but both of us were in it together: two Tasmanian girls on their big adventure as the Air Force tried to mould us into something they could use. Lara and I would become firm friends.

The training ranged from academic studies of subjects, such as air power, Defence Force discipline, security and Defence writing, to activities and field exercises designed to demonstrate and assess leadership, teamwork, problem-solving and military skills. I learned to ‘play the game’, realizing that while OTS was providing me with the knowledge, skills and experience required of an Air Force Officer, it was also a test of my hardiness and resilience, the essentials for my future career.

On my 24th birthday I got the clearest sign yet of what I had signed myself up for. We had by this time relocated or, as I would now say, ‘deployed’ to RAAF Base East Sale in Gippsland, eastern Victoria, to carry out a ground defence exercise. It can get very cold around East Sale and while inspecting the base’s Air Force Health Centre we were shown the hypothermia bed, there to treat trainee officers who succumbed to numbing cold while undertaking the very sort of ground force exercise awaiting us. Despite having grown up in chilly Tasmania this was not an encouraging sight.

As trainee defenders of the nation we were to set-up a defensive posture around a designated ‘key point’ or asset that was to be protected. Among many other things, this necessitated that at all times we carried the ADF standard issue service rifle, the F88 AUSteyr. If you left your rifle behind it was quickly replaced with a heavy steel fence post or stake that was very awkward to carry. Such punishment was humiliating and irritating enough to ensure you never forgot your rifle. Adding some realism to the situation, we were issued with blank ammunition and rigorously followed weapons handling techniques. Any mistake in weapon handling could result in an accidental discharge of the weapon, which would lead to the perpetrator being charged and prosecuted under the Defence Force Discipline Act.

While this type of ground defence responsibility would not normally fall to a Nursing Officer, it was vital that all Air Force Officers were cognizant of the process so they were able to carry out the basics in a conflict zone. I am still grateful for the time spent in training with the F88, as throughout my career, I would be armed on overseas operations for a combined total of twelve months — a laughable achievement for a soldier perhaps, but a contradiction in terms for a healthcare professional trained to preserve life, not take it.

Our training was now well and truly out in the field. We dug weapons pits — two-man trenches from which to fire our weapons — around the perimeter of a key point and from which we could adopt an ‘outward-looking defensive posture’. We slept immediately behind our weapon’s pit so that in the event of potential attack we could easily jump into them and defend our position from opposing forces — the ‘bad guys’.

As eager young officer trainees, our attempts to fulfil this responsibility were often more humourous than effective. At East Sale, we ‘stood-to’ to protect the key point from a suspicious-looking kangaroo advancing on our position, and at Puckapunyal, the Australian Army’s home to the School of Armour, where mud is mud in summer and frozen in winter, a fellow officer became spooked when he became aware of a Leopard tank in our vicinity, calling us all to stand-to and man our defensive positions. I’m sure that Army soldiers at Puckapunyal felt reassured knowing that their Air Force counterparts were keeping their base safe from Australia’s very own tanks! My favourite memory is of two officers who slept through a middle-of-the-night attack by the ‘enemy’ because one successfully convinced the other that he must be hearing things. Some might think that the firing of weapons is a convincing enough sound.

Had I been back in Tasmania in my former life on my 24th birthday I might have taken the day off and treated myself to a long and peaceful sleep in and later gone out to dinner and drinks with my friends. But on this birthday, I was awoken suddenly by the very convincing sound of simulated mortar fire. It was bitterly cold and we were sleeping out in the open, on the ground behind our weapons pit. In order to keep myself as warm as possible I had pulled the drawstring of my sleeping bag hood as tight as possible and then tied it securely. There was just enough room for my nose and mouth to draw in fresh air. Having tied the hood when I was awake the night before, I had not considered having to undo it when not quite so awake.

As the mortar fire ‘rained down’, simulated by the frightening and annoying explosives known as whizz-bangs (owing to their unique sound), I jumped up to take shelter in my weapons pit. Trapped in my sleeping bag and in blind panic, I could not undo the knot. I writhed and wriggled around on the ground like an epileptic caterpillar until I eventually broke free from my cocoon, not-so-much a beautiful butterfly but more a dishevelled and confused officer cadet, and dived into the hole in the ground in front of me. Thank goodness for the dim dawn light that protected me from utter embarrassment. There, in the subzero cold and peering out over the dirt edge, rifle poised and ready with small arms and mortar fire sounding around me, I shook my head and muttered to myself, ‘Happy Birthday, Sharon. What the hell are you doing?!’

The day brought no further incident but it was to end with a treat. Our Ground Defence Officer announced it was my birthday and I was allowed a single phone call. I just had to decide if my family or my boyfriend should be the recipient of this valued gift. The Directing Staff had hearts after all. I took the phone and was looking for somewhere quiet to phone my boyfriend as it would be nice to hear his voice and listen to some tales of the life I had left behind. But before I could disappear a gruff announcement burst forth: ‘Get used to it, Cooper, this will be the first of many birthdays away from home for you.’ What a cheery thought. But it was indeed an accurate one as a year later I was on a military operation working alongside Egyptians, Singaporeans and Portuguese. On my 25th birthday, I would awake to a plaintive Muslim call to prayer. We were soon to enter the new millennium and I would be in Dili, East Timor.

CHAPTER 2
DEPLOYMENT TO EAST TIMOR
February 2000

 

All freshly minted Nursing Officers were assigned to one of the two larger Air Force hospitals, where there were more staff to help us in our transition into military nursing. By this time, I was well into the jargon and knew these two bigger hospitals at Laverton in Victoria near Point Cook and at Richmond on the north-western edge of the Sydney sprawl by their ADF titles: No. 6 Hospital, Laverton, and No. 3 Hospital, Richmond. I requested a posting to 3 Hospital. I was still feeling a little homesick and knew that, if I was going to make a good go of my new venture, I needed to put some distance between myself and Hobart, and resist racing back home each weekend.

I had enjoyed Officer Training School and made some great friends but now I was leaving most of them behind as we went our separate ways across the country to our first postings. As I moved to RAAF Base Richmond, my boyfriend packed up his belongings in Hobart and followed me and my career to New South Wales. I arrived at 3 Hospital in May 1999 and, within four months, I watched with a mixture of apprehension and excitement as those around me were rapidly deployed to East Timor, or Timor-Leste as it is known in the local language, after the referendum for independence from Indonesia and the violence that followed. I was getting my first real look at the true potential of my new career. It was exciting to watch the situation unfold on the evening news and then to witness the behind-the-scenes work where I was stationed, as those around me readied for deployment. Men and women wearing the same uniform that I now proudly wore poured into East Timor on the peace enforcement operation to stabilize the country and protect its citizens.

The TV news showed Australian Army helicopters patrolling the skies over the capital of Dili, with soldiers sitting in the open doors, ready to leap out to chase militia. Warships of the Royal Australian Navy ferried troops and equipment to the island and the Air Force was working around the clock delivering food and aid to the people of East Timor. Within weeks I too was identified to be deployed on this military operation. No. 3 Hospital had been given the mission to take command of the United Nations Military Hospital in Dili in February 2000 and, having perioperative nursing skills, I would be a member of the theatre team within the hospital. I was being given the sort of assignment for which I had joined up.

It had been rare for Australian military personnel to be sent overseas since the end of the Vietnam War and yet here I was being handed an opportunity that many long-time service members had never been offered. There would have been some Nursing Officers around the country cursing me as a ‘baby’, in the service only ‘since breakfast time’, but already setting out on an adventure they would die for. Excited, I phoned my parents with the news. My family was still coming to terms with my decision to leave Tasmania to follow a military career and now I was letting them know I was being sent overseas.

My mother and I had often discussed what appeared to be a perfect plan regarding my foray into the Air Force. I told her I would be away for six months and she was very clear in her response: ‘Well, Sharon, that’s wonderful. You can go and do that and when you get back, you can come home.’ In her mind I would have accomplished what I had set out to do and, having got that out of my system, I could come back to my family where she felt I belonged. My parents were so very proud of my commitment to military service and had always supported my choices, and there was a service history within the family.

In his early working life my father was a boilermaker, welder and had served for nine years as an Army Reservist with B Company of the 40th Battalion, Royal Tasmanian Regiment. He reached the rank of Sergeant and became the B Company Drill Sergeant before discharging to pursue a career as a Police Officer in the Tasmania Police force. His younger brother Peter had also served in the Army, including a tour of duty in Vietnam. My family was far from ignorant to the adverse affects of military service, yet they supported my decision. Perhaps it was their faith that I could look after myself, or an Army bias that believed Air Force Officers, and in particular Nursing Officers, were unlikely to ever see any real danger. During my career a cousin joined the Air Force and another cousin and a nephew joined the Army, with my sister Annette enduring a pain that many mothers describe as far greater than childbirth: watching her only son leave to go to war. All of them served proudly and returned home safely.

On Monday, 14 February 2000 — Valentine’s Day — I left Australia for the first time. I never considered how profound this moment would be, to depart my homeland for a foreign shore in turmoil. I was about to be as far away from my home and my family as I had ever been, in the company of people I had only just met or had never met. I felt no threat to my personal safety and I had few, preconceived ideas about East Timor. However, I was uncertain about how I would perform because as yet I didn’t really know what my role in East Timor would involve.

The island of Timor lies 640 kilometres from Australia. It was colonized by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century and then partitioned with the Dutch in the nineteenth century. During the Second World War, the Japanese occupied the island and mounted bombing raids against the Australian mainland from Timor. The Timorese suffered at the hands of the Japanese and many were executed for helping Australian soldiers fighting there. After the war, the Dutch colonies in the west transitioned into the country of Indonesia, with the Portuguese retaining the eastern half. In 1975, Indonesia illegally annexed East Timor with much violence and bloodshed. Thousands died at the hands of Indonesia or through starvation. In 1999, after pressure from Australia, the United States and the United Nations, Indonesia agreed to allow a referendum to take place to determine if East Timor would gain independence or remain under its control. The referendum was overwhelmingly in favour of independence but the ensuing violence by the Indonesian-backed militia shocked the world. It was this series of events that led to the Australian-led military intervention in October 1999.

There was much that I needed to come to terms with about this deployment as I underwent the pre-deployment preparation and training. I was still learning how to be a Nursing Officer in the Air Force but was now very rapidly needing to learn how to perform this role outside Australia. One of the things that struck me immediatedly was the very great distinction between civilian and military nursing, with military nurses being required to move between mostly benign clinical settings and some of the worst trauma scenes in the world. I did at least know that I would be working in an operating theatre and that was within my comfort zone. I was returning to an aspect of working life that I had loved back home.

Just how fortunate I had been growing up in a country like Australia hit me as I stepped out onto the tarmac of the Dili airfield and took the drive through the city’s streets to the place that would serve as my home and place of work for at least six months: the United Nations Military hospital, which in true military fashion I would refer to as UNMILHOSP I had seen the TV footage of East Timorese seeking refuge at the United Nations’ compound after the referendum for independence, throwing their children over the barbed wire fences in the hope that they would be kept safe from the violence that ensued. What greeted us on that very first drive through Dili was a deserted and destroyed landscape.

image

Burned-out buildings lined the roads, which carried more military vehicles and armed personnel than they did locals. The very few locals we did see waved and cheered as we passed, apparently celebrating the presence of their saviours. The East Timorese were of a small and fine stature, their skin brown and their hair beautifully thick, dark and mostly curly, but what struck me were their smiles, particularly those of the children. Knowing the recent history of their trauma and the reason for our military intervention in their country, I was instantly taken by these faces that glowed with what I can only describe as happiness. Everything, from their clothing to their surrounding architecture, screamed destitution and hardship to me, yet their faces beamed with joy.

The air was thick with a smothering, hot humidity and a distinctive smell that in some areas was highlighted by wastewater or even sewage, and in others the tropical scent of the frangipani trees and fresh sea breeze. Before I had even arrived at my destination, East Timor was beginning to reveal itself as a country of contradictions. Traumatized people now seemed invigorated by the success of their independence vote and the promise of assistance and aid from the developed world, a world that until recently had seemed to have forgotten about them. Children who appeared to have nothing managed to find fun and games on the side of the road.

Eventually we caught our first glimpse of the hospital compound. The distinctive red roof of its main building resembled a citrus juicer, an impressive piece of local architecture that would of course become known to us as ‘The Squeezer’. It was a place of great significance, as it had been the Dili Museum and later the site of the ballot count in the referendum. During the vote, because of the actions of anti-independence militias, United Nations Mission East Timor (UNAMET) decided that all ballot papers from all areas around East Timor would be mixed prior to being counted in a central location. This prevented the identification of pro-independence areas and thus reduced the chance of reprisals against them.

UNAMET had organized the referendum, held on 30 August 1999, which allowed the East Timorese to choose between autonomy within Indonesia or independence. Of the 99 per cent of the population who cast a vote, 78.5 per cent voted in favour of independence. Despite the clear majority, anti-independence militias set upon a violent and destructive rampage throughout East Timor, killing citizens and destroying buildings and infrastructure. It was this that led to the formation and deployment of the Australian-led UN peace enforcement, and then the peacekeeping force, International Force for East Timor, or more simply, INTERFET.

The Squeezer had largely survived the civil unrest and, following the election, the Australian Army’s 1st