On 12 June 1998, just a couple of days before my 24th birthday, I had the misfortune of being the duty officer at the 1st Infantry Battalion at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville.
It was a Friday, one of the worst days to be duty officer, because it meant that you couldn’t enjoy the end-of-week frivolity at the Officers Mess, or go ‘out on the town’ on Friday night with the rest of the junior officers.
The duty officer is essentially the Commanding Officer’s representative on the base during non-working hours. All lieutenants, the most junior officers in the battalion, were rostered for 24-hour stints as the duty officer. The duty officer roster was drawn up by the senior lieutenant (known as the senior subaltern or ‘senior subbie’) and it was pot luck if you got a weekend slot.
Sometimes lieutenants who raised the ire of a more senior officer would get ‘extras’ – sometimes 7 or 14 consecutive days – and, if you were lucky, the miscreant would cover your shift. There was one officer, Hilly, who was always copping extras, much to the delight of those who were next on the roster.
No such luck on this occasion. I comforted myself in the knowledge that a Friday wasn’t quite as bad as a Saturday shift, and that I would be free to enjoy much of the weekend after I handed over to the oncoming duty officer early on Saturday morning.
Although the standard daytime dress in Townsville was camouflaged uniform (or ‘cams’), the duty officer was required to wear the Army’s more formal khaki polyester uniform with a ceremonial leather Sam Browne belt. It was a very uncomfortable ensemble, particularly in the humid summer months. Adding to the discomfort was the requirement to sleep in the odorous duty room on communal bedding that had seemingly never been washed.
The duty officer was responsible for a series of routine tasks, including stocktakes, inspections and reconciliations, closing the soldiers’ bar, checking the security of buildings, and authorising out-of-hours administrative requests, like compassionate leave applications. On the odd occasion, duty officers were required to undertake more exciting duties, like picking up drunk soldiers from the local police lockup, or detaining soldiers in the battalion’s cells for various misdemeanours, mostly involving alcohol.
The duty officer was assisted by the Duty Sergeant and the ‘guard’, a group of rostered-on soldiers whose most important responsibility was exercising and feeding the battalion’s mascot, an uppity Shetland pony named Septimus. The 1st Battalion has had successive pony mascots since 1951 – Septimus, Septimus Secundus, Septimus Tertius, and during my time, Septimus Quartus. ‘Seppi’, as he was known, was given a rank and a regimental number just like any other soldier. And just like many soldiers, he was quite indifferent to discipline.
On this particular Friday I was faced with a task that few duty officers ever have to negotiate. It was a duty that had a profound effect on me and, to this day, I regard as the most difficult thing that I have ever had to do.
Mid-afternoon, the battalion received the shocking news that one of its soldiers, Private Andrew Watt, had been killed in a grenade range training accident in Butterworth, Malaysia, where Delta Company were stationed on rotation. If my recollection serves me correctly, Andrew had been carrying several grenades in his waist webbing during a combat grenade range practice and one had detonated without warning, killing him instantly.
Grenade training is a necessary part of life as an infantryman, but it was an activity that filled me with fear. Whilst there was always plenty of lead-up training with inert grenades before handling the real thing, pulling the pin on a live grenade gets your heart racing like no other activity I’ve experienced. If you accidentally drop the grenade (and you are taught and drilled how to deal with this situation), you’ve got about two seconds to get yourself safely behind cover before the earth-shattering explosion.
As news came through about Andrew’s death, I became aware that he had a girlfriend who lived in the neighbouring suburb of Annandale. Although Andrew’s nominated next of kin, his parents, were being informed of his death by Army personnel in Toowoomba, it became clear that the battalion had to formally advise his girlfriend.
Given that it was still during working hours, and the Commanding Officer and the Adjutant were present, I assumed that they would take on the responsibility of personally informing Andrew’s girlfriend. I was wrong. As the duty officer, I was summoned by the Adjutant, along with the battalion’s chaplain, and given the task to visit the woman’s home.
Having been furnished with the necessary details, I turned nervously to the chaplain and asked: ‘How are we going to play this?’, whereupon he responded matter-of-factly: ‘What do you mean we? It’s your job to inform her and I’m just here to console’. It wasn’t the supportive response that I was looking for at a moment of great stress and uncertainty. I knew what my task was, but I was hoping for a friendly pat on the back, a show of support and some solidarity. On reflection, it confirms why I’ve been irreligious for much of my life.
And so we took the short car journey to Annandale. I was nervous, sweat rings had formed on my polyester shirt beneath my arms, and the nausea was rising in my stomach as I rehearsed my lines under my breath. We had been taught how to handle these types of situations during scenario-based training at officer school, but no amount of training can prepare you for the real thing.
On arrival, it was clear that the occupants of the house were enjoying their Friday afternoon. From the street, there was the muted sound of music and laughter. Like many people, they were having a few drinks to celebrate the end of the working week. That was all about to change.
I took a deep breath, checked my bearing, knocked on the door and waited. It swung open to reveal a young, smiling woman with a glass of red wine in her hand.
How would you expect someone to react when confronted by an unsmiling military officer in ceremonial uniform standing at the door, flanked by a chaplain? The happy face was quickly replaced by a confused look, and then one of incredulity.
‘Ma’am, are you xxx? (I don’t recall her name)’
‘Yes’, she replied fearfully.
‘Is it OK if we sit down? I have some bad news to tell you’.
‘I’m extremely sorry to tell you that Andrew Watt was killed in a training accident earlier today in Malaysia’.
The woman screamed and doubled over.
And that was it. My job was done. The chaplain shuffled in and embraced the young woman. I moved away, my message having been imparted. I tried to remain stoic, despite feeling utterly bereft.
Shortly after, I recall standing alone outside the home for what seemed like an eternity, while the chaplain completed his pastoral duties, tears rolling down my cheeks and feeling more empty and lonely than I ever have before.
I didn’t know Andrew Watt, but his untimely death served to shape me as a person and to make me realise how very lucky I am. Rest in peace mate.
To other colleagues who have passed whilst in the service of our country, may you also rest in peace:
- Officer Cadet Jason Price – a colleague at the Australian Defence Force Academy
- Captain Brendan Casey – killed in an armoured personnel carrier accident in Townsville; a colleague at the 1st Battalion
- Captain Mark Bingley – killed in a helicopter accident whilst attempting to land on HMAS Kanimbla near Fiji; formerly a member of my platoon, 7 Platoon, at the 1st Battalion.
- Lieutenant Ben Rozeboom – a colleague at ADFA and the Royal Military College Duntroon
- Warrant Officer Bill Degenaro – teammate at the ADFA Rams AFL club and staff member whilst I was at ADFA
- Group Captain Ian McFarling – a lecturer at ADFA and my thesis supervisor during my Honours in 1995
- Tom Grice – a colleague at RMC
- Paul Lawton – a colleague at RMC