Digging up the past

By Jack Harbour

There is a lot about his four tours of duty that, after more than a decade Josh can’t remember. He can’t remember what the food was like, the first time he flew in a helicopter or any wins by his beloved Collingwood Football Club while he was on duty.

Stock photo of war scene

Stock photo of war scene

But it’s the things he would rather forget that Josh remembers most vividly. Today he might be fine. After burying scars under years of happier times Josh is capable of days or even weeks without having a “moment.” But this afternoon when he sits down to watch the news with his wife or tonight when he finally gives in to his daughters to watch Paranormal Activity, Josh knows he is taking a risk. One seemingly tedious scene or image can dig deeper into Josh’s psyche than years of suppressing memories can hide and in a moment he can be reliving fragments of a life he lived back when Shane Crawford was winning Brownlow Medals. Just as quick as the episodes start, they subside and he is left wondering when the image of a burning building, crying child or dead body will next exhume itself from his memory banks and make an assault on level ground.

“Guns and roses”

When other boys dreamt of being astronauts and Josh dreamt of being a paramedic. But after months of manning aid stations in Bougainville he has been reassigned. In a matter of days the young father has exchanged his stethoscope for a steyr rifle, ammo and a first aid kit – something that makes Josh chuckle from his reserve base in Townsville as he explains the difference between “maintaining peace” in Bougainville and the unfamiliar brand of “peace enforcement” he is about to practise in East Timor. The medic’s back stiffens as he walks down the earth-beaten path that is the main street of Oucussi – a rural town on the northern coast of the island. The locals try their best to avoid staring at the soldiers of the heavily-armed infantry unit that has set upon the town in camouflaged fatigues. Immediately Josh knows the stakes are higher than they were in Bougainville. Less than a month ago Rifle Company Butterworth could confidently treat every local as an ally unless proven otherwise but Timor is different.

The few men brazen enough to traipse through Oucussi in broad daylight greet Josh and his mates differently to what they’d expected. “There was no way of knowing,” the now 45-year-old says as if to muster a new bout of enthusiasm for the next chapter of the story.

“There was no way of telling if someone was an ally or if they were with the Indonesians.” Days later, Josh and his mates from Butterworth had managed to establish an open-air English school in the middle of one of Oucussi’s smaller villages the name of which has long since been lost to the father-of-three’s memory banks. “Repeat after me – ay… bee… ceee,” Josh starts for the youngest in the group before looking over the shoulders of a group of teenagers who sit at the back of the school pack. But Josh’s most difficult job is not teaching his students how to sound out words they have learnt in a matter of days. Rather, it’s the challenge of keeping the focus off the boys that could have been in his class but aren’t. A quick glance confirms the terror he was warned of in a Christmas briefing before deployment. Corporal McDade’s students are almost exclusively girls and young boys. The couple of young men carrying knives or machetes earlier in the day have been handed over to the military police for questioning. As for the brothers, fathers and uncles of the baby-faced pack before him, Josh can only guess their fate – most likely fighting in one of few militia resistance groups or worse. Buried. After a quick headcount Josh starts a practice he would later learn to perfect as a veteran – buries the misery and dread that hides just below the surface. For the moment, the merits of using a full stop or a comma at the end of a sentence seem a more valuable talking point for the Oucussi villagers than the whereabouts of the men – descendants of those who helped to dig previous generations of Australians out of an even larger hole.

“Lady of the night”

Josh fumbles for a first aid kit as he rushes outside Rifle Company Butterworth’s latest makeshift camp in Loloho – an old mine purification area.

One of the women now standing at the front gate of the complex is having complications with her baby. Judging by the way the woman’s bulging stomach pitches the oversized, dirty t-shirt out from her waist like the strut of a tent Josh decides the woman is expecting any day now. It wasn’t all that long ago that Josh’s wife Maria was pregnant with their third daughter – a momentous occasion for the McDade’s after Maria’s miscarriage only a few months before. The devoted father can’t help but relive the miracle briefly before the doctor arrives through the rusted iron camp gates. The doctor unfurls the stethoscope hanging from his neck before beckoning Josh away from the women standing at the perimeter of the camp.

The doc or “Stephen” as he prefers is not well liked by Rifle Company Butterworth. The middle-aged company doctor is thought to sleep with the rule book by his bedside table and tonight is no different. An unexpected late-night check-up has made Stephen even more irritable than usual. Josh struggles to remember how he was woken or exactly when the woman first showed up, but remembers the doctor who was sent to answer the woman’s calls. Stephen snatches a blood pressure meter from Josh’s hands and begins his final mandatory check before promptly repacking the kit. “I can’t see much wrong with her at all, tell her to head home,” Stephen orders as he turns to the corporal at his side. “She’s not feeling well, can’t we take her in for the night and check up again in the morning.” “Tell her to go to Kieta. We can check on her when we visit the hospital tomorrow.” Stephen leaves the kit at the lip of the road near Josh’s feet before strolling back into camp as the gaze of the pregnant woman darts hopefully to Josh’s face. The young corporal’s lip tightens over his jaw as he watches the woman’s bare feet mash the crumbling bitumen as she embarks on the start of what he knows will be a 17km jungle trek to the nearest hospital.

“Dilated to meet you”

Josh sucked in one last gasp of air from the crisp island breeze before lifting his eyes to meet the glowing face of the villager. Days of caring for the man’s sick, pregnant wife were nothing compared to his next mission. The young corporal knew the pain of losing a child and after days of attempting to talk sense to the couple in Tok Pisin, Josh had realised communicating with the couple with any degree of certainty was a tall order. But it was his duty to try. “You and your wife won’t ever have children again. We had to operate to save her and your wife is infertile. Do you understand?” he asked. The man’s eyes widen as he grips Josh’s right hand and for a moment the medic thinks he has got through to the villager. With a smile the man pulls the soldier’s arms to his face and kisses Josh’s hand about a dozen times before he the officer wrestles his limbs back beside his body. “Mate you don’t understand – no more kids. To save your wife we had to operate.” The man’s smile broadens as an orderly drapes a synthetic tarpaulin over the motionless body of the foetus on a mobile operating table only a few paces behind. Josh watches as the nurse directs the man back to the bed and continues to prepare for the burial – one word the villager understands all too well.


Josh’s face contorts as he rocks back and forth at the foot of the bed. The young boy who he guesses is about the same age as his middle daughter grasps at the epaulettes on the shoulders of his fatigues as he wrestles to steady the patient on his lap. He whispers to the boy with a calmness that doesn’t match the expression on his face or the quickness of his hand as he lunges for the eye dropper of Panadol perched on a hospital wheelie tray at the bedside. At this very minute, his wife Maria could be facing the same predicament with his seven-year-old girl at home in Townsville. Maria has spent plenty of time in hospital herself of late after losing the child that would have been couple’s third. But in a round about way that’s why Josh joined the army in the first place. After working a handful of odd jobs in his twenties Josh enlisted for job security in the hope that one day the army would help him take care of his growing family. But the same drive to nurture that made him dream of being a paramedic as a catholic school student in Sydney is the very trait that is driving Josh to the brink now as he comes to the realisation that not every sick kid or pregnant mum in Bougainville will get the treatment they deserve. The corporal never found out what happened to the young boy who still appears in his dreams from time to time, although he takes some solace in the fact that he wasn’t the cause of the child’s terror. Later, someone would tell him that the youngster thought he was a ghost from islander legends about white men who whisked away children in the dead of night. In a strange twist of fate these stories have a similar effect on Josh who, from time to time, still gets choked up about the children in Bougaineville.