Last Sunday was a beautiful sunny day in the small country town of Blackheath, less than two hours drive west of Sydney. On the second Sunday of the month, there’s a growers market that attracts suppliers and health-oriented customers from all the bordering towns. We spend a fair bit of time in the Blue Mountains and particularly in Blackheath – it’s a relatively short drive but a far cry from the hectic pace of Sydney life.
It was also a Day of Remembrance, a day we call Armistice Day. It marked the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War 1, described by H.G. Wells in 1914 as “the war to end all wars”.
In this small park, the monthly venue for this alternative market, stood Corporal Tom Newkirk. The shrine of Remembrance borders the park and the highway and as we strolled near it, with our bags full of organic fruit and vegetables, our sour dough hand-kneaded bread, sugar-free fig and chocolate jam and other products carefully made with the same care of a bygone era, the crowd was gathering. It quickly became obvious that speeches were about to begin and Corporal Newkirk, who fought for his country in Afghanistan, dressed in uniform decorated with numerous honours, obvious signs of courage in battle, stepped towards the microphone to begin his tribute to those who had fallen, giving us the ability to stroll peacefully around markets, sipping coffee and listening to music.
Tom Newkirk joined the Army later than most, at 26, but it had always been in his family. His father, both grandfathers, grandmother and great grandparents all served their country.
This is Tom’s speech:
“I feel very privileged to be speaking on this Remembrance Day. The 100th Anniversary of Armistice day. Where on the 11th of the 11th 1918, the guns fell silent after four horrific years of war.
We’re here today to honor our heroes, to remember their achievements, their courage and their dedication, and to say thank you for their sacrifices. Thinking of the heroes who join us in this group today and those who are here only in spirit, a person can’t help but feel awed by the enormity of what we encounter. We stand in the midst of patriots and the family and friends of those who have nobly served.
The Greek philosopher Thusidides once said, “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.”
The service members we honour today came from all walks of life, but they shared several fundamental qualities. They possessed courage, pride, determination, selflessness, dedication to duty and integrity – all the qualities needed to serve a cause larger than one’s self.
They didn’t go to war because they loved fighting. They rose to the call to be part of something bigger than themselves. They were ordinary people who responded in extraordinary ways in extreme times. They rose to the nation’s call because they wanted to protect a nation which has given them, us, so much.
In my early military years in training as a solider and then as combat medic, I trained hard alongside so many good mates, and, this is where I met my wife. Military life wasn’t easy. It tested me. The extreme heat, the heavy backpacks and rifles, the extremely long hours and the time away from family and friends. It was in the Army I learned about resilience, fortitude, pride, courage and integrity. About Comradeship, brotherhood and my new-found military family.
Later I served in Afghanistan with the Australian Special Forces, deploying with the 2nd Commando Regiment and again found myself away from my family and friends, in the heat, carrying extremely heavy loads and fighting alongside my brothers. I was now married and expecting my first child, a son. It was in Afghanistan I probably came closest to experiencing what the soldiers who had gone before me a long time ago experienced, however the conditions of my service when compared to theirs was very different. We had regular food, sanitary water, regular resupply of ammunition and other stores and were able to be relieved from the front line at a moment’s notice. Upon return to Australia, we have been treated with compassion and cared for by the Defence Force…. Another crucial component of service not afforded the Australian heroes that served before me. But today is not about me.
On this Remembrance Day, I’m reminded that we share one crucial thing…we both took into battle the values and ideals that we as Australians hold dear today. For example, the importance of teamwork and the way we look out for each other; The Australian sarcastic humour; the opportunities we have to teach our children; a community fresh food market; a BBQ and a beer.
My time away reinforced my belief that this country we live in, is the best country in the world.
Today, people throughout our country will gather together to remember, to honour, and to pay gratitude to those who have served our country. Our gathering is just one small spark in the flame of pride that burns across the nation today and every day. It’s not a lot, but it’s one small way we can honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can live in freedom.
Your presence here today and that of the people gathering all across Australia is a tribute to those lost troops and to their Families.
It is a way to say, we remember you.
From the Soldiers who shivered and starved through the winter, crouched in the muddy trenches of France, to the platoon who patrolled the hazy jungles of Vietnam, and the young man or woman patrolling the mountains between Indonesia and Afghanistan, we remember and honor them all.
In short, I would like to remember what they fought for. They fought for this country, Australia.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak, and I can say I’m proud to be Australian and to have served for my country alongside those who have gone before me but never came home.
We will remember them. Lest we forget.”
It would take a hard heart not to be moved by such words from a young man who risked his life so we can stroll freely. I know we say and hear “Lest we forget” on occasions such as Anzac Day and Armistice Day but for the rest of my life I will never forget Tom Newkirk, who took me out of my daily complacency to think about the heroes who have gone out to meet danger for us — a danger I’d not thought about deeply until the 11th of the 11th in a park in Blackheath. Financial markets rise and fall. Prime Ministers and Presidents come and go. But men and women who face the horrors of war and too often fall, should never be forgotten.