It happened one day when I least expected it – a call to do the ex-serviceman’s rites at the funeral of an RSL Sub-Branch member.
This was 12 years ago and I had just taken on the role of Sub-Branch secretary and no-one else was available. The whole committee were either away or knew no more than I did.
What are the ex-serviceman’s or woman’s funeral rites? It is sometimes referred to as ‘the poppy service.’
I didn’t really know nor did I have any idea of what the role consisted of.
Ring a friend (where have I heard that before?)
Well, this is what I did and I caught him about to walk up the steps of an aeroplane travelling to Canberra so his advice was fairly short but I managed to understand the gist of it.
The service layout was soon found, basic as it was, then a fax (this was 12 years ago, remember) to Defence Records and two days later, the member’s service record turned up.
The Record/The Hero
The man was a World War II veteran who had served in North Africa, returned to Australia for jungle warfare training and then spent most of the rest of the war in New Guinea.
He had been wounded in action twice, he had been decorated for bravery (a Military Medal),
Suffered malaria, was promoted several times and came home to his family completely intact.
As I read his military service I was humbled. Although I had met this gent, I knew nothing about him until then.
He wasn’t a big man, he didn’t act like a hero, in fact he was very ordinary if there is such a thing and I felt ashamed I’d never taken notice of his medals nor asked about his service to his country.
He deserved much more than this ‘newbie’ to speak of his service at his funeral but what was I to do?
Thank God I was computer literate, well, literate enough to look up the units he served with, and read their history, where they were when he was with them, what they did, the battles they fought, what actions he had been involved in and also read the citation to his award.
This allowed me to build some ‘body’ into the skeleton service but when my turn came to walk up front and deliver the service record of a man who deserved someone far more important than I to deliver this speech, I felt faint, light headed and altogether unworthy.
The Poppy Service
Speaking in front of crowds has never been a problem for me but this was different.
I blurted my way through the service, assisted in taking the Australian flag from the coffin and led the placing of poppies and my last job was to recite The Ode.
Then it was back to my seat at the rear, head down, not looking at anyone, sort of shuffling along so as to look inconspicuous.
I was near last walking from the chapel only to be approached by the eldest son – I knew I was in trouble – but he grabbed my hand and thanked me sincerely for doing such a great job.
My mouth was still agape when the elderly widow approached me, threw her arms around my shoulders and wept on my chest.
She said her husband had never spoken about his war service and the whole family found out some history they’d never known before.
Later, it was time for me to reflect on what had happened.
Here was a true hero in every sense of the word, yet the world, even down to his family, knew very little about his service or why he acted differently on days like ANZAC Day.
No-one understood why he came home after a few drinks with his service mates and sat silently in the lounge, not wanting to talk, not interested in doing anything but sit and reflect.
No-one knew about the tears he shed for lost mates and those who preceded him to the grave.
I reflected then as I do now, thinking about those servicemen and women who gave such a significant part of their life to serve their country and yet we walk past them in the street and never know or understand what they’ve been through.
Tomorrow is ANZAC Day, the first time since 1918 (Spanish Flu pandemic) when we won’t see these men and women march proudly wearing their medals.
Some won’t ever march again, for others there’s many years left and these occasions give us, the general public, a chance to thank them, to clap as they pass, to cheer them on and to recognise the sacrifices made by so many of them.
It also gives us a chance to remember and reflect on those young men and girls who didn’t come home.
They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
Lest We Forget
John Skinner served as an infantry soldier in Vietnam then the Tasmanian Police before taking up the position of CEO of the Australian Rough Riders Association (professional rodeo based in Warwick Qld). Before retirement to his small farm, he was a photo-journalist for 25 years. He is married with 3 children and 7 grandchildren.