A Small Step for Diggers' Families ... A Long Way to Go

Last week we saw some long overdue good news for the widows of our military personnel. But we have a long way to go to give them what they deserve: financial security allowing them to educate their children and to live with dignity.

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Last week, Minister for Defence Personnel, Greg Combet, announced increases of between 14 and 21% for members of the Military Superannuation and Benefits Scheme – all backdated to July 1 2007.

Widows of personnel who are killed on duty can choose a lump sum payment or a pension or a combination of both. The new lump sum for widows of privates has been lifted by 14%, up $72,000 to $579,000. A sergeant’s widow’s payout will also rise 14% from $672,000 to $765,000 and a captain’s similarly from $714,660 to $814,400.

A private’s widow’s pension will now be $37,487 (or $720 a week), up 21%. The sergeant’s equivalent will rise by 21% to $49,500 ($952 a week) and a captain’s also up 14% to $52,727 ($1013 a week).

But, bizarrely, the war widow’s pension is still indexed at a lower rate than a general welfare pension. Surely, this situation is absurd and insulting and must be changed as soon as possible.

The least our nation should be giving these bereaved families is financial security. The Defence Association believes that the families of those killed on active duty should receive a home and be paid the equivalent of the dead soldier’s salary until he would have retired.

Is this too much to ask from a nation that asked the soldier to put his life at risk for us?

Fromelles Mystery Continiues

It seems possible that there may be even more Australian Diggers missing from the Battle of Fromelles than first thought in the mass grave at Pheasant Wood where the Germans buried British and Australian dead after the battle on July 19 1916.

Lambis Englezos at Rue Petillon Cemetery, near Fromelles

Lambis Englezos at Rue Petillon Cemetery, near Fromelles

Lambis Englezos and his team have German and Red Cross records to suggest around 190 Australians were buried at Pheasant Wood. But Lambis now believes it’s possible that number may rise and the number of British soldiers buried there may be fewer than first thought.

That supposition would have some battlefield logic to support it because the British dead would have to have been carried some kilometres from where they died on the far side of the Sugar Loaf salient to Pheasant Wood.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has been keeping a very tight lid on information from the archaeological dig to exhume the remains found at Pheasant Wood.

They have confirmed that a total of 250 sets of remains have been recovered (around 50 in each of five main pits) and that they have now been anthropologically examined (to detect their nationality). These now lie in storage, recorded according to grave number, layer number in each grave where they were found and the other remains with which each was buried.  The CWGC has also said that the ‘vast majority’ of remains found in the first three burial pits were Australian. 

They have made no pronouncement of the nationality of the two remaining pits, each with around 50 remains, or the sixth pit, which had just six remains in it. So we don't yet know the total number of Australians found in the mass grave.

As Lambis suggests, it’s possible that more than 200 of the remains at Pheasant Wood are Australian.

Let’s hope the CWGC gives us some details of the full nationality breakdown of the remains soon. And let’s hope the Australian Government expedites the gathering of DNA material from the Australian families of the Fromelles missing so we can move closer to identification and individual burials.

The Fromelles Pen Stands Poised

In a wonderful vindication of the adage, the pen has outlived the sword at Pheasant Wood, site of the mass grave of the missing soldiers of Fromelles, and is poised to write the final chapter of this sad but fascinating story.

This remarkably preserved fountain pen was found with the remains of one of the missing men amongst the carnage at Pheasant Wood. What a powerful symbol it is. This gentle object is redolent of the personal stories of these long-forgotten souls: it hints at their stories yet to be told.

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It was the pen that finally relocated the Fromelles missing: the relentless research of Lambis Englezos and his supporters and the books and articles calling for the authorities to examine his claims that finally convinced them to act.

It will be the pen recording the marvels of modern science that will finally allow us to identify the missing soldiers and give them the dignity of a named, individual grave.

But concern is growing at the tardiness by the authorities in taking DNA samples from the relatives of the missing to assist in the identification of the remains.  Many of these relatives are elderly. It would be an unforgivable missed opportunity if they were to leave us before they have given their DNA.

The remains have now been recovered. Why the delay in proceeding to the next step in the identification process?

Kokoda Demands Respect

This week’s tragic deaths on the Kokoda Track remind us that we must treat the Track with the respect it demands.  For the vast majority of us, it’s the toughest physical challenge we will ever face and we must prepare for it accordingly.

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The Track crosses some of the harshest terrain in the world, set in a tropical pressure cooker.  It’s more accurately described as a climb rather than a walk.  It’ll push your cardio-vascular endurance to previously unexplored limits.  It’ll give your knees and quads the ultimate examination: many sections are over slopes so steep you can put your hand out and touch the ground in front of you. And then there are the descents, which produce what the Diggers called ‘laughing knees’ – trembles from the unaccustomed repetition of clambering down, lurching from rock, to tree root to crevice. Someone used a GPS to calculate that these relentless up-and-downs along the Track are the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest.

Perhaps the numbers of those who have made the crossing in recent years have created the impression that anyone can do it.  If so, rest assured, it’s a false impression.

To understand the terrain, imagine rainforest jungle like Australia’s Daintree, then lay it thickly over PNG’s mighty Owen Stanley mountain range, which climbs twice as high as Mount Kosciusko and is made up of a wicked series of shark-toothed ridgelines over scores of raging white-water rivers and creeks spilling from the heights.

There are no roads, just a tiny, meandering, often treacherous, native walking path that winds its way through the maze.  In some places it’s only as wide as a human body – a temporary passageway forced by machete through the dense foliage.  Elsewhere, it opens to a majestic jungle cathedral topped by a thick tree canopy 50 metres high.  But mostly it’s a series of tenuous footholds up the towering hillsides, along knife-edged ridges, down the sheer gullies and across the streams, many of which can only be crossed by inching over a fallen tree trunk.

Even those who are fit for other sports must train specifically for the Track’s unique demands: the long hours of walking (sometimes ten hours a day); the enervating humidity; the dramatic loss of fluids through sweating, requiring constant hydration; the strains on joints and muscles; and the effects of a relentless sun.

Ultimately, each trekker must take responsibility for his or her fitness for the challenge. There is danger in the journey. The quest is great but the rewards are equally substantial.

Walking the Kokoda Track is a life-changing experience – an immense physical, emotional and spiritual challenge. It’s also a fascinating journey of personal exploration and one of the most deeply satisfying achievements most of us will ever claim.