By MC D’Alton
Sophie’s gaze ran up and down the long bronze list bolted onto the memorial. Her eyes blurred as she blinked back the tears. The soldiers forever immortalized, never to grow old:
Corporal James Stewart.
Lance Corporal Cassidy Newman.
Lance Corporal Shamus Bailey Wilson.
The names on the plaque stared back at her with a cold, hard accusation.
“I should have brought you home,” she whispered to their shadows.
Retired, Royal Australian Navy Pilot, Lieutenant Sophie Murray, swallowed back the pain. It hurt to stand, but she refused to sit. It hurt to be out here where all and sundry could stare at the melted skin which was her face, but she’d not let those boys down a second time.
It was an unusually balmy April morning out at Beachmere ANZAC memorial. The small sea side town where three of the diggers from the 4th Battalion, who were on her Chinook helicopter, had grown up.
It had been a simple mission. Fly in, drop the troops and supplies, collect those bound for leave and fly out.
It was supposed to be a relatively safe airspace, over friendly territory – but relative had turned out to be, well, relative. She’d pulled every trick in the book, but the three missiles launched at once had proved an impossibility.
“Come love, the service is about to start,” Max her beloved husband and best friend, urged.
It had taken months, if not years to accept he would not desert her. She didn’t deserve him. And still, after five years of rehabilitation and psychiatric assistance, it was hard to allow him to touch her, but Max stayed. His love for her swam in those big brown eyes, his loyalty unlike any she’d ever come across. She’d told him many times to leave, to find happiness somewhere else, but he’d refused.
“We made a vow, and I love you more than I love the air I breathe. To leave you would be asking me to carve open my chest and drop my beating heart on the sidewalk.”
Today, five years on, she was strong enough to attend a dawn service. She needed to look those families in the eye, and apologize for the fact she’d never brought their sons and daughter home.
The Chaplain stood at the foot of the obelisk and opened his small bible. Its black, leather cover frayed and wrinkled from years of use.
“Good morning all, today we gather here…”
Sophie’s mind drifted, like a bird floating on the warm air currents, back in time. To a place where no bible, prayer, or God had been present to save, forgive, or bring peace.
Screams echoed and failing turbines whined. They’d taken a hit to the tail of her CH-47. Her feet desperately worked the pedals. She leaned back using her body weight to help steer the collective throttle, and cyclic as they tumbled out the sky. She’d managed to send out a single Mayday.
A sensation of complete freedom and of absolute fear invaded her insides and knocked the air from her lungs as they tumbled down…
The fall back to earth was like watching a film frame in slow motion. Clouds of burning fuel puffing past, flailing arms, legs and gear bouncing around the inside of the Chinook. Every cell in her body reverberated, her brain shifted, blood vessels burst and bones shattered like cheap, china dinner plates flung against a wall, as the helicopter connected with the desert floor.
Her face burned, her left eye lost its sight, the flesh of her left arm, shredded and the bone pulverised.
Fear and pain drenched with yowling and leaking aviation fuel overwhelmed any senses not rattled by the crash. She called for help – but all the instrumentation was dead or smouldering. She dragged herself from the pilot’s seat. They had to find cover and quick. Whoever had shot them out of the sky was close by, and would be here soon to make sure their mission was successful.
She and two other soldiers managed to pull the injured into a cave. Her arm throbbed and the skin on her left cheek and neck, burned like a hundred bonfires on Guy Fawkes. She left a Sergeant and his shell-shocked Corporal with what supplies they could salvage and what ammunition they could save.
“You can’t go back Lieutenant, they’re dead and you’re injured.”
She ignored the Sergeant’s plea. She couldn’t leave them there, the three diggers who hadn’t survived. Everyone was to return home, whether whole, broken, or in a wooden casket; no one got left behind.
She’d pulled the first digger out of the wreck when something hard connected with the back of her skull.
Six months she’d spent in a hole. An old dried up well in the middle of nowhere was what she got to call, bed and toilette; only dragged out with a rope when they decided it was time to question her. Fists pummelled her face, her back and her belly. Knives sliced her legs and red hot cigarette butts were pushed in to the soles of her feet – but she’d stood her ground, had given them nothing, not even when they’d used her for fun.
A digger regiment on patrol had found and rescued her.
All the pain, all the nightmares, all the clawing herself back up to the light, meant nothing. Her people had managed to rescue the survivor’s days after they’d been shot down, but not the dead. Three diggers lay buried beneath alien sands between the mangled, decomposing shell of the Chinook; all because she’d failed to bring them home.
The Chaplain closed his little black book as the sun appeared above the watery horizon across Moreton bay.
A bugle player lifted his brass instrument to his lips. A man, two heads taller than her Max, came to stand beside her.
“We’ve never blamed you Lieutenant. What you sacrificed, what you gave, can never be put in words or material value. Cassidy knew this. Like me, it was her passion to serve her country. To make the world a safer place for everyone else. I honour your service and dedication, as I do hers. I might never hold my baby girl in my arms again, but, I find solace in the fact she died for us to have this,” he spread his arms to take in the beautiful day.
Sophie turned and faced the man. His black hair streaked with silver at his temples, a crew cut told her he was ex-military. His eyes as blue as the autumn sky above, drowned in his loss. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed his grief. He did not flinch as he looked down at her scared face, but smiled and placed a hand on her shoulder. She did not pull away.
The Last Post echoed from the bugle’s bell.
The mournful, eerie tune surpassed the barriers of day-to-day existence. Its evocative wail pushed beyond religion, colour, class and circumstance. It was the people’s anthem, with notes which heralded the fallen. Music with which to farewell the great warriors. A tune ingrained forever in the many broken hearts, for the sacrifice made by those who died, and those forever lost.
“Today is a good day,” Sophie clasped her husband’s hand.
Max looked down at their hands and up to his wife, “Yes, it sure is.”
I may not be Australian by birth, but I take ANZAC day and all days celebrating and remembering our fallen men and women very seriously.
I dedicate this story to all the men and women who’ve sacrificed their lives so we may live in peace.