This post was written by Gareth, a member of the Australian Defence Force.
From an undeniable sense of belonging to a question of identity, this one simple word conjures strong emotions in us all. Is it as simple as the place you hang your hat? Is home where the heart is?
Over the millennia many people have expressed their ideas and opinions on this subject, from the philosophers of classical antiquity to the many and varied people who make comment in today’s society: Is home a place or a concept.
I had never given the idea any serious thought until I sat down to write this piece at the request of a good friend. After much soul searching I have come to believe that although home is many things to many people, for me, it is the place I feel comfortable, the place I feel safe. It is above all else, the place I belong. For me, home is an ever changing concept. While writing this article I gave a lot of thought as to what constitutes home and how our perceptions of home seem to change throughout our lives, especially after momentous changes and experiences.
Growing up, home was a simple idea; home was wherever my family was. Home for me was not where I lived, but who I lived with – my mum, dad, little brother and even Lexia – the family dog (a chihuahua). Growing up I moved town twice, from Gladstone (QLD) where I was born, up to Mackay and eventually down to Brisbane, each time I moved, home moved with me. I know that for many people moving house and especially moving towns can be a painful and emotional experience, leaving behind friends, family and familiar places. Each time we moved it was always a little sad (this was before the advent of social media) knowing that I would most likely never see my friends again and that would be many years, if ever, before I would walk those same streets again. Each time I took solace knowing that no matter where we moved or strange the new towns and people would be, I would always be able to go ‘home’ to family and talk about it. I knew that I would always have that safe place where I could go and feel welcome, safe and secure. Growing up, home was my family and my safety blanket. Way back then to go home meant going to a safe place where I could relax and be at ease, even when the world was, at times, uncertain. Throughout my life these ideas of safety, security, and family have remained with me and are inextricably linked with the concept of home.
My definition of home started to change when, back in 2006; I joined the Australian Regular Army and set off for Kapooka NSW and the 1st Recruit Training Battalion. As the sign in front of the barracks states: “Army Recruit Training Centre, Home of the Soldier”. For just over three months this lonely place in the middle of nowhere became my new home, the other fifty odd recruits of 25 Platoon were my new family. This was soon followed by another four months at the School of Infantry in Singleton NSW. On our first day in the School of Infantry, as part of our induction brief, we were told that as Kapooka is the home of the soldier, so the School of Infantry (SOI) is the home of the infantryman. The one place that all infantrymen will one day return to, either as instructors or trainees when we prepare for promotion and the next phase in our careers. What I found when I joined the army was a new home. Rather than a single specific house, I now had, for lack of a better word, a concept. The family home in Brisbane was still the place I called home, the place that I, along with every other recruit and trainee, would talk about going to when we got that first ‘leave’ and could go back to our old lives, our friends and family. Home was still where mum and dad lived, where I could find safety and security, but it had become something more. Home had transformed in to an idea and a sense of belonging.
Aside from moving town, joining the army was perhaps the first ‘life-changing’ event in my life, so it’s probably not all that surprising that my perceptions started to change. Over the next few years I had the opportunity to travel overseas several times, mostly with the army on deployment or training exercises, a couple of times on holidays. Each time I returned from an overseas jaunt I found more and more that rather than looking forward to returning to family and friends or to a house; I was looking forward to coming back to Australia.
In July 2007 I marched out of the School of Infantry as a fully qualified infantry soldier and was posted to the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (2RAR) in Townsville. Although I had moved town, for the first time in my life, home had not quite moved with me. My family had had stayed in Brisbane and I was making a new life.
A few short months later I deployed to East Timor in the spring of 2007 for a six month operation to help maintain law and order in that fledgling nation, this was not only my first trip overseas, it was also to be my first Christmas away from home and family. This was another of the big events in my life that was to further change and develop my perceptions of home. How do you describe military operations? How do you describe East Timor? When I first stepped off the plane I was struck by how different and yet (at the same time) how similar East Timor was to Australia. The grass was a little greener, the vegetation denser, the buildings a little more primitive and the streets not quite so clean. I felt the thrill of exhilaration, a new country to explore, a new culture to experience. I also felt slightly out of place, this was not home. All of a sudden the world had become so much bigger. The one little city I lived in became so much smaller, it seemed silly to call Townsville home. After all what was there that was so important? A house? A place to sleep? I struggled for a while trying to work out exactly what (or where) I should be calling home. I knew it wasn’t Townsville, even if I did happen to live and work there. I also lived and worked in East Timor for six months and I would hardly refer to it as home. Throughout my time in Timor I began to refer increasingly to Australia as home. To me Brisbane would always be home, not because I had any particularly strong emotional attachment to the city but because that was where my family lived. However I also began to think of Australia in its entirety as a place that I could I rest at ease, I had started to feel that I could be anywhere in Australia and still be happy. This feeling was to intensify after I was to spend even more time overseas. Two six-week training exercises, one in Papua New Guinea, one in New Caledonia and a month in Europe exploring the all that these strange places had to offer. After the initial excitement of being in a foreign country wore off, I found that I would inevitably start thinking about home, the sights, sounds and smells of Australia.
In June 2011 I deployed to Afghanistan with Mentoring Task Force Three. Afghanistan is a land unlike anything else I have ever experienced. The topography, the culture, and the people are completely different from western society. If you haven’t been there it really is very different to imagine, I watched all the documentary’s and read all the books I could find to try and prepare for deployment, the reality still shocked me. Towards the end of my tour I heard a song playing in a Dutch run restaurant in the main base in Tarin Kowt. The song was ‘Dust of Uruzgan’ by a bloke called Fred Smith. His words sum up my impressions from my very first patrol outside the wire better than I ever could: “It’s a long long way from Townsville not like any place you’ll see
suddenly you’re walking through the 14th century
Women under burkhas, tribal warlords rule a land
Full of goats, and huts and jingle trucks is the Dust of Uruzgan”
In hindsight, one of the biggest things I noticed while I was on deployment was how little I thought about going back to Brisbane. On previous trips overseas I had always been really excited about the prospect of going home and seeing familiar faces again. On this trip, I still looked forward to going back to Australia and seeing the beauty that can only be found on these shores. Eight months of isolation from the rest of the world, societal norms, and operating in adverse conditions tends to create strong bonds and friendships, and so while I was on operations, rather than always looking for the safety and security of a home in faraway Queensland I saw it in the men I worked with. To put it a little more clearly, I worked as part of an eight man team called a section. My section was often on patrol away from the main bases, sometimes in dangerous situations, sometimes for weeks at a time. I guess something changes inside you when you’re away from Australia for so long. You have to find something to think of as home, somewhere to belong. For many people who were deployed, their new ‘home’ for eight months was the patrol base they were assigned to operate out of. A place to return for safety, security and rest. Being away from the patrol base so much I started to see home as wherever my section happened to be based out of at the time. Whether that was a remote patrol base or an area we’d set up ‘camp’ it was the where I had safety and security (as far as it goes in Afghanistan) and if not family, a few good mates.
It’s hard to explain how such strong bonds are formed, and whilst I’m sure others could probably explain it better, I think it’s important to put some of it on paper here. Try and picture yourself (if I sound intolerant here I ask for a little leeway) in a country full of a strange and alien people. Not a country where people share similar a similar culture and a language with similar roots, but a country where the people who surround you have a different colour skin, a language that is alien in both in speech and writing, a culture which condones and actively encourages customs which are strange (and in some cases, abhorrent) to you A country where you are the oddity, a stranger, and are only safe behind the well-defended walls of a patrol base or when travelling in a heavily armed group. Picture yourself living in this country for months on end where it is not enough to simply enough to hide behind the relative safety of the hesco walls (basically giant sand bags), but where your task is to walk outside the wire, to seek out the insurgents, to uncover their caches of landmines and roadside bombs and to allow the people of the Uruzgan Province a chance at safety and normalcy in their lives.
When you are exposed to the constant threat of danger, your safety blanket is the men who stand side by side with you on the firing line. The men you now will pull out of danger regardless of the danger to their own lives. The men who will have to be killed to leave your side. By the time you set foot in Afghanistan you had already been living and working with these same people for more than half a year, training for every eventually and getting to know them inside and out. You may have worked with some of them for years before this.
Now you’re in this mindset remember that everyone and everything that doesn’t where a coalition uniform has to be treated with suspicion, you can never be sure who might be a suicide bomber, who might be a Taliban Plant or where the next ied might lay. At times like this you start looking inwards. The friendships you’d already made before deploying become unbreakable as you put life in the hands (sometimes literally) of these same men and they put their trust in you. I cannot speak for everyone who deploys, but for many of us , the highest priority when deploy is simply to come home with all of our mates alive and intact. I was very fortunate that my section succeeded in our mission to get everyone home and I can honestly say that it is was one of the greatest feelings I have ever had to be able to touch down in Australia with all of my mates by my side.
I’d like to take a quick paragraph here to express my endless gratitude for the men of the Combat Engineer High Risk Search Teams and the Explosive Detection Dogs (EDD’S) who worked tirelessly beside them. (Just don’t tell them I said it) Always leading the way wherever there was a high threat of ied’s, these men and their EDD’s have saved countless lives, both Australian and Afghani at great risk to themselves. Well done those men.
As I said at the start, I believe that the concept of home is inextricably linked with safety, security and family. I also believe that home is the one place on Earth you feel you belong. The last point I want to mention is how I felt when I flew into Australia after eight months in Afghanistan and the emotions that ran through me when I first saw then touched down, on Australian soil after so long. My entire time away I missed Australia, it’s hard to put into words or to explain it, it’s so much more than just being away from friends and family, it’s…..ineffable.
As we touched back down in Australia I felt a lump rise in my throat, not joy, or exhilaration, but relief, happiness and contentment. I felt as though I was complete again, as if some part of my soul had been missing the entire time I was away. I know it sounds a little corny but there it is.
I had never really given the concept of home a great deal of consideration, much less how to express my opinions, until I sat down and tried to put it on paper. After a great deal of contemplation I feel that although home means many different things to different people. For me, home is the place I belong, the place where I can rest at ease. It’s the place I can find safety, security and the people who care about me.
I think this quote from Maya Angelou sums it up best:
“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”