The following is an article that appeared in The Age, SMH and Canberra Times recently.   It was written by Sharon Orbell, and is copyrighted by Fairfax Media who have given me permission to reproduce it. 

Some of you may already have read it but I am sure, as this blog is read all over Australia, that many of you have not and I know many of you will appreciate reading it.  Some of you will be glad to hear that you are not the only mothers to feel the way that Sharon feels.

No pictures tonight – just those painted by Sharon’s words.

“Reflections of an unlikely soldier’s mum
Sharon Orbell

My eldest boy is in Afghanistan; he’s a soldier in the infantry on his first deployment. He’s 22 next week and has been gone since November last year. I could not be prouder.

I never thought my boy would grow up to be a soldier it just didn’t enter my thoughts. I named him to be a writer or a lawyer. I didn’t know any soldiers or understand anything much about the military except for intense schoolgirl interest in war films of the 1940’s and 50’s. Soldiering didn’t really sit that prominently in my family history either. I knew my grandpa had a cousin who fought in Gallipoli but then my grandfather was a communist and had strong anti-war beliefs. So when my eldest son decided he was going to enlist I was on unsure ground.

As my first born, my son had to endure a trainee mum who embraced politically correct parenting, cloth nappies, breast-feeding and no toy guns. I worked in a university and my middle class expectations were that my son would do well at school and of course go to uni. By year 10 he had left school, a place he wasn’t going very often to anyway, and I was desperately trying to encourage him to do an apprenticeship. When he was 17 he decided he was going to enlist. I stopped trying to predetermine his future and decided that I had to embrace his choice.

Three years ago, seated amongst other mums, who had also spent the night ironing and packing for their grown sons, I watched my boy sign up for four years of army life. He had warned me not to cry under any circumstance. We were played a video of what life would be like for our child in the army. I was fine. Absolutely no tears while I watched them crawling through mud, being yelled at during drill or marching in line. And then the video showed what they would be eating. Sad mum tears now. All trans fats and carbs – not the home cooking he was used too.  

After swearing allegiance to the Queen, who graced the room in a very youthful 1960’s portrait, they were allowed 15 minutes to say goodbye to their family. A helpful woman from army recruiting moved between with a box of tissues. We were allowed to wait near the bus to say a final goodbye before they drove off for eighty days intensive training. My daughter held firmly to my arm to stop me from running alongside the bus waving goodbye or shredding tyres.

So began my life as an army mother. My son learnt to write letters home on the orders of his unit commander and I turned into a vintage version of mothering sending weekly parcels of baked goods, photos and missing comforts. I learnt that public displays of emotion and affection were strictly out and that I would be invited to March Out parades… as long as I kept to my son’s strict rules on this.

I began to understand the discipline or army life. I saw my son becoming the young man I always hoped he would be – just in a different skin to the one I imagined.

Afghanistan was the goal that my son aspired to. He trained for four hours a day, embraced a strict Paleo diet (no carbs lots of protein) and showed sheer determination to turn around various injuries along the way. And then he got selected to go.

My son tried to comfort me, as young men do, by being very practical. He told me about his first aid training should his leg get blown off. He told me not to panic we would hear first if something happened, there was always a couple of days lag before it appeared on the news. None of this was really that helpful in making me feel better.

I tried to cope by reading everything I possibly could about Afghanistan. I read novels, every article that I saw written in the paper and a few trashy accounts of British ex-special forces soldiers. I cried for the families every time a young Australian soldier was killed. Just after my son left on deployment Chris Master’s Uncommon Soldier was published. Chis’s book was probably the best at settling my nerves. It gave a perspective and understanding that I had not found anywhere else and this has made it easier.

The Army try their best to support families of serving personnel on deployment. Parcels are free to Afghanistan and I send lots. We were all issued with badges to wear proudly in support. Thank God for Skype. He even skyped his dog. If I had been the mother of a soldier in Vietnam or earlier I could not have been so strong. I talk to my son about every ten days. I don’t really know what he’s doing because he won’t tell me and he is not allowed to tell me. The hardest moment I’ve had was when my son’s dog got sick and I had to have her put down and he was so far away.

In all of this there have been lots of things to laugh about. He has tried to stick to his strict Paleo diet. I have sent endless parcels of organic no sugar dark chocolate. At Christmas I thought he’d miss his favourite Christmas cake so sent one to Afghanistan. He Skyped me to tell me there was too many carbs and then his Sargent got on and said “maam I’ll make sure he eats it”. Six weeks later he sent me a parcel from Afghanistan – a Christmas cake with a piece cut out of it and note saying too many carbs.

I am not sure I fully understand the war in Afghanistan. I don’t think any of us, everyday people outside the Defence Force Command and Defence Department leadership, do. No amount of reading gives me the intelligence and comprehension of all the facts to justify to myself why or why not our young Australian men and women should be there. But, and it is a big but, I believe my son has chosen a path and like soldiers before him follows the orders, wisdoms and judgement of the government of his country. I am proud he serves his country. I am proud of what he has learnt in the army. I am proud of his dedication, determination, loyalty and sheer strength to commit to his job and do it. I know my Grandpa would have wrestled with his thoughts, as I have about this, but I know he was a man of integrity and he would see the integrity in his great-grandson and he would also be proud.

Still, I abandoned the “no toy guns rule” with my youngest son; obviously this rule had no effect. He has every Nerf gun imaginable.”

The more I deal with the young men and women in our Australian Defence Force, the more impressed I get with them.  We should all be oh so proud of each and every one of them.

Till next time…………keep being proud of them and keep spreading the word!