Bearing Witness to the Seen and the Unseen
Report of the Stand Fast Speak Out
at the gates of Puckapunyal Army Base
5 November 2010
To all appearances, just me, passionate old man on a mission, sitting under a banner rig and waving to passing Base traffic @ the Puckapunyal Stand Fast Speak Out Friday 5 November 2010.
But the effort did not go unnoticed: a news crew from WIN Tv came down from Shepparton also a photographer from the Shepparton News and Seymour Telegraph.
Noteworthy of the action was the courteousness and respect of the local police and also the Base personnel met. When i arrived to set up on the agreed site, a camouflage painted Portaloo was waiting for me as promised.
The negotiations had taken place the previous day facilitated by the Seymour Police duty officer, Snr Sgt. Paul Gardener.
He and the Base Liaison officer, Sgt. Scott Wade, drove me to the Puckapunyal barrack gate where we were met by the Base Support Manager, David Wade, a civvie public servant from the Defence Support Group, Major Steve Looker from Brigade HQ and two MPs, a sergeant and a corporal whose names i missed.
Impressed i was by their number (many more at our meeting than i was expecting at the event itself), their seniority, their understanding of the Speak Out's needs and their respect for my right to be there and do it. They had done their research well and knew what Stand Fast and the barrack gate campaign was about.
David Wade did all the talking and he had every angle of management and safety covered. I was blown away when he announced the Base would be providing a Portaloo.
"I can piss behind a tree," i said.
"No, we can't have that as a photo in the local newspaper," replied David.
Puckapunyal is a big training base, its gate about 6 km east from Seymour. This is where the conscripts for the Vietnam War did their basic training and hence the refernce in the first line of the John Schuman song, "I was only nineteen". As of 2008 Puckapunyal is described as the base for the Australian Army's Land Warfare Development Centre and Headquarters Combined Arms Training Centre.
In Seymour i had no friends or acquaintances to call upon or call out. I knew it would be a one man show, and camped Goulburn Park, Seymour, by the fulsome Goulburn River, at dawn i prayed most earnestly to the ancestors to give me voice and to give me strength to do it alone.
Parked on a high bank on the river bend, the view from my Happy Wheels bunk was a long, broad stretch of swift water. In the night i woke to see the southern cross bright and perfectly inverted in the sky close to the horizon set by the trees in shadow on the far bank.
Mirrored in the river and shimmering slightly on the current, the Southern Cross floated upright. Both perfectly poised. Ahhh! Eureka spirit. Blessings from the ancestors.
I had appealed to the Greens Rural Network but in and around Seymour activist Greens were thin on the ground too. My former Green friend from Albury, Kieran Bennett, suggested i contact the local State Greens candidate, Huw Slater.
From the Seymour Library i sent off an email and was delighted to get a swift and affirmative phone call from him. Huw said he was passionately against the war and, although war is not a state matter, he agreed to put out a supportive media release. See below.
But on the day he did not show. I was standing with the WIN Tv News crew when i rang to find out where he was. Turned out he had changed his mind and gone to a meeting in Healesville, 100 km south. He had emailed, he apologetically explained, but i hadn't had time to check emails that morning.
WIN Tv news is watched by about 60,000 people across central Victoria and he had turned down the opportunity to go to a meeting? I worry for The Greens but i sure made the best of the opportunity on behalf of Stand Fast.
Having come so far the WIN crew gave me plenty of time and shot lots of footage. They too appalled by PM Gillard's promised of another 10 years of war in Afghanistan.
While talking to the WIN crew, a car pulled up and a woman climbed out and walked towards us, obviously distressed.
"What are you doing here?" she asked and then reading the signage, "Don't you think this is insensitive? There are wives on this Base whose husbands are in Afghanistan and others whose men are about to go."
She was teary and tremulous and it was plain to me that she had been in that state while driving. The reason she had stopped at the banner rig was because she had come from some kind of confrontation and needed to vent the built up emotions. And i was moved to comfort her as if she were a distressed daughter of mine.
I explained our position: anti war but pro soldier and pro soldier family. And i also spoke of the coming avalanche of PTSD that wives and families of serving men must inevitably bear.
She 20 years an army wife and she too was against the Afghan war but needing to stand by the men "just doing their job." She knew all about PTSD too.
"The psychs are useless," she said. "The returning men know the questions they will be asked and the answers. They fake the assessments so that they can quickly turn about for another tour of active service."
She spoke of a wife, a friend of hers, whose husband had been raging. Maybe it was herself. Whatever she went on her way, if not comforted, then less hostile to the presence of the Stand Fast signage.
Her observation of the flaky psych assessments and rapid turn around of tours of active service confirmed what the good people of Picking Up the Peaces had told me: to wit, the intensity of service in the Afghan War seems to have an addictive quality and the repeated tours of service there acts as a means for denying and suppressing PTSD symptoms. And aggravating them.
After the WIN crew departed i had visits from Michelle Bradley, editor of the weekly Seymour Telegraph who was most interested in the PTSD issue, a good story to be running in a garrison town. Later Evie Fenan a photographer from the Seymour News came by. Journalist Chloe Warburton had rung me for some quotes.
Sitting in the shade, I hung about from noon to 4 pm. No one else stopped to talk to me but i got a lot of toots and hand gestures from the passing drivers. My estimate of the cheers to jeers ratio was 4:1.
I spent the time reading from cover to cover the latest edition of The Monthly Magazine. My letter defending Julian Assange as "an info-hero of a new breed" was published there on page 65. Also published was an excellent review by Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at ANU of the policy neglect and muddle within the Department of Defence.
Another eye-opener was an essay by Sally Neighbour on the state of Australian intelligence services which had grown monstrous under Howard and more so under Rudd.
ASIO staff numbers have trebled from 618 in 2001 to 1860 in 2010; its budget is up sixfold to $438 mill per year and its the new ASIO HQ at Russell Hill, the biggest building project in Canberra since the new Parliament House, has 62,000 square metres of floor space and cost $585 million. And ASIO and the rest are without effective reporting or accountability.
What are they all doing? i wondered. As someone who knows from direct experience how few are subversives in this time, i began to imagine whole platoons of spooks being allocated just to watch Peacebus.com and Stand Fast.
At the end of the day when the pack up was near done, Major Steve Looker from Brigade HQ came by. He was a grey head like me and he had a grey mustache and a kindly avuncular manner.
"Has everything gone okay?" he wanted to know.
"Thank you. Everything went just fine," i replied. "I may look lonely but I am not unnoticed." And gesturing to the trees: "There are lots of invisible people out there watching me."
I had written something similar on my blog about the Bandiana Speak Out and there i was referring to ancestor spirits and distant friends. Now i was adding a new dimension to the unseen witnesses of the Stand Fast barrack gate Speak Out campaign.
Major Looker flashed a smile to indicate he had understood the reference and my mysticism. Read my blog, it seemed.
In a post to the Stand Fast list on the previous day reporting of my meeting with Major Looker et al, I had speculated that the respect and consideration with which i had been received might have had something to do with the Army being glad to have Stand Fast as a voice speaking out for service people against the war.
Major Looker readily conceded that the war was a contentious issue amongst soldiers on the Puckapunyal Base but now it seemed to me that his mission was to clear the record about him personally supporting Stand Fast. Which means that he had somehow seen that post.
"I do not agree with what you say, but i respect your right to say it," he stated. "That's why i am in the Army and that's why i have served overseas."
The Army as defender of democracy in this land is an institutional myth for which the facts of history run counter. Remember the Eureka rebellion, the New Guard, the use of the Army to break the strikes of coal miners and more recently the imposition of marshal law upon the Aboriginals of the Northern Territory based on false allegations of child sexual abuse.
When push comes to shove the Army has always stood with the ruling class ready, willing and able to suppress democracy.
But i was not going to argue because this day i had enjoyed hospitality and respect that came from an officer corps upholding that comforting belief.
The army is a wonderful cultural enterprise where chivalry and gentlemanly courtesy coexist with murderous practice and deniability.
May respect for freedom of speech and assembly in this land ever prevail.
7 November 2010
Greens support ex-service people,
oppose Afghanistan war
Huw Slater, Greens candidate for Seymour
Candidate for Seymour, Huw Slater, expressed support for Stand Fast, a national association of veterans and ex-service people who will hold a protest outside Puckapunyal Military Area against Australia's participation in the war in Afghanistan.
Slater called on Prime Minister Gillard to tell US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, that Australia will conduct a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, when they meet in Melbourne next Monday, 8 November.
"Maintaining the commitment of Australian resources, and endangering the lives of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan is a mistake," said Slater. "The government still maintains that Australia is in Afghanistan to fight terrorism, despite the fact that analysts have told them Al Qaeda has a much greater presence in Pakistan and the Middle East."
"While there are genuine concerns around discrimination against women and the promotion of democracy for the citizens of Afghanistan, Australia does not have the resources to intervene globally in all such situations", Slater said.
As outlined by Greens parliamentarians in the federal parliament during the last two weeks, the Greens are calling for Australia's troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan and brought home.
"Australian troops should only be sent to fight when the nation is in serious danger, and only with an unquestionable mandate. This is not the case in Afghanistan", Slater said. "I support Stand Fast in their protest, and urge members of both the Labor and Liberal parties to listen to their concerns.
Stand Fast will be conducting the fifth in its campaign of Barrack gate Speak Outs at Puckapunyal Army Base from noon tomorrow, Friday 5 November 2010.
For comment on the Greens position, contact Huw Slater: 0400 515 616.
For comment on the protest at Puckapunyal Military Area, contact Graeme Dunstan: 0407 951 688