Dad was in the Navy for 20something years and as a kid it never occured to me that he could come home in a box one day. The families of the nine victims of the Shark 02 crash in Indonesia earlier in the week probably never thought of it either.
Copied from SMH
There were too many coffins, too many pallbearers and a guard of honour far too long. And there were too many families – nine of them – and you wondered: did it matter to them that their grief was shared across this and another land?
As Australia’s military dead returned from Indonesia yesterday, the personal moments transcended the national one. For Laura Ryan, the partner of pilot Paul Kimlin, it was the moment the plane bearing his coffin opened to reveal its load, and her public poise crumbled in tears.
For the sons of Leading Seaman Scott Bennet, Courtney and Jarryd, it was the moment a naval officer shook their small hands and gave them a medal for their father.
What appeared a clinical place to greet the fallen – gate 25 at Sydney Airport – was transformed; the sombre glories of military ceremony and these moments of personal heartbreak defeated the concrete and noise.
They were borne home in the rear of a C-130 Hercules, each aluminium coffin draped in the flag and lowered to a tarmac where waited a prime minister, a president, 100 men and women in a guard of honour, a band, a lone piper and 54 pallbearers from the Australian Federation Guard – six for each of the seven men and two women killed when a Sea King helicopter crashed on a relief mission on the quake-hit island of Nias on Saturday night.
What followed yesterday was a short journey that seemed to last an eternity. It took two minutes for each group of six carriers to make their precise march forward. From the honour guard there were 100 salutes for each; paying their own respects, the Prime Minister, John Howard, and the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, bowed their heads nine times.
Nine hearses waited. But there were matters of state to be dealt with before ceremony could give way to the banality of the Glebe morgue. Mr Howard, Dr Yudhoyono and the Governor-General, Michael Jeffery, rose and walked the red carpet to bestow the honours of high office.
From Indonesia, there was the Medal of Valour, the highest award the country could give. They sat atop cushions which Dr Yudhoyono placed on the coffins; and from Australia, a vice-regal tradition – wattle for the dead. The Australian leaders wore it in their lapels, too. Major-General Jeffery straightened the flag on the last coffin, lay a sprig of gold, and made way for the families.
They moved forward in groups large and small.
Three women came first, then the larger Kimlin clan, its smallest member in a pram – Lieutenant Kimlin’s three-month-old nephew, Hugo, whose father died before he was born. He had known his uncle for just 19 days. Ms Ryan, distraught, put a hand to her face and kept it there. She had been remarkable in these difficult days. If mourning can ever be elegant, she had found a way. Her media appearances since Sunday suggested she wanted to honour his memory in calm dignity; now, on this incongruously bright Tuesday afternoon, it had become too much. She was not alone.
Further back, a middle-aged man walked the line of coffins. He wore military medals himself. His face was a study in loss.
They moved along, about 30 people in all, touching the nine flags. It was not clear that they knew which coffin carried their loved one; it didn’t seem that it really mattered. The Nias nine were joined by the manner of their passing, and by the time The Last Post played to end this procession, so were their families.
A minute’s silence, reveille, a lament. The caskets were loaded; the national anthem played. Then they were gone. The medals were passed to mothers, fathers, sons, brothers, sisters, wives. This was Indonesia’s tribute to nine people who had died in its service, too.
Dr Yudhoyono did not speak publicly. But in private, beyond the media’s gaze, he talked to the families, hugged them, acknowledging his nation’s sadness and gratitude. He was so moved, aides said, that he cancelled or postponed some engagements planned for later.
Angela Slattery, the sister of 38-year-old medic Stephen Slattery, said it was a wonderful farewell. “We were so proud,” she said. “It was very hard to hold back the tears, and so we didn’t today.”
Her brother had followed their father into the Navy 21 years ago. “He absolutely adored what he did,” she said. “He did not make a big fuss of his work.”
There were others grieving too yesterday. Aboard HMAS Kanimbla, friends and colleagues marked the occasion with a tearful farewell at sea. Once finished, the circle of sadness was complete.