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Fable of the furtive veteran

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Anzac Day is important for me as a Vietnam Vet and a member of the clergy. Each year we hold an early morning chapel service to honour the memory of those who have served in times of war. I remember last year clearly. The church was packed.

I hadn't seen him come into the chapel before the service but there he was, this hunched over figure of a man, sitting in one of the furthermost pews, detached, eyes withdrawn, his face pale, features old and weather beaten. John O'Malley was always a mystery, a recluse whom I had met only a few months ago. It took a long time before I gained his trust and was able to converse with him.

The chapel is small so most attendees are personally invited. But a few old diggers held onto their place in the pews. They sat alongside diplomats and important personages parading ego-satisfying awards, high-ranking Defence personnel wearing citations of long forgotten conflicts, campaign medals rattling with importance. John sat quietly in the background.

The muffled drum beat ushered in the four-member catafalque party who took their place. And then the silence of disciplined slow reverse arms — a time honoured gesture of rest and reverence.

The congregation half listened to the Scripture reading — eulogising sentiments about swords into plough-shares. I wasn't concentrating. I was distracted by John's demeanour, which seemed so out of place among the dignitaries, a contradiction between the pomposity of reverence and his silent anonymity.

Clouds of sweet smelling incense highlighted shafts of sunlight from a glass lead-lined window opposite John. It spotlighted his face and upper shoulders. Our eyes met and he seemed aware of my distant inquisition. He shifted along the pew, scurrying further back against the wall like some dejected creature furtively seeking solace in the sanctuary.

I nodded slightly, not so much to acknowledge him but pleased that a ray of sunlight had now lit up the left side of his face and upper shoulders. An impressive row of large medals hung from faded ribbons, drawing my attention to him even more intently than before.


The end of April always heralds approaching cooler weather. John had told me of the debilitating cold in the Kapyong Valley on Anzac Day in 1951 — nothing much would grow there.

Perhaps it was symbolic of life that a week ago he brought me a spray of rose coloured berries on a branch of luscious green leaves. Several of the bright red shapes were bruised and I plucked them off in a sort of arrogance in trying to improve God's creation.

There, I said, that looks better. John just looked on without responding.


The choir began: Abide with me; fast fall the even-tide. The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide ... A young woman in the choir loft positioned the trumpet to her lips and played the soulful 'Last Post', which echoed magically around the walls of the chapel — an ancient tribute to accomplishment at a soldier's farewell.

I stole a glance toward the chapel. John was gone, just as mysteriously as he had come in. A minute's silence, then the final trumpet rouse, awakening the dead in the next and hopefully better world. The service had ended.

It was a poignant moment of reflection on the millions who have sacrificed their lives in useless conflicts. One minute they are a part of a vibrant community, and then they simply disappear, just as John O'Malley had.

Rev. Mick O’Donnell is a Vietnam veteran and former Catholic chaplain to the Australian Federal Police in Canberra. 



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Existing comments

TY for this very moving reality. I noticed though I'd reversed "I gained his trust" to before John accepted me" & "I was distract.. anonymity" to "how out of place in the presence of his reverence ... anonymity" Just a sharing for me to work on.

Joan Hamilton | 27 April 2009  

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