My Life Changing Kokoda Experience
I was born in the year 1969, a child born into a housing commission family, living in the Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows. My childhood was a happy one; an era when children would roam the streets, coming in on dark, barefoot and often bleeding, covered in dust, the treasured bike left on the nature-strip in the frantic race to beat the dusk curfew.
We didn’t have much but wanted for even less. A Friday school lunch order was a sign of affluence. My favourite subjects at school were recess and lunch, a chance to re-enact battles from the World Wars, or combat a young Carl Williams to win a game of marbles. Six year old me was certain of one thing. When I grew up, I was going to be a soldier.
Approaching the final stages of an application to join the Army, I made a fatal error! Stuck in a rut at Uni, sitting in a meaningless lesson thinking about going to the Royal Military College – Duntroon the following year, my error was engaging in conversation with the girl sitting next to me. Next minute, ensnared, I’d fallen for her, my dream of a military career diverted by aspirations to get married, settle down and have children. Nothing mattered anymore, apart from being with her. Fast forward to 2012, a career and six children later……
I first trekked Kokoda as a paying client in 2012. My childhood had morphed into a passion for military history, and I loved the trek, returning to my family determined to get back to Kokoda as soon as possible.
In early 2013 I accepted an offer to guide for No Roads Expeditions, telling the story of the Kokoda campaign, my stage the battlefields at Isurava, Eora Creek and Brigade Hill. Once again I was reliving my childhood, painting a picture of the battles in the minds of our trekkers, and my own. And I loved it.
I took my 14 year-old son across the track. Liam was my world, my best mate, and taking him across the track was an incredible privilege. The trek was a ‘parent-child’ themed trip, with eight in total, and we had a good trek. As a guide, I don’t script or pre-plan what I talk about just before the end at Ower’s Corner, I tend to just live in the moment and speak from the heart, tying my final words into the experiences of the clients. I remember saying:
'The men who died here died to defend their families, to defend our country. They did so against a ruthless adversary, in terrible, unforgiving terrain. Some of these men died in the arms of their mates. Some, like Butch Bisset, died in the embrace of their brother. Others died alone, cut off in the jungle. Many died quite young, at the beginning of their life. Some died with regrets…..not marrying their childhood sweetheart before leaving for overseas, not pursuing their dreams, perhaps not starting a family. For them, it’s now too late. We know their stories, their stories are now ours. They live on through us, and we have a responsibility to return to our families and live our lives with no regrets. To pursue our dreams, to be the very best that we can….because the men who died along this track did not get to return. They died for us, as Australians. We owe them……'
On the flight home, sitting on the plane next to Liam, we were discussing the trek. As a fairly novice guide, I was after some feedback on what worked, and what didn’t go so well and the following conversation occurred:
Andrew- ‘So tell me what I did that didn’t work?'.
Liam- ‘Well, you know that bit at Ower’s Corner? Well, I don't think you can say that. You are a hypocrite’
Andrew- ‘Hold on, what do you mean? I thought it went ok, everyone was emotional, how am I a hypocrite?’
Liam- ‘Because you are, you always wanted to be a soldier. You talked about having regrets, pursuing our dreams, being the best that we can be……but you are a hypocrite because you don’t do these things yourself. And you hate your job. You have no excuse.'
The honesty of a 14-year-old. It was pretty quiet on the plane, flying over the Coral Sea, as I tried to internally defend myself. But, try as I might, I had to admit that he was correct and that I had no right to say what I had said, in fact, I had disrespected the legacy of the very soldiers who I admired so much. So, what to do now? Throwing him out of the plane wasn’t much of an option, his mother would probably be upset. The next morning, I rang Defence Force Recruiting, starting a journey that resulting in me
finally attending Royal Military College – Duntroon, and my current career as an Army Officer. Rarely does a day pass where I don’t think about those words at Ower’s, and what they mean, in reality.
Words are easy…..actions define our words.
Andrew Flanagan is a Captain in the Army, currently posted in Melbourne, after stints in Townsville and Puckapunyal. This year he will be guiding private treks through the year as well as a public Australian Led Kokoda from the 23rd of November to the 03rd of December, 2020.