Coming from a strong family line of military men, Brian Woodward was determined to serve his country, and nothing was going to get in his way. The day before deploying to East Timor in 1999 Brian’s father, a Vietnam Veteran, died.
“Within four days [of that] I went to East Timor. The bosses said I could take as long as I want, but I knew where I had to be. I knew my father would turn around and kick me in the backside if I didn’t head off.”
Almost as though it happened yesterday, Brian recalls the moment his name was called for deployment.
"It was like a sense of pride, a sense of achievement for myself, of my training. A sense of pride that I’d achieved the ability that they thought I could do the job overseas."
News coverage from East Timor was making its way to Australia. Brian worked hard to concentrate on direct reports from his line of military seniors.
“That way, we could focus on and get our mind right on what would be expected. You’re trained to expect things, but the expectation versus the reality is completely different.”
With his unit already deployed, Brian set off to join them. As the car door opened in Dili, the smell of death loomed. It hit him. “What the hell have I done?”
New smells and new sounds drowned Brian’s senses.
“If you picture Melbourne on New Year’s Eve, where it’s full of people, full of celebrations, the streets are full, the restaurants are open -- picture that empty, not a soul on the streets and with burning buildings and some people walking up and down the road with weapons. Children with machetes.”
As the adrenaline kicked in, he remembered he was there to do a job. His role was in transport and logistics, to deliver supplies like water and fuel to the border regions and undertake patrols.
“To do my job over there you had to put everything out of your mind and say, ‘You know what? This is where I’ve got to go. I’ve got to get from A to B.' You had to take out the emotion.”
From Dili, his deployment took him to Suai, the scene of a church massacre in September 1999.
“Every day, when we had to go to the airport to deliver things, you’d go past the church. As a tribute, the locals had put bones of the nuns and the priest in a circle outside. You could still see the bullet holes.”
With each passing day, Brian developed a degree of immunity and a stronger resilience to the gruesome landscape around him. He says it helped him focus. When his deployment wrapped up nearly a month later, Brian was not ready to leave.
“It was like, we’re not finished, we need to be here. We still need to be here, we just can’t go back, can’t leave.”
With his heart and mind torn, Brian arrived back in Townsville to be met by his cousin, a woman he describes as being like his second mother.
“I hopped in her car and she gave me a note from my mother who was in Melbourne.” Brian chokes up as he casts his mind back. “It said sorry she can’t be there, she’s very proud of me.”
Brian says, in a very matter-of-fact way, that he returned to work, got back to normality and just got on with it, achieving his dream job in the 26th Transport Squadron. This new role fulfilled his love of driving and sent him on the road for months at a time.
He acknowledges that he returned from deployment a changed man. His experiences in East Timor gave him a greater sense of appreciation for life in and the freedoms of Australia. He also fell in love with the woman who is now his wife.
On 13 June 2001, Brian deployed again to East Timor for six months. This time, he donned a blue beret under the United Nations. This was his opportunity to finish business he considered unfinished.
He expected the grim reality of the East Timor he had left. Instead, “...what I saw was Melbourne on a Sunday. People moving around, shops open, funerals taking place down the middle of the street. People felt safer.”
This time, however, it was not so easy to separate his emotions from the job. His unit employed locals from the community who lived next door to the unit’s base.
“We got to know them, we got to know their children. I had care packages delivered from Australia filled with toys and books. Everything was for the children.”
When his deployment wrapped up again, Brian faced new challenges – emotions he did not expect.
“We were all hugging, like they were family and we were leaving them.”
He admits his deployments took a toll on his mental health. “It’s a struggle. A hell of a struggle.” He lives his life on heightened alert.
"To this day, I still continue to look around a room. I check out where the exits are, who is around, who you know, who you don’t know. It drives my wife crazy."
But without his tight-knit family, life might have been very different for Brian.
“I have a very supportive wife and I have two beautiful children. I have a very supportive family, not only my immediate family but aunts and uncles and my in-laws too.”
Brian has worked hard on channelling his struggles into positive, rewarding experiences and has given generously of his time to the Austin Repatriation Hospital.
“I was able to assist in my little way. I was able to relate to the patients in Ward 17 and make a connection with them and talk to them.”
He cannot speak more highly of the RSL, where he also volunteers.
“It’s a place I feel comfortable and safe to talk to anyone. To have the support of them is amazing.”
Brian, who is in his early ‘50s, says that life is good. The doting dad of three girls now works full-time, still fulfilling his love of all things transport-related as the Assistant Manager of a Melbourne-based bus company.