The ‘Why’ of it…

By Tim Thomas

Painting: A Slow burning hope…’ by Aaron Hill. Reproduced with the artists permission

Photo: Tim Thomas. Event Photos Australia
Painting: A Slow burning hope…’ by Aaron Hill. 

Has it ever shocked you how different things seem when you are looking at them many years later? It could be your old neighbourhood, the clothes you used to wear, a movie or an artwork. The same item, but over time you get two very different experiences.

Such were my interactions with the Australian War Memorial. I had only visited a handful of times: once early in my career as an Australian Special Forces Commando, and once towards the end of my career, after deployments to Afghanistan and East Timor.

The first visit I was full of intrigue and curiosity.

The second visit I was overwhelmed, almost crushed.

For me, at that moment, it was either get really angry, punch a wall, cry… or write a blog years later.

I want to share with you how that all played out and how I feel about things now as an ex-soldier. 

Early in my soldiering career, war memorials and history were never really on my radar. Getting into the Commandos was my sole goal, and that was all-consuming. It was 2004 and we were the very first group of civilians taking part in the Direct Recruiting into Special Forces Scheme (DRSF).

To me, the Special Forces selection course was an interesting paradox. It found those men who did things no one else could, and then sent them places no one else wanted to go. It wasn’t just the physicality of the course that made it hard.

Special Forces Selection means that everything in your personal life goes on hold. My wife was due to give birth halfway through my selection in September 2004. They told me very clearly, "This is Special Forces selection. It’s either do selection or see your child being born. You can’t do both, you have to choose.”

Looking at it from my son’s perspective, I thought, “What does he need? Does he need a dad at his birth or a dad with a job?” 

Of the 60 plus men who started, fewer than 15 made it into the Commandos. It was a proud personal achievement for those who were awarded the coveted ‘Sherwood Beret’. However, it was only the beginning of a long, hard road. 

Tim birth picture

They did eventually let me out (for a few hours) to see my son being born. I was in such a rush (literally sprinting through the hospital) that I forgot I still had camouflage paint all over my face. If you look closely and you’ll see my selection ID number still on my left arm.

This picture shows what makes ADF service so unique. It requires the whole family to serve, and to sacrifice together. 

As a committed soldier, I was looking forward to serving my country. However, the ADF (especially Special Forces) isn’t just a job. I found it so consuming that it was as if nothing existed outside it. So I never looked outside my own Army bubble … until the time when I was forced to look outside it.

This wasn’t voluntary, rather it was forcibly imposed by impending death.

It was one night in Afghanistan 2009, and we were about to enter the enemy’s ‘Kill Box’ section of an ambush. When facing death, the images of Anzacs past reached out and spoke to me. These sacred images (kept for us by the Australian War Memorial) came alive and gave me  strength. Strength enough to go into the darkest places with courage. In that moment, the Anzacs showed me that it was possible, and that was all I needed.

Tim Thomas , Afghanistan, 2009.

Tim Thomas , Afghanistan, 2009. A picture says a thousand words. 

Several years later I went back to the Australian War Memorial. This time, however, I couldn’t get through all of it. I was no longer just walking around observing the displays. It was like everything was reaching out to me, and then reaching into my deepest parts.

It could have been my service experience, or it could have been the fact that there were names of soldiers written down that hadn’t been there previously.

I had to leave.

Once outside the doubts came: about myself, my service, my choices and the choices of my government. I kept asking ‘Why?’

Eventually I asked myself, “Tim, why did YOU do it? What was your original reason?”

My mind didn’t like this. The pain I was in made me look for someone to blame.

Eventually, I said to myself, “I joined the Army because Australia has so many beautiful things.”

With that admission came the knowledge of another harsh truth.

Beauty, without protective boundaries, will never grow.

Fear stops beautiful things from growing.

If I wanted my beautiful country to grow and become all it could be, it can’t be in fear.

Strong boundaries need to be in place. Courageous men and women need to be prepared to maintain them.

Once I anchored onto the why I served, I could then physically stand up, and think straight.

If I hadn’t dug deep and found my ‘why’ (my anchor point), the conflict would have swept me away.

It took time, but a slow-burning hope followed me after that experience. Along with a stronger personal anchor point of purpose.

That’s how I see ANZAC day and the Australian War Memorial, as an anchor point;

Australia’s anchor point.

In turbulent times, we need to ‘anchor onto’ what’s really important. Only then can we hold fast and defend our truth, because we know why we’re doing it.

Lest we forget.


Tim Thomas's book 'Fight, flight or Feel' is available through Amazon, Booktopia and the Book Depository. 

Visit Tim's Youtube channel

Learn more about Tim and the Commando in Your Corner.