Susan Felsche, a major in the Australian Army, was the first Australian woman to die on an overseas military operation since the Second World War.
Felsche, nèe Stones, was born in Brisbane's Royal Women's Hospital on 24 March 1961 to a family with strong military ties. She proved herself to be an excellent student, and by the age of 17 she had received sufficiently high marks to study medicine at the University of Queensland. In 1982 she was promoted to the rank of petty officer in the Naval Reserve and had planned to join the Royal Australian Navy as an undergraduate medical student. But in 1983 she joined the army instead, believing that it offered more challenging employment for medical officers. She had already undertaken wide-ranging medical training through a series of postings in Richmond and Townsville, and at the Princess Alexandra hospital in Brisbane when, in 1987, she began her duties as a Captain Medical Officer at 5 Camp Hospital, Duntroon.
In addition to her military career, Felsche undertook part-time studies and worked after hours at the Woden Valley and Calvary Hospitals in Canberra where she regularly worked with leading orthopaedic surgeons. She married a fellow army officer, Klaus Felsche, in August 1988 and the couple settled in Canberra. In 1991 she was promoted to major and given a posting to the Directorate General of Army Health Services. The following year she was posted to the 1st Military Hospital at Yeronga in Queensland as the Medical Officer in Charge of Clinical Services; not long afterwards she was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.
In the early 1990s Felsche was asked to consider a posting as the Australian Medical Officer with the 4th Australian Staff Contingent to the Mission des Nations Unies pour le Rèfèrendum au Sahara Occidental (United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, Minurso). She accepted the six-month posting, recognising it to be an ideal opportunity to apply her training in a demanding operational environment.
After pre-deployment training, Felsche, as part of a 45-strong contingent, left for Layounne, capital of Western Sahara in 1993. Her work there began with an attachment to a Swiss medical unit working out of tents in Layounne, she then moved on to deployments at United Nations observation posts under the control of Minurso. These deployments had their own dangers and discomforts: strong desert winds blew relentlessly and land mines in the surrounding countryside were known to move with the shifting sands.
On 21 June 1993 Felsche joined a small team of staff that were travelling to provide medical support from a United Nations tent base at Awsard, in the middle of the Sahara Desert. The small Pilatus Porter aircraft in which she was travelling developed problems on take-off and crashed, killing three of the four crew and most of the passengers, including Felsche. Her funeral was held in Redlands, Brisbane, not far from where she had spent much of her youth.