Growing up on the NSW Central Coast, Amanda Robbie never dreamed that she would join the Australian army, become a soldier, and end up serving in Afghanistan.
“Not for a second,” she said. “I didn’t grow up in a military town or anything like that. I finished school and I didn’t really know what to do with myself.
“I saw the good old army recruitment ads that promise you all the excitement of being outdoors and having a grand old time – and I was pretty adventurous and into my sport, so I joined when I was 21.
“I suppose there wasn’t a passion or a dream growing up to join; it was more of an opportunity to be outdoors and have an adventure, and to do a good thing for the community. It was I guess just something to do to fill in some time while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. And 10 years on, I’m still in. And it turns out, this is what I want to do with my life.
“I went to Kapooka, having joined as an operator mover in the Transport Corp, but as soon as I got to my recruitment training, I decided that I wanted to be a physical training instructor.
“It’s the best job in the army; 100 per cent best. Depending on where you are posted, your general day-to-day work is training soldiers, taking them for PT, developing programs, helping them in their rehabilitation area, creating morale, and organising events.
“It’s a lot of fun, and I guess my passion would be health and fitness. I’m an avid runner myself, and being able to combine what you enjoy and what you love to do with your work – and instilling that passion and joy into other people is all you can really ask for.
“It is very enjoyable to see recruits when they first arrive. Some of them are a little bit fragile I guess, or are a little bit new to exercise, and to see them leaving, built into different creatures to what they were when they arrived, it’s pretty rewarding.”
She has since found out that her grandad’s father served as a physical training instructor during the First World War; and her grandmother’s father, Sydney Olver, served on Gallipoli and the Western Front. He told the enlistment officer he was 21 when he enlisted on 28 August 1914, but he was actually only 15. His medals were found at an op shop in Cairns and given to his daughter – Amanda’s grandmother – in 2015 after a local newspaper campaign helped track down the family.
“It turned out they belonged to my great granddad,” Amanda said. “And now I’ve now got them at home, which is super special because I had no idea that we had that connection.”
Just three years before her great-grandfather’s medals were found, Amanda had deployed to Afghanistan as an operator mover in 2012 as part of Operation Slipper.
“I was actually really new,” she said. “I’d only been in for about a year, and it was full on. I was 22, and an anxious wreck. I just remember how it felt when we arrived; it was 50-odd degrees on the tarmac, and it was really, really hot. There was a lot to do, and there were people barking orders at you, so it was nerve-racking, but exciting as well.
“We were super, super busy, organising all the flights in and out of the country, to and from Australia, so we were mainly ‘keyboard warriors’, but there were definitely a few moments when I was like, ‘Yep, we’re at war.’
“There were times when my friend and I were driving around at the airport in Afghanistan. Planes and helicopters were taking off, and there I was, 20-odd years old, driving around under these huge machines. That was when I thought, ‘What the heck? Where are we? And what are we doing?’
“The rocket alarms go off and you have to take cover – and that’s when it hits home that, yes, you are just doing your job, but you are still in a war zone, and you still have to carry your rifle around wherever you go.”
She remembers walking around Kandahar and going to buy an ice cream with her rifle slung over her shoulder.
“Moments like that are pretty surreal,” she said. “But I know that I can still sit here with a smile on my face, because although there were plenty of rocket attacks on the base when we were over there, no one ever got hit. You would just go and hide, and when the alarms turned off, you would get up and keep doing your job. But I know it wasn’t like that for a lot of people; and people come home with all sorts of traumas because of it.
“The hardest part for me was being away from my husband. We weren’t married then, but we’d just moved to Darwin. It was my first posting in the Army, so it’s not like you have your support network over there, and I think it was just assumed that he would be okay.
“Overseas, you don’t have heaps of time to really miss home, but I know for him it was incredibly hard, not knowing. I joke that I’m on a ‘working holiday’, but to my family, I’m still in Afghanistan, and that’s hard.”
She remembers the ramp ceremonies for the soldiers who were killed, and the fear she felt the day that a car bomb exploded at the front gate of the base she was working at.
“That was frightening,” she said. “The base is so big that it would have been two kilometres away from us, but our building still absolutely shook like it was going to be knocked over. Your heart races, and you just think, ‘What was that?’”
She believes it is important that the Australian War Memorial tells the stories of younger veterans so that their service and sacrifice are not forgotten.
“I guess when I go there it’s a sombre place to go and reflect,” she said.
“To be honest, I don’t see myself as the same type of soldier that the War Memorial remembers. It feels like it’s a different army really; yes, I’ve deployed overseas, but it feels like it is a different army to what I’ve experienced myself.
“I have a lot of respect for the stories, and the history, and the individuals. I like reading about their lives beforehand, how they got to where they are and how they became that individual. It’s the person I guess, underneath the uniform; and that’s what makes it special, what makes it personal.
“I think the development of the new galleries is a really good opportunity to connect the past experiences with what has been, and is, going on for individuals and families today. Because although I haven’t experienced the loss and the sacrifice that others have in the past, it is still happening today, so I think it is good to get those stories and experiences out there and heard.
“I think people at home forget – they think that was back in the day, that doesn’t happen anymore – but it is still very much a modern-day issue and experience for people.
“If these stories are not told, how are the next generations going to be able to understand and continue sharing?
“A lot of the guys these days come back from overseas … unless they are encouraged or prodded by what the Australian War Memorial is doing, their stories won’t get shared and they will be forgotten, and that’s why I think it is so important.
“It’s not so much about what I did, but about what others have done; what I call the ‘real soldiers’. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked really hard as support, but I don’t really see myself as what you think of when you think of a soldier. Yes, I’ve have had an absolutely amazing career and great opportunities in my time in the army, but I’ll be perfectly honest, I don’t see myself as a soldier; I haven’t made any of the sacrifices that so many make.
“I’ve been really blessed, to be honest.”
The Australian War Memorial acknowledges the traditional custodians of country throughout Australia. We recognise their continuing connection to land, sea and waters. We pay our respects to elders past and present.