I remember it like it was yesterday.
The year was 2000, the millennium bug didn’t cause the world to end, and I was in my sixth year in the Australian Regular Army (ARA) and had just been posted to Melbourne with my young family, settling for the year ahead.
March came around quickly in a year that had already been busy for me, and April was fast approaching. I started hearing rumours that the 4th Brigade headquarters were looking for personnel to perform the catafalque party (or guard of honour for those not hip to the military jargon) at the MCG on Anzac Day, 2000.
I felt that not only as a member of the Australian Defence Force but as a diehard member of the greatest Australian Football team, Essendon, I had an obligation to make it my goal, my mission to be part of this great event.
I approached my Company Sergeant Major and requested that I be allowed to be part of the catafalque party. He said he'd make some enquiries, but thought all the participants had been already selected.
I continued to bug him every day for the next week which can be a risky move with the more regimental members of the Australian Army, but my persistence paid off when he informed me that the Brigade Regimental Sergeant Major had approved me to be added to the team.
Training went ahead for the next few weeks for our mixed bunch of Regular and Army Reserve Soldiers. We practised all the drill movements over and over again until we had perfected the routine with only a couple of days left before Anzac Day. This was quite unique as you generally have an opportunity to perform a practice run on-site when performing these types of guards, but this was different as it was going to happen on the MCG, so a site practice run was not on the cards.
I had prepared my uniform well ahead for the day. Shirt and pants starched and ironed, shoes spit-polished and my brass looking like a mirror and ready for that final polish on Anzac Day. Most importantly, my slouch hat was perfectly bashed (moulded into its unique shape) for the day.
Anzac Day had arrived. As is routine for a military family, my wife (also a soldier in the Australian Army) and I woke well before dawn and dragged my less-than-impressed two-year-old daughter out of bed to attend a nearby dawn service at the School of Signals in Watsonia. As always, we paid our respects at the solemn occasion and attended the gunfire breakfast.
It was then time to return home and prepare for the more active events of the day. I gathered my uniform and said my goodbyes to my wife and daughter and headed off to 4th Brigade headquarters to meet up with the rest of the catafalque party and to collect and prepare our rifles for the service.
Once everyone was ready we all boarded the coaster and headed to the MCG, excitement was building as we approached the hallowed ground. I could hardly contain myself as we drove down into the parking area beneath the stands. As we exited the bus, you could already hear the crowds building outside and I thought to myself, things are starting to get real.
We went into our 'team room' for our warm-up, changing into our uniforms and practising our drill routine again. The noise outside built up as fans found their seats and the pre-game ramped up. Before we knew it, it was our turn to march onto the hallowed turf that is the MCG.
We approached the race and formed up ready to march out on to the field, the guard commander giving the command "Catafalque party, slow". The drummer struck his drum and we stepped off and slow marched onto the field. As we approached the centre circle, we fanned out to perform the guard around the white line and the guard commander called the command “halt, outwards turn”. We then readied ourselves for what it one of the most important drill movements. The guard commander then gives the command “Catafalque party, rest on arms” and we perform the moves as one, bringing our rifles in front of our body and placing our hands on the top of it with the drill movement ending with us dipping our heads.
It's then a small wait while the two teams are introduced, a surreal moment as I could feel the energy from the crowd. Out of the corner of me eye, I could see the teams running onto the ground, and it was then I saw James Hird run past me, closely followed by Nathan Buckley.
Both teams completed a quick warm-up before lining up for the ceremony. The ode is read:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
The guard commander then brings us to attention, giving the command “present arms”. This is the signal for the lone bugler to start playing the Last Post. Almost immediately, the hairs stand up on the back of my neck and my thoughts drift to those that made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.
I'm quickly brought back to the present when the Last Post finishes and the guard commander brings us back to attention for the minute's silence.
It becomes deathly silent as everyone in the MCG shows their respects. I'm amazed that 88,390 fans can be so silent that you could hear a pin drop. The minute's silence is broken by the words Lest We Forget.
The guard commander gives the command to present arms again for the national anthem. The crowd sings this with pride and as it comes to an end, the sound in the stadium rises and I almost miss the guard commander give the command to bring us back to attention. We're then given the command ”inwards turn” and quickly marched off the field.
We return to our room pumped up with pride and I am personally excited for the game ahead as Essendon has had a very successful season so far.
Due to the logistics with leaving the field, handing back our weapons and getting changed so we won't spill a frothy on our immaculate uniforms, we miss the start of the game.
In what was a relatively exciting and close game until the final break, the Bombers finish as comfortable 40-point winners, with Scott Lucas and Matthew Lloyd kicking 11 goals between them and James Hird receiving the first official Anzac Medal. It would be yet another victory on the road to Essendon's 16th premiership.
I went on to complete 13 years in the Australian Regular Army, discharging as sergeant and teaching soldiers at the same base where I had started my career. Forming the guard at the 'G in 2000 will always be one of my most memorable moments while serving in our great nation's defence force.
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