Fallen Diggers arrive home
THE bodies of the three Australian soldiers murdered by a rogue Afghan solider last week were returned to their families and colleagues during a moving ceremony at RAAF Base Amberley, west of Brisbane, on Wednesday.
The bodies of Lance Corporal Stjepan "Rick" Milosevic, Sapper James Martin and Private Robert Poate were received by an honour guard and bearer party formed by members of their respective units before their caskets were carried from an RAAF aircraft to their loved ones.
The soldiers were gunned down in an attack inside a patrol base in the Baluchi Valley region of Uruzgan province last Wednesday.
A $5000 bounty has been placed on the head of the man wanted for the shootings, Sergeant Hekmatullah, as the manhunt for him continued.
Later, on Wednesday at RAAF Base Richmond the bodies of Lance Corporal Mervyn McDonald and Private Nathanael Galagher, who died in a helicopter crash in Helmand province on Thursday, were returned to their loved ones in an emotional ceremony.
Australian Army Chief Lieutenant General David Morrison, who attended the Brisbane ceremony, praised the fallen soldiers, each of whom was "outstanding in their own right".
"Their loss has been deeply felt across the Army and I offer my heartfelt condolences to their families, friends and colleagues," Lt Gen Morrison said.
"These men's commitment to their chosen career as soldiers and to our mission in Afghanistan was unwavering, as was their loyalty to their mates and their love for their own families and their Army family."
Lt Gen Morrison said troops on the ground in Afghanistan remained committed to their mission.
He said while the debate about Australia's role in the strife-torn country was normal in a "great democracy such as ours", the ADF would not be buying into it.
"Australia's Defence Force, and particularly Australia's Army, understands its mission in Afghanistan," he said.
"And we're not joining in the debate. The mission is the one that's been given to us by the democratically-elected government of this country and I support the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition here 100%.
"I am deeply sorry for what has occurred to these soldiers and, of course, to their families. But I am also very proud of the way the soldiers of the Australian Army are performing in Afghanistan in the service of their nation."
In Sydney, ADF Chief General David Hurley expressed his condolences to the families of the five fallen soldiers.
"Today we receive home five Australian soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our nation," he said.
"The thoughts and prayers of the entire defence community are with their families, friends and colleagues on this very difficult day.
"We are indebted to these men for their courage and selflessness in choosing a life of service and for the pride and honour with which they served."
Meanwhile, the families of LCpl McDonald and Pvt Galagher each issued statements on the eve of the ceremony.
LCpl McDonald was to marry his fiancee Rachael Sprigg-McKinnie next Easter in Bendigo.
She remembered him as "the warmest guy you'd ever meet" who had a passion for his country.
"You could see it in his eyes, they had a special sparkle," her statement read.
Ms Sprigg-McKinnie described her late partner as a "real Aussie bloke" who loved the beach but also enjoyed four-wheel driving and going for bushwalks.
"They were simple pleasures which filled his soul," she said.
Pvt Galagher was remembered by his parents Sally and Wayne, sister Elanor and his partner Jessie Feeney, who is pregnant with their unborn son.
They recalled a modest young man who was a "country boy at heart" who was most at home in Narrabri, in north-western new South Wales.
"Becoming a father was so important to Nate. You've never seen a man so happy to hear the news that he had a baby on the way," the statement read.
"We all knew about it well before the traditional three-month wait. Nate's next great thrill arrived at an ultrasound, where the baby was revealed to be a boy who could carry on his name."
Ms Feeney revealed Pvt Galagher had "idolised" LCpl McDonald who acted as a mentor for the younger soldiers.
"I last saw Nate at the airport when he departed Australia in July. As they were about to walk off to the gate together, Merv turned to me and said, 'Don't worry Jess, I'll bring him home'. While it's under the most tragic of circumstances, Merv is honouring his promise," Ms Feeney said.
"My pledge to Nate is that his son will understand the wonderful man who his dad was. There's no trait of Nate's that I wouldn't want his son to inherit."