The Cobram Courier - - FRONT PAGE - By Pa­trick Tansey

Co­bram-Ba­rooga RSL sub­branch pres­i­dent Rob Brown led the An­zac Day March with his grand­chil­dren, from left, Kristin Brown, Char­lie Schulz, Beth Brown and Ju­lia Brown.

Ni­cole Cun­ning­ham shared her ex­pe­ri­ences of serv­ing two tours of Afghanistan as a com­bat med­i­cal tech­ni­cian in the British Army with the crowd at Strathmerton’s An­zac Day cer­e­mony.

Ms Cun­ning­ham’s can­did story was a timely re­minder of the per­ils of mod­ern war­fare and the men­tal hur­dles so many ser­vice­men and women have to over­come af­ter wit­ness­ing un­speak­able hor­rors on the bat­tle­field.

Grow­ing up in Belfast, North­ern Ire­land, a city rav­aged by its own blood­ied bat­tles, Ms Cun­ning­ham said she had al­ways dreamed of join­ing the British Army from a young age.

She did so in 2006 and was de­ployed to San­gin, in an ex­tremely dan­ger­ous part of Afghanistan, as a med­i­cal tech­ni­cian.

She de­scribed Afghanistan as ‘‘hell on Earth’’, say­ing foot pa­trols in the desert al­ways car­ried the fear of be­ing blown up by a bomb at any minute.

Some of the things she saw cor­rupted her spirit and hap­pi­ness, such as treat­ing wounded friends or hold­ing a child no more than five years old who had just been wounded by a bomb which ex­ploded and killed his brother stand­ing along­side him.

Ms Cun­ning­ham said what made the ef­fects of the Afghanistan War even more lon­glast­ing was the fact it was a war she and many of her com­rades could not un­der­stand.

She con­stantly asked her­self what she was do­ing there.

Af­ter re­turn­ing home, Ms Cun­ning­ham’s life be­came chaotic. She was di­ag­nosed with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der and found the pur­pose of her life drift­ing and her re­la­tion­ships be­gin­ning to suf­fer.

Be­fore mil­i­tary life, Ms Cun­ning­ham said she was a bright, pos­i­tive and out­go­ing per­son, but the war had re­struc­tured her per­son­al­ity.

Her PTSD brought on bouts of de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety and she strug­gled to be in large crowds.

Af­ter a pe­riod of won­der­ing what she would do with her life af­ter be­ing dis­charged from the British Army, Ms Cun­ning­ham de­cided to be­come a ca­sual med­i­cal aid teacher and found great joy in that task.

She even­tu­ally moved to Aus­tralia as she found op­por­tu­ni­ties and help lim­ited in her na­tive North­ern Ire­land.

‘‘Life is eas­ier here. It is more stress-free and en­joy­able,’’ Ms Cun­ning­ham said.

‘‘This is only pos­si­ble be­cause your coun­try val­ues democ­racy and free­dom. Not all coun­ties can say the same.’’

She spent a few years liv­ing in Nu­murkah but now lives in Bun­da­long and was re­cently made an Aus­tralian citizen.

While she was never part of the Aus­tralian Army, Ms Cun­ning­ham said she had a great ap­pre­ci­a­tion for what so many of our sol­diers had sac­ri­ficed.

Her in­sight into the in­tri­ca­cies of war was fas­ci­nat­ing and her per­sonal story bru­tally hon­est and con­fronting.

She un­der­stands what our An­zacs went through more than most and her fi­nal mes­sage was per­ti­nent.

‘‘Free­dom costs. It should never be taken for granted,’’ she said.

Fo­cused: A sol­dier re­mem­bers the fallen.

Can­did: Ni­cole Cun­ning­ham ad­dresses the crowd.

Time for re­flec­tion: The com­mu­nity gath­ered at Strathmerton Pub­lic Hall to re­mem­ber the An­zacs.

March­ing on: Mem­bers of the Co­bram and Dis­trict Pipe Band march at the Strathmerton ser­vice.

Big day: Strathmerton Pri­mary School stu­dents at the An­zac Day ser­vice.

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