As she waved her son off to serve in Afghanistan at the beginning of 2010, Helen Comport raised her eyes to the sky and silently prayed to her late husband, “Ian, please watch over him now that I can’t.”
Six months later and just one week before he was due to return home, Helen received the phone call that every defence parent dreads.
It was Monday June 22, 2010, and the now-retired school teacher had just finished her day in the classroom when she turned on the news in the car and heard that Australian soldiers had died during a mission in Afghanistan. Waves of anxiety and nausea began to wash over the mother of four sons as she drove home.
Her phone rang in the car but she was unable to pick it up while navigating the winding bush road to her home on the outskirts of Melbourne and as she pulled into her driveway, she could hear the phone ringing inside the house.
Before her son had flown out to Afghanistan, he had given Helen a chilling warning; “He said to me, ‘Mum if something goes wrong, don’t listen to the news – the Army will contact you’.”
“I sprinted inside and grabbed the phone,” she recalls. “It was the officer in charge of my son’s unit. My heart just sank. It truly was the worst feeling in the world.
“He told me that there’d been an accident and my son was seriously injured, which was horrible, but at least he was alive. I knew that while I was being told this, somewhere around Australia other parents were being told their sons had died, and the thought of that was just unbearable.”
Helen learned that a NATO Black Hawk helicopter, carrying 10 of Australia’s elite soldiers from the Special Operations Task Group, had gone down during a night reconnaissance mission over rough terrain outside Kandahar. Tragically, an American soldier and three young Australian commandos – her son’s closest mates, elite soldiers Private Tim Aplin, 38, Private Scott Palmer, 27, and Private Benjamin Chuck, 27 – had been killed. The Australians were just one week away from the end of their tour of duty.
Helen’s son (who can’t be named for security reasons) was stuck in his seatbelt as flames engulfed the chopper but miraculously just managed to free himself and pull another soldier out of the wreckage before it exploded. He suffered a broken shoulder, crushed vertebra and serious internal injuries, and was airlifted to Landstuhl, the US military base hospital in Germany.
“It was the worst feeling in the world, knowing he was so far away and I couldn’t do anything to help him,” Helen says, still choking with emotion 11 years on, “but at least he was alive.”
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