The Stomping Ground: Suburbia and... Soldiers?! - Holsworthy

 Image Credit: The Living Moon

Image Credit: The Living Moon

“Sir, yes, sir!” and sleepy streets don’t sound like a conventional mix. Kaitlyn Hudson-O’Farrell walks us through the irks and perks of living near an army barracks.

The sound of a squadron of Black Hawk helicopters thundering over your house might chill the blood in your veins. Truckloads of camo-print vehicles trundling through quiet suburbia might drop a bowling ball in the stomach. And the sight of uniformed soldiers wandering around a local shopping village might seem eerie or frightening to some.

I’ve grown up in close proximity to Holsworthy Army Barracks, one of the bigger military complexes in New South Wales. And whilst the sights and sounds listed above might strike fear or apprehension in some, for the residents of Holsworthy and Wattle Grove, this is all part of the furniture - just another piece of the place I’ve grown up in.

The military was here centuries before the settlement of the suburbs, spanning hectare upon hectare of untamed bush. When the land was sold off in the late 20th century for housing development, it wasn’t uncommon for residents to dig up old bullet casings in their gardens.  My dad found a few in a weedy field when I was small. He kept them in a little glass jar, intermingled with roots and dirt, the remnants of military training exercises long-forgotten.

It has its unique perks. The ANZAC Day Dawn Service hosted by Holsworthy is one of the better ones, and in the school holidays as a kid, my friends’ parents would take us to the enormous training pool on the base. But overwhelmingly, the major benefit is that the constant presence of the soldiers, the helicopters, the bangs, crashes and anti-terror drill sirens each week instil a sense of comfort for me and my neighbours. Those late nights drills mean the people inside those helicopters. The parachutes we see falling from the sky are soldiers learning to protect us. In the event of any trouble, we’re the closest to protection, our suburb lines rubbing shoulders with the complex’s perimeter. Oh, and we had a brush with royalty: Prince Harry came to visit the barracks and inspect the troops in 2015. There’s a photo of him buying lunch at the local bakery that’s proudly framed on their wall. 

But like any area, there are inconveniences. Sometimes, helicopters scream overhead after 9pm as the soldiers practice drills, but it’s not without warning - every house receives a neatly-printed notice in their letterbox weeks earlier, warning us of potential late-night drills to come. And the odd loud bang from the direction off the base sends surreptitious glances their way, with more than a few nervous Nellies twittering on the Neighbourhood Watch Facebook page.

Over the years, there’s also been more sinister scares. A terror plot aiming to strike the base in 2009, which was mercifully foiled; and just a few weeks ago, the terrifying bushfire that ripped through defence land and came perilously close to homes, some of them belonging to my family and friends. It destroyed close to 4000 hectares of bush, and one of my closest girlfriends was stuck in lockdown on the army base throughout most of Saturday. It was an agonising wait to hear if she was safe, and a horrific experience for the local community, with many forced to evacuate their homes. But it’s a risk you take when you live near dense bushland, and we were all extremely lucky.

Of course, where soldiers go, their families follow. Over the years as I grew up, sometimes sizeable chunks of my neighbourhood were made up of defence families of soldiers posted to Wattle Grove and Holsworthy from far and wide. From Townsville, from Darwin, and one time from East Timor. At the start of every school year, my local primary school, Wattle Grove Public, was often swamped with enrolments of defence kids, and the Defence Support Transition Aide (DTSA) at the school was often run off her feet with new faces.

It’s hard for them to leave, but it’s harder for us to stay.

But having a mum or dad transfer to Wattle Grove for work usually meant an inevitable transfer back out. Sometimes we’d wave goodbye to a family we’d literally only just got to know as they were posted back to Toowoomba. In Year 1, my best friend’s dad got transferred out of the area. It all happened so fast, we never got to say goodbye. But bundles of faces would disappear from the schoolyard one day, and when the question was raised, the dismissive, inarguable answer would be “their dad got posted back to Darwin." A constant stream of ‘goodbye’s' in the leaving tunnel at the end of every year, as another handful of mums, dads and kids said goodbye to their friends of these past few years, to pack it all up and go and start again somewhere new. Occasionally, with the luck of transition rosters, some came back. But so many, including my friend Lana and her family, never did.

It’s hard for them to leave, but it’s harder for us to stay. For Wattle Grove and Holsworthy to be the proverbial docks for these defence soldier’s ships, arms tired from waving and voices hoarse as they sail into the horizon, another and another; more to take their place, but then to leave.  In my street alone, we’ve seen close to ten different families in twenty years. A photo album of faces and names, memories of friendship recalled fondly, but with the breath of a sad sigh. And then forgotten, as the world turns, and life goes on.

The impermanence of each new face, each new family, isn’t lost on anyone; they know, we all know that a call could come at any time to pack up and move on. It builds a resilience within you. But I think the finiteness of it all makes friendships around here so much stronger and fosters a sense of true community spirit you won’t find anywhere else.

When Iraq happened, and lots of local kids’ dads went off to war, the community was there. They offered their shoulders to cry on for mums left with the kids as their husbands left to fight. Neighbours popped around with plates of dinners when they had leftovers or watched all the kids play footy on the road while Mum poured her heart out over coffee. The DTSA would see the kids at least once a week without fail, while the defence mums clustered around each other like a tight-knit makeshift family of their own. The community was there, in any way it could be. In a hand on a shoulder, in a “how’s things?” to a lonely mother whose family were half a country away, a beloved husband who was in God-knows-where, and whose kids kept asking “when’s Daddy coming home?” They were there. Quiet and still, like the many trees that line our streets. But there. Always there.

So, when the worst happened, when a local family’s father was killed in Afghanistan a few years ago, the outpouring of support for the grieving family was astronomical. Emotional, financial; Wattle Grove and Holsworthy are never so united than when we are supporting a family in need. And they don’t have to be in the military to warrant a helping hand. The second that anyone is struggling with anything, from health battles to a house fire, the community is behind them in full force, offering to help in any way they can.

To the naked eye, Wattle Grove and Holsworthy (so close they could be combined) are just another leafy suburb in south-west Sydney. And when people find out I live near an army barracks, they ask me “what’s it like?”, but there’s nothing I could possibly say to encompass the distant whirr of chopper blades, and the familiar pattern of a soldier’s uniform. The easy smiles everyone gives as they pass each other in the street. The careless joy of new friends, new neighbours, who stay long enough that you’ll miss them when they leave. No words can describe how this place deepened my heart, taught me resilience and empathy, and that community spirit and kindness is the most important gift we can give.

But I can’t say that. So, I just shrug and say, “One time we saw Prince Harry.”

Kaitlyn Hudson-O’Farrell is a second-year Journalism student, who enjoys writing, cake and memes far too much.