By Ben Geurts.

Anzac Day is the most profound day of the year for me. It means so many things, I find it immensley difficult to articulate. However for some reason I feel a need to try this year…
It’s often an emotional day for many. A day of reflection. A day to celebrate mateship. A day to commiserate the lost. A day to commemorate those that sacrificed so much for us.
A sad day also. A day I reflect on the many dogs I have been involved in raising and/or training and the sacrifices those dogs have made and continue to make for this country, without even realising it.
My military career was largely underwhelming if I’m honest. It started with Kapooka and then onto the school of artillery. Like so many soldiers had done before me. I was a gun number for just over three years before becoming a dog handler with the Military Police in 1999.
I graduated the 1/99 Military Working Dog Specialist course and was posted to Oakey Aviation Base with MWD Salem. A diminutive but aggressive and highly driven showline German Shepherd.
The next period of my career was fairly benign. I stagnated. I enjoyed spending time with my dog on shift doing base security but I never pushed myself. In 2004, having transferred to the RAAF by then, I was posted to the dog school in Amberley Queensland.
Things began to change, I began to learn and realise how much there was to learn and how little I knew.
From there my career included two tours with my dog at the time, MWD Kaja, to East Timor, in a Peace keeping role and a tour to Dubai in an Ops role (riding a desk). I finished my career with a posting to SASR as a Dog Liasion Officer (a fancy name for dog trainer and decoy).
Since then I’ve been in the dog training and supply business. Which culminated in the important role of Capability Advisor for the WA Police Canine Unit where we completely redesigned their entire program.
However, one of the main things I try to think about on ANZAC day is mateship. And here ANZAC day oddly becomes a celebration for many Australians. A celebration of something I believe is uniquely Australian; mateship.
We have something culturally special there which is difficult to define. However, if my mates from my time in arty all got together today we would drink and talk for hours, we would take the piss out of each other, laugh, potentially cry, but genuinely enjoy each other’s company like we hadn’t been apart for twenty years. This is something I’ll always miss from my Army days. The mateship. The inseparable bond forged through adversity, the foundations of which were laid through surviving tough times, and the unconditional love created through recognising and accepting each other’s flaws in spite of our own. Mateship.
When I think of mateship I think about my mates. My mate Dean O’Cass. Went through Kapooka together. Top bloke who always had his head screwed on. My mate Ryan Guyatt from Arty. We were alike in so many ways. Small man’s disease, always trying to show everyone we could mix it with the big boys. My mate James Puriri. A deadset legend who I played rugby with, grew with, and still look up to, to this day. Jason Kelly, who I started K9SA with. A mateship that ultimately fell apart, such is life. My mate Dave Stevenson who taught me mateship and loyalty are alive and well, even when you think they arent. My mate and mentor Joe, who while not a serving member has the attitude of one. And so many more mates….
I also think about my brother. Mick. He was and still is my best mate. As kids we did everything together. We played, we learnt, we faught. I still remember our backyard cricket matches. Im sure he just played because he knew i liked it. I also remember our famous one minute round at 8/12 medium regt where we stood still in front of each other and threw punches for the entire minute, neither one of us willing to back down, and then laughed and hugged it out after. Mateship. Unfortunately Mick was severely damaged by the war and has never recovered. I am deeply sadened by his situation. I still hope one day he makes a full recovery.
ANZAC day is also the day we commiserate the lost. I was fortunate in that none of my close mates were lost in the recent wars. However I commiserate and commemorate the loss of all Australian soldiers. Young men who searched for deep meaning in their lives by risking it all for a greater purpose. Who made the ultimate sacrifice in service of their country. For their mates.
On ANZAC day I now spend long hours, the most hours, thinking about the dogs I have raised, trained, and developed. They love what they do. You can see it in their faces and attitudes to the work. They are passionate about their roles and would much prefer this to laying on the lounge. There is no question of that.
However, they live tough lives just the same and they have no choice in the matter. They spend a lot of time in kennels, crates, pens. Extremely cold nights, very hot days. They endure the stresses of training. Highly motivated dogs that need to be completely controlled at the highest levels of arousal. It isn’t easy for the handlers, trainers, or the dogs. However, you’ll never see a happier dog then one realising his genetic purpose.
I think about Salem. He was a tough dog but his life was stressful. He didn’t trust or like people. At times I wasn’t fair to him and for this I’m deeply sorry. We had some great times together though and i try to focus on them to avoid becoming melancholy. I used to let him chase rabbits for hours out the back of the bases we patrolled. It was breaking the rules but he loved it, so…
I think about Kaja. She was an extremely driven dog from the Netherlands who we acquired from the US DoD. A brilliant pocket rocket with a huge heart. Unfortunately she never got to retire to my lounge and she deserved that. A deep regret for me…
I think about so many dogs that had/have tough lives, were misunderstood, had shortened careers through injury or just had some bad luck. Some still working, others retired, others moved on. They were/are all loved. Max, Luna, Indy, RC, Titus, Pope, Dredd, Goose, Chook, Draxx, Archer, Major, Rooster, Utah and so many more…
So many dogs…
I think about Fax a lot. Fax was a dog I developed while at Amberley. He was a large strong malinois. However, at one stage he was to be donated having been assessed as unsuitable. I took him on as a project on the advice of one of the old kennel hands. We quickly unpacked a beast. Fax was highly trainable, highly prey driven, and could be highly aggressive. I was supremely proud to have turned this “reject” into such a strong dog. In reality, I didn’t do anything. It was Fax’s calling. However I “saved” him from being donated to the public.
And his prize? A few years in the RAAF program. Living in kennels. Patrolling the base. Having some fun biting suits and playing toys. Until I was posted to Pearce where I discovered Fax’s handler had left and Fax was a pool dog (a dog with no allocated handler that other handlers could use if their dog was injured or they were waiting reteam).
Fax was far too good a dog for this role so we organised for him to be assessed by the special forces Canine Unit. They took him and turned him into Combat Assault Dog Fax.
He toured Afghanistan where unfortunately he was KIA performing actions that reportedly saved Australian soldiers lives. He died a hero. I think about this a lot. I feel conflicted. Pride, to have played a small role in Fax becoming this hero and saving Australian soldiers lives. Guilt; had I developed him better maybe he may have held his grip and not been shot. Sadness at the early loss of Fax’s life. And if im honest sometimes regret.
Were it not for me he would have been donated to a member of the public and potentially lived a long happy life as a pet. I quickly wipe these feelings away when I consider the dog, his life, his actions and the consequences.
Fax was never meant to be a pet and I’m sure it would have been a disaster had he been donated as one. Fax had a good life. A working dogs life. The life of a Spartan. But that’s who Fax was. He was destined for that. His actions that day saved a soldiers life. Maybe several. When I think of them, their families, their mates, then the pride returns and the regret subsides. Fax was a great dog. As were and are so many…
To all my serving mates and brothers. Enjoy your ANZAC day. I hope you navigate the irony of celebrating mateship and commiserating lost mates in your own unique way and as best as you can.
I will raise a glass for all my mates. The two and four legged variety.