'HE WOULD put you into a false … " Iain McLaren stops mid-sentence to rethink old conversations with his best mate. "Well, not a false sense, but he would ease your concern."
Next month, it will be one year since Iain McLaren learnt that his friend from childhood, Brett Wood, was dead.
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The Fallen - Part Two
In the second part of our series, The Fallen tells the story of Brett Wood, killed in Afghanistan, through the words of his family and friends.
Iain, now an aircraft engineer, still lives in South Gippsland where the pair grew up.
Brett left the area as a 17-year-old, as soon as he finished school.
He enlisted in the army and eventually settled in Sydney, to be near the Holsworthy-based 2nd Commando Regiment, but as he rose through military ranks and served on six tours abroad, the old friendship lasted.
"When we got together it was like that ancient handshake," Iain says.
"There you go, mate, and it was a continuation of years and years of a relationship.
"He would come to me two weeks at the latest after returning from overseas and he would sit down and we would discuss, every time, what had taken place.
"I suppose … he was debriefing to me."
Iain McLaren and Brett's mother, Alison Jones, have spoken with The Age as part of The Fallen series, in which loved ones talk about the father, brother, son or friend they lost in the Afghanistan conflict and their own struggles in coming to terms with that loss.
Iain laughs as he remembers how much his mate enjoyed the army.
"I was proud of what he was doing because he was so happy … and so, yeah, just go for it son."
He remembers, too, how Brett would wave away any talk about his safety in Afghanistan.
" 'Oh, don't worry about me, I'm in the rear with the gear', is what he'd say. Yeah, 'in the rear with the gear'.
" … and I knew that he was very good at what he did, so your concern lessens."
Indeed, Sergeant Brett Wood, 32, was very good at what he did, but in the weeks immediately after his death, as soldiers who had fought alongside him got to talk about him, his loved ones learnt ''the rear with the gear'' was just about the last place Brett would ever be.
A commando who served under Brett Wood in 2006 told The Age last year about his leader's extraordinary fighting skills and bravery.
"He used few words and we knew exactly what he wanted, what we needed to do," the soldier identified only as Corporal M said.
Recalling one ferocious battle in Afghanistan's Chora Valley, the corporal told how Wood and his commandos fought to help US soldiers from the 10th Mounted Division recover from an ambush.
''It just inspires you to follow him. It amazed me the speed with which he could assess [the danger] and make a decision.
''I've been telling people for years that he is, without a doubt, the best team commander I've ever had.''
Brett Wood's courage and leadership that day in July 2006 earned him the third most prestigious military decoration in the Australian honours system; the Medal for Gallantry.
He was the first commando to win it.
As well, the commanding officer of Australia's Special Operations Task Group (SOTG), identified only as Lieutenant-Colonel G DSM, spoke last year about the soldier's final battle.
He told how the fighting spanned 41 hours, ''the most intense combat seen by Australian troops in many months''.
Insurgents using ''tunnels and mouse holes to manoeuvre between compounds and keyholes to fire through'' locked Sergeant Wood's platoon into a fierce firefight.
As a helicopter approached to evacuate three wounded, "Sergeant Brett Wood and his team aggressively engaged the enemy with suppressing fire, which permitted the helicopter to land and ensured his mates received a safe extraction".
Lieutenant-Colonel G also told how late in the afternoon, Brett Wood's team ''raced down an alley way to interdict a group of insurgents''. A bomb hidden in the alley exploded, tearing apart the team of commandos. Two lay wounded. A third, Brett Wood, was dead.
Iain McLaren remembers getting ''that phone call''.
"It was early in the morning.
"When I heard Elvi's voice [Brett's wife] I knew straight away.
"You would sort of think, oh this [possibility] has gone through my head [previously], which it had, but I don't think anything can prepare you for that, properly.
"It's just … " Iain sighs as he tries to sum up that moment. "It's just massive loss; massive loss."
When the army arrived at the Melbourne home of Brett's mother she, too, sensed, before a word was spoken, that her son was gone.
"When you open the door, and you see who is there, I just knew," Alison Jones says.
"I was told that my son was killed by an explosive device. I think you can understand what I would be thinking and I needed to know if it was instant.
"They were fairly sure that it would have been."
The then American commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, awarded Brett Wood the US Meritorious Service Medal, posthumously. On the morning after his Sydney funeral The Australian newspaper referred to Sergeant Wood as ''one of the most extraordinary soldiers to have served under the Australian flag''.
Now Iain looks back on his last conversation with his mate, as Brett left for Afghanistan, happy to be heading to work and full of reassurance about the dangers ahead.
"We just basically had the conversation, 'I'm off' … He'd see me when he got back, and joking and laughing and saying, you know, 'look after yourself and get yourself back here and we'll have a beer when you get back'."
Iain and Alison are now much closer as they share their loss. On Anzac Day, Alison insisted Iain wear her son's medals.
The Collingwood Football Club honoured Sergeant Wood by asking his mother to toss the coin at their traditional Anzac Day clash with Essendon (Brett's favourite team).
Iain was there, wearing the striking set of decorations his mate had earned across 15 years in the military.
"You look after people and do what you can to help them so I'm there for Alison and she's there for me, too," says Iain.
Alison Jones points to one fact that helps her to ''an acceptance of sorts'', although she struggles with tears as she talks about it.
"I know he died doing what he loved. From the time he went into secondary school, that's what he wanted."
Brett Wood's life-long mate, Iain McLaren, agrees.
"I don't think it would have mattered what conflict," Iain says. "Brett would have been there, because that's what he loved to do."