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The Fallen - Part One

In the first part of our series, The Fallen tells the story of Benjamin Ranaudo, killed in Afghanistan, through the words of his family and friends.

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In a decade of war in Afghanistan, Australia has lost 32 servicemen. It is a toll that has reverberated throughout our society. In their honour, today we launch "The Fallen", a powerful series of articles and videos that we hope will become a lasting online tribute.

Over time we will tell the stories of many of these soldiers in the words of those who knew them best — their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and closest friends.

JENNIFER Ward remembers the two hours she chatted on the phone with her son, Benjamin, in July 2009. "I dunno whether I am supposed to tell anybody this," she says, working up to a part of the conversation she's been careful not to discuss too openly until now. "He did tell me he wanted to marry Haylee. He knew that was what he wanted, and when he came back he planned to do that."

Private Benjamin Ranaudo's family (from left), stepfather Terry Ward, mother Jennifer Ward and sisters  Hayley Ward and Amy Ranaudo.

Private Benjamin Ranaudo's family (from left), stepfather Terry Ward, mother Jennifer Ward and sisters Hayley Ward and Amy Ranaudo. Photo: Rebecca Hallas

Twenty-two-year-old Private Benjamin Ranaudo, from the Townsville-based 1st Battalion, was serving in the 2nd Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force in southern Afghanistan.

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He was regularly in touch with his family in Melbourne and his 21-year-old girlfriend, Haylee McCarthy, in Townsville, phoning and exchanging Facebook messages.

Benjamin Ranaudo.

Benjamin Ranaudo.

"I was teasing him saying 'How do you know she'll marry you? She might say 'no'; might have a better offer." Jennifer Ward laughs at a memory that is precious now.

Benjamin's plan to propose to his girlfriend was one part of a longer conversation. In the near three years since that phone call, his mother has often asked herself why he was so keen to talk for so long that day.

"I don't know, but I think something happened and I think he just needed someone to talk to."

Ranaudo was about to go out on a dangerous early morning ''cordon and search'' operation at a village in the Baluchi Valley, 27 kilometres north of the Australian base in Tarin Kowt. Intelligence had suggested there was a bomb-making operation in the area. The Australians planned to disrupt it.

At 6.47am local time, on July 18th, the soldiers - in position outside the village - triggered an improvised explosive device planted by insurgents. The blast caught Benjamin Ranaudo and his mates off guard. An official Defence report released months later concluded the young soldier suffered ''catastrophic injuries''. He was killed instantly.

At that time, Benjamin was the 11th Australian soldier to be killed in Afghanistan. There have now been 32 such deaths.

Benjamin Ranaudo's family have agreed to talk to The Age about the loved one they lost in Afghanistan, about the grief that engulfed them when they were told of his death and about how it has changed their lives forever.

For Benjamin's stepfather, Terry Ward, the turning point was the phone call that came as he and Jennifer were about to eat dinner.

"It was Angelo [Benjamin's natural father], and he was hysterical. We tried to get sense out of him, and he just kept saying, 'Benjamin', 'Benjamin'.''

"It was like I was here," Jennifer Ward remembers, as she places one hand out to her left, then the other to her right, "but my body was here, sort of thing. It was hard, really hard."

Benjamin's older sister, Amy Ranaudo, now 27, remembers how different things were in the minutes before she was told about her brother. It was Saturday night. She saw on her mobile phone that she had missed several calls from her mother.

"In the back of my head, driving home [I] was thinking, 'What a pain in the butt here. I have to come home and ruin my Saturday." She laughs now as she looks back on how different things were then.

And then there was the moment she walked into the family kitchen. The faces of her family said everything. "I don't really know if they said something to me or if they told me, but I knew straight away."

She is crying now.

"I remember running into my brother's room and looking for him … I was yelling, looking for him.

"I remember looking, and thinking if I just walk through the door that that's where he would be, sitting there, waiting, because I'd spoken to him the night before on Facebook through the messenger service … so in my mind he was fine. You know, I'd spoken to him. He was fine."

Amy Ranaudo says the process of grieving has taken a lot longer than she thought it would. And it continues to this day.

"If you had have asked me when it first happened, I would have thought well, give me a year, it'll be all right. You know, give me six months, it'll be all right … but it doesn't get any easier."

Sometimes there are moments when her longing for her brother is acute. "I got engaged, and I couldn't tell him … I couldn't ring him and tell him I got engaged."

She corrects herself. "You know, you can tell him, but you don't get to see his reaction. You don't get the smart arse comment back from him … I can talk to him. You know, I talk to him a lot. Probably every day you talk to him. You know, tell him little things or when you wake up in the morning you might say something to him. Little things I can tell him like that, but it's just not the same."

The Ranaudo/Ward family's grief will be familiar to those who have ever had to cope with the shock loss of a loved one.

But there are differences when a soldier dies, not least because of an intense - though fleeting - public interest in the soldier and his family.

Terry Ward says his family was spared the pressure of prying media because he and Jennifer had a different surname to their son. News crews were either unable to track down the family home, or those that did, chose not to visit.

Jennifer Ward talks about another part of her own healing - the need to know.

"How did it happen? What happened? Did something go wrong? Was it just one of those things? Was it something that could have been avoided?"

As brutal, random and simple as her son's death might have appeared to the rest of Australia, she needed to know the details. "It's death itself. You question all these things because it's grieving."

Two months after Benjamin Ranaudo's death, the colonel appointed to conduct the Defence Force inquiry, signed off on his report.

He found no ''substantial shortcomings'' by ADF personnel and that "training, intelligence, planning and orders were all sufficient prior to the incident." He found no issues that would benefit from further consideration and so recommended that the circumstances associated with the death of Private Ranaudo did not warrant a commission of inquiry.

For someone determined to find an explanation for Benjamin Ranaudo's death, the report was frustrating. It underscored the random nature of death in Afghanistan.

Private Paul Warren, Ben Ranaudo's mate who was with him when the bomb exploded, summed up his quest for answers in an interview with The Age.

"The more you try and figure it out and make sense of it the more lost you are going to be. You just have to accept it for what it is.''

Warren recalls the blast. ''I remember the dust and everything being launched into the air. I remember hitting the ground and one ear ringing because it blew my eardrum out pretty much. There was just confusion because everything is nice and calm and all of sudden something like that goes off. It's pretty full on."

Even before he realised he'd been badly wounded himself, Paul was looking for Ben.

''My first thoughts were for the guy close to me, because that's who you're meant to look out for. So I crawled for a little while trying to find that guy before I realised my leg was missing.''

Paul Warren's moment to learn he'd lost someone close to him, came as his mates called for a medical evacuation by helicopter. ''I was asking the boys where Ben was and no one would really answer so I kind of knew what had happened then.''

Private Warren lost count of the surgeries he went through in just one year, to keep him alive and restore his ability to walk. It was either 16 or 17 he says, but he's matter of fact about his own struggle. ''I was up and walking on a prosthetic 10 weeks after the blast.

''It was never really about my leg because I was lucky. I was the one that was still here. It was more of a loss to lose a mate. That puts it in perspective."

Jennifer Ward now feels a special connection to the young man who survived the same incident that took her son from her.

"I'm so proud of the way he has come back and been able to cope with, as we'd call it I suppose, 'normal life'," she says, before speaking directly to Paul, "I'm proud of you buddy. I'm very proud of you."

There's no sign of regret as Ben's family look back on his decision to join the Army and to fight in Afghanistan. His mother talks about the very moment he decided to enlist.

"When he was about seven." She chuckles. "The Defence Force had something set up at the shopping centre and it had tanks and a big display at the shopping centre and he just fell in love."

As soon as he could, "he joined the Army and he loved it, so he signed up for another four years . I think he liked the excitement of the Army, and the fact that he was helping people.

"He sort of had two families. He had us when he came home and he had his family to go home to in Townsville - the one RAR boys. They were his family as well."

Terry Ward says his stepson changed while he was in the Army. He was no longer a shy boy. "Each time he was coming home, he was more confident, more manly, kinder.''

And since Benjamin has been gone, Terry Ward says he, too, has changed. "You know the little things that used to pee you off?." He shakes his head. "Don't worry about it now. I look at people who are whingeing and sooking about something and I think to myself, 'God, there's things worse off. There's people worse off. '

''You always think it's going to happen to someone else. Once you've been in that situation, you realise that, you know, life's too short to hold grudges, to be bitter, to be angry."

Amy Ranaudo says she's a lot harder than before her brother died - "Just a lot less sympathetic for people. I think you create a wall". But she says she is stronger, too. "It does make you stronger … because you find a way to get through every day."

The family says the experience hasn't changed their views on Afghanistan. They agree with what Benjamin said in a video interview recorded as he prepared to leave for his last tour of duty.

"I think what we're doing over there is the right thing and we're helping the Afghan people rebuild their country and yeah, I think we should be there," he says.

More important for Jennifer Ward than any question of the rights or wrongs of the Afghanistan war, is the value of that one minute of footage.

"I think it should be compulsory for every soldier to do a DVD for their mothers and fathers before they go."

She laughs, but it's painful as well. "I've got a minute [long video] of Benjamin that I play over and over just to hear his voice. Most times it makes me happy and other times I just wish he was here for one more cuddle, one more 'Hey, Mum, I'm home'. You know, it's hard."