In a quiet corner of the Poate family’s living room stands a grandfather clock with a brass plaque fixed to its cabinet.
The family heirloom has been passed down from generation to generation, always from eldest son to eldest son, with each father proudly adding his son’s name to the plaque when the time was right to hand it on. Seven names dating back to 1738 are inscribed on its face.
Hugh Poate had been looking forward to the day when he too could carry on the family tradition and pass the clock to his son, Robert. But that day will now never come.
Private Robert Poate of the 6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment was one of three Australian soldiers killed at a patrol base in the Baluchi Valley, Afghanistan, on August 29 last year. A rogue Afghan National Army soldier, Hek Matullah, turned on his coalition partners and opened fire. Robert was just 23.
“He was so looking forward to marching in [today’s] Anzac Day because he would have served overseas in combat, and he would have been able to wear his combat medals,” Mr Poate said.
“He wanted to be part of that Anzac legend ... and now it will be me wearing his medals instead. That’s what hurts the most.”
On Anzac Day Mr Poate will take those footsteps his son had so dearly wanted to take, bearing his medals with a heavy heart.
The fact that their son was betrayed by someone supposed to be an ally makes the loss all the harder for the Poates to understand and accept.
Tears are never far from the surface as Robert’s mother Janny remembers fondly the boy who once climbed an enormous hill near Townsville just so he could get a mobile phone signal to call his Mum to wish her a happy birthday. He never missed a birthday.
“It’s the constant reminders that are hard. Like knowing that this year there will be no phone call,” Mrs Poate said.
As the nation gathers to mourn its fallen soldiers, Mr and Mrs Poate and Robert’s older sister Nicola are slowly coming to terms with what their first Anzac Day will mean without the loving company of their charismatic son and brother, known to his mates as Poatey, but to his family as simply, Robbie.
For many of the thousands of Australians attending dawn services and parades around the country, the deaths of the 39 Australians killed since 2002 in Afghanistan will be the most keenly felt.
For the parents whose son followed a proud family history of military service and made the ultimate sacrifice for his country, there is hope that Australians better appreciate the importance of the job done by those who put themselves in harm’s way.
“The rest of the country needs to understand what these people mean to this country, and I think today they’re in a better position to understand how important they are in today’s environment of terrorism,” Mr Poate said.
“It can result in the destruction of our way of life and that’s the intention of terrorism, so our armed forces are employed to protect us from this and they do a very good job of it.”
While the months have passed since Robert’s death, they have not blunted the pain.
“Anyone who says it gets easier with time has got it wrong, it gets harder. It hasn’t even been a year yet and it’s still very raw for us,” Nicola said.
“I didn’t want him to go, but I didn’t want him to think his sister was trying to hold him back. He wanted to go over to Afghanistan to, how do you say, become a better Robbie.”
Along with the all-consuming pain of loss, another emotion also burns strongly in the Poate family – pride.
The three of them all carry a special physical bond with their lost son and brother. Nicola and Hugh carry one of Robert’s dog tags on a chain around their necks, and Janny has fashioned a third into a bracelet so she too can be close to her boy at all times. Around their wrists the three of them also wear a metal band inscribed with his name and the unofficial motto of the 6th Battalion: “Never forget, never forgive – brothers by choice”.
“There’s no need for me to tell other serving defence force members what they should be thinking [on Anzac Day] – they’ll know it, as will their families,” Mr Poate said.
“He was a Canberran, and I’d like people to understand the sacrifice he made on their behalf. We have lost a son, I think Canberra has lost a son, and the army has lost a son.”
As the country reflects on the legacy of 11 years of battle in Afghanistan and the more than 102,000 Australian lives lost in other conflicts past, for Private Robert Poate’s sister Nicola, one thing remains certain.
“He loved doing what he did, and at the end of the day we’ll always be proud of him,” she said. “No one can take that away from us, and he’ll always be my little brother.”