By Amy McLaughlinApril 28, 2011
FORT HUACHUCA, Ariz. -- The sky was still dark when people began arriving at Veterans' Memorial Park early Sunday morning to commemorate Australian and New Zealand Army Corps Day, often referred to as the most important day of the year in Australia. As each car parked, the occupants walked over to the van where the others were congregating and talking.
"Rum and coffee'" someone asked from somewhere within the small crowd. "It's tradition."
One by one, approximately 30 people began to trickle into the park. The van, with its back hatch open, held coffee urns, cups, rum and plates of "ANZAC biscuits," which are a bit like oatmeal cookies, but without eggs or milk. This "gunfire breakfast" is a tradition that dates back to April 25, 1915, because it is what the ANZAC Soldiers had early that morning before landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey during World War I.
The jovial mood became quickly subdued as dawn drew closer, and the sky became brighter. Everyone put their cups away, finished their biscuits, and began walking across the park in groups of three and four. As they approached the flagpole and veterans' memorial plaque, the chirping of the birds were the only sounds in the park.
The ceremony was simple, and deeply touching. There were hymns, bugle calls and readings, as one would expect at any veterans' memorial service, and the laying of flowers on the memorial plaque that reads "In honor of all our veterans."
The main speaker was Gunner Tori Ritchie, who read an extract from a letter written by an original ANZAC, Pvt. Roy Denning, of 1st Field Company Engineers. It gave a chilling account of that first day and night on the battlefield and talked of his survival.
"This letter from Pvt. Denning gives meaning to the ANZAC spirit," Ritchie said. "He showed courage in the face of battle, initiative when the war seemed hopeless and mateship [camaraderie] when times were tough."
The Gallipoli Campaign ultimately ended in defeat for the ANZAC Soldiers. More than 8,700 Australians and 2,400 New Zealanders were killed.
" ... We gather on this one day of the year where the horrors of war and the friendships in battle are frozen into a painful remembrance; yet, we hold strong in our minds the commitment of the ANZAC Soldiers," she said, "a league of men and women unto its own, who gave their own blood and sweat to guarantee the life we now love to live."
After her address, Ritchie read the names and dates of Australia's fallen Soldiers in Afghanistan. This task, for which she volunteered, was personal because she was close friends with one of the recently killed men on the list. Not one person in attendance had a dry eye when she read the last of the 23 names.
The ceremony concluded after a hymn and the Australian national anthem played on the small boombox.
The Australian Soldiers, assigned to the 20th Surveillance and Target Acquisition Regiment, are training with their U.S. Army counterparts on the Shadow 200 (RQ-7B) unmanned aircraft system at Fort Huachuca's UAS Training Battalion. Skill sets among the Soldiers vary, with three groups in training: UAS operators, maintainers and warrant officer technicians. Some of their U.S. Army classmates attended Sunday's ceremony.