Sunrise over Alma Bay, Magnetic Island, Queensland

Carving out a place in the community

Anita Jaensch 11 December 2020

Close bonds with the local community are revitalising the Magnetic Island RSL Sub Branch.

The first rays of sunlight have just begun to gild the horizon, the pre-dawn silence broken only by the sound of the waves crashing onto the sand.

Suddenly, a staccato burst of machine gun fire shatters the peace, as landing craft approach the beach.

You could be forgiven for thinking you’ve travelled back in time to Gallipoli but, in fact, you’re standing on the shores of Alma Bay, experiencing the unique Dawn Service hosted by the Magnetic Island RSL Sub Branch.

Sub Branch President Brad Starr paints a vivid picture as he stands by the Island’s granite cenotaph. It’s not hard to imagine being part of the 2,000-strong crowd, waiting in the darkness for the service’s dramatic start. This year, of course, the Dawn Service had to be cancelled due to COVID, but Brad rallied the small island community to participate in Light Up the Dawn instead.

“I was really, really proud of the island’s efforts,” Brad says. “Really proud.”

Now in his early forties, Brad served with 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, and was among the first soldiers on the ground in East Timor on 21 September 1999. 

Australian troops prepare to board HMAS Jervis Bay en route to East Timor, September 1999

Brad Starr (centre) with fellow soldiers departing Darwin for East Timor in September 1999

The experience, he says, was confronting.

“We went in there and we professionally did the job that was asked of us – to secure the city of Dili, deter the enemy and protect the local people. Then, after securing an area on the border between East and West Timor at Maliana, we went down into what they call the Oecusse enclave, which is a piece of East Timor inside West Timor, on the coast, and we secured that area.

“Probably the biggest moment that really grabbed me was when we were departing the Oecusse enclave. We left on the Balikpapan class LCH – landing craft. I was on the last ship out and as we were pulling out to go back to Dili, the kids came down to the beach and held on to the ropes and tried to pull us back in, going, ‘No, Aussie, please don’t go. No, Aussie, please don’t go,’ bawling their eyes out. That was a tough day. That was a bloody tough day.”

When he came back to Australia, he found his civilian friends didn’t want to hear about his experiences in Timor. “So I clammed up, I just buried it, didn’t talk about it.”

But when his first daughter was born, the memories re-emerged and he was diagnosed with PTSD. “And I went on the merry-go-round of struggling to survive with work, and struggling to survive with family, and struggling to survive. It cost me my marriage. In that time, I had another daughter and I moved out and just had to go and fix myself. I could not let my two daughters grow up without a dad,” he says.

“Moving to Queensland on my own was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done, but the best thing I’ve ever done.” After driving trucks around the state, Brad eventually ended up on Magnetic Island with his new wife and stepdaughter.

“When we moved to Maggie Island, I sought the RSL out. I started off as Vice President on the Board here, and then they slipped me up into the big chair,” he laughs.

ANZAC Day Dawn Service at Alma Bay, Magnetic Island, Queensland

The ANZAC Day Dawn Service at Alma Bay is a unique experience

While the pandemic caused a hitch in the Sub Branch’s operations – as it did for most of our Sub Branches – Brad is positive about its future.

“It’s a bit of an exciting time for the Sub Branch, coming out the other side of COVID,” he says. “Our membership of social members is growing exponentially. It’s that quintessential safe place for mums and dads and families to come in and have a meal.”

With a new chef and a new modern Australian menu, the Digger’s Plate – the Sub Branch’s kitchen – is open on Fridays and Sundays for dinner, and they’re also trialling a Saturday night opening. In the New Year, the Sub Branch will hopefully return to hosting a successful market every Friday night, with local crafts, good food and live music.

For Brad, the true value of these activities is their role as a bridge between the Sub Branch and the community.

“To be part of the community, to hear the yarns of the old fellows and that sort of thing – that’s all good, that’s all positive. But we’ve got a brand new generation we’ve got to look after. You can’t expect a veteran to reintegrate into the community if you’re going to put him or her on a pedestal. They don’t want to be made a fuss of.

“You’ve got to segue into it, bring them into the fold that way.

“It’s being part of the local footy club, being part of the local surf club, being part of the local school. We’ve got to actively go out and seek them and say, ‘Listen mate, this is what we can do for you. Come and have a yarn.’”


Maggie’s wartime past

Located just eight kilometres off the shores of Townsville, Magnetic Island played a significant role in Queensland’s coastal defences during World War II. While its harbours provided shelter to large numbers of ships, its rocky hills provided a vantage point from which to spot enemy aircraft. Visitors to Maggie can still visit the heritage-listed military fortifications in the hills above Arthur Bay.

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