I first saw John Oddie in a documentary about official war artist Ben Quilty. Oddie was sitting for a series of portraits that are currently part of the After Afghanistan exhibition at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.*
The paintings of Oddie are haunting. In Oddie’s words Quilty had “not only captured the worn-out air commodore… he had somehow seen and exposed the burden I was carrying and had yet to understand.”
After a short introduction into his family background, Oddie moves on to the difficult technicalities of learning to fly various types of aircraft. He covers both fixed wing and helicopters as he progresses through his training and into operational flying. Some of that went completely over my head but in doing so I was left in no doubt about the skill and determination needed to become an accomplished pilot, especially one flying under difficult and dangerous conditions.
As the pilot of a Chinook, one of those familiar, large double rotored helicopters, Oddie had the opportunity to be seconded to an RAF unit in Europe and during this time became part of Britain’s involvement with the first gulf war. One of my favourite anecdotes in the book relates to this period when the RAF (Oddie included) mislaid 14 Chinook helicopters.
Later in the book Oddie moves on to the management side of his experience, as he progressed through the ranks and had to deal more with the bureaucratic aspects of the military. One thing seems clear, that he was intent on improving the way things were done to help his crews increase their efficiency and their safety.
One of Oddie’s more significant roles was overseeing the first response to the 2004 tsunami that devastated so many communities around the Indian Ocean. Oddie’s role was taking aid into Aceh, the worst hit region where around 160,000 lost their lives. Working 22 hour days, Oddie organised the the aerial delivery of supplies and evacuation of survivors while acting as diplomat alongside the Indonesian military and other aid agencies (many of whom were determined to do things their own way despite the wishes of the local authorities). I found this to be one of the more interesting parts of the book, contrasting the earlier technical and bureaucratic elements with the emotional cost of a major disaster. Here is the first glimpse of the “burden” captured in Quilty’s portraits.
Oddie’s final operational military role was overseeing Australian involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a time of many challenges when several Australian servicemen lost their lives. He writes:
In the eight months I was Deputy Commander JTF633, eight of our people were killed, and I reflect sadly on that price and the eight families damaged as a result…
…By the time I sat down to write this book, Australia had lost forty of its finest sons and over 250 had been injured. In total, including those with lasting emotional or mental damage, well over 300 families will be affected.
Flight Command gives an overview of a military career from recruitment to retirement; from the technical aspects of operating military hardware to dealing with personnel and reducing the risks they face in a high risk occupation. It also shows the emotional cost that is felt most keenly when constant pressure is removed.
What I initially thought was exhaustion from eight months of work in a stressful environment, I later felt was some emotional damage. This increasingly surfaced as the demands of being an active and present military leader faded.
For me the strong points of this book were the parts showing the more human aspects of Oddie’s military service, how people were affected by what they saw and what they did. And also the effects of knowing they couldn’t do enough when a need was too large or a bad situation was unpreventable.
It was the portrait of a haunted man that brought me to this book. While its intensity may not match the painting (for me there was too much technical information I couldn’t follow), we do get quite a bit of insight into the emotional cost of Oddie’s experiences and responsibilities.
* Ben Quilty’s After Afghanistan Exhibition: http://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/quilty/