Tony Koch

BENJAMIN Berrigan at the memorial service for his father and 17 others who died in the Black Hawk crash.
AUSTRALIANS, including many who live in remote regions of this vast nation, will have the opportunity to see the Olympic flame as it is carried by athletes past their towns, properties or communities.
When the torch is taken to north Queensland, an obvious port of call is Townsville.
What seems to have been overlooked by people organising the route of the torch is that 18 outstanding young Australians have already given their lives for the Olympic ideal at Sydney 2000.
On June 14, 1996 I wrote: ``The international symbol of peace, the Olympic flame, has scorched forever into Australia's soul the tragedy which occurred at Fire Support Base Barbara.
``The collision of two army Black Hawk helicopters robbed this nation of 18 of its finest and most courageous young men.
``They were the ones who would not say die; the boys who were turned into men because they were the best _ the outstanding ones who alone had the resolve to deny pain.
``These fighting men from the Perth-based Special Air Service were involved in a joint counter-terrorism exercise with pilots and crew from Townsville's 5th Aviation Regiment. The exercises which resulted in the tragedy were simulated to handle any terrorist emergency at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
``Townsville awoke yesterday to the news of the dreadful disaster. At the airport, military personnel met relatives of the dead and injured and escorted them to the army barracks or the hospital.''
The exercise which resulted in the death of these soldiers and airmen involved six helicopters, each with about 15 SAS soldiers flying to a designated point where the exercise being simulated involved hostages being held by terrorists.
The soldiers rappelled down ropes from the hovering aircraft, and then stormed the position being held by the terrorists.
The lesson had been learnt from the Munich Olympics where terrorists murdered Israeli hostages, and all host nations now take that tragic event into account in Olympics preparations.
In the Townsville incident, the scenario was repeated at night _ lights out and with pilots wearing night-vision goggles.
Then the accident occurred _ with two Black Hawks colliding, resulting in 18 fatalities and several severely injured personnel.
It would seem appropriate for the Sydney 2000 Olympic flame to at least acknowledge the sacrifice made by these soldiers and airmen. Perhaps an eternal flame could be lit with the torch at the memorial to them. Perhaps a team of SAS runners could detour the torch to Fire Support Base Barbara where the tragedy occurred.
It becomes too easy to forget the military personnel who lose their lives in non-war zones, but these young men should not be so easily forgotten.
No one who attended the memorial service on Friday, June 14, will ever forget the tribute that was paid to those who died.
SEVERAL images readily come to mind, including the silence immediately after the fly-over by two Black Hawk helicopters as the Australian flag was raised to fly at half mast.
Or the young soldier who marched slowly across the parade ground playing the Last Post on bagpipes.
Eighteen Steyr F88 rifles were bayoneted into the ground. On the butt of each was a beret signifying each who died _ 15 sandy-coloured for the SAS soldiers, and three sky-blue for the airmen.
When the ceremony ended, three-year-old Benjamin Berrigan wandered up to the rifles and touched the blue beret which belonged to his father, Captain John Berrigan, the Black Hawk pilot killed at Barbara.
And then there was the most incredible press conference I have yet witnessed _ where the pilot from the other Black Hawk, Captain Dave Burke told media how the incident occurred and paid tribute to those who were injured, and his mates who had died.
Every move he made was obviously painful, every breath he took an effort. But he told the story, to satisfy the appetite of the media, on the sole condition that the widows and families of his friends not be pestered for details.
The ensuing inquiry into the Black Hawk disaster has spelt out in great detail just what occurred on that fateful night, and highlighted inadequacies in facilities, training and funding for our fighting forces.
Consequently, the forces which are now protecting the Sydney Olympics from the threat of terrorism are much better resourced and prepared than was going to be the case if the 18 servicemen had not lost their lives.
It was an enormous price to pay for what, in retrospect, could possibly have been avoided had people in charge been more diligent and forceful, and had politicians given more realistic allocations to the armed services to do the difficult tasks we expect them to perform.
The opportunity to make amends is now presented, and servicemen's organisations throughout Australia should encourage government and the Olympic organising committee to acknowledge appropriately the sacrifice of the young Australian men who died in Townsville when doing their job _ protecting you and me.
Tony Koch is chief reporter