Authors: Neryl Joyce
The names of certain individuals in this book have been changed for privacy reasons.
Published by Nero,
an imprint of Schwartz Publishing Pty Ltd 37–39 Langridge Street
Collingwood VIC 3066, Australia
Copyright © Neryl Joyce 2014
Neryl Joyce asserts her right to be known as the author of this work.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior consent of the publishers.
National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry:
Joyce, Neryl, author.
Mercenary mum: my journey from young mother to Baghdad bodyguard / Neryl Joyce.
Joyce, Neryl. Australia. Army—Women—Biography. Women soldiers—Australia—Biography. Soldiers—Australia—Biography. Private security services—Employees—Biography. Iraq War, 2003–2011—Participation, Australian—Biography. Australia—Armed Forces—Women—Biography.
Cover design by Peter Long.
Cover photograph by Frances Andrijich.
Make my enemy brave and strong so that if defeated, I will not be ashamed. Coyote is always out there waiting, and Coyote is always hungry. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.
RIP my warrior mates Jay Hunt, Stef Surette, Chris Ahmelman and Rod Richardson
Everything happens for a reason, so I’d been told. Well, there would want to be a good reason behind all the shit I’d been through in the past twenty-four hours: I’d been fired, burnt and in a car accident. When I arrived back at the team house from the hospital, the guys had already left for Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). I was supposed to have gone with them. Bee, the only other woman on the team, and I hung around our room, talking about how messed up it was working for the company. Jeep, our team leader, was downstairs flipping out. I was certain he was currently plotting yet more ways to make my life a living hell.
As I lay on my bed listing my grievances, Horse, one of our colleagues, suddenly appeared at the doorway. He was deathly white: “The team has been hit.”
I felt as though I’d been punched in the stomach. “How did it happen? Is everyone okay?”
Horse told us the team had been stationary on the airport road when it was hit from the side by insurgents. Two of our guys were dead: one died instantly after being shot in the head; the other had been hit in the femoral artery and bled out. A third was fighting for his life. Horse said it could go either way.
I felt dizzy. The first thing that came into my head was that Jeep and Ghost, who led our counter assault team, had killed my mates. They had sent them to their deaths. I’d told everyone it would happen, but no one had listened. My country manager had ignored me. The whole company had ignored me. What did I know? I was only a woman. I had quit working on Red Zone missions a few weeks beforehand, believing my team leaders would get me killed.
I had been right, but I felt no satisfaction. Two precious lives had been snuffed out, and another was hanging in the balance. I suddenly thought of my son, waiting for me at home. If not for the series of freak accidents I’d had that morning, I would have been out on the airport road with those guys. I ran to the toilet to be sick.
I returned to my room. Bee and I analysed and re-analysed exactly how the team must have been hit. No matter how we looked at it, nothing made sense. What had happened out there? Why hadn’t they been moving? It was suicide to be stationary on that road. Bee and I cried together. We cried for our fallen mates and we cried for our friend who was fighting for survival in the hospital.
, I intoned silently.
Hold on for dear life
MY EARLIEST MEMORY
is of having my ears pierced at the tender age of three. I remember sitting on this huge stool in the middle of a crowded shopping centre, and then feeling an intense pain in my earlobe.
God dammit, it hurt.
I screamed so loudly that my younger sister ran away. I didn’t blame her; it was her turn next.
My dad was an army infantry officer and the epitome of organisation and order. My upbringing was very strict. Dad held himself to a high standard, and he expected the same of those around him. He rarely showed emotion and always kept a cool exterior. I’d never know exactly how he was feeling – unless, of course, I was in trouble. Then I’d be left in no doubt.
I loved to him death, though. He used to read bedtime stories to me every night. He was terrific at it, and did all the voices. I would imagine Shep, the doggie hero of one of my storybooks, and me going on some fantastic adventures together. It wasn’t often that Dad showed me his loving side, but somehow I always knew I was loved.
Mum was the complete opposite: she was openly emotional and had no problem with showering me in love and kisses. Equally, she had no problem expressing her anger when I had done the wrong thing. Mum had worked as an enrolled nurse, but was a devoted housewife and mother for the best part of her life. She was the most beautiful person I’d ever known. My brother, Ced, was a year older than me, and my little sister, Lil, was a year younger.
Ced was the perfect son. He could do no wrong. He was quieter and more reserved than most boys, and that helped to foster his angelic image in my mum’s eyes. I worshipped the ground he walked on too: he was always doing really cool boy stuff. Together we played fighting games, built cubbyhouses, went looking for new species of bugs and ate Milo straight from the tin. I don’t think he liked being the only boy. It certainly didn’t help that he had a pushy younger sister who followed him everywhere, demanding that he play with her.
While I was very young, my family lived in Papua New Guinea (PNG). My dad had been posted to an army unit in Wewak, on the northern coast. I remember it being very warm and tropical there. I loved being able to swim every day and play in the narrow slice of jungle that was right behind our house.
One day, when Ced was about seven years old, he said he was going exploring in the jungle with a few boys from next door. It sounded like a lot of fun so I decided that I would go too. Well, that didn’t go down well with Ced. My brother was so angry. I didn’t know why. I wasn’t going to annoy him by talking to him or any of his friends. I just wanted to be part of the adventure.
So I followed them. I pushed through dense foliage and undergrowth a few metres behind Ced and his mates. It was exciting to be exploring the jungle like a real adventurer. I fell down in a shallow creek and was caked in mud, but I didn’t care: I was having the time of my life. But my brother didn’t want some little girl following him around while he played with his friends. He walked faster and faster until I could no longer see or hear him in front of me.
It was a while before I realised that I was alone. All I could see around me was the thick vegetation of the jungle. I burst into tears. I was so upset that my brother had left me behind. It hurt so much to think that I had been rejected – being lost in the middle of the jungle paled in comparison. I stumbled around for ages until finally I could hear voices: “Yaah!”
I came upon a clearing. There was Ced. He didn’t look too pleased to see me. His friends were cross too. He told me to go home and leave them alone. He didn’t want me poking around in their business. I started bawling, then turned and ran blindly into the jungle, trying to find my way home.
Some time later I emerged from the trees to find myself in our backyard. Mum, horrified at the sight of her dirty, dishevelled daughter, ordered me up to the bathroom. My brother was in hot water by the time he made it home, and was told never to leave me alone like that again. It’s the only time I ever recall his getting into trouble. No smacks, no beltings, just a growling from Mum.
I realised that day I was different from boys. I was not their equal: I was a girl. I wanted to be able to explore, to discover new things and to set off on fascinating expeditions too. Why did they have to treat me differently? I was too young to understand what was going on. I just knew that I wanted to do the fun stuff that boys did. And so began my struggle to be accepted in a man’s world.
My relationship with my sister, Lil, was turbulent. We never agreed on anything or played nicely together. In fact, we got perverse pleasure from seeing each other get in trouble with Mum and Dad, and one sister was always quick to dob in the other if she saw her doing something wrong.
One day my sister was found lighting matches inside the neighbours’ house. The front door had been unlocked and she’d just wandered in: this was PNG in the 1970s so home security was not really an issue. Lil was sent to her bedroom for the rest of the day. At dinnertime she was not allowed at the table with the rest of us and had to eat in her room. I was furious. She had been playing with matches only to be rewarded with dinner in bed. It wasn’t fair. I wanted to eat dinner in bed too!
So the next day I took the forbidden box of matches and crept over to the neighbours’ yard. I sat down with the matches and proceeded to light them one by one. It wasn’t long before my dad spotted me. He stormed over and smacked my hands and legs. I was sent to my room and told to await a belting. In my room I grabbed a book and slipped it down my pants. If I was going to get the belt, I wanted some padding. After my father had finished trying to smooth things over with the neighbours, he returned. He opened my bedroom door to find me lying facedown on the top bunk with a blanket over me. Dad pulled off his belt and began winding it around his hand. I knew what was coming next.
The belt whipped my bottom. The book provided good insulation, and the blanket helped to conceal it. It didn’t hurt too much, but I couldn’t let my dad know that. I cried out in pretend pain. I must not have been very convincing, though, because he pulled off the blanket to discover the peculiar new square shape my bottom had taken. He was ropeable once he found the book. He whacked me twice more, and this time it did hurt. I cried out for real, huge tears welling up in my eyes. Dad told me that I should have learnt from what had happened the day before.
I couldn’t believe my plan had backfired: Lil hadn’t got a belting, but I had. I asked about dinner in bed and was told that I wasn’t getting any dinner at all. I learnt a valuable lesson that night: older sisters are always expected to ‘know better’. Oh, yeah, and never play with matches.
It wasn’t the only time my sister and I got into serious trouble. One day I climbed into a cupboard on a mission to find sweets. I spotted an interesting-looking plastic bottle. I shook the bottle and it sounded like lollies rattling. I opened the lid and, sure enough, inside were the most perfect little green sweets. I popped a couple in my mouth and swallowed. They didn’t taste very nice, but they looked so pretty that I had to have some more. As I placed another lolly in my mouth, my sister walked in on me. Straightaway I knew the game was up. The only way I could get out of this without Mum knowing was to give Lil some lollies too. So I tapped out a few for her. I didn’t want to give her too many, though; I was the one who had found them and, hence, deserved the most.
Lil ate them but didn’t like the taste. I had a couple more before giving up. They might have looked pretty but they tasted disgusting. After that, I was quite tired so I decided to take a nap. I went into my mum’s room to lie down next to her on the bed, and then I fell asleep. The next thing I remember was Mum shaking me, and a terrible pain in my stomach.
“Don’t put your head back. Don’t put your head back,” I heard someone say.
I was lying on a bed with people standing all around me. There was a bright light shining right in my eyes, but the rest of the room looked black. I started vomiting. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t even hold my head up. All I wanted was to go back to sleep.
“Hold her head up or she’ll choke on her vomit.”
Everything was blurry. I didn’t know what was happening. I started vomiting again.
Why are they letting me vomit everywhere?
I noticed a couple of people doing something to my ankle, but I couldn’t see what was going on. Then I passed out again.
I awoke several days later in Wewak Hospital. My sister was in the bed next to mine. It wasn’t until my parents came into the room that I finally began to understand what had happened: I had been very sick. In fact, I had nearly died.
The cupboard I had climbed into was the medicine cabinet. I had pulled out a bottle of Camoquin and swallowed about five or six tablets. Camoquin is an anti-malarial drug used to treat children. Two months earlier, a child in Adelaide had died after ingesting only two tablets of the adult version, Chloroquine. My mum told me she had been lying on her bed reading a book, when I stumbled into the room and lay down next to her.
I was peaceful for a short time, and then I started frothing at the mouth. Green bubbles oozed from my lips as I complained about a pain in my tummy. Mum rushed into the kitchen and saw the opened bottle of Camoquin on the bench. She spoke to the houseboy, Peter, and told him to watch my brother and sister while she took me to the army Regimental Aid Post (RAP). The RAP was the closest medical facility to our house, and thank goodness army families were permitted to use it in emergency situations. My dad was contacted at work, and he dashed across to the RAP to see me.
After realising that I had overdosed on Camoquin, the medical staff started pumping my stomach. As a consequence of the overdose, my whole body was bloated and the medical staff couldn’t find a vein to attach the drip to. They had to make an incision on the inside of my ankle and poke around until they found a vein.
Once I was in a stable condition, I was transported by ambulance to Wewak Hospital. As Mum and Dad drove there, they remembered my brother and sister back at home with Peter. Peter was a local who my parents employed to do odd jobs around the house. When Dad got back to the house, Peter was agitated.
Lil had also started foaming at the mouth, but it was too late for a stomach pump, as the Camoquin had already gone into her system. Dad rushed her to hospital for treatment and, afterwards, the two of us were put in a room together to recover. We slept for forty-eight hours straight before finally waking up to face the world, very lucky to be alive. We had to stay in hospital for a few more days after that, which was torturous for us. There was nothing to do: there was no television, no toys and no books. We started getting on each other’s nerves and, before long, we had set our battlelines and declared war. It was then that we were discharged. If we were well enough to be fighting again, I guess we were well enough to go home.
My war with Lil took a back seat after our baby brother, Shannon, was born. He was the most adorable thing I had ever seen. He had really fine white hair and big googly eyes. I used to pretend he was my baby. I even gave him a new name: Willy. He became my new little friend, and I absolutely smothered him with love.
I was very protective of Shannon. His head was on the large side, and I wouldn’t let anyone poke fun at him about it. Shannon was born weighing a whopping 4.5 kilograms. The doctors had to use suction to help get him out. I remember my mum swearing she’d never go through that again, that he’d be her last. I loved playing with Shannon so much – making him giggle and blowing raspberries on his chubby tummy – that I couldn’t understand why she didn’t want to have dozens more.