Fallen comrades return to NZ
A powerful haka rang out across the tarmac at Christchurch Airport this afternoon as the bodies of the latest three Kiwi soldiers to be killed in action were carried onto home soil.
The Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules, which flew the bodies of Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, 26, Corporal Luke Tamatea, 31, and Private Richard Harris, 21, was met by a large army contingent who performed a sombre ramp ceremony.
The soldiers' families were the first to be invited on board the Hercules, which arrived into Christchurch from Richmond military base in Australia shortly before 2pm.
Holding each other, one audibly sobbing, they were led on-board the aircraft to spend time with their loved ones for the first time since their deaths.
The three soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, on Sunday.
Their military pallbearers, selected by their units and families, travelled to Australia yesterday to accompany their comrades home.
As the first of the three caskets was carried out about 2.30pm, soldiers lining the tarmac launched into a passionate haka, which continued until the last casket, that of Baker, was placed in a waiting hearse.
Army personnel lining the tarmac saluted as the hearses drove out.
The families followed, one mother holding a photo of her lost son.
Defence Communications Group Major John Gordon said the occasion spoke "for itself''.
''Today is a very sombre occasion, but one that is very poignant. I don't think many words need to be said.
''We've got a job to do, we've got to make sure we give these guys the send-off they deserve," he said.
Gordon said the ramp ceremony was the first time the families had seen their loved ones in many months, and they would have further time with them today.
''As a soldier, it is difficult and somewhat gut-wrenching when you hear the news that you have lost one of your comrades. But it's a profession of arms. We know the risks involved and we choose this career ... we have a job to do and we go there and we do it.''
A ramp ceremony is held each time the caskets of fallen service people are embarked or disembarked from military aircraft. It serves as a final salute by the dead soldiers' colleagues as a sign of respect.
The army was still in the process of preparing for the military funeral service, details of which have not yet been confirmed.
TOUGH DAY FOR FRIENDS
Lance Corporal Leanne Corbett woke this morning to face the toughest day of her five years in the army.
She is among the all-female pallbearers who will carry the body of her close friend and comrade Jacinda Baker back on to New Zealand soil.
Speaking at Burnham Military Camp yesterday, Corbett broke down as she recalled receiving a text message on Monday saying Baker, her friend of five years, had been killed.
Corbett, along with members of her 2nd Health Support Battalion and the 1st and 2nd/1st Battalion Royal New Zealand infantry regiments, travelled to Australia yesterday to meet the Australian Defence Force A-340 that flew the bodies out of Afghanistan after an emotional ramp ceremony at Bagram Air Base.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, was among those who paid his respects to the fallen New Zealand soldiers.
Corbett, also a medic, was serving in Samoa two weeks earlier when she was told Lance Corporal Rory Malone, 26, had been killed in a firefight in Afghanistan. Christchurch soldier Pralli Durrer also died, and six other Kiwis were injured.
"That was pretty heartbreaking, and then he [the commanding officer] said some people have been injured. I said, 'Don't tell me it was Jacinda'," she said.
Corbett met Baker on a kayaking course in Murchison as part of a six-day army adventure training course in 2007 and they "hit it off".
"We were the only two girls on it, so it was good to have bonding time; shared a room together, hung on the water all day together," Corbett said.
Two weeks later, Baker and Corbett were posted to the same unit, where they served together for four years.
Corbett is now based at Linton, but she and Baker kept in contact, emailing while posted overseas and catching up for weekends in New Zealand.
Baker had told her things were going well in Afghanistan and that she had even managed to keep up her boxing training with Tamatea, a sport Corbett had encouraged her to try.
The last time they spent together was in Christchurch, when they had an afternoon bake-off.
"That was something we did together. She's a good cook and baker. Her favourite was chocolate brownies, but I loved her macadamia biscuits."
Corbett said her friend "knows her stuff".
She said Baker had "gone through a lot" serving in Afghanistan but was professional to the end.
"You're a soldier first and a medic second. You've got to keep aware of both jobs. I don't think anyone goes over there not thinking they're a little bit scared," she said.
Corbett and the other pallbearers were chosen by Baker's family, together with her unit.
Sergeant Mark Anderson will lead those bearing the coffin on to New Zealand soil. He was Baker's trainer and mentor when she started in the army.
He described taking Baker on her basic training as "a pleasure".
"I got the fun of watching a pretty gutsy individual grow and develop as she started in the army," he said. "[She had] a real bubbly attitude, was fun to work with. When I found out she was changing to the medical trade . . . I was pretty thrilled."
As a medic, she was "the best she could be", he said.
The last time Anderson saw Baker was at the army camp talking about gear and tactics while she was getting ready to go to Afghanistan.
He said she was "passionate about what she did" and had a professional attitude to the dangers she would face.
"You think about it, absolutely. We don't choose this career lightly. Nobody goes into any trade in the army with a half attitude. You go in full bore, and Jacinda was exactly that," he said.
Anderson said the army was "a big family" and everyone was pulling together to support each other in their grief. "We know we have to carry on, for their sake," he said.
Families of the three fallen soldiers will be the first invited to board the C-130 Hercules today to spend time with the bodies before the ramp ceremony begins.
Details of the military funeral, where Corbett will again be a pallbearer, have yet to be confirmed.
The soldiers' deaths bring the total number of Kiwis killed serving in Afghanistan to 10. The six personnel wounded in the August 5 incident have returned home to New Zealand, with three still receiving treatment in hospital.
TB KILLED LAST WOMAN IN WAR ZONE
Christchurch's Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker is the first New Zealand woman killed in action while serving for the military for at least 77 years.
The last woman to die while serving during a war was former Auckland nurse Sister Lesley Cowper in 1966 in the Vietnam War.
However, she worked in a Vietnam hospital for a New Zealand civilian medical team and died of tuberculosis in Saigon Hospital on May 2, 1966.
New Zealand Defence Force records show she is the only New Zealand woman since 1945 on its roll of honour, which recognises those who gave their lives for their country.
The Defence Force was unable yesterday to give details of the last woman to die in active service before the end of World War II.
The Defence Force's former director of nursing, Daphne Shaw, told The Press she recalled when Cowper left her job in an orthopaedic ward at Middlemore Hospital for Vietnam.
"I took over her ward when she went over there."
Two nurses from Middlemore went to serve in Vietnam before Cowper and their New Zealand colleagues heard about their experiences.
"Whether it [Vietnam] sounded exciting to (Cowper), I don't know. She was a fairly private person," Shaw said.
The 70-year old, who can recall being told of Cowper's death at a hospital meeting, served in Vietnam at a military hospital in Bung Tau for 10 months in 1970-1971 and spent 26 years in military service.
Cowper was born in Te Kuiti and was 37 when she died, according to the Defence Force.
She joined the New Zealand Surgical Team at Qui Nhon Provincial Hospital in South Vietnam in November 1965, where she remained until her death less than six months later.
Previously a nurse in the New Zealand Territorial Force, she took leave to join the team, which was staffed by New Zealand volunteers and funded by the New Zealand government.
She was awarded the National Order of Merit for South Vietnam and in 2003 she was awarded the New Zealand Operational Service Medal, which was introduced in 2002 for New Zealanders who had served on overseas operations since 1945.
Cowper is commemorated in the Hall of Memories at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.
Christchurch Hospital's Memorial Chapel is New Zealand's only memorial chapel to women who died during war service but is currently closed because of earthquake damage.
- The Press