Yesterday's Launceston funeral for Corporal Richard Atkinson, killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan, painted a picture of a brave young man who liked a joke, loved his family, stayed true to his mates and was dedicated to his profession. ALISON ANDREWS reports.
HE was only 22.
But Corporal Richard Edward Atkinson died doing his job on the front line of Australia's defence forces in Afghanistan, where he wanted to be.
Two of Corporal Atkinson's best army mates flew from the Afghani war zone to speak at his Launceston funeral yesterday.
One, identified only as Dave, told a near-capacity crowd at StJohn's Anglican Church that Corporal Atkinson was renowned for his cheeky sense of humour.
But he was nothing but serious about being a soldier and the job he had willingly taken on as one of the 1st Combat Engineering Regiment's forward scouts not long before being deployed.
Corporal Atkinson and Sapper Robert Rose, still in Afghanistan and seriously injured, went first when their unit was out engaging the enemy.
Their job was to find the bombs and make it safe for the rest of the infantry who were to follow and all the others who later trod the same ground, such as medics and other service personnel.
Dave told yesterday's funeral - where dignitaries included Prime Minister Julia Gillard, federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, Defence Minister Stephen Smith, Tasmanian Governor Peter Underwood and Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings - about being on the front line just before New Year's Day.
The story came from a visit by their combat team leader to his troops on a freezing morning.
The soldiers were perched on a piece of ground newly cleared of the enemy that would soon become a patrol base.
"Temperatures during the night had fallen to 12 below zero and the boys were cracking ice from their swags and sleeping with water bottles and their weapons inside their sleeping bags to stop them freezing," Dave said.
When the major came on Corporal Atkinson and his fellow engineers huddled in a hole together to keep warm, he asked them where else they would rather be.
Some answered Sydney, some said Melbourne. Some said jokingly that they would rather be in hell because at least it would be warm.
"Aka (Corporal Atkinson) looked up, serious for just a moment and said, `nah, we'll always remember this New Year's - sober as hell, just knocked the Taliban out of the valley and with your mates in the bottom of a hole - wouldn't want to be anywhere else boss'," related Dave.
Yesterday's funeral for the young Australian combat engineer who died in action, killed by an explosion while patrolling in Afghanistan's Uruzgan province on February 2, was a formal occasion with all the ceremony that the armed forces could muster for a respected colleague.
But it was also an emotional farewell for family and friends from his school years at Trevallyn Primary School and Launceston Church Grammar School.
Corporal Atkinson's Grammar headmaster, Stephen Norris, was one of the speakers.
A large group of his former classmates sat together and comforted each other as they left the church.
Corporal Atkinson's parents, Ross and Kate, live in Launceston.
Dr Atkinson is a general practitioner after serving as a doctor in the Royal Australian Navy at various national and international postings when Corporal Atkinson and his brother James were children.
Both James and his father spoke at the funeral of a brother and son whom they adored.
James had one of the toughest jobs yesterday and on the day that the news came through that his brother had been killed.
Corporal Atkinson had left instructions that if he died, he wanted his brother to be the first notified so that he could contact his parents and the young soldier's fiancee, Dannielle Kitchen.
In line with the wishes of the family since the news of Corporal Atkinson's death, father and brother asked not to be directly quoted in coverage of the event yesterday or to be photographed. Media were not allowed inside the church or given copies of the speeches.
But even for those listening from outside, standing in the quiet sunshine with more than 20 onlookers, the words of 1st Brigade Darwin Commander Brigadier Gus McLachlan and the other six speakers painted a clear picture of a confident young man with a mischievous sense of humour who was physically and mentally strong, a top sportsman and a natural leader.
A young man whom father Ross was not sure how his family would go on without.
A young man whom fiancee Dannielle would not meet for the holiday in Italy together that was about to happen.
He was only 22.
But he was true beyond his years to the motto he believed in so passionately that he had it tattooed on his back: "Ago Vita (Live Life)."
Corporal Atkinson was the first Tasmanian soldier killed in Afghanistan and the 22nd Australian.