PROUD EX-SERVICEMAN: Jon Edwards wears the service medals and UN beret he received for his time serving in East Timor.
PROUD EX-SERVICEMAN: Jon Edwards wears the service medals and UN beret he received for his time serving in East Timor. Francis Witsenhuysen

The story behind Jon's medals

WHEN Australian Defence Force Combat Engineer Jon Edwards saw the East Timor shoreline and smoke haze from warfare hovering over the capital city of Dili, his excitement turned to solemnity.

"It started to hit home that it was very real and dangerous on many different fronts. It was serious,” he said.

It was September 1999, and following a series of attacks throughout Timor by militias created, trained and directed by the Indonesian military, Mr Edwards had been deployed as part of The International Force East Timor (INTERFET) force, made up of troops trained to address the deteriorating humanitarian and security situation.

"It was funny because up until then on the boat on the way over, everyone was excited,” Mr Edwards said.

"Because in the defence force you practice and train to do your job, so it was our chance.”

Now a Regency Downs local of 10 years, Mr Edwards said he'd never forget those nine months serving in a third world country.

"We were over there because Indonesia had control of East Timor, who had just had a referendum and a vote for their independence, and the Indonesian government weren't pleased about that,” he said.

"So they had Indonesian soldiers and militia - who were the East Timorese who didn't want the change and were pretty radical in their views. There was a lot of deaths from militia and Indonesian soldiers.

"There really was no safety there and something had to be done.”

The most satisfying thing for Mr Edwards during his service was to provide the civilians with safety and security.

"When the INTERFET force got there the locals were scared of us because of all they'd known with military personnel in previous experiences. They were bashed and treated very poorly,” he said.

"Over time they learnt we respected them and knew we were there for the right reasons and even painted signs saying 'Thankyou INTERFET for your help'.

Jon Edwards  with some East Timorese locals in the Dili Hills in early 2000.
Jon Edwards with some East Timorese locals in the Dili Hills in early 2000. Photo Contributed

INTERFET troops would patrol the streets of Dili in armoured vehicles, it was on one of these patrols Mr Edwards recalled how daunting it felt to not know who was a militiaman and who was civilian.

"A lot of the time you wouldn't know who were militiaman - they blended in with the locals - it was unsettling,” he said.

Mr Edwards recalled pushing out and patrolling the East Timor border only to be "peppered at” by militiamen.

"In war there are rules and not everyone plays by the rules,” he said.

"We'd be getting peppered at because the militiamen would cross the border, attack and get back over because they knew we couldn't go into West Timor territory, which was Indonesian territory.

"And we couldn't fire back because if they found one of our rounds that side - we'd be charged - it was very frustrating.”

In February 2000, the United Nations took over from INTERFET meaning Mr Edwards served out the rest of his time under the UN.

"It was an experience and honour to serve under their banner and earn a UN beret,” he said.

"I got to see the peace enforcement side of it then the prosperous side of trying to re-build a country.”

Mr Edwards said during the INTERFET phase they lost six men, though no one from his group.

"I feel honoured to have served my country overseas. It opened my eyes to what a third world country is like,” he said.

For his service, Mr Edwards was awarded an Australian Active Service medal, one of 3000 INTERFET medals in the world, and an Australian Defence Force medal, which recognised his four years in the army.

When Mr Edwards enlisted, he was 27-years-old. He was based first in Holsworthy, Sydney from 1997 until 2000 and was then stationed in Darwin.

"I joined the army because I didn't see it as a job, I saw it as a lifestyle, as an adventure,” he said.

"In July 2001 I was discharged. Four years in the Army was enough time for me and my family said it was enough too.”

As he does every year, Mr Edwards marched in Laidley on Anzac Day.

"Anzac Day to me is about remembering those guys I served with, they were not my work colleagues they were my brothers in arms,” he said.

"It didn't matter what the situation was or how bad it was - you knew your mate would pick you up and dust you off, he'd have your back.

"I get my photos out from Timor around Anzac Day and September every year, just to look at them, reflect and remind myself how lucky we are, and have it.

"Anzac Day is about remembering the other diggers from the World Wars, Vietnam and whoever else served, and honouring them for what they contributed to our country - for it to be what it is today.”

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