One of the most difficult speeches to do well is one paying tribute to people who have died.
It is so easy to resort to platitudes or clichés, to apply saccharine and in doing so neither honour those who have died nor comfort those who remain.
Today’s speech by Governor General Lt Gen Sir Jerry Mateparae at the commemorative memorial service for Corporal Luke Tamatea, Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker and Private Richard Harris is a fine example of how to do it well.
. . . We gather to remember the service of three young New Zealand soldiers, who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of New Zealand and for the mission to Afghanistan.
We gather to join with their families, friends and their mates-in-arms, particularly from Crib 20, to share in the grieving, to recall their sacrifice and to celebrate their lives.
These three young soldiers represent the best traditions of New Zealand’s contribution to resisting tyranny and to bringing peace and stability to conflict-ridden lands.
Although we live in this settled part of the world, New Zealanders understand this calling well. We have always sought peace and negotiated settlements to international disputes. We understand the imperatives of collective action against tyrannies and evil regimes.
And we understand that when all other options have been exhausted, principled words must often be backed by principled action. We are proud of our Kiwi tradition of standing up for what is right and for doing what is right.
At times like this, with 10 New Zealand soldiers having lost their lives in Afghanistan – five in a matter of weeks – it is natural that we question why we are there. In a democracy, it is right that we can and should ask questions.
The three young soldiers we mourn today knew well the risks of service in Afghanistan. It is a place where safety can never be guaranteed, and it has a tortured history of conflict that stretches back many centuries.
They also knew of the positive contribution the Provincial Reconstruction Team is making to the lives of the people of Bamyan province. They have rebuilt hospitals and roads. They have helped deliver education and health programmes. They have helped the local people rebuild their provincial government and establish their own security. They have helped them rebuild their lives.
It is easy to talk of a positive contribution from afar. Those who have served in Bamyan have seen it. They have seen it in the faces of the Afghan people they meet every day. They have seen it in the bright eyes of the children they meet, the boys and girls who play in the street, who can go to school and who can look to the future. The three we mourn today saw and knew the good that they were making to the lives of others, both as a team and as individuals. . .
I now turn to the families: Sarah Erb, Luke’s partner, and Lynn McSweeny, Luke’s mother and their wider families; Geoffrey Fosbender, Jacinda’s partner and Joyce Baker, Jacinda’s mother, and their wider families; Sandra Harris, Richard’s mother and the wider Harris family.
There is nothing I can say that can replace your loved ones. There is nothing I can say that will erase the painful grief that burns in your hearts for those whose lives were tragically cut short.
What I can say is that those you lost served with great honour. They demonstrated at the highest level courage, comradeship, commitment and integrity, which are the values the New Zealand Defence Force holds as central to underpinning its ethos.
They are fine examples of ordinary New Zealanders who answered the call of service. They were, as the late Sir Leonard Thornton, Chief of Defence Staff in the 1960s and 1970s noted, in the tradition and character “of the Kiwi solder at all levels—responsible, resourceful, compassionate and professionally competent.” . . .
The speech is worth reading in whole. I chose to highlight this portion because in the past week there has been a lot of ill-informed comment about the worth of the work the PRT is doing.
This extract shows those serving in it are making a positive difference, albeit at a very high price.