16 March 2023
As record flooding reduced Lismore to a pile of housing debris and overturned cars, 40 kilometres north, a mother and son fought for their lives underneath debris and mud.
Reservists from 41 Royal New South Wales Regiment (RNSWR) were on the front line with locals, rescuing people the day the levee broke on February 28, 2022.
The soldiers banded together to make a sacrifice for their community, despite knowing their own properties would be affected.
In recognition of their efforts, 75 members of 41 RNSWR received gold commendations on February 28 this year.
One year on from one of the biggest floods in Australian history, the stories of hardship and devastation are just as poignant.
8 Combat Service Support Battalion truck driver Corporal Eddie Robb, along with 41 RNSWR manoeuvre support platoon commander Lieutenant Ben Fischer, Sergeant Josh Scott, Private River Cossey and Private Brendan Haydon, were in an MRH-90 when a call came through for a high-priority mission in the region of Upper Main Arm.
A family had been buried alive for 36 hours by a landslide.
The mother was under soft mud and rescued by her neighbours, but her son was pinned under a “mountain of debris”.
“The assessment was there was a real likelihood they wouldn’t make it,” Corporal Robb said.
“My main concern was getting him out before he died.”
Using an axe and fashioning a fulcrum system to lever a wall off him, they managed to dig the man out, and he was airlifted to hospital.
After the joint rescue effort, the soldiers continued to wade through chest-deep water in the turmoil.
They swam house-to-house through flood waters and sewage to see if anyone needed assistance.
At one stage, they commandeered a civilian boat to transport palliative care patients from an aged care facility to safety.
“We just grabbed bedsheets and essentially built makeshift stretchers,” Lieutenant Fischer said.
Corporal Robb, a full-time farmer, was not able to see the damage to his own properties until almost a week later.
“I knew once the levee came down that my place was going to get smashed,” Corporal Robb said.
“I had two farms wiped out. I lost 40 head of cattle, my fences got destroyed and I lost all my machinery.
“I could’ve lost the whole herd and had the house actually wash away – so I just focus on the positive that every soldier at Lismore helped their mates and the community.”
Those involved in the rescue described people trapped in their ceilings desperately calling for help, and their disbelief at the minimal loss of life.
Another 41 RNSWR soldier, Corporal Paul Kohlhagen, didn’t think the floods would peak at predicted levels until he saw the speed at which the water inundated the town.
Even his house, raised on stilts, wasn’t spared.
As he worked from the regiment staging area, his neighbour called him to tell him the water was almost at their front doors.
When he finally got home days later, his first thoughts were about what remained, and what was lost.
However, even amid the destruction, there were always glimmers of positivity.
In just 24 hours, Corporal Renee Campbell was able to raise $30,000 worth of women’s sanitary goods and baby formula to help women in the area who had been left with nothing.
Posted to 25/49 Royal Queensland Regiment at the time, the command support clerk also runs a local charity supporting mothers and their babies.
“As a mum, my first day working at the Casino MeatWorks relief centre was extremely emotional,” Corporal Campbell said.
“We had lots of food and water but no baby formula or lady’s sanitary items.”
Through her charity, Corporal Campbell acquired a private plane, which flew from Coffs Harbour delivering thousands of products.
“I was wiping tears away as we loaded the helicopters for the food drops – it was a very personal thing knowing how much we helped those people,” Corporal Campbell said.
“We helped one family and that family was able to share that love and happiness with another.
“I feel like we’ve helped the next generation,” she said.
These are just a few of the stories from the men and women who helped during the disaster.
A commendation cannot replace what some have lost, but it shows that their work did not go unnoticed.