Once a soldier, always a soldier

One morning in early January, Gary Sturdy, a former Army cook, saw a Facebook post from Dâve Pëtersen, the founder of Operation Veteran Assist (OVA) — a veteran-led organisation formed in response to the bushfires in East Gippsland, Victoria. Dâve was calling for volunteers.

Gary responded by offering to set up a field kitchen for the other volunteers. Over the next seven days, he prepared to move out, his wife Deanne and sister Kim helping pack food and other donations provided by the local community.

‘When Dâve rang, I had five dollars in my pocket,’ says Gary. ‘So I put a call to arms to my Catering Corps family. The response was instant. The biggest stumbling block was getting enough field equipment. Once that was secured the rest just happened, and quick!’

One of those Catering Corps mates was Sergeant Naomi Whiting, based at AlburyWodonga, who was able to provide him with a field kitchen. To get the equipment from Albury to Orbost, he contacted a friend at the trucking company Mainfreight who also organised a friend to provide 15 pallets of bottled water, and arrange a 1200-litre fridge. Downey Engineering provided a generator and the Army supplied fuel.

‘I was originally going to Bruthen but the plan changed after the Army asked Dâve if we could cook for a detachment of 7th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment, which was working on bushfire relief in Orbost,’ says Gary. ‘These guys had the kitchen up and operational in less than 30 minutes. They hadn’t eaten a fresh meal for seven days.’

Gary spent a week in Orbost working 19-hour days with a handful of other volunteers. He and his team were feeding around 250 people a day. Along with their team in Bruthen, they served a total of about 5,000 meals. He says the biggest challenge was the smoke, which stung their eyes and required everyone to wear masks inside the tent and out.

Gary spent 22 years in the Army, leaving with the rank of sergeant. Though he occasionally does voluntary work, Gary describes the work he did in Orbost as the biggest responsibility of his life.

Gary has nothing but praise for the Army and emergency services personnel as well as the veterans and other volunteers he was supporting. He is also indebted to the people who volunteered to help him: veterans such as Peter White, Tanya Rusden, Leonie Hutcheson, Tim Bond, Matthew Blunt, Cam Derbyshire, Joe Bowden as well as Sharon Izzard, Max Smith, Tony Chester and other Catering Corps members. There was also Sarah Rainsbury who he didn’t know and isn’t a veteran but insisted on going to East Gippsland and proved to be ‘amazing’. He is also grateful to the Orbost RSL Sub-branch.

‘I’m blown away by what we achieved,’ he says. ‘Never underestimate the power of the veteran community. We’re just as much an asset to the broader community as serving ADF. Once a soldier, always a soldier.’

The Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell AO DSC visited Gary’s kitchen with Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Darren Chester and other Members of Parliament. General Campbell presented Gary with a Challenge Coin as a way of thanking him for his efforts.

‘This coin belongs to all of my team and anyone who contributed to our OVA campaign,’ says Gary.

For more information on OVA, visit the Operation Veteran Assist website.

Man in sixties wearing apron carves a roast inside a large tent.

Former Army cook Gary Sturdy preparing a meal for volunteers in Orbost, Victoria.