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Brothers In Arms

Thousands of Aussie veterans have commemorated Anzac Day. Each one has a story to tell, and this is the story of Afghanistan veteran Dale Birt and his brother Ashley, as told by Dale’s friend, Natasha Exelby.

Going to war is hard, returning from war can be harder. You can’t un-see the atrocities of war. Your innocence is shattered, your heart is broken and your mind is riddled with guilt - you survived and others didn’t. But you suck it up and soldier on and no-one is the wiser. The last thing you want to do is trouble others with your post-war woes.

That’s arguably the case for my mate Dale Birt. Dale is one of the greatest people I know, and so is his wife Ashleigh. Their kids are pretty cool too. Ashleigh works in Defence and Dale is former military. They’re the kind of people who, when they invite you to their home for dinner, it’s not Uber Eats, it’s a roast chicken and home-baked apple crumble garnished with fresh lime from their own lime tree.

Dale and Ashleigh are two of the happiest people going. They’re the first to laugh, and the last to complain. You’d never guess our friendship has been forged through horrific circumstances.

Dale and I connected a few months ago through social media, but it’s been more than seven years in the making. I was supposed to meet him back in 2011.

I was reporting for Channel 10 in Afghanistan. The Australian Defence Force Media Unit told me they had “a great story… two brothers serving in Afghanistan together – awesome lads and cracking talent.”

“Cracking talent” is media lingo for “articulate, likeable people who will make good television.” As it turned out, Dale was tied up with work the day we were scheduled to meet, but I still spent the day interviewing his little brother, Ashley. It was 52 degrees, in the height of an Afghan summer. The heat smacks you in the face and sucks the life right out of you… but not Ashley Birt. I vividly remember this 22-year-old bloke bouncing around the Aussie barracks with boundless energy, a hint of mischief and a smile you’d never forget.

Ashley Birt: "a smile you'd never forget"
Ashley Birt: "a smile you'd never forget"

He joked about what a tough gig it was for his parents having their only children both at war, “I had to deal with Mum’s tears because Dale left before me,” Ashley laughed. We bonded over our love of rugby league and being proud Queenslanders. I would definitely catch up with Ash on the outside… or at least, that was the plan.

Three months after we met, in October 2011, an Afghan National Army soldier opened fire in the so called ‘safe zone,’ killing three Aussie troops. One of them was Corporal Ashley Birt. My thoughts immediately went to Ashley’s parents.

How the hell do you process your son being killed in Afghanistan, let alone your other son still smack bang in the middle of a war zone? And Dale himself… where was he when it happened? How did he find out? How is he now?

Since Dale and I have become friends, I’ve been able to put those questions to him. It’s not a subject he ventures into often. In an interview airing tonight on The Project, Dale offers a rare and raw glimpse into the agony that imploded on his family in 2011.

Dale was at work when news started circulating that something big had gone down.

“Two Aussie guys came in from my unit back in Townsville and they had tears streaming down their face,” he recalled.

“They’re like ‘We just got told Corporate Birt had been killed’.”

For a split second Dale laughed, until it clicked that he wasn’t the only Corporal Birt on base.

Hours passed as Dale waited outside the field hospital on the base to learn if his little brother was one of the fallen.

“Ash’s boss was sort of walking in with someone and I was like ‘oh there’s only one reason he’s down here’,” Dale said.

“When he walked back I was like ‘is it him?’ and he was just like, ‘yeah it’s him’.” Dale fought back tears as he recalled his first thoughts when he finally saw his family back in Australia.

“Just sad, and sorry,” he remembered.

“Sorry I couldn’t bring my little brother home.”

Ashley (R) with Dale, Dale's wife Ashleigh, and their eldest daughter Lila.
Ashley (R) with Dale, Dale's wife Ashleigh, and their eldest daughter Lila.

But tears are fleeting in the Birt household. Dale is determined to live his life to the fullest and make every day count. Pranks are encouraged, laughter is vital, and giving up is not an option.

“It’s pretty easy when you’ve got the kids,” Dale said.

“Ash wouldn’t want us to be sad about it so we smile and wave and get on with life.”

Catch Natasha's moving story of the Birt brothers on The Project, tonight at 6:30.