Wednesday, 4 May 2016
Rolfe, Brigadier Bill, AO
I rise today to mourn the passing of a very great Australian, Bill Rolfe. Bill Rolfe was an Army officer who stepped on a mine in Vietnam and lost both his legs. When he returned to Australia he triumphed over his injuries by studying to become a lawyer. He then spent many years in the military and had a very successful career. He later maintained his interest in the military and the veterans' community and became head of the Veterans' Review Board and then a Repatriation Commissioner. I had the great privilege of working with him when I was the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. After his working career—it never really ended—he was the President of Legacy Canberra, among a number of things.
I do not know how you sum up a man like Bill in three minutes. He was both a battler and a gentleman. This is a tremendous loss for his wife Joan, or Toots, and his children Bradley, Kathleen and Erin. Our hearts go out to them. But our hearts also go out to so many more because there were literally hundreds and hundreds of people at Bill's funeral.
I want to tell a quick couple of stories about Bill. Hopefully, there will be time for me to do that. Firstly, here is an extract from Bradley Rolfe's excellent eulogy given at the funeral:
Sometime in the 1980s, Bill decided that what the army really needed was a parachute trained legal officer with no legs. He may have applied for the army parachute course but was turned down, or advised, with all due respect I'm sure, not to apply. Undeterred, Dad sought out a former army mate of his who now ran a civilian jump school at Goulburn. After a stringent medical, which involved jumping off a chair to prove he could bend his knees on landing, he was declared fit. All went well until his 2nd or 3rd jump, when the strap broke on one of his legs and it plummeted some 10,000ft to the ground, much to the consternation of the ground crew, who had not been informed of Dad's condition. My sister and I remember vividly Dad getting delivered home that night, grinning from ear to ear, very drunk, a black eye from the awkward landing and a shattered leg under one arm. I don't recall Mum being as impressed as we were.
The story is now part of the mythology of our family, and in many ways sums up my father. It captures his larrikin streak, his physical courage, his humour, and his casual disregard for the label of 'disabled'. For many people, a disability such as the one Dad suffered might serve to define their life. That's not how it was for Dad. His injuries simply seemed to highlight attributes that were already there. I am used to reading books littered with words like virtue, duty, honour, loyalty and friendship. But they are all just words, and the more I read then, the less convinced I become that the authors know what they mean. Dad didn't speak about these things, he just lived them. It was as if these words were integrated in the very fibre of his being. Only three or four weeks before he died, my mother and sisters finally managed to convince Dad to resign his post as the president of Canberra Legacy much to his chagrin. Likewise, one of his greatest regrets in life, again, in his own words, was not that he was wounded in Vietnam and faced the rest of his life without his legs, but that he was forced to leave behind his platoon to continue the fight without him. In both occasions he had to remain satisfied that very good men had stepped in to fill the breach. But that attitude is more than words. That 'is' courage, that 'is' duty and that 'is' friendship.
Bill was a great Australian. I remember him telling me what it was like after he had stepped on the mine and was in the hospital waiting to be cared for. He said to me, 'Mate, I just thought to myself Toots is going to kill me when I get home'—and that very much summed up their relationship. He was a great Australian. He was a man I am very proud to have known. This is a great loss for all of us.