Sapper Brett Fletcher is on his way out of the Malaysian jungle for the first time in a week when he calls from a sergeant’s mobile phone.
But the soldier’s voice is energetic, belying any fatigue.
“It's just you with your backpack, your food, your weapon, your water,” he said, describing the experience of fighting in the rainforest.
The Muckleford soldier is part of Rotation 114 of the Rifle Company Butterworth, a joint initiative of the Australian and Malaysian armies.
The engagement has its roots in the Malayan Emergency of the 1970s, when Commonwealth troops warded off Communist insurgents inside the southeast Asian nation.
Today, Rifle Company Butterworth sees soldiers from both countries work alongside each other to develop their tactical training.
“The main idea is swapping ideas, swapping training values. It's a relationship that's mutually beneficial,” the 23-year old sapper said.
The pinnacle of the tour is Exercise Haringaroo, a five-day jungle warfare scenario, from which Sapper Fletcher is returning.
Asked to describe an average day in the Malaysian jungle, Sapper Fletcher said it routinely began with troops packing up their kit in case a quick exit from camp is required.
Everyone faces out into the jungle, as if primed for attack.
After breakfast and a quick clean of their weapons, soldiers smear on camouflage cream and start to seek out their enemy.
The entire exercise plays out in jungle terrain, a setting Sapper Fletcher called “thick, inpenatrable and very, very humid".
He said some of the Australian team were ravaged by blisters and mosquito bites after five days in the difficult conditions, which explains the sapper’s admiration of the Malaysian forces and their comfort in the jungle environment.
“They could stick out time in the jungle a lot longer than Australia,” he said, saying their approach to nocturnal warfare was also more relaxed than that of the Australians.
“No torches, no movement, no noise,” Sapper Fletcher said of his team’s strategy, explaining he had to rely on perimeter cord to edge his way around camp.
“It gets brutally dark. You can’t see your own hand in front of your face.”
Language is key
It is not just the sapper’s combat skills that have been put to the test in Malaysia; he has also been brushing up on his Malay language.
He studied bahasa Indonesia at his Maryborough high school, a language very similar to the Malaysian tongue.
It is a skill he wants to use more throughout his military career and hopes to he will be chosen to hone his Indonesian skills in defence force language lessons upon returning home.
“My goal with the army is to work on relationships between Indonesia and Australia to make them as positive as they can be,” he said, noting last year’s execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran had seen tensions between the two countries rise.
“There's 230 million Indonesians and that doesn't get better by ignoring it.
“It's an absolutely invaluable relationship and it can start by building connections at lower levels, building rapport and trust with the soldiers.”
Choice of camouflage
The chance to realise these sorts of ambitions is one of the reasons Sapper Fletcher enlisted in the army in 2011.
He was sixteen and they offered him a job as an apprentice electrician.
“It was too good an offer to refuse,” he said.
Lessons in accountability and discipline, as well as job security and a generous wage, were among other benefits of working with the defence force, he said.
But Sapper Fletcher’s mother, Evelyn, who still lives in Muckleford, said her son was already a focused young man when he joined the defence force.
“He was never going to be sitting on his laurels,” Ms Fletcher said.
“If he can't do something, he'll nut it out until he can; if he's going to do something, he'll research it to the nth degree.”
She said her son was well-suited to the outdoors work he was doing in Malaysia after years of camping holidays, motocross competitions and horse riding.
Asked whether having a child in the military was cause for concern, Ms Fletcher said she did not fear for Sapper Fletcher’s safety.
“He’s by no means a fool, so I trust him, even though he’s young,” she said.
A fighting chance
Sapper Fletcher only finished his electrical apprenticeship 10 months ago, but in that time, he has also visited Fiji as part of Australia’s humanitarian aid response to Cyclone Winston.
The federal government committed $35 million to help its Pacific neighbour recover from the February storm that killed 44 people and affected another 350,000 residents.
“It was leveled,” the sapper said.
“We got off the boat about a week after the cyclone and there were no leaves left on the trees, there was maybe one in 20 houses that were livable.”
Like the Malaysian soldiers with whom he is currently embedded, the Fijian community also taught Sapper Fletcher an important lesson: resilience.
“The Fijians were unshakable,” he said.
“They were just happy to see people and have someone to kick a football around with.
“Never mind their world had been blown down around them, they were happy to see us.”
The phone line begins to crackle as 114th rotation of the Rifle Company Butterworth approach their pitstop in Kota Bharu, a city near the Malaysian border with Thailand. Sapper Fletcher says goodbye. A long-awaited – and much-deserved – shower and meal await.