2015 Anzac Troop Train Re-Enactment - Rockhampton to Maryborough. Lance Corporal Ben McDonald - born in Maryborough. Photo: Alistair Brightman / Fraser Coast Chronicle
2015 Anzac Troop Train Re-Enactment - Rockhampton to Maryborough. Lance Corporal Ben McDonald - born in Maryborough. Photo: Alistair Brightman / Fraser Coast Chronicle Alistair Brightman

The day I lost my mate in Afghanistan

AS THE sun rises across Queensland this morning, Lance Corporal Ben McDonald will be honouring the memory of two heroes - one a stranger and one a mate.

Returning to the place of his birth, the young soldier will join a dawn memorial service in Maryborough to unveil a bronze statue of Major Duncan Chapman - the first Anzac ashore at Gallipoli.

As he salutes the city's long-dead hero, Lce Cpl McDonald will be thinking about a "lovely guy" murdered by a rogue soldier in Afghanistan.

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Sapper James Martin and Le Cpl McDonald were best mates bound together by their desire to serve their country.

The 2nd Combat Engineers Regiment recruits met at the Enoggera Army Base, in Brisbane, in their late teens and quickly formed a firm friendship.

"We just became really good friends," the 23-year-old from Nambour said.

"He was just a lovely guy - really easy to talk to.

"He was pretty much unconditionally nice to everyone he met."

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On August 30, 2012, Sapper Martin, Stjepan Milosevic, 40, and Robert Poate, 23, were playing cards at a patrol base in Afghanistan when a soldier from that country's army opened fire, killing them all.

Lce Cpl Milosevic, 40, served in the 2nd/14th Light Horse Regiment and Private Poate, 23, was with the 3 RAR Task Group.

"We were the first response," Lce Cpl McDonald said. "We had lined up with all of our kit, ready to get on the helicopters when we were told."

The 10 minutes it took to reach the scene of the unprovoked attack were the longest of the lance corporal's life.

"I was just numb, completely numb, it felt very surreal," he said. "I didn't know what to think. We were in complete and utter shock."

Despite the grim news, Lce Cpl McDonald and his colleagues had a job to do.

"When we got there we were put on to security," he said.

"We sat in the tower all night, just looking at where it had happened.

"We just could not believe it - we could not believe it had happened."

As he travels across Queensland on the Anzac troop train re-enactment, the quietly spoken soldier reveals he is coming to terms with the tragedy.

"It still doesn't feel real, to be honest, but I've accepted it," he said.

Lce Cpl McDonald is taking the five-day train trip with his mother, Sandy, a 53-year-old executive support officer from Nambour, and his grandmother, Marjorie Black, from Yeppoon.

Mrs McDonald always knew her eldest son would follow in the footsteps of his three great-grandfathers and his grandfather, who served in the Army during the two World Wars.

She said her heart froze when she heard a young lad from her son's unit had been murdered.

"The news had leaked out that a 21-year-old sapper had been killed - we were just beside ourselves," she said of her and husband Paul's reaction.

"We were terrified."

Tears flowing down her face, Mrs McDonald revealed the struggle inside.

"You just feel so guilty that your son has come home," she said.

"We met James one Anzac Day - he was a lovely boy."

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