AS the world locked itself down and worried about COVID-19, General Sir Peter Cosgrove did as he has done so often in his life, turning a challenging time into something productive.
He got to work on his recently published memoir, You Shouldn't Have Joined ....
"As soon as we were locked up in March, I started to write, and I was able to hand the 95,000 words into the publisher the third week of April," explained Sir Peter on the phone from Sydney. "So I got stuck into it."
Having retired in July 2019, after serving five years as Australia's 26th Governor-General, Sir Peter saw the silver lining in the COVID clouds, as the pandemic compelled him to slow down and reflect.
"I think if I'd had the opportunities to rush outside and do other things, that would have made the whole writing task slower, and the poor old publisher would have been grinding their teeth a little," he said.
General Sir Peter Cosgrove had much to write about.
More than using his "irredeemably optimistic" approach to life to mine a silver lining, the 73-year-old has often been there at key moments in recent Australian history, providing a familiar face and a reassuring presence.
In one of his early duties as the Governor-General, Sir Peter led a nation in mourning after Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was shot down in 2014, killing 298 people, including 38 Australian citizens and residents.
He helped guide relief operations after natural disasters. And what brought him to prominence was his time as the commander of INTERFET, the international force restoring order in East Timor in 1999 and 2000.
When talking about that period, Sir Peter referred not so much to himself but the defence force in general, saying East Timor was "an opportunity for the services in Australia ... to step out of what I call the shadow of benign neglect from the Australian people". He then changed "neglect" to "ignorance".
Peter Cosgrove had spent much of his military career until then in that shadow. But he quickly became known within the army. Shortly after graduating from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, the young officer was in the midst of jungle combat in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. For his actions during one assault, he was awarded the Military Cross. That award, he said, created "a halo effect".
"It carries a cache, and people expect you to be good, to be a good example to others, to be somebody to look up to," he said. "And you have to perform. You cannot let people down. So I started to work very hard to be a professional person who was a good example."
More than the "halo effect", hard work and a willingness to embrace opportunities saw Peter Cosgrove rise through the ranks, until history placed him, and the men and women he was leading in East Timor, firmly in the public eye.
"I think the Australian people liked what they saw and fell back in love with their army, navy and air force," he said.
The public particularly liked what they saw in Peter Cosgrove. More than leading the military, he came to represent the best of all of us. He was named Australian of the Year in 2001. What's more, he was at the forefront of the military at a tense time, with operations in the Middle East.
"After [East Timor], good luck and the great performance of the troops meant that I was very well known, and I got made Chief of Army, Chief of the Defence Force," Sir Peter said. "And there's no way I would have been the Governor-General, if I'd not become well-known through my military jobs."
While he retired as Chief of the Defence Force in 2005, General Sir Peter Cosgrove, in the public's mind, remains one of our best-known soldiers. And through his work, for many he continues to personify their respect and admiration for the Australian Defence Force.
But the public's perception of the military may be about to be tested, with the release of a report into allegations of misconduct and possible war crimes involving a number of Australian troops in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.
Sir Peter is waiting to see what the long-awaited report by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force reveals, after it is released on Thursday.
The former Chief of the Defence Force said while he would never "lose my quiet sense of admiration" for what Australian troops did, and continued to do, he also understood that "the public is quite rightly concerned about the horrible nature of some of the allegations".
"Just like everybody else, I can't wait for the report to give us substance, rather than rumour and innuendo," he said. "And if there is substance to that innuendo, it's pretty serious.
"Therefore, I can't wait for the next step, because it's necessary, if there's to be accurate investigation, action and then healing, the sooner it starts, the better."
In his earlier memoir, My Story, published in 2006, Sir Peter recalled what had happened near the end of the Vietnam War, as opposition to Australia's involvement grew.
"I had witnessed and experienced the damage that can be caused by discordant and diminished public support to the morale and self-esteem of deployed troops," he wrote.
As a young officer just back from Vietnam, Peter Cosgrove was not particularly affected by that opposition. However, he recalled in our conversation, "I felt a bit sorry that people were picking on soldiers who were, after all, servants of the government and, through them, servants of the people".
Sir Peter hoped that, whatever the outcomes of the current inquiry, people understood that "the vast majority of people in the nation's uniform are good kids doing their job as well as they can".
"We'll have perhaps a group of people - I don't know what size; it might be small, it might be a few more than small - it will have a focus," Sir Peter said.
"Let's not throw out babies with bathwater, remembering that the Australian Defence Force is about 70,000 people, and keep our concern in a context which extends affection and respect to the vast majority of them."
After more than eight years out of his military uniform, spending time in business suits and boardrooms, the retired general received a phone call from then Prime Minister Tony Abbott, inviting him to accept the position of Governor-General. Sir Peter talked it over with his wife, Lynne, then accepted.
From March 2014 to July 2019, the vice-regal couple hosted or attended nearly 4200 events in Australia and more than 800 overseas.
In one year alone, the Cosgroves spent more than 700 hours in the air. Sir Peter gave 896 speeches and hosted about 230,000 people at the Governor-General's homes in Canberra and Sydney.
"We treated the whole five years as, 'This is not a rehearsal for your next job. This is it!', so we got stuck in," he said. "It was only when we were into the fifth year, and going forward, we sort of spotted the finish line.
"We ran through the finish line, but if you had been an official at the Olympics, at the finishing post for the marathon, and we were coming into the stadium, and as we came in, you said, 'One more lap', we may have fallen over!"
Sir Peter often used sports analogies when he spoke. He is particularly fond of rugby.
He is also fond of members of the Royal Family, especially the Queen. He has met her on a number of occasions, including in 2014, at Balmoral Castle, when Her Majesty knighted him. I wondered what his mother, an avowed Labor voter, would have thought of her boy accepting a knighthood.
"She thought the world of the Royal Family, and the fact that I was hobnobbing and having a sword placed on my shoulder, and all that sort of thing, she would have thought that was pretty cool," Sir Peter said.
In You Shouldn't Have Joined..., Sir Peter writes kindly about politicians, having seen two federal elections and three prime ministers in his time as Governor-General.
With two of those leaders being rolled by their colleagues, perhaps that shaped Sir Peter's observation in his memoir that, "It seems to me sometimes that to lead a political party is to push a wheelbarrow full of frogs, all contemplating the appropriate time to leap out".
While more than half the book focuses on his time since retiring from the military, the story of Peter Cosgrove remains wrapped in the army uniform.
So he once more visits in words his earlier years, including three postings in the Hunter, two at Singleton and another in the mid-1990s when he was in charge of a joint unit at Williamtown RAAF Base.
"We love the Hunter, we've got so many mates up there, especially around Singleton, because of the two postings," Sir Peter said.
"We feel honorary Hunter Valley residents through that."
The Hunter was the setting of the moment Peter Cosgrove decided to propose to his sweetheart, Lynne Payne.
It was 1976, Major Cosgrove was at the infantry centre in Singleton and Lynne Payne was back in Sydney. So one night, he headed out from the officers' mess with a pocketful of coins, charging to a public phone.
"I was chewing through the change in my pocket, and the lady [the operator] came on to ask me if I wanted to put more coins in," he recalled. "I told her I'd run out of coins, but I was proposing to my girlfriend. And she said, 'Ohhh!'. And then the call went unmonitored.
"But I noticed though - you know when people listening in on the line, the sound levels go down? - the sound level went down. I think every operator in the Hunter Valley was having a listen in."
The Cosgroves' first posting as a married couple was in Singleton, and they spent time in the Hunter Valley town with their three sons. What's more, in 2000, Sir Peter was named an Honorary Freeman of the Singleton Shire, which, as he jokingly told a young local at the time, entitled him to "walk into any pub in town with this medallion on, [and] I get a free schooner".
Chances are General Sir Peter Cosgrove doesn't need that medallion to have a beer bought for him in any Hunter Valley pub.
For all his extraordinary experiences, as recounted in You Shouldn't Have Joined ..., for all that he had done, Sir Peter said the biggest "pinch myself" moment had been, and still was, his partnership with Lady Cosgrove. Indeed, she was sitting beside her husband of nearly 44 years as we talked.
"She's been there the whole way," said Sir Peter. "And she was the only reason I got to be successful, and the only reason why I was able to enjoy the Governor-Generalship the way I did."
The father and grandfather also cited "the serendipity of having a successful family, and by 'successful' I mean they're healthy, they're loving, and they're growing up in their own wonderful way.
"That's a legacy every Australian ought to cherish."
General Sir Peter Cosgrove is in conversation with Scott Bevan at Reading Cinemas, Maitland, on November 26 at 6pm.
While you're with us, did you know the Newcastle Herald offers breaking news alerts, daily email newsletters and more? Keep up to date with all the local news - sign up here
IN THE NEWS:
- Cleanaway fined over breaches at Rutherford, Wetherill Park, Windsor
- Cleanup from Monday's intense storm continues for third day in Newcastle
- NAB branches across Australia close after security threat
- Electricity, coal, gas and 'true' Labor on show as Albanese throws shield of calm over Fitzgibbon bombshell