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Ohmsen, Simon (1975–2010)

by Malcolm Brown

Some might think that soldiering is an irksome business, beset by rules, rank and discipline, but Simon Ohmsen, who graduated from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in 1997, took to the profession of arms with intelligence, enthusiasm and creativity.

In the time he had before illness took him, he became not just a soldier but an ambassador for his nation, a man committed not just to defending his country and improving the capacity of the defence force, but winning the hearts and minds of those caught in conflict.

Simon John Ohmsen was born on March 9, 1975, in Newcastle, son of John Ohmsen, a tree-lopper, and his wife Nancy (nee Johnson). He grew up at Tingara Heights, south of Newcastle, and attended Belmont High.

Attracted to military subjects, he joined the Air Training Corps. Finishing school, he joined the Army Reserve and spent a year working for his father before enrolling in the Australian Defence Force Academy in 1994. At the academy, he shone academically, achieving distinctions and credits, played Australian Rules and was promoted to rank within the cadet corps.

A fellow cadet, Micah Batt, met Ohmsen early in the course and was impressed by his energy and eagerness to help. Ohmsen and Batt became firm friends. ''His influence and responsibility was wielded with a benevolence and humility that I rarely saw replicated by his peers,'' Batt said. ''Simon would consistently take the time to explain what was important and why it was so to those more junior to him.''

Completing his year at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Ohmsen became a rifle platoon commander with the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, then commander of a reconnaissance platoon. He was selected to serve on an exchange program with the British Army and was posted to a Scottish regiment, based beneath the walls of Edinburgh Castle. He never drank alcohol and amused his colleagues by dancing well to bad music after drinking water. He became known as ''Water Boy'', and even got to meet the Queen.

On his return to Australia, he was posted as Defence Platoon Commander at 3 Brigade Headquarters, and that was followed by a posting to East Timor as part of the headquarters of Brigadier Mark Evans, commander of the 3rd Brigade operations there. Batt said: ''He recounted to me later his experience with the deployment to Timor had taught him much about the serendipity of life in uniform and the importance of playing the card you are dealt with the best way you can. His commitment and resolve to improve both himself and the organisations he represented never ceased.''

After an unsuccessful attempt to get into the Australian Special Forces, Ohmsen took a great interest in international affairs and studied Arabic in the army's School of Languages. He set out to master the language, including its dialects, and became an expert in the culture, politics and customs of the Middle East. He thought he might rewrite the Arabic curriculum at the school of languages.

He also worked to establish a 12-month position in the Middle East for selected graduates of the school and in fact became the first person in that program sent to Cairo. He focused on establishing a language program. His sister, Tamara, said that soon after his arrival in Cairo, he saw a burning building in the city, ran into it to get people out, then quietly walked away. Such selflessness did not go unnoticed. Nor did his tutoring of local students in English, the financial help he gave some of them, and his attempts to help unemployed people find work.

Ohmsen was not satisfied with the quality of tuition at the American University in Cairo and set about finding tutors and teachers who could teach the type of Arabic required by a military linguist. Batt looked him up in 2004 and saw a man, ''half a world away from his superiors and peers'', applying himself for long hours day after day to become as good a linguist as he could.

It paid off because in 2005 he was embedded at a British Divisional in Basra, where his languages skill was recognised and utilised by the British headquarters staff. They assigned him to work directly with senior Iraqi commanders in Iraq. He told Tamara that when he was interpreting for an Iraqi general, ''even though I was a lower rank I was able to make a difference … make an impact''.

In 2006, Ohmsen was deployed by the Australian Army to Lebanon to assist in the evacuation of Australian nationals in the country's south. In 2008 he was posted to Townsville to serve at the Combat Training Centre. But by then health problems were catching up. He had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and late in 2008 he was diagnosed with cancer, a disease he dealt with manfully for the next 18 months. Ohmsen died on May 3. His funeral was at St Mary's Catholic Church, Manly, a week later. Among the mourners was a Muslim leader, Sheikh Khalil Chami, who also offered prayers and spoke very warmly of Simon's commitment to bringing different faiths and cultures together in a spirit of respect and common understanding.

Simon Ohmsen is survived by his parents, and by sisters Kimberly and Tamara.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 May 2010

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Ohmsen, Simon (1975–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/ohmsen-simon-16824/text28718, accessed 15 July 2020.

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