On 10 July 1981, Bravo Company of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group was rocked to the core by the death of one of its own and the wounding of 15 of its members. If you speak to anybody that served with the company you will realise how much his death affected us. It is 35 years since he left us, but he still lives on in our memories, he is always 19 unlike the rest of us who are now mostly in our 50’s.
I was never able to visit his grave personally but I do have contacts through my own war grave photography and was able to have his grave photographed. It was a cathartic moment.
I cannot explain the circumstances of his death because I was not on that operation. I just recall the return of the company afterwards, and the sheer anger of those boys as they walked back to their tents. We were 6 months away form kla-ing out, at that point of our service we had all gone through hell in training, only the month before we had been in in Lohathla carrying out battle group drills, and little did we realise that Ops Protea was not that far away. The tragic part is that this incident was a “blue on blue” incident. Swapo had not killed our friend, our own artillery had.
Over the years I was able to settle many of my ghosts from back then, but the strange thing is that you never really do, They are always there in the back of your mind.
The official enquiry really apportioned no blame, and according to General Roland De Vries there was no such thing as “acceptable losses through training”. I respect his stance, but given how badly the SADF treated national servicemen I will always question that.
It will not bring back the young 19 year old, or heal the wounds of the 15 others. We still have the duty to make sure that we remember Lionel Van Rooyen and that he does not become yet another statistic on a memorial.
Lionel Van Rooyen is buried in Stellawood Cemetery in Durban, and is remembered on the 61 Mech Memorial in Johannesburg.
His memory will live on.
Because it was his anniversary I asked one of my friends in Durban to visit his grave for me and the rest of Bravo company and see what she could do.
I would also like to dedicate this to Rfn Locke who was badly wounded in the incident.
© DRW 2016-2018. Created 14/07/2016. Updated 07/08/2016