Amongst the chaos of burning buildings, a multinational military force, local unrest and anti-independence militia in Timor-Leste, 1999, one Air Force couple improvised a wedding.
Twenty years later, as the nation celebrates the 20th anniversary of its referendum and INTERFET (International Force East Timor) mission, Wing Commander Melissa Neilson and Flight Sergeant David Neilson are celebrating their own 20th anniversary.
While their Timor wedding wasn’t technically official, the couple went on to be properly married in Australia a few weeks later. Wing Commander Neilson said she never expected to be saying a Timor ‘I do’ in a disposable medical sheet with a pistol strapped to her hip.
“Personnel slept in hootchies on the side of Komoro Airfield, a long-drop toilet was available but there were no shower or laundry facilities. Safe to say, it was the last place you’d expect to have a wedding, even a fake one,” Wing Commander Neilson said.
She said somebody came up with the idea a few weeks before they left and it seemed like a good opportunity for some light-hearted fun.
“In true Aussie spirit and creativity, lots of people became involved creating the wedding costumes, setting up a mock chapel and having lots of laughs in between.
“The wedding dress was made from a disposable medical sheet with tissues attached in the shape of miniature roses, a large bow made from bubble wrap and the train was a plastic sheet from an aircraft pallet. The veil was a piece of green scrim and the entire outfit completed with my pistol strapped to my side.
“The groom, bridesmaids and groomsmen all wore Hawaiian shirts and the ‘father of the bride’ had a jacket made from disposable overalls replicated to look like a mess jacket.”
The bridal party moved from the medical tent to the ‘church’, which involved two gun vehicles from RAAF security forces.
“On completion of the ceremony, we were driven to the reception in the back of the ambulance with an ‘almost married’ sign and had empty water bottles dragging behind.
“The whole event provided an opportunity for plenty of laughter, which I think was important following many weeks of long and arduous work setting up the airfield and maintaining 24/7 operations,” Wing Commander Neilson said
Flight Sergeant David Neilson said a moment from the whole experience that stood out to him was a performance from the New Zealand Defence Force, who got involved as well.
“The Kiwi movements team did the Haka for us on the tarmac, as a challenge for us to have a strong relationship and marriage,” Flight Sergeant Dave Neilson said.
The Neilsons’ real wedding took place a few weeks later; The married couple said their nuptials in Launceston, Tasmania, seemed simple in comparison to the gun buggy and weapons that were included in their first wedding.
In keeping with their wedding tradition, Flight Sergeant Neilson is currently deployed on Operation Accordion in the Middle East region and the couple will celebrate their two decades of marriage when he returns home.