By using his professional skills for a very personal project, Senior Project Manager John Palmer has helped create an oasis in central Brisbane, the Afghanistan War Memorial Garden.

John, who is also an Air Force Veteran, volunteered his personal time to project-manage the five-year endeavor to construct the garden, which honours not only his lost nephew, PTE Scott Palmer, but all Veterans killed while serving in Afghanistan. Throughout the garden, 41 cast bronze plaques pay tribute to each fallen Veteran, with a 42nd plaque dedicated to Veterans killed in training and those who have taken their own lives due to service-related issues.

The memorial garden is a focal point for the valuable work of the 42 For 42 organisation, of which John is a committed board member. Aiming to provide guidance to Veterans and their families struggling with the effects of war, 42 For 42 promotes the services of various support providers and implements relationship-building initiatives.


Creating an oasis for the community

The importance of building strong relationships across all facets of life, including professionally, is something John values highly. With a long and varied management career spanning diverse industries such as defence, medical, transport and infrastructure services, John believes that fostering genuine relationships with team members and clients is essential to implementing projects which benefit all stakeholders.

"From one project to the next, management concepts are generally consistent," John says. 

"You talk to the client, talk to your people, work out where your gaps are, find team members with the right skills, and if you treat these people well, everyone reaps the rewards of their commitment and knowledge."

Built mostly by volunteers, each day's labour creating the memorial garden saw 40 to 60 people, including Veterans, shoveling dirt, carting construction materials, and planting trees and shrubs — for no reward other than the knowledge that their efforts would honour the fallen and assist the returned. 

"Being an Australian Defence Force member makes you disciplined and gives you organisational skills," John says.

Another thing it teaches you is reliance on each other to do what needs to be done; that sense of mateship. It's an appreciation that everybody's valuable in a team and nobody is more valuable than anybody else.

"In the Air Force, to fly an aeroplane, a pilot must develop a high level of trust in the maintenance crew, and in turn, the maintenance crew trusts that the pilot will bring the multi-million dollar aeroplane back in one piece. That sort of cohesive team spirit is important for any project team to function, and it really came into being during the construction of the memorial garden. 

"Volunteers enthusiastically turned up to the working bees and you'd encourage them to work together and do their best with the skill set that they had, knowing at the same time that building the garden was part of the healing process for many of them." 


Pictured above: Bronze statue depicting a soldier kneeling beside a young Afghan girl.

Important elements of the memorial garden include a vibrant 30m long mural and life-size bronze statues depicting a watchful soldier, a soldier kneeling beside a young Afghan girl, and 'Tank', one of the many military dogs who worked in explosives detection or combat assault. 

Five QR-coded information boards allow visitors to learn details about the Afghanistan campaign; whilst recovering Veterans can learn about support services available to them. By accessing the QR codes on the plaques dedicated to each lost Veteran, visitors can read a brief biography of the individual before they represented their country and made the ultimate sacrifice.


Planning for the future

John plans to continue his involvement with 42 For 42 by helping the organisation develop a strategy for sustainability.

"At Ventia, I'm using my expertise and long-term knowledge of the Queensland water market to benefit our Water business," he says. 

"We look at the market segments and develop strategies that may involve differentiation. For example, so that we can meet the evolving needs of major utilities and take advantage of available opportunities. Sustainability, both commercially and environmentally, is key to re-engineering our business for longevity.  

"There are similarities too between doing this and how we're growing 42 For 42," John points out.

Originally, building the garden was about creating a memorial and bringing people together.

'Now, we recognise that there are four basic pillars to our sustainability: continuing to support Veterans and their families; maintaining the garden as a responsibility of our lease; educating people, particularly children, to have a better understanding of the role Australia played in the Afghanistan campaign; and fundraising through events like the 42 Ball Bash, Annual sportsman's lunch and the 42 Hour Challenge - because we have to fund everything somehow!' 


A space for reflection

Asked what he feels when he sits in the memorial garden that he helped bring to fruition, John says:

"Different emotions. If it's my nephew Scott's birthday, I might just sit and have a mental chat with him. At other times, I might look around while I'm pulling out some weeds and feel amazed by how wonderful the garden is. And then, when visitors start talking about how beautiful the garden is and how they appreciate the Veterans' service, I feel proud."

As a special place of remembrance and reflection, the Afghanistan Memorial Garden will help foster the community's understanding of Australia's long campaign in Afghanistan and the sacrifice of all Veterans who served there. It is a fitting tribute to 'the 42' and Ventia is proud of John Palmer and his ongoing contribution to the endeavour.

Visit for more information about the garden and the organisation.

Pictured at top: Senior Project Manager John Palmer at the Afghanistan War Memorial Garden in Brisbane.