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Lust Love Loss Conversations: Tanja & Mark

Tanja and Mark Johnston

Lust Love Loss: Conversations is a three-part series produced by renowned broadcaster Megan Spencer that delves deep into stories of Australian wartime relationships. What started as a chance meeting on the stoop of a share house in Toowoomba evolved into a relationship filled with letter writing, '90s mixtapes and a good dose of humour between Tanja and Mark Johnston. The couple combined Tanja’s love of art and Mark’s experience in the army to co-create ANVAM – the Australian National Veterans Art Museum – which helps promote veteran wellbeing through art programs. This episode of the podcast follows their story from the stoop to the studio, and what it was like founding this cherished veteran’s organisation together.




This podcast has been produced for the Shrine of Remembrance to accompany the exhibition Lust Love Loss: Australian stories of wartime relationships (1 December 2021 – 1 November 2022).

Please note that this episode was recorded in late 2021, around the time of the final withdrawal of Australian forces from Afghanistan.

Speakers: Tanja Johnston, Mark Johnston.

Letters: read by Tanja and Mark Johnston

Interviewer/Producer/Sound: Megan Spencer

Archival sound:

“Bougainville (Australian Peace Monitoring Group), Adrian Boland reporter, Ten News, December 1998”. 10X Media Group/Ten Network Australia

Home videos: Tanja and Mark Johnston.


Original ‘Lovestruck’ music by Philip Brophy.

Performed by Bill McDonald (bass), Dan Luscombe (guitars), Garrett Costigan (pedal steel), Sianna Lee (vocals) and Philip Brophy (drums).

Audio mastering:

Kris Keogh

Tape transfers:

Fleurieu Multimedia

Special thanks:

Mark and Tanja Johnston for their generous interviews, and for sharing their letters and home video audio for use in this podcast.

Tanja and Mark are the co-founders of ANVAM, the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum (ANVAM), located at 312 St. Kilda Road, Southbank. Find out more about what they do – and how you can support them – by visiting and follow them at @anvam310 on InstagramFacebook and Twitter .

Their annual March to Art exhibition is on at the St. Kilda Road space from Sunday 13 March – Sunday 1 May, 2022. This year’s theme is ‘Voice’.

Thank you: 

Judy Toohey at 10X Media Group for assistance, Liz Boulton, Gary Juleff and the Shrine team: Sue Burgess, Leigh Gilbert, Tessa Occhino, Laura Thomas and Neil Sharkey, curator of Lust Love Loss.

See the exhibition at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne until November 2022.


The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Shrine of Remembrance.


If this interview raises any issues for you, please contact:

Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14

Open Arms (formerly VVCS) - Veterans & Families Counselling on 1800 011 046 or on their website

Episode duration:



TANJA IN VIDEO: That's recording. Oops.

MARK IN VIDEO: Well this is the building I work in at the moment… I work right in the middle of that

MEGAN SPENCER: Welcome to this podcast exploring all facets of our wartime history. The Shrine of Remembrance acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we honour Australian service people and we pay our respects to elder's past, present and emerging.

Hello, my name is Megan Spencer. And this is Lust Love Loss, a podcast that explores Australian stories of relationships and military or wartime service.

TANJA: I'm Tanja Johnston, and I was born in Marl in Germany in 1971. And I'm married to Mark Johnston.

MARK: So, Mark Johnson, I was born in Hay in New South Wales in the Riverina, in the late 60s, so 1969. The city we are living in is Melbourne, and I am married to Tanja Johnston nee Mittendorf. And we've been married for 22 years.

MEGAN SPENCER: Love, defence life, the arts and a deep sense of community service go to the heart of Mark and Tanja Johnston's relationship. For the past 20 years, they've made their home in Melbourne, co-founding in 2013, one of our most progressive and cherished veteran support organisations, ANVAM, the Australian National Veterans Art Museum based in St Kilda Road opposite the Shrine. Their lives and relationship are inextricably linked to this veteran led charity and benevolent institution.

TANJA: So ANVAM stands for the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum and my role at ANVAM is as the Head of Arts Programs

MARK: And my role is as chairman and director at ANVAM

MEGAN SPENCER: It's a compassionate enterprise. They also have a killer story about how they first met by chance on the stoop of Tanja’s share house in Toowoomba, affectionately known as the Blue House. Both fresh faced 20-somethings starting out their working lives, Tanja on her first posting as an art teacher and Mark on his first with the army at Borneo barracks, Cabarlah, it was 1994 and they haven't looked back since.

MARK ON VIDEO: This Mum is Tanja, Tanja and Ed’s place in Patricia Street, you see a lovely blue wooden house. This is out in the backyard at Tanja and Ed’s…

MEGAN SPENCER: Coming from a long line of journalists and farmers also with two grandfathers who served in the volunteer Defence Corps during World War Two, as a teen Mark found himself deeply drawn to military service, joining the army at 19.

MARK: I joined the Army in 1989 as an officer cadet, and trained at the Defence Academy, which was quite new at the time, it only opened in ‘86, I believe from memory. I graduated there with an arts degree to the Royal Military College for my final year of training, and then was graduated to the Australian Intelligence Corps. From there I was posted from our first posting to Queensland to the seventh signal regiment, electronic warfare in Toowoomba. And that's where I met Tanja.

MEGAN: Tanya is the partner of a veteran and granddaughter of veterans. In 1976 as a young child, she emigrated from Germany with her family, growing up in Brisbane. Super creative, she studied Fine Art and prophetically was mentored by a couple of veteran artists and academics on her road to becoming a professional artist, arts educator and arts therapist.

TANJA: So I studied a Master of Art Therapy here in Melbourne. And from that, I started to research trauma and then I moved into a position that allowed me to work with the veteran community and from that, ANVAM really started to form.

MEGAN SPENCER: A difficult birth with her first son triggered that interest in art as therapy.

TANJA: So I guess it was a way to kind of you know, heal myself in a way and explore that. So I guess having had that lived experience, that's really what I draw on and having the lived experience of being partner of a with veteran to again that's probably put me on this path to utilise, I guess those skills.

MARK IN VIDEO: That’s Toowoomba out that way…

TANJA IN VIDEO: Driving to Toowoomba, and back this way is the road out through Cabarlah to Crows Nest.

MEGAN SPENCER: While Mark was serving and after they left Toowoomba, as with many defence couples, Tanja and Mark found themselves relocating a number of times.

MARK: And from, I spent three years there, my first posting is Lieutenant troop commander, and then to Darwin to the 2IC role on promotion to seventh intelligence company. So I spent two years there. From there, I was posted down to Sydney to the Australian Theatre Joint Intelligence Centre, and I end up spending two and a half years there before finishing up with defence, so putting my discharge in 2000.

MEGAN SPENCER: In 1998, Mark deployed as a peacekeeper, to Bougainville.

MARK: And on that journey, whilst I was at the Joint Intelligence Centre, I was deployed to Bougainville as part of the peace monitoring group in late 1998 for four months

NEWS AUDIO: From the air it seems postcard perfect, take a closer look and there's no mistaking the signs war. These Aussies are trying to keep Bougainville’s fragile peace. A ceasefire was declared back in April. Problem is a generation of kids here have grown up knowing nothing but battle.

MARK: I was posted over there as a liaison officer for the Joint Intelligence Centre. So, I worked in the headquarters, which was in Arawa, it had been going for probably a good 18 months to two years before I arrived in Bougainville. And that whole deployment came out of the civil war that had raged there for nearly 10 years with Bougainvillians determined to get some recognition for royalties out of the copper mine in Bougainville.

MARK ON VIDEO: We’ve been given the chance to make a Christmas video to sit home so everyone can get an opportunity to see we're living, and the conditions we live in, and so we can say hi in person too, released via video, to everyone at home.

MEGAN SPENCER: It was the 90s, so writing lots of letters and emails to each other while they were apart, kept Tanja and Mark strongly connected. And they also posted home videos to each other to family as well as a way of staying up to date.

ON VIDEO: And it says Record. Let's go. It’s on now…

MEGAN SPENCER: Mark’s deployment to Bougainville meant that Mark and Tanja were apart for their first Christmas and their first wedding anniversary. So, she spent it with Mark's family in Hay.

TANJIA ON VIDEO: I’m zoomed into you, it’s a very big wedding anniversary tomorrow…

MEGAN SPENCER: After marrying in 1998, Mark and Tanya had two sons who are now in their late teens and early 20s, of whom they're exceedingly proud. Family is the axis on which their shared world spins, whether it be their own, or the broader one they've created with Australia's veteran community.

MARK ON VIDEO: What I'm gonna do is go for walks around the house, show you where we live, hopefully introduce you to some people that I live with and just give you a feel for where it’s all happened

MEGAN SPENCER: More focused on serving others, as you’ll hear, Mark and Tanja are not used to speaking about themselves. Theirs is a tender, shy story forged by great love for each other, for others, and gentle humour. So, let's begin this story by rewinding back to that day in 1994, where two young people were about to meet on the front step of the now infamous Blue House on Jarowair Giabal country, Toowoomba.

MEGAN SPENCER: So, I have to say you, guys have a corker of a story about meeting, and I'd like you now Tanja, to invite you, to start us off on this magnificent journey.

TANJA: So I'd moved in with two other teachers into a blue house in Mount Lofty, Toowoomba. And we had been living together for a couple of months. And then one of my flatmates moved out, and we advertised, and we had a few applicants, and one applicant was an officer and a gentleman he assured us and we thought he was okay. And we asked him a few pertinent questions


TANJA: Well, are you an axe murderer? That was one of them. And could he cook? And he could cook, he assured us he could cook so he moved in we decided that he was okay. And he moved in and went to work and told everyone at work that he at the base. Yep. So he got on to the base. And he mentioned that he lived with two blonde teachers. So, after that we had a steady stream of young men visiting our flatmate who, coincidentally was never home when they would visit so, and most of them, I just turned away and said he wasn't home.

SOUND EFFECT: Knocking at door

TANJA: And then, after a couple of weeks of this happening, and different knocks at the door, I opened the door to see two guys, and one of them I hadn't seen before one of them I had seen and our flatmate wasn't home, but I invited these two to come in. They were the first ones I'd invited in, and they stayed and our flatmate came home and one of them was Mark. And the reason why I hadn't seen him was because he had been on extra duties. He'd been a naughty boy.

MARK ON VIDEO: Well this is a look at the barracks. And as you can see, this is the front gate. There’s the guard room where I spent 28 days, no 22 days last year

TANJA ON VIDEO: That’s where the naughty people have to stay

MEGAN SPENCER: There was a misdemeanour involved. Would you like to take up the story on this part of it, Mark?

MARK: That Christmas, I had taken up the job of being the detachment commander for a little detachment up in Bamaga in far north Queensland in Cape York. And whilst I was away, the OC of my squadron said there's going to be an office reshuffle and the soldiers had to move officers around, and one of them found an air rifle in my office, which wasn't mine, but it was in my office. And so when I returned, myself and the owner of that air rifle, both got in a hell of a lot of trouble, because it wasn't in the armoury. And both of us ended up getting about 28 days extra duties on the gate. And I was doing those extra duties when Tanja got a new flatmate, and everyone was coming back saying that met Tanja and the other flatmate and I couldn't get there, I was stuck at the base doing extra duties. So, when we eventually got relieved of my or completed my extra duties, I managed to get in there and meet her and here we are

MEGAN SPENCER: So you let these two guys in, these are the first two that you let in? Why did you let them in?

TANJA: Because I was keen on Mark. It was his eyes. Yeah. He had beautiful brown eyes and beautiful hands. And they, but they were the two things that yeah, had me hooked. Wow.

MEGAN SPENCER: And what about you, Mark, when you laid eyes on Tanja? Standing at the front door? What was, what were your first impressions?

MARK: Speechless. Like wow, yeah. Trying to avoid being the shallow male but stunning woman that captured me straightaway.

MEGAN SPENCER: That's amazing. So what happened after that? Like, did you bump into each other out in the world? Did you exchange numbers? How did it grow from there your relationship?

MARK: I think from memory that night, we watched movie which was probably our favourite movie, which is The Last of the Mohicans, obviously a very romantic and tragic story. And then from there, I think I invited Tanja out for a drink somewhere. And even that was funny.

TANJA: We went out for a cup of tea…

MARK: And we had a biscuit and Tanja was using a fork to break the biscuit and half the biscuit flew across the table onto the floor. And then sometime, I think as the same year actually, we went to a dining in night, she was doing a similar thing with prawns, and we had a major general sitting across from us

TANJA: Mark was hosting a Major General and again, I was trying to put on a good impression and we were having prawn entrees and the prawn flicked out and I don't know, fell across the table. Yeah. And I just sort of leaned forward to sort of wipe it away and I remember him just having a little laugh and me being mortified. Everything, I was trying to make a good impression for Mark

MEGAN SPENCER: So ‘94 you meet and then in ‘98 you get married and then in ’96 you get engaged in Darwin. And there was a fair bit of moving around I think between ‘94 and ‘98 when you got married. Can you tell us a little bit about that time in your life? Where you were and, and the moving around part of things?

TANJA: So after, after Toowoomba Mark was posted to Darwin, and we took some time off, to travel together up to Darwin for his posting.

MARK: Took about six ways to travel from Toowoomba via Brisbane and down to Melbourne, my hometown and hey, by then I'd lost my father. So, Tanja got to see where I grew up. And then we continued up through Adelaide and up through the centre to Darwin, and a fabulous trip. So that was wonderful.

TANJA: And so Mark settled in there and I headed back to Toowoomba. So, I didn't move with him on that posting until a couple of months later, I started feeling like I wanted to be with him.

MARK: So this is a typed letter from me to Tanja on 24th of March 1996 when I was living in Darwin, not only been there a few months and Tanja was still living in Toowoomba, we'd only been separated for a few months.

I love you. I'm at work, as you can probably tell, and everyone is heading home after a long day at the office. I think I'm having one of those bad days, when I'm missing you more than usual. It's not a nice feeling because I love you so much. It feels so lonely sometimes. I want to tell you about my meeting with my careers advisor the other day. He told me that at this stage, we're looking pretty good for Melbourne in 1998. That's when I'll be doing a language of some sort. I can't wait for the two of us to be living in Melbourne together. Hey, guess what? You just called me about 15 minutes ago on the phone. It was great to talk to you again, as it's been a few days. I love you and I can't wait to see you again in Melbourne. All my love. Darks.

MEGAN SPENCER: Toowoomba is known as a defence town but at the time Mark and Tanja met, Tanja really hadn't spent a lot of time socialising within that community, and she was pretty busy settling into teaching.

So, in your like, early years, so the first couple of years, did you talk much about what this might be. this defence coupling, you know, and how it might work? Because you hadn't been really around this life before, did you spend time planning that out and talking through what it might look like?

MARK: I think we sort of just let it evolve and unfold. I don't think there was a whole lot of talking about it.

TANJA: There's a letter which talks about Mark maybe going to Melbourne to do languages or something like that. So it's quite interesting. And just reading some of the letters back and getting, sort of positioning myself in that time again, I think, to your question, I don't think we really thought about that. But I do think about that experience of learning a bit about what he was doing. I was able to go on base, there was a lot more freedom to be able to move, yeah, to go on base than there is now, to see where he was living and where he was working. So I got a sense of that. Yeah, obviously, it was really new, all of that. I was living, because I was working and I had a group of friends already, you know, had established in Toowoomba. And then because we had our flatmate living with us, it just kind of was, I don't know, quite natural.

MEGAN SPENCER: So it wasn’t unfamiliar to you?

TANJA: I don't think so. But I am comparing it to then when we made the decision that we would be together and that mark would move on the next posting, I think that's when it started to be not a shock to the system.


TANJA:  Yeah, it was it started to become real because I was leaving everything that I had established for myself. And I often thought about each of the postings that Mark invariably would move in to a job that was already there. So, for him, he had a pathway forward, I was leaving everything that I had established for myself, and would uproot myself to move to the next posting. And invariably, he would know someone in that new posting that he either had trained with, that he'd worked with before, that knew someone who he trained with or worked with. So, there were always close connections there. But I think, you know, for me, it was re-establishing myself, my identity, separate to his role.

MEGAN SPENCER: There is a real sense of beginning again, with a reposting, though isn't there for the defence partner.

TANJA: Yeah, there is. And I think, you know, being a teacher, I was lucky because I could move into positions fairly easily. I was younger, we were moving to places that were fairly transient anyway, so teachers were leaving, so you know, I could pick up positions quite easily there. So, I was lucky in that respect, you know, I didn't have a job that precluded me from getting into the community fairly quickly. And I guess once I started to know who Mark was working with, then I got to know some of the partners as well. We lived in a married quarter patch, off base. So yeah, our neighbours were a married couple, they're still good friends. I mean, we're connected to everybody that pretty much that we've…

MARK: It's a small world, the defence community, particularly you know, moving in the same circles as you tend to do.

MEGAN SPENCER: Just to rewind for a moment, in 1996, when he was posted to Darwin, Mark proposed to Tanja. Something prompted the marriage proposal didn't it?

MARK: Well, just the separation and wanting to get back together. And I suppose I proposed knowing that I wanted to spend my life with Tanya, it was at a time when she wanted some level of independence as well. So and that first year that were apart, when I was up in Darwin, she took the opportunity to travel through Europe. And so, she spent the better part of six months doing that. And that was, I think, a wonderful opportunity for any young person to go and do that.

MEGAN SPENCER: As you'll hear, this is when they're great letter writing period started in earnest. Tanja still has a huge bag of the letters that Mark wrote her from that time, and more. She's kept every one.

MARK: I tried to get in the routine of, I knew her itinerary and where she was going. And so I used the opportunity to write to her in the hotel that she was expecting to stay at. And I said to her, just ask if there's a letter for you, which you did, and invariably quite often, more often than not, there was, I think

TANJA: Amazing. Every everywhere I went, and I had a I had a home base, because I've got family in the UK. So everywhere I went, Mark managed, and I was very diligent at telling him sort of where I'd be going and then travelling, but that in particular, that was probably a fortnight of hotels, that every different one across Europe, there was a letter waiting for me, and I've still got them.

MEGAN SPENCER: How did that feel?

TANJA: Lovely. He was the one pushing me to have a bit of independence. And perhaps your question about, you know, what, what that lifestyle was going to be like perhaps that was him sort of helping support some of the challenges that I might feel that I would have my own identity and I think that really was what that was in many ways.

I was travelling around Europe for six months. So, this is from my travel diary on day 122. It was the day before Mark arrived and met me in the USA, 27th of November 1996. A busy day, woke up early. Did some housework around the living room and kitchen. I also shaved my hairy legs. You're now on the plane heading to the USA and I can't wait to see you. It snowed today. The wait is finally over. I love you. Then the last entry is day 123, on the 28th of November. You arrive.

MEGAN SPENCER: So handfuls of aerograms at the local post office you would have been their best customer probably?

MARK: Probably, I was learning to this is back in the day pre internet when to have a printer was a big deal. So I set it up the template so that it maximise the number of ways that I could squeeze onto an Aerogram page, front and back.

MEGAN SPENCER: Letter writing and storytelling is deep within Marks genes.

MARK: On my father's side, and his father and his father before him were all journalists in Hay. So my great grandfather bought the newspaper they called the River and Grazier back in about the 1880s and handed over to his son and then to my father who succeeded him, so three generations of journalists. But it was much more than being a writer. To see my father work within a very small community to be the town's storyteller and memory keeper, now that I reflect on it, is a really important role for small towns. Not just telling the story of the day, but the memories that are kept in those newspapers

MEGAN SPENCER: Mark’s dad was also a prolific letter writer to his children, Mark included. He was tragically killed in a car accident in 1995 and left a strong legacy of words within his family.

TANJA: I think he's got to tell, you know, he spoke about his father and his grandfather. And I think this is part of the, you know, the family connection. They were big letter writers as well. And particularly your grandfather wrote some amazing letters to all of the POWs in World War Two who missed the day-to-day happenings of life in Hay

MARK: That story is, during the war, as the local storyteller, he took it upon himself to write to everyone who was serving at the time so that..


MARK: From Hay. So he just told him the goings on around, hey, but at the end of the war, as the return prisoners of war came back, none of them had received those letters. And so, he arranged for a team of people who were able to type, typically women at the time, and they copied out all of those letters and had them bound for those returned prisoners of war.

HISTORICAL AUDIO: Brigadier Powell leads the Australian dominated peacekeeping force. It’s role is to promote an end to conflict without getting involved in it. No one in the group is armed. There are risks but the major parties believe the worst is over. Everyone here has a family back at home. It's a major sacrifice to be away at Christmas. Still, morale remains high.

MEGAN SPENCER: So let's go back to 1998. You guys got married. Can you tell me the story of your wedding in Hay before Mark went on deployment?

TANJA: Yeah. So we got married in Hay, which is Mark's hometown. We decided to do that because Mark’s family history is there. And because we were also travelling, you know, we're travelling between two postings, we decided that that was sort of the halfway mark, I guess, between Darwin and Sydney. And it was an opportunity to see everyone and to celebrate our wedding. So yeah, country town. We had been there for a couple of weeks before the wedding and there was actually torrential rain, and it never rains in Hay at that time, but it did. And all of our 65 guests who travelled, most of them got there sort of a week before, so everyone got to know each other. So, the wedding was a really big party and we had to move the wedding from, or the wedding reception, which was going to be in a close family friends garden on the river, on the Murrumbidgee, to another site, and I don't think anywhere in the world you can really do that, have a plan B on the day or the eve of the wedding. But anyway, that's, that's Hay, so everyone sort of chipped in. But we got married at St. Fergal’s church which is the same church that Mark’s parents got married in. And the church is across he road from his family home, which is in the town

MARK: We were married by the Hay priest, the local Hay priest, who was a great friend of my Father. But the Hay priest, Tink, as everyone knew him as, was a Vietnam veteran. So he was very proud to be marrying a young officer. And on the day, much to Tanja’s horror when she turned up at the church, Tink was wearing his white vestments, but under it he had a white shirt with ‘Tink for Hay’on it, because he was the water runner for the Hay Footbal Club. His mascot is a magpie so it had ‘Tink for Hay’with a magpie on it, which Tanja and I could see under his vestments.

TANJA: Yeah, and I had sort of said to him all along ‘I want you to oift your game for our wedding,’ and he rocked up in this and it was hilarious

MEGAN SPENCER: He took it literally

TANJA: He did

MEGAN SPENCER: Is it in the photos?

TANJA AND MARK: You can probably make it out

TANJA: But his love for the community was extraordinary

MARK IN A VIDEO: Okay TC, from here on in the rest of the message is for you. So, you if you’re showing it to anyone else you can stop it now

This is the part of the video, I just wanted to say that I'm missing you more than words can describe. And by the time you receive this, then we won't have too long to go probably a month or so. Yeah, that's all I can say. But just to remind you that I love you heaps and thinking of you every day, so chin up over Christmas, not long to go now. Have a great time in Brisbane with your folks. And when you go into Hay, I'm sure you will with Michelle and Mum and everyone else. So, until I talk to you next. See you later, Bye.

MEGAN SPENCER: So, you went on deployment not long after you got married?

MARK: Would’ve been maybe six or seven months after the marriage, I think.

MEGAN SPENCER: So was was that a challenge?

TANJA: Yeah, because we liked each other, you know, want to hang around with each other. So it was a challenge. And I, you know, it was difficult to begin with. But I think I got into a routine because I was working. And I had a good group of supportive friends. We did have others who'd had that lived experience around us too because of the married quarter. So I did, I guess, sort of draw on those resources around me and supports. But yeah, look, I was really sad that he had to go, but I knew that he, it wasn't for a long period. And I knew that he was relatively safe too, I guess, in the big scheme of things.

MEGAN SPENCER: How did you manage with missing Tanja, Mark?

MARK: I think all those letters are probably evidence of how I coped with that. Just maintaining that, that contact, keeping the connection going. And of course, you know, we loved each other and we still continue, our love continues to grow to this day, but at the time was just keeping the connection there

MEGAN SPENCER: In handwritten letter

MARK: Or whatever form so you know, the AMA issues you with a little notebook, I think Tanja found some letters that were written in that notebook from somewhere and through to aerograms,  emails or all forms.

MARK READING EMAIL: This is an email from Bougainville to Tanja on Australia Day, 26th of January 1999.

Hi there, TC. I love you. This will be a real quick one as I'm a little busy coming up to the end of the day. So tell me, how was the first day of school for 1999? I bet all the boys warmed to you and you had a great time. I can just see that this is going to be the best year of school teaching for you ever. There's so many opportunities for you with all the possibilities in the world. I think you have done exceptionally well while I have been away. I think you get the strength from the time you did your big travel overseas.

I think that time was a very important one for you to get out and discover yourself and it has paid off now. I am so very proud of the way you were able to accept these challenges and make the most of them. I think now, if you reminisced on the last four months, you will have quickly realised just how much you have achieved and how positive you have been. For my part, I continue to be amazed at how fortunate I have been and am at having found you, fallen in love and married you. The way that you approached life with a go get them attitude, not beating people or events stand in the way of what you wanted to do, achieve and be and then to have to love me so much is definitely an added bonus that I do not for one second take for granted. I love you TC, Speak to you soon. Love Darks.

MEGAN SPENCER: Defence post is free for service people on deployment and their families. And while he was away, Tanja would send things to Mark that she'd made for him.

TANJA: So, I'm a big sewer and I was then, and I think, you know, my interest in engagement with that probably kept me going as well. I was you know, always making things and so I made some board shorts and sent them over and the guys that Mark was living with put in orders for theirs as well. And we still have the shorts, our eldest son has one pair and yeah, we've still got the shorts and I've got some photos of Mark wearing them in Bougainville

MEGAN SPENCER: Can you describe the shorts for me please Mark?

MARK: Well, they’re typical board shorts, sort of just above the knee and they’re yellow with blue stars on them. Yeah.

MEGAN SPENCER: What was that like getting the shorts?

MARK: Well, as Tanja said, she's very creative and she's creative and putting together a care package and so to discover things in a care package, it's just like Christmas. And to know that she's gone to the trouble of making them is just wonderful. And particularly when you're over on deployment like that, I cannot express highly enough how important that connection is, something to come from home and sort of harks back to my grandfather who was keeping the connection alive through his letters and for people at home to maintain that connection to receive something physical as opposed to something virtual, like an email is really powerful.

TANJA READING A LETTER: So this letter was a letter that I received from Mark on Thursday, the 10th of December 1998.

TC, just a quick one for this morning. Sorry, I couldn't get through to you yesterday, as I was whisked away to Buka for the day. And when I got back here, the email was down. The day in Buka was pretty good. And I spent most of the day on Sohano Island, which is a great location. From the gardens, you look right down Buka passage with its beautiful blue waters. Magic. One of the guys I live with up here has given me his wife's address. It would be great if you could catch up with her and share stories about what you've been doing.

TANJA IN VIDEO: Oh they are lovely … It matches Mark’s shorts. I made him pair shorts out of that material. What do you think of that darling?

MEGAN SPENCER: I think we can also forget that soldiers can become really lonely, we you know, we know that defence partners can be come really lonely too. But it can be lonely being on deployment kind of even though you're busy, and you've got everyone around you in your unit, etc, etc. It can be very lonely.

MARK: It probably can be. Personally, I didn't feel it a whole lot, because we were fairly tight bunch of fellows together. And we had turnover in the house that we were in in Tropicana

MARK IN VIDEO: Where I am at the moment is where we spend most of our time while on the balcony here at Tropicana. As you can see we have a barbecue and a little hotplate where we make our brews. Anyway, come into the house…

MARK: Each two months, you know, half the group would leave and they would be replaced. So we had that sort of turnover in that regard. But in terms of, so there's your mates that you're with, and there's new mates you're making and other people you've come across in the services. But then there's where your heart is it with your partner. And to me I'm fairly pragmatic sort of person, I always try and make the best wherever I am. I hate to feel down or depressed just because of where I am, you know, I could be digging you a gun pit somewhere. And I'll try and make the best of it. Because that's my reality. And I don't like being the opposite. I don't like feeling depressed. So, yeah.

TANJA: So maybe, in that I was just thinking, you know, I was going to say exactly that, Mark always makes the most of it. And I think he tries always, for me to have that same experience. So, you know, with the letters and what we were doing, setting that up. And I think we set ourselves up just before he left sort of unbeknownst to us, I guess that we had that, I had that, sort of safety net around me in a big city. But nonetheless, you know, we fell on our feet in that regard with who was around us and the connections that we had made, you know, but I am conscious that that time, you know, whilst he was away, it still was a peacetime, you know, we've got very different scenarios since then. So, we are very blessed that that was our experience

TANJA: This is a really nice letter. It sets the scene. This letter is from Mark. It's a group email to friends and family. And it was about Christmas on Bougainville 22nd of December 1998. Well, I hope you're all having a great time this Christmas. Things are going along here a million miles an hour workwise but we're still preparing for a big day on Friday. Tonight, we have Christmas carols. This is just rehearsals but should be pretty good. Last Sunday, I played the first international game of basketball. It was Australia vs. Bougainville. We ended up losing but it was a hard-fought match. This week, the most exciting thing, being tomorrow fingers crossed, that I will have a video link up with Tanja. The Australian Army has the technology to have video conferences. And so we're making the most of it tomorrow. We only get about five minutes, but that's enough for me to check out her new haircut, which I'm told is pretty radical. Well, everyone, I must go now and listen to the Christmas tunes. I hope you'll have a great Christmas, and my thoughts will be with you all on the day.

MEGAN SPENCER: While very welcome, the video call Tanja mentions wasn't just a simple thing to make happen like it is today. There were army procedures to follow. And in the late 90s talking to each other via video link was, as you might imagine, a strange and unfamiliar experience

TANJA: The only other communication that we had, we didn't have phone calls, we had a satellite hookup that was for five minutes, that was it. And I had to go into Potts Point into the ASTIC there, into the secure environment, and I had to sit and wait till it was my turn, and I went into a room. And there was a large screen, and suddenly Mark appeared on the screen. And we had five minutes to talk to one another. And I sat on the chair in the room. And, you know, then he said I've got to go now. And that was, I don't know, that was halfway through or three quarters of the way through. And that's the first time. And I think I may have met one or two, you know, other partners out in the hallway, waiting till we went in. And that was it. And now, you know, that the communication is so different.

MEGAN SPENCER: So what was that like? Was it difficult for you both?

TANJA: Yeah, it was difficult. Communication is so different now I'm just trying to think of how that was. Obviously, I mean, it was wonderful to see him because we hadn't seen each other.

MARK: The video hookup was a little bit surreal for me.

MEGAN SPENCER: What was surreal about the video call?

MARK: because we hadn't spoken for so long.

MEGAN SPENCER: Were you kind of in shock seeing each other?

MARK: Yeah, it’s like “Okay, well, I've sort of said everything I need to say in my last letter, how’s your day?”

TANJA: Yeah. And you know, here he was larger than life too, because he's on this big screen. And I'm sort of sitting there and, you know, seeing him for the first time. Yeah, but it was odd. But also I was in a panic to kind of make it really special. Because we had five minutes. That was it. That's all the time we had to see each other until the next time, we'd meet.

MARK IN VIDEO: But anyway, here's my room. I've been living here for two months, so far. And I’ll point out the photo of Tanja there, in that little frame. So this is it.

MEGAN SPENCER: So, Mark, you finished up with the Army in 2000. Was there a particular reason you decided to discharge then?

MARK: Yeah I think so, I was 30 at the time and probably for a year before that I started to think that trying to make a longer term career in the army in particular, in the Intelligence Corps, there's a very pointy top end in the Intelligence Corps. Very few people make it beyond Lieutenant Colonel, let alone Colonel and Brigadier to Major General. So, the writing was sort of on the wall for me that the time is right to do something different, just seemed logical that around the age of 30 was a good time to try and make a transition into a different career.

MEGAN SPENCER: How did you go adjusting to life as a civilian away from something that you've been part of 12 years at that point, and you entered as a young fella to?

MARK: Yeah, well, I think my recollection is, I did pretty well, I had a job to go to. So we moved. Although having said that we probably had the trifecta or more of issues we were up against - changing jobs, moving city, with a wife, who was pregnant wasn't a recipe for success, but we made it I think, and so I moved into a job, Tanja found a job with another school down here.

MEGAN SPENCER: So you came to Melbourne?

MARK: Came to Melbourne directly from Sydney and moving, finding your feet into a new job was always challenging. But there were people in that job who had been in the army as well. So that sort of soften the blow a little bit. But the, I think the other success factor is that it was my choice. And I put the pressure on myself to make that succeed. And I certainly feel for those soldiers who it's not their choice to make that transition at the time of their choosing

MEGAN SPENCER: Did you get what you wanted out of being in the Army being in defence? Did it give you the experiences that you were looking for?

MARK: Yes and no. Some expectations that I had, I had a grand expectation, for example, that I might have been a pilot. And that never happened. But that's okay. I take my hat off to those people who are able to do that. It's not something that I was equipped to do. And that's okay. So I found my way into a different career path. But the most enjoyable, in some respects, the most enjoyable period was in training. Four years at the Defence Academy there in Duntroon was fantastic, great experiences, young people living together, and having a lot of fun while you're doing hard stuff, hard physical stuff, every other day, and so you become pretty close. So that was great.

And then the opportunity to work with soldiers. I was terrified when I graduated from Duntroon. And with the dawning realisation that I would become responsible in some respects for the lives of young soldiers.

MEGAN SPENCER: As an officer?

MARK: As an officer. I might have been overstating my own sense of self-importance there because I was blessed with a very experienced warrant officer on exchange from the UK, and three, senior NCOs. So a petty officer and two sergeants in my troop, and they were excellent. I was so blessed to have them. And it really helped me ease on into that. And I don't think, whilst all the training that we got at the Defence Academy and Duntroon, but I don't know how anyone could be equipped for the reality of being a junior officer for the very first time. You have to rely on your senior NCOs so much. And for any young officer, if you take anything from listening to me, that is it.


TANJA: Not too bad

MARK: What time did you do?

TANJA: Three minutes, forty

MARK: Three forty, that’s pretty good. We’ll just go over here and check out the condition of one of the greens just to make Mum a bit envious.

MEGAN SPENCER: Tanja, how did it affect you, and the relationship when Mark finished up with defence in 2000?

TANJA: I was just thinking that was probably the most challenging part for me, I think. And for us, in some respects. Mark made the decision, but it was a joint decision that he would leave but he was ready and us still being young and having family in Melbourne, we decided that we would move to Melbourne for three to five years. So that was 20 years ago. And we would be near family, and we would try, we wouldn't go anywhere we'd been or we would go somewhere sort of neutral, I guess. So that was the opportunity here. But I think as Mark said, I found out I was pregnant sort of on the way from Sydney to Melbourne. And that was going to be a big change in our life anyway, the move was a big change. I guess the safety net we had, which was not so much defence, but in a way, defence because that was his job and that's what we knew. And we knew the tempo of what that was like, we knew the expectations, we knew the world that we were in there. I think then, for me, that was going to be something new, but we were excited.

MEGAN SPENCER: In their move to Melbourne, Tanja found work pretty quickly with members of Mark's family also now living in their new home city.

TANJA: I actually came into a job straightaway, which was great. And that helped me, but of course I needed I finished off because we had our eldest son then and I had a really traumatic experience with him. And I, Mark's family were here. But I didn't have a group of friends. So, I lost that really close knit group that I'd formed in Sydney and I didn't have them. So, for me, that was really the isolation that I started to feel there. And hence for me, I needed to find something for myself. So, after our son had turned one, I started a Masters, my Masters degree and that's sort of took me on the path to art therapy. So yeah, I think I struggled a bit. We certainly didn't have some of the transition support that you can access now. We certainly didn't, from my recollection, contact any ex-service organisations or ask for any type of support there in any way because I think our experiences didn't warrant that. Yeah. So on reflection that was probably the most challenging time.  You know, it was probably a bit wobbly to start with, because we didn't really know Melbourne, we didn't know where to live, but then we settled in okay.

MARK: We found our feet

TANJA: We found our feet

MARK READING LETTER: So what do you think of my typing so far? I thought I might, I could easier to read some of these letters if they were typed. But it's not as personal than the written one so I'll probably go back to that for the next time. Anyway, I'm off to use the last movie persons with one of the reserve Lieutenants, he wants to see Jumanji. So I suppose that will be good enough. I love you, and I can't wait to see you again. Love Darks.

MEGAN SPENCER: So what would you say is the cornerstone of your relationship? You've been together a long time, and you've done a lot of stuff together. What would you say is the like the bedrock of it?

TANJA: I'd say we complement each other. So, I think we've got, we're attuned to each other's strengths. We’re really respectful of each other, what we’re made of, the substance we made, all those sorts of things. And Mark’s just a really nice guy too. Yeah. And I think, yeah, for me, again, you know, he's instilled in me, you just enjoy where you are and what you're at and what you're doing. So, it's no surprise, we kind of started to work, I guess, together on, you know, we're always working on ideas and things, we're always problem solving.

MARK: For me, the strength of the relationship, obviously, using often compromise and those sorts of things to keep the harmony in the relationship is more important than being right.

MARK ON VIDEO: You can see over here that’s where I keep my cap

TANJA ON VIDEO: Hang on, I’ll zoom in on that, whoops, there it is.

MEGAN SPENCER: Just listening to you both speak over the last couple of hours, you know, there's some recurring themes. One is love, another is respect. But also, you seem to both have a deep empathy for not only each other, but the community around you, and family. And that all seems to run to the heart of ANVAM as well, especially family, it's like you're kind of trying to create something, a community around this idea to engage ex-service people, or maybe even current service people with art as a practice in order to shape themselves in a particular way.

TANJA: Thank you. Yeah, yeah, well, I guess, you know, defence is a family, you know, it's kind of, again, that theme of sort of making the most of where you are and what you're doing. And everyone's going to come to that in different ways, I guess. But that's kind of what you lose, I guess, when you leave. So drawing on that, as you know, it's family, but it's also about belonging, that's that human need, I guess, belonging to something. And if something is familiar, but also offers a challenge, that's kind of what I guess we're offering in a way that you might be a little bit out of your comfort zone, but it's actually so familiar to you, because you're doing it any way, in many respects. So, again, it's just offering those opportunities. And of course, in forming an identity, feeling that you belong somewhere to a community, you, you inevitably find a sense of purpose.

MARK: So, I was going to say there that ANVAM was largely born out of the desperate need that Tanja had to make a difference. She was an art therapist working with veterans in a clinical setting and she could see 10 years ago, that that was barely scratching the surface, and that something that she could do was to provide some services within the community, community based arts programme. And she was on that, to me about that for probably two years before I finally twigged that maybe I could do something to support her where veterans are empowered to tell their own stories, that they have the agency to do that, that someone else, like a journalist, or an academic or a historian is not telling this story and taking away their agency, they are empowered to tell their own story in their own way in their own creative form, and that they are respected for however they tell it, choose to tell their story, with no judgement at all. And I think all of those sort of characteristics and attributes is what we've tried to bring to ANVAM. And to do it in a way that builds the community. To do it around a place that galvanises the community to come together and is inclusive.

MARK: A big part of ANVAM as well is just recognising that everyone matters, every veteran matters regardless of your years of service, the rank you achieve, the awards you received or didn't receive, the number of postings you've done, or anything like that, every veteran matters and every family member of a veteran matters.

And again in our small way, if we can project that, in some way, that message that you matter, because you are part of the veteran community and you matter to us, then hopefully, they will take from that a sense of validation that their service and their sacrifice, someone bothered to acknowledge, doesn't have to be on ANZAC Day, but just you know, no veteran seeks accolades or anything like that, but just the quiet acknowledgement. That's all it takes. And that's the goal that every veteran feels acknowledged and valued.

MEGAN SPENCER: So I think my final question to you is, it's, really a, it's a Melbourne story, isn't it? ANVAM. You’ve got the love of Melbourne, you've been here for 15 years longer than you thought you were going to be. And you're working together on this project and using your experiences together, and in your respective fields from the inside out. And, to me that feels like, that feels like a love affair.

MARK: There’s many love affairs going on here. Including our own. But the, certainly a love affair with the veteran community is so deep, but it's not just us. It's a community around us that we've just happened to be a part of and facilitated a little bit.

MEGAN SPENCER: Is it a love affair? Tanja?

TANJA: Yeah, I guess, I guess it is. And I think it goes to, you know, our, I guess, our passion and back to our strengths and how we complement each other. And that's also you know, it's also something we're giving a go because of that. And I think it goes back to both our histories of service too. We’re just giving the opportunity to go. It's not rocket science, we're all doing it. And I think the last 18 months in particular has for me, you know, formed the opinion that you know, it is about community and connection and the importance of that. So, you know, this is a creative process in itself. And I think that's probably the passion and the love and the love affair, that we were part of a creative process. I guess that's everyone in some respects or certainly it’s us.

MEGAN SPENCER: Lust Love Loss is a podcast for the Shrine of Remembrance produced by me, Megan Spencer.

Speaking today were defence coupled Tanja and Mark Johnston. Huge thanks to Tanja and Mark for their generous time, interviews and support, and to them both for reading their letters and sharing their home videotapes for use in this podcast.

ANVAM, the Australian National Veterans Art Museum is located at 312 St Kilda Road, Southbank. Find out more at their website and support them on their socials Insta, Facebook and Twitter.

Their annual March To Art exhibition runs from the 13th of March to the first of May 2022 at ANVAM’s St Kilda Road space, this year’s theme being ‘Voice’.  

Thanks also to Philip Brophy for the original music, Kris Keogh for mastering, to Judy Toohey at 10X Media Group, 10 Network Australia for the archival news audio Gary Juleff at Fleurieu Multimedia and as always to the Shrine team.

For a full list of credits, please visit the episode show notes at forward slash resources.

The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Shrine of Remembrance.

If this interview has raised any issues for you, please contact Lifeline on 1311 14 or Open Arms 1800 011 046.

The Lost Love Loss exhibition is on at the Shrine of Remembrance until November 2022.

And thank you very much for listening. My name is Megan Spencer, speak to you next time.