RHYS Maclean-Currie gave his mother the best surprise Christmas present she could have wished for.
After serving seven months with the Australian Defence Forces in Afghanistan, he was back home in Warrnambool for Christmas.
The Leading Aircraftman, 22, walked in to surprise a family gathering that had expected to exchange online Christmas greetings with him via Skype, but were instead able to hug and kiss him.
But while the former Warrnambool College student was happy to be home on leave, he was pleased to have achieved his dream to serve on an overseas mission with Australia's defence forces.
He was just in time to achieve his goal, serving with the last contingent of Australian soldiers to be sent to Afghanistan as part of the 12-year military mission.
He was among the airfield defence guards protecting the multi-national Tarin Kot base in Uruzgan province, part of the RAAF security force known as SECFOR.
He not only helped protect the Tarin Kot base but also drove Bushmaster armoured vehicles on outside patrols to safeguard Australian army and American service personnel.
He said Tarin Kot was a much safer base than in earlier years and he experienced no enemy attacks that threatened him directly.
However, there were a handful of incidents where rockets were shot at the base or its vicinity while he was in safe areas.
Rhys was providing security for the base when Prime Minister Tony Abbott flew in to Tarin Kot in October to mark the base's wind-down phase.
He said he had been too busy working and dealing with the logistics of Australia's withdrawal to dwell much on the significance of the mission's end.
He said time would tell if the multi-national mission had a permanent impact.
Rhys said the tour had been demanding with "ridiculously" hot temperatures of about 45 degrees and the principally barren landscape. "It was like a wasteland," he said.
Rhys worked 12-hour shifts, alternating between runs of day and night stints.
"There would be some days where we did not do much and other days when we were flat-out working."
The posting exposed him to the hard lives experienced by the Afghan people.
"It's like stepping into another world.
"There's so much we have here that they do not have.
"It's all manual labour over there. Fresh water is highly valued.
"They also value education. When we were out on patrols, the kids would ask us for pens."
Rhys said the children believed that if they had a pen, they would appear educated.
Being part of the last contingent to Afghanistan meant the base was being dismantled and services terminated around him during his tour.
"We lost the mess and the gym in November," he said.
"We were given rations for two weeks, which meant we were eating noodles and baked beans."
Rhys said he had been keen to serve overseas because he wanted to see how he performed in a combat operation.
"I learnt a lot about myself. I made a lot of mates."
His four-year term with the RAAF ends in May.
He is yet to decide whether he will sign on for a further term.