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Monday 15 February, 2016
After I returned from Afghanistan I was invited to speak to my daughters’ school class. I turned up in full dress uniform and the children asked some very interesting questions.
Some weeks later though, I was bailed up in the schoolyard by a young girl.
‘My mummy wants to talk to you’ she said. ‘My mummy doesn’t believe you’.
Well I don’t know if you have ever been confronted by a rather indignant Reception student, but it was somewhat daunting. I was keen to know what the issue was and she said with great conviction:
‘My mummy doesn’t believe that you were a nurse in World War I’
…. Well, she was of course quite right.
I have neither had the privilege of being a nurse, nor (despite how old I might have seemed to her) can I claim to have firsthand experience of the First World War.
In fact, like many of you, here today, I don’t have any direct descendants that fought in the First World War or indeed even overseas with the Second World War. I don’t have any fading photographs of half-forgotten family members on my mantelpiece, and I can’t trace my family heritage to the assault on Gallipoli, or the trenches of the Somme. Nor are there any women in my family who served either as Sisters, or in the Land Army or in Munitions factories here at Hendon or Finsbury – where so many South Australian women served during the Second World War.
But like all of you, I benefit from what they did; from what they suffered and what they endured.
We are here today to commemorate the Bangka Straits Memorial Day – a day in which we remember those brave women who were massacred at Radji beach in 1942. And we remember the courage of Matron Drummond and her last words to her 21 brave, brave nurses as they strode into the sea to be machine gunned. ‘Chin up girls. I’m proud of you all’.
As indeed are all of us.
Many years ago I had the privilege of hearing Vivian Bulwinkel, a South Australian, and sole survivor of that massacre, speak at a public forum.
It was many years after she had been a young woman on that beach, and she spoke not of those events, but of her time in captivity and her experiences giving evidence before the War Crimes Tribunal.
This woman on the stage was very different to what I expected. Different to the one who looked down on me at dinnertimes from the portrait hung in the Officer’s mess where I lived – one of the only other women in the building.
And different from the woman my mother in law knew and worked for; a somewhat formidable Matron at Fairfield Hospital.
The audience was held captive by the passion with which Vivienne spoke of the courage of the nurses and the way they stuck together through the most harrowing of times. Not a pin drop could be heard that day, and when the choir started humming the piece we have just heard – the Captives’ hymn – there was no-one who was not deeply and profoundly moved.
Some years after that, I was in another auditorium listening this time to a young woman who was my own age – 28 at the time – Captain Carol Vaughan Evans; the only Australian woman to have been awarded the MG ( Medal for Gallantry). As a young doctor in Rwanda she was confronted by tens of thousands of victims being macheted and gunned down in front of the medical team. And she spoke of the dauntless courage of that small team as they did whatever they could in those most dire of circumstances – with limited resources, sweltering under their flak jackets and helmets in the rain and heat, with automatic fire peppering around them. Carol similarly left her audience deeply and profoundly moved.
What these two women have in common, is that like so many before and since, they were willing to put on a uniform, to travel overseas and to serve our country under sometimes impossible circumstances, at great risk to themselves and never once doing it to seek recognition, but instead using their own unique skills and talents in the service of Australia.
As we gather each year at ANZAC Day, at Remembrance Day and at this service, we do so to remember the past. And this year in the midst of the three year commemoration of the centenary of ANZAC the focus of our society is quite rightly on the events of 100 years ago.
But when we think of the First World War most of us see an image of a bronzed ANZAC warrior – a son of Australia – a young man of about 19 or 20, dressed in khaki, probably wearing scruffy boots, a hat half on and with a horse by his side…
But this is only part of the story:
Even at Gallipoli, the Australians came from all sorts of different backgrounds – German Australians, Chinese Australians, Irish Australians. There were also Aboriginal soldiers who fought and died for our country, for their country; the country of their ancestors.
…and we must not forget the women; including the courageous Australian women who drove ambulances in France or operated wearing mittens in the freezing winters of 1916 and 1917 working out of tents in France and on the slopes of Serbia …
…or the women that worked back here in Australia, raising funds, knitting socks, sending care packages to the front and looking after the broken families left behind.
These stories of course were echoed again in the Second World War – where we see the extraordinary courage of women like Nancy Wake – the so called ‘White Mouse’ who ran a resistance network in France; women like Mabel Mackerras, an entymologist whose research on malaria changed the tide of the war in the Pacific. Nor should we forget the resolute courage of the women that worked in munitions factories or as drivers, signalers and of course nurses and prisoners of war.
And today as we gather here – in this special place that acknowledges the service of women – a place where in the late 1970s I played cricket for my school team – we should also remember the women who serve now.
As we gather today there are over 9,000 women – roughly 14% of our Defence Forces – serving in uniform and some 280 women serving overseas in operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Southern Sudan, Lebanon and the Pacific. Many of you would be aware we now have women in our infantry units, female surgeons, female bomb disposal officers, female helicopter pilots, women serving on ships and training as fighter pilots.
Diversity in our Defence Force is not just a luxury in this modern world. It is a necessity. As we prosecute our operations in a globally connected world we must be able to connect with women- (who at last count made up 50% of the population) and use all their skills and talent. I saw this in Bougainville where women were an essential part of the peace negotiations process, and I saw this in Afghanistan. Just ask any Afghan male if it challenges his world view to entrust the life of his only son to a female surgeon of a foreign military.
I came to write the stories of many of these women – together with Sharon Mascall-Dare, who is here today – because I believe that our society is richer when we acknowledge the contribution of all its members. It is the stories that we tell ourselves, the stories that we share, that define us as a nation and shape our culture and our identity – and they shape our narrative understanding of war and its true impacts across our society.
I want people to know about them and I was ashamed that I didn’t know for almost all of my own 20 something years in uniform.
I also want the women serving today to come home as the veterans they will be to a different world:
As our society continues to evolve and change, so to must the way we remember and acknowledge those that have served.
For me, when we gather on days such as today, it is not much the battlefields of Europe that I think about. Instead I remember those that I have served with in Cambodia, or Bougainville or Afghanistan. I also remember those that have died, including my colleague Major Susan Felsche who died in 1993 when the plane she was on crashed into the desert sands of the Western Sahara killing all on board … and I think of those that I knew (and those I never knew) that have been damaged by their service, and of those families who deal every day with the loss of a daughter or a son that never came home.
But it is not enough just to remember, we need to give meaning to this loss and sadness.
So today I want to challenge each of you, in the same way I challenged the children of my girl’s school last Remembrance Day. What will you do to honour their sacrifice?
What is the one thing that you will do today, to make a better Australia: an Australia worthy of the death and sacrifice of all these women – women in the prime of their lives?
What will you do to keep their memories and their stories alive?
It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Many of you have spent your lives in service to this community but:
But whatever it is, we must never forget what these women from so long ago to only recently – sacrificed for us. We should not forget that women had served alongside, behind and sometimes in front of men, since the beginning of our nationhood.
We remember and thank them best, not just at gatherings like this, not just in monuments of bricks and mortar, but when we truly value what they gave us, when we share their stories and we live up to their example in our daily lives – by demonstrating our own courage, our own compassion and our own determination to make this the best country it can be.
Lest we forget