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Think Piece: Honouring those who served

Thursday 19 October, 2017

On 30 May, 1868, a crowd of about 5,000 people gathered, not in Australia, but at Arlington National Cemetery in the United States for the first of what later became Memorial Day, then known as Decoration Day. It was a day where the graves of those who died in the American Civil War were decorated with flowers by their families, friends and colleagues.

Before strewing flowers upon the graves of the dead, the crowd listened to an address by James A. Garfield, then an Ohio congressman who had also served as a Major General in the Civil War. In this first of such annual addresses at Arlington National Cemetery, Garfield, who in 1881 would become the 20th president of the United States, set a standard of explaining the importance of commemoration.

Garfield noted the solemnity of the occasion by beginning, “I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion,”  “If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech.” Those sentiments are as true today as they were then, when those of another country in another war were being remembered.

With that I mind I headed to Karoonda on Sunday to unveil the Roll of Honour for all who have served from the District. Taking a slight detour I called in at Copeville to try and locate the Spurling Memorial Hall. William Alfred Spurling enlisted in the 10th Battalion in 1915 and served with the 50th Battalion on the western front in 1916 until his death on 16 August 1917.  In one of those typically twisted tales often associated with war, his death was caused not by the bullet nor the shrapnel wounds from which he was recovering, but from septicemia pursuant to a scratch on his face. The limited availability of medical supplies such as penicillin proving his eventual undoing.

Unfortunately I was unable to locate the hall and was subsequently advised that it is situated on the outskirts of Copeville in a state of disrepair.  It is sad that the Hall is in this state, not through anyone’s fault. But while investigating the terrific work of those involved in the Karoonda District Roll of Honour project I was reminded of the importance of commemoration and its link to our future.

The names inscribed on the honour rolls that were unveiled are those who have served through more than a century of conflict – some gave all, but all have given themselves to the service of our country.

(Top) The Karoonda Honour Roll (bottom left) Rob Manton delivers his opening address. (Bottom right) Crowds gather at the opening and unveiling of the Karoonda Honour Roll.

They deserve to be honoured – too often we shy away from even acknowledging the service of those who place themselves in harms way so that we can have safe and normal lives.

In Australia we tend to limit our acknowledgement and commemoration to a couple of days a year: Anzac Day for most, Remembrance Day for some. And while that is important it doesn’t really get to the nub of who these people are who wear, or have worn, our nation’s uniform.

Sir John Monash, that great Australian soldier who was the first to lead an Australian Corps on the battlefields of the western front in 1918 that turned the tide of the war, described the Australian soldier as easy to lead but difficult to drive. His bravery was founded upon his sense of duty to his unit, comradeship to his fellows and a combative spirit to avenge his hardships and sufferings upon the enemy.

The Australian service person today is much the same as 100 years ago. Characterised by the qualities of resilience, initiative and an innate ability to work as part of a team, their occasional apparent lack of discipline is actually the acquired trait of individualism that is the best, not the worst, foundation upon which to build.

The names on the Karoonda District honour rolls span several generations of young Australians, all different and yet all alike.

Their service reminds us that freedom is not bought cheaply. It has a cost; it imposes a burden. And if words cannot repay the debt we owe them, as James Garfield suggested, our actions must strive to keep faith with them and with the vision that led them to serve.

The attendance of more than 300 guests on Sunday, some from interstate and many from intrastate, to acknowledge the great work of the Advisory Group under Ms Margaret Size’s leadership, and to honour the service of those whose names appear on these rolls, was a great first step to keep the faith.

On the side of the book shelf in my office is a newspaper clipping with the names of the 41 service personnel who we have lost during the conflict in Afghanistan. Each morning I touch the clipping to remind myself why I am there and to, unconsciously now it seems, thank them for their service.

In Karoonda, and in many other places around the state, the acknowledgement of all who have served from surrounding districts, symbolised by their names on Rolls of Honour, is a testament to them and to all who have worked so hard to recognise and honour them.

Let’s spread the word that each time we pass a memorial, walk through some memorial gates, or pass a Roll of Honour, we take just one second to touch or pause and remember that we are able to be there, on whatever occasion it is, because of those honoured there and the many thousands of others who have served.

Rob Manton is a former Army Officer with 30 years of command and leadership experience. His military career involved command appointments at every rank level from Lieutenant to Colonel including as Commanding Officer 8th/12th Medium Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, and culminating in a formation level appointment as Commandant of the Army’s Combat Arms Training Centre in 2005. Rob has served in exchange positions with the Defence Forces of both the United States and the United Kingdom. His operational experience includes service with the United Nations in the Middle East in 1990, and with the Multi-National Force – Iraq in 2006 as the Deputy Chief of Staff with responsibility for strategic campaign planning. Rob’s final appointment in uniform was as the Military Adviser to Australia’s Ambassador to the United Nations during Australia’s successful candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council. Rob was appointed Director, Veterans SA in October 2014.

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