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Thursday 23 March, 2017
In late 2016 I appeared before the panel for the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee Inquiry into ‘Suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel’. During the hearing one of the committee members remarked that, in their opinion, a veteran was someone who had operational service – that is, they have deployed to a designated conflict zone. While legislatively accurate, I could not disagree more.
“Veteran”, public perception of a veteran, personal opinion of who or what a veteran is, and what the veteran community itself considers the word to mean can vary significantly. There are endless opinions and so many are at odds with each other.
One of the greatest challenges in life is to alter or change a mindset. Changing your perception or understanding of something is made even more difficult when that ‘something’ relates to you as an individual.
Going back 35 years to my childhood, a veteran was that dashing old chap who I used to watch, head held high, chest adorned with shiny medals, tears in his eyes marching proudly along North Terrace and down King William Street, no matter the weather, waving with a gusto that nearly knocked him off his feet.
1998 found me marching down George Street in Sydney with the rest of my Australian Defence Force family. No medals on my chest, but so very proud of taking part in an Australian tradition, knowing that I too was now a part of something bigger. Trained, ready, willing and able to serve my country should the need ever arise.
Fast forward to 2004, to my first Anzac Day post discharge where I too was now, by definition, considered a ‘veteran’. I didn’t march, for me it didn’t feel right. I reflected on my service and that of those who served before me. The things that they saw and did, versus what I saw and did, or more to the point in my mind what I ‘didn’t do’. I attended my local dawn service at Houghton. I did wear my medals and I wore them with pride alongside other military family members of generations past and present. We all went and had a gunfire breakfast at the Tea Tree Gully RSL, and then proceeded to a local watering hole. Relatively standard Anzac Day.
At a point in the day I was at the bar where a gentleman sidled up next to me and asked aggressively “What are you trying to prove Love, wearing your Dads medals?” I stood there, anchored to the spot, caught between my own outrage and pity for this clearly uneducated person who stood next to me being insulting. I chose the high road and explained the protocol for wearing medals, and then continued on to go into detail explaining to him the meaning of each medal that I wore, turned on my heel and walked away (still seething on the inside I must admit).
In that short exchange he confirmed what I didn’t feel right about. What I felt at the time were my shortcomings. I hadn’t fought in a ‘real war’ (what is a real war anyway? That’s a topic for another day!), I hadn’t been shot at, hadn’t had to fire a weapon (except in training), hadn’t experienced bloodshed, hadn’t experienced the hypervigilance of operating in an area littered with IEDs, nor experienced the trauma of losing a mate in battle. I had simply sat in an Operations Room with a headset on reporting radar contacts to the bridge of a ship. Certainly not a veteran by my definition.
I am by no means a remarkable person and that gentleman will not remember me, what he said, or the lesson I attempted to teach him that day. But his words have stayed with me, and for a long time confirmed my reasons for not feeling ‘right’ about marching.
Thankfully as time has passed I have been able to alter my way of thinking. I no longer feel like I don’t deserve or am not worthy of the medals I wear.
Our sailors, soldiers and airmen and women do not determine what is war-like and what is non-warlike service, or peace-making versus peace-keeping. I would hazard a guess and say that it is not even something that crosses their minds. I know I never gave it any consideration. I simply went where I was sent and did what I was trained to do.
What I do know is that every single individual that signs on the line to serve their country is given the highest level of training, is highly skilled, and is ready, willing and able to answer the call if and when required.
Four little words, “ready, willing and able” for me, makes you a veteran.
Someone who is fortunate enough to go through their military career without having to serve in an operational environment is no less worthy than someone who was unfortunate enough to be sent.
All of us who have worn a uniform at some point in our lives are worthy.
Service is Service.