The dawn service at Branxton this ANZAC Day saw a record number of people present for the rising of the sun around the war memorial Rotunda. A brief service set at the time when men left the trenches to advance on the enemy. A brass band accompanied comforting hymns to remember the lives of those who have given service to our nation and the Last Post played as the flag was lowered.
We took some of our family including grandchildren along, as did many others, to share the experience and explain the significance of the dawn service. War, after all, involves family, for not only do the men and women leaving to fight make sacrifices but also do their families, and this is often ongoing well beyond the initial engagements.
I also attended an ANZAC dinner in Sydney, attended by the French Consul and the Mayor of Arras among others. It was to say thank you to the Australians who fought on the Western Front and also their families. The Sir John Monash museum has now opened and many Australians are travelling to see the battlefields and look at the graves, many have close relatives from that generation. “ Do not forget Australia” is an abiding theme that is taught at the local schools and the speeches reflected the fact soldiers live on as long as their memories persist.
Back in the present, there are some 60,000 young Australians who have been engaged in war and peacekeeping deployments in the last 10 years and still, we see the impact on them and their families which is as acute and traumatic as it was 100 years ago.
On April 24 I attended an ANZAC service at the Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway next to Concord Repatriation General Hospital in my capacity as Chair of the new National Centre for Veterans Healthcare Working Party. The Directors of the Track considered the fact that the Centenary of ANZAC and the First world war commemorations having come to an end and the memories of the second world war fading as that generation leave us it might be time to shift our focus onto more contemporary military engagements.
Gary Wilson was invited to address the service, a survivor of a Black Hawk crash in Afghanistan. A member of the Australian Defence Force for 18 years, an Electronic warfare signals operator with the 2nd Commando Regiment Gary was shot down just 10days before the end of his tour of duty.
Having sustained multiple injuries and being admitted in a coma to the field hospital he described waking up, confused and thinking he was a prisoner of war. His first reaction was to try and escape but could not move his arms or legs when he realized he was surrounded by Australian speakers it was with great relief. He was subsequently evacuated to the American Military Hospital in Germany and not expected to live.
Now at this stage in his address, he made the comment that “Love and War don’t appear a natural fit at first” but with the support of his wife and family he managed to pull through and then had to relearn everything from walking to talking and gain his independence. He stressed how important love was in helping him overcome the pain of his rehabilitation and not give up. Having his wife alongside during this process he felt was key to having a good outcome.
One comment he made was the difficulty serving men and women have in facing the reality of death among their comrades. Just two weeks before being shot down he attended a “Ramp service” for two Australians killed and whose bodies were being flown back home. He said he could not imagine the pain their families would go through on their arrival back home and had to block out any thoughts about it. Understanding the mental impact on these toughened and experienced soldiers is not something we have in front of mind. Nor is the anguish they endure in thinking they may be next and the impact on their loved ones.
I have written before of how I see mateship as an important survival mechanism but there is also an unwritten and unspoken element of love and caring for comrades that cement their friendship. Loss of a comrade has all the elements of loss that a family experience under more normal circumstances but are magnified by the surroundings and uncertainties of war.
This contemporary account was very illuminating for those of us listening as it had all the elements of bygone wars and loss of life but was much closer to home than what occurred some 100 years ago. War never goes away and a need to understand its impact and build resilience is part of attending ANZAC services.
There are many levels of love and war, Love of country, love of family, love of friends and colleagues. Even the songs that come to us during WW2 such as those sung by Dame Vera Lynn reflect the broad nature of this. “Wish me Luck as you Wave me Goodbye”’, “We’ll Meet Again”, “I’ll be Seeing You” are familiar songs about love, separation, and expectancy- all elements surrounding war service.
Like so many Australian families we were touched by the fall of Singapore where my Uncle Robert Lloyd Lusby was taken prisoner and sadly did not survive the Burma Railway. My Grandmother, a formidable woman, expressed in a letter to the SMH the anxiety felt by those at home and subsequent letters from others showed the impact on families.
My Aunt Dr Gwen Lusby was posted to the 113 Australian General Hospital at Concord and describes vividly meeting each new group of prisoners returning in shameful conditions and hoping to find her brother among them. Sadly this never happened.
So many families go through the experience of losing someone to war, and even today the numbers may be low but the love loss is just as great.
The “Dash of Danger” as my wife Mary put it, associated with my deployment to Rwanda and East Timor certainly was on my mind and that of my fellow soldiers. Indeed one of my Orthopaedic colleagues asked me to reassure his wife before he was deployed. What do you say? Another colleagues wife could not bear the anxiety and took her own life while he was away.
I am pleased to say the National Centre for Veterans Healthcare initiative is aiming to bring support to our service personnel and their families and is a response to an improved and better understanding of that complex interaction of war and love.
ANZAC day is many things to people and is gaining in attendance which may reflect our continuing search for meaning in this life…Lest we Forget.