ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand is a significant day of remembrance on 25 April every year. It commemorates Australians and New Zealanders who served and died in all wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations; and the contribution and suffering of all those who have served.
On April 25 this year Wing Commander Sharon Bown of the Royal Australian Air Force gave a moving address for the Dawn Service at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. As you read on, you will be moved by Ms Bown’s eloquent and thought-provoking message. However, this speech is not only about Australians and New Zealanders, or Gallipoli on 25 April, 1915. It is also about the universal themes of war and its casualties, and as such, it concerns everyone—everywhere.
Not only does Sharon Bown recall her poignant, personal experiences serving in an emergency medical room in Afghanistan, she reflects on the hundreds of servicemen, women and civilians who are still battling with the mental and physical scars of battle. That they stand and live amongst us all, silent, in many countries today.
Ms Bown deftly weaves the themes of darkness and shadows throughout her speech. She will ‘never able to fully comprehend the darkness of man’ after what she has witnessed in Afghanistan, and reminds us of many brave men and women who strive to shield us from the ‘world’s unimaginable shadows’, at the greatest risk to themselves, of experiencing a darkness that we at home cannot understand through words alone.
Wing Commander Bown encourages us to empathise with the extraordinary strangers who protect us, past and present. Her awe-inspiring, engaging speech would be put to wonderful use studied in Australian high schools. Here it is –
Anzac Day 2014
Ladies and Gentlemen.
As we stand here together, awaiting the dawn, the shadow of night tenderly cloaks each of us in a comforting sanctuary of darkness.
In the early hours before the dawn, we are drawn from our private homes to gather here as a community of ordinary strangers, united by the actions of extraordinary strangers who fought for their country; their mates; and their lives, 99 years ago upon the shores of Gallipoli.
They were the soldiers of Australia and New Zealand. They were the Anzacs.
The darkness before the dawn clutches us. We are unable to see that which lies beyond the light; unable to perceive that which may bring us harm. Our security, once delivered by extraordinary strangers of yesterday, remains safely entrusted and protected by the extraordinary strangers of today: the men and women of the Australian Defence Force; men and women who will give their all to defend you and to ensure that you may forever gather here within the comfort of their ever watchful shadow.
As the Anzacs approached the shores of Gallipoli in the early hours before the dawn, the shadow of darkness may have shielded their presence from the enemy, yet in turn, it also shielded from them, the treacherous peril that lay in wait. From the Anzacs to Afghanistan, the shadow of night which offered protection equally exposed their vulnerability.
Even I, a Nursing Officer of the Royal Australian Air Force, have lived in such a place: where both security and vulnerability arrive with the darkness of nightfall; where we deliberately ensure that all light is extinguished to remove us from the view of those that would do us harm, those that lie and wait for their black cloak of darkness to descend.
I have watched from the dirt ramparts of the base at Tarin Kot whilst brave men and women left the warm glow of its lights to slip silently into the cold clutches of the night beyond, and put themselves in harm’s way to protect us. I have felt their departure as they slip into the invisibility of that very darkness in the company of their comrades, striving to shield you from the world’s unimaginable shadows.
I have heard the noise of battle in the distance; taken the radio call and annotated the nine liner; then eagerly awaited the sound of rotor blades that would deliver the war to me.
I have awaited their return and tended their wounds, never able to fully comprehend the darkness of man that they encountered upon their journey. I have witnessed their adrenaline fuelled highs of survival and their immense depths of despair at the loss of a mate. I have laughed reservedly at the often black-humoured stories of soldiers who photograph their legs before a patrol, just in case they never saw them again; and faced the reality of their need to loosely wear a tourniquet on each limb, ready to stem the almost inevitable haemorrhage that could end their life. I have been privileged to hear of unimaginable acts of bravery and self-preservation; and I have stood by silently to attempt to pick up the pieces when it all falls apart.
I have worn their blood.
So many of us have worn their blood.
I have seen the strongest and finest reduced to flesh; and witnessed the death of innocence and a once supposed sense of immortality.
I have stood in a trauma room surrounded by the victims of an IED blast and watched as our finest doctors, nurses and medics ask themselves not just “which casualty first?” but “which wound on which casualty first?” I have marvelled at their skill; their courage; their resilience. Together, we have waded through their blood, fighting our own battle to protect and secure. Fending off the enemy of death, of disfigurement of disability; tapping into that unique fighting spirit of the Australian soldier before us, whose courage and sheer determination will see them through another day.
I have sat in silent contemplation amongst peers as we reflect upon decisions made, lives saved and lives lost as a result of, and in spite of our efforts.
I have seen them arrive at the edge of the battlefield and known that when they departed for home, that they would never again be the same. I have gathered the passports of Australian soldiers who were to be repatriated back to Australia, and not been able to match the battle weary faces to the documents in my hands.
I have always, always hoped that they will forever find the strength and courage to emerge from the too often persistent shadows; to stand tall in the world for which they have given so much to secure; to stand shoulder to shoulder with comrades; loved ones; and ordinary strangers, in these early hours before the dawn. I have always hoped that they would somehow come to value and accept that which they have seen, that which they have done, and mostly, that which they have given. I have hoped that they will see the advances and not just the retreats; the gains and not just the losses, and ultimately, the immense value of their service. I have clung to the revelry of their joyous reunion; their unique bond of brotherhood; of victory; of realising the reality of just what they would and could do to protect each other. I have trusted that this will help them to emerge from the shadows and once again feel the sun upon their face.
I have held their widows and widowers; consoled their parents; their brothers; sisters; and friends; and gazed upon their children, some too young to comprehend the enormity of that which they have lost.
As a casualty myself, I have crawled out of the darkness and I have fought for my life.
I am no different from many other Australians.
So many of those like me, stand silently amongst you today; each of them once more shielded by the darkness; each of them withholding the horrors of war, still endeavouring to provide protection to each and every one of you.
They will not likely share the truth of their experience. They will not likely ever find the words to do it justice, and even if they could, it is not likely that anyone other than the brothers and sisters that stood alongside them could ever come close to understand.
They will mostly choose the anonymity of the darkness before the dawn; the anonymity of the dark suit before the uniform.
Shining upon the walls of the Memorial behind me, are the names and faces of the 40 soldiers killed in Afghanistan – Australia’s longest and most recent war; brave men who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country.
You do not see the 261 who were wounded.[i]
You do not see those who wrestle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder nor the other mental health issues that have resulted from their service.
You do not see the 26 500 [ii] who, if asked, will claim to have simply served.
You may not hear their voices as they reflect:
“If I had died over there, I would have been remembered forever, but I survived and my name will never be known.”[iii]
They stand silently amongst you today.
As the dawn delivers the daylight, pause to reflect upon the memory of those that have gone before us in your name, those whose faces and names grace the walls of our Memorial. But, I implore of you to also pause and watch carefully as the dawn sheds light upon the faces of the extraordinary strangers that stand beside you. Contemplate, if only for a moment, that which they may have done, that which they may willingly continue to do, so that you may return to stand here each year, in the darkness before the dawn awaiting the light of a new day and the warmth of the sun, a community of ordinary strangers . . . drawn together to honour their extraordinary service.
Lest we forget.
[i] http://www.defence.gov.au/operations/afghanistan/personnel.asp, accessed 18 Feb 2014.
[iii] Keene, D. 2014. The Long Way Home. The Sydney Theatre Company.
Transcript reference: http://www.awm.gov.au/sharon-bown-anzac-day-2014/
To Seek Help for PTSD in Australia
The Veterans and Veterans’ Family Counselling Service – ph: 1800 011 046
Lifeline Australia – Crisis Support, Suicide Prevention – ph: 131114
SANE Australia – ph: 1800 187 263
Beyond Blue ph: 1300 224 636
Black Dog Institute – ph: (02) 9382 2991