It is the question that gets asked every year; What does ANZAC Day mean to you? The quick, neat and politically correct answer is: “honouring the brave men and women who have served our nation in war and remembering those that died doing so”. But is that what the day really means to people?
As a child, I remember waking early and attending the Dawn Service with my Father at his various Units. I knew my Father was in the Army and I knew he had been a Soldier since long before I was born. The many medals he wore on his uniform reflected a lifetime spent serving his Nation; the same uniform and medals he would meticulously set up and layout the night before each Dawn Service.
Growing up, my Father rarely spoke of his time in Vietnam; there was never any depth or emotion to what he would tell my sister and I. Each year as ANZAC Day approached, my Father, a very quiet yet authoriative man, would become withdrawn and focused. To me this wasn’t unusual, this was just something my Father did prior to ANZAC Day; the one day of the year he would go drinking with his friends.
I look back to those years and I wonder if my Father and his brothers experienced the same with their Father; a Veteran of World War Two.
I have spent previous ANZAC Days attending the Dawn Service, have taken part in and commanded Catafalque Parties, have marched through a number of Capital and rural cities and have stood on foreign soil and listened to a bugler play The Last Post. This year I will once again take a set of medals from a box deep within my wardrobe, pin them onto a suit jacket and attend a Dawn Service close to my home. This will be the sixth ANZAC Day out of uniform since leaving the Australian Army. Not long into the day I will take off my jacket, un-pin my medals and place them in their box and back into the wardrobe to await the long year until they next see the light of day.
But why do I and so many others wake up early, put on clothes that often make this one day of the year our best dressed, and attend the various commemoration activities? If you listen to the media, various football codes and the RSL, it’s about remembering the men that landed at ANZAC Cove more than one hundred years ago; an act that helped to forge our National identity of a small yet determined Nation. Even as a child I found this a hard concept to understand. Unlike my Grandparents and Parents, I wasn’t born after a World War; there had not been a major conflict involving Australia since the Vietnam War and Australia was more than a decade away from participating in major Peace Keeping operations in Cambodia, Rwanda and later; East Timor. My generation was born into relative peace time, we weren’t baby boomers, we weren’t exposed to the hardships and austerity measures of our parents’ childhoods and we were long removed from those few left that had fought at Gallipoli.
For many of us that joined the Australian Defence Force in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s we were quickly thrust into an operational cycle that would see many service-people deployed to East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Iraq and Afghanistan. For the first time in decades, Australia was sending men and women to fight for their country on a large-scale. During these deployments we lost friends, young men, who’s names now join the more than one hundred thousand others on the walls within the Australian War Memorial.
In the years since our withdrawal and subsequent redeployment to the Middle East, we have continued to lose more and more service-people to suicide, yet this is not something that is spoken about widely in the lead up to ANZAC Day. We continue to hear about those that fought in Wars and Battles from the last century. Our elected Politicians will wear a memorial pin for the day, and of course, a few modern-day Veteran’s will be thrust in front of the camera at sporting events across the country and used as a prop to sell a false kinship between professional sportspeople representing a team and someone who has represented and served a Nation.
To some Australians, ANZAC Day is, and will always be about the original ANZAC legend; the subsequent generations that have served Australia are little more than another contingent of Veterans marching down the main street of their town or city. For others the day is an opportunity to enact a misguided interpretation of jingoism by starting their drinking early and displaying various patriotic symbols and emblems.
The disconnect between the general population, media, Veteran community and Veteran Support Organisations has grown over time. The days of the stereotypical Australian Veteran – the cocky and stoic Digger – are far behind us; yet the legacy of that era still remains. This ideology has been so ingrained into the Australian psyche that is comes as shock to many that Veteran suicide, substance abuse, homelessness and unemployment are so rife. The RSL and some ESO’s use ANZAC Day as a foundation for their fundraising efforts, the shock value behind the struggles of many modern-day Veterans is used in the same way the AFL and NRL use the ANZAC legacy to sell tickets and make money.
The individual Veteran is once again being replaced by what the Department of Veterans Affairs, the RSL/ESO’s and media believe the archetype should be presented as.
Instead of Australian men and women standing tall, side by side and sharing with other Australians their experiences in uniform in faraway lands, we are experiencing a degradation of our collective Veteran Identity.
That is the foundation on what ANZAC Day is built upon. Veterans supporting Veterans and entrusting our legacy, stories and experiences to a Nation that will undoubtedly provide more generations that will go to war; continuing a cycle that has existed for more than a century.
For me ANZAC Day is about the days and nights I spent in uniform, both in Australia and overseas. The men and women I shared good and bad times with. The men I called friends who spilled their blood on foreign soil and didn’t come home alive. The men and women I knew – and those I never met – who took their own lives long after their feet touched Australian soil again. We each have a story and it is up to us with who we share that story with.
One ANZAC Day a few years from now I will sit down with my children and begin with… “I was once an Australian Soldier…”