Another ANZAC Day has come and gone. As with previous years I donned a suit with my medals affixed and attended a Dawn Service. This year, however, something seemed different. From the moment I stepped foot onto the rain-sodden grass of Warrawee Park and walked towards the Oakleigh Cenotaph I felt like an interloper at an event that I should have felt at ease attending. As far as I could tell under the glare of the nearby street lights, I was the only Modern-Day Veteran in attendance.
As I do when I attend any Military commemoration service by myself, I circled the crowd looking at faces and chests to see if I could recognise a former colleague or identify someone who has deployed on the same campaigns as I have. For the first time, I spotted neither; in fact, the only medals that were being worn were those of the attending Victorian Police Officers for their service to VICPOL, descendants wearing World War One and World War Two medals, and the Vietnam era medals worn by the local RSL Sub-branch representatives. At this Dawn Service I was alone; and I felt alone
The Service was like most others, the requisite boxes were ticked and despite some technical glitches due to the wet weather, the Service was completed as intended. However, two things occurred that would ensure I will not be attending another Dawn Service at the Oakleigh Cenotaph. A man, more than old enough to know better, spent the entire Last Post, Minute’s Silence and the Reveille with his concentration focused firmly on the iPhone glowing brightly in his hands; something I very much doubt he will do ever again after some quiet words from me. The second incident highlighted a growing trend I have noticed over the past several months. I was approached by the representative of the local council to pose for a photo with the attending local member for Monash Council. There was no request for my name, service details or any other personable interaction, I was requested to act as a prop in a photo opportunity to make a politician seem like he cared about ANZAC Day
Due to my previous volunteer work for Soldier On, I am no stranger to standing in front of a camera and playing the part of the modern-day Veteran for a cause or fundraising event. In the few short years since my participation with Australia’s highest profile ESO and subsequent withdrawal from Veteran Support Organisations and media engagements, I have seen an increase in the number of modern-day Veterans step in front of the camera and share their experiences with the community. A Veteran’s experiences on deployment are very personal and something that isn’t easily shared with others; especially strangers. When speaking to the media I would have a pre-prepared script in my head that I would follow. Even the details that I would share that seemed extremely personal were details that I had censored or had omitted entire events from to protect friends, family and myself.
In an age where so many rely on social media and smart devices for their news and real time information it should be no surprise that many Politicians, businesses and ESO’s have embraced a more arguably aggressive media campaign leading up to and on ANZAC Day. From my vantage point at the back of the crowd during the Oakleigh Dawn Service it was easy to spot the dozen or so camera flashes each time a local Politician or business owner laid a wreath at the base of the Cenotaph. A brief check of two of the attending member’s social media accounts the day after the Service indicated that the photos taken during were posted online less than an hour after the actual wreath laying. Such instances are not rare, in fact, during the Dawn Service itself I could see multiple groups of younger persons taking selfies with either the congregation or Cenotaph in the background. The same was clearly evident during the day when television news programs reported on the various Capital City Dawn Services; it was a sea of smart phones glowing brightly, replacing what used to be candles providing a sombre atmosphere.
A concerning emergence this ANZAC Day was the promotion of the ‘Struggling Modern-Day Veteran’ identity by various media outlets and some ESO’s. It’s a very fine line to tread at the best of times, but on the one day of the year when patriotism, jingoism and emotions can become blurred, some media reporting and ESO social media posts/promotions were seen by some people as being in bad taste.
On one side of the coin is an article published by the ABC and written by Jane Cowan regarding Australian Veteran Chris May’s experiences during and after his deployments to Afghanistan. As co-founder of ESO Young Veterans, Chris is at the forefront of Veteran advocacy and often speaks of his personal experiences as way to engage, educate and de-stigmatise the issues many Veterans face regarding mental health and suicide. As someone who has done this previously and quite openly, I applaud his stance and candour on these issues and without a doubt the decision by both Chris and the ABC to publish this article on ANZAC Day was one that was not made without careful consideration. In this instance it was an article that was published with an aim to inform and educate; and not push an agenda or promotional angle.
On the other side of the coin was a text message I and many thousands of others received in the afternoon on ANZAC Day from ESO Soldier On.
Without being too critical of an organisation I once supported and represented, the timing and wording of the text message leaves a lot to be desired. I openly question the aggressive tone of the message, especially considering the audience receiving it would be primarily made up of Veterans and Veteran’s families. Have we not served and sacrificed for our country? Do I really need to honour the memory of my dead friends, men killed in action on foreign soil, by sending $25 to Soldier On now?
The Veteran ESO network is particularly vast in Australia with some organisations focusing on providing support and support programs tailored to a specific activity or operating within a small geographical area. Other, larger ESO’s, aim to engage with and provide support to a larger community of Veterans across many states and sometimes nationally by providing a multitude of support programs, activities and fundraising opportunities. It is via these fundraising opportunities that many ESO’s engage with the broader community and raise the necessary funds to continue to provide support services to Veterans and their families.
It is often through this engagement via a fundraising platform that the wider community, without any direct connections to a wounded or service-affected Veteran, learns of the issues facing those of us that reach out to an ESO for assistance. Our experiences enter the public domain, with the aim of helping others; we share details that are often very personal and sometimes tragic. As I have written about before, some ESO’s are competing over finite sources of funding while simultaneously exploiting the experiences of Veterans and maintaining their focus on a what is a predominately negative narrative.
Of course there will always be articles and social media posts written about the negative experiences of Veterans. Whilst we await the provision of adequate Government provided support services and wade through the quagmire that is interacting with the Australian Defence Force and the Department of Veterans Affairs; Veterans will continue to express their frustration and anger to a wider audience. We will continue to reach out to ESO’s for support and they will continue to reach out to the Australian public to open their ears, hearts and wallets to fill the gaping hole left by failure of the Government and DVA to provide timely, tailored and adequate support for Australia’s Veterans. But must they do this by continually presenting the Modern-Day Veteran as a victim?
Those of us that live with physical and mental injuries deserve the best chance at a positive recovery. Each day is treated as a new step on a long journey to better our lives and the lives of those people we call friends and family. Our relatively new identity as an Australian Veteran is not and should not be treated as a burden. We are told to focus on the positives in our lives as we continue with our recovery. Should not those organisations purporting to assist us do the same?
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…”
In an age where it seems a new External Support Organisation (ESO) starts up every few months, it would appear that there is an abundance of choice of support service provider available for a struggling Veteran to choose from. In reality it’s difficult for an affected or wounded Veteran to find an organisation that is best suited to support them and their families. As I’ve discussed before, there are geographical constraints in place, some ESO’s don’t provide a certain service and increasingly it seems word of mouth travels quickly. For both good and bad reasons.
One of the key reasons why Veteran ESO’s are continually relied upon so heavily is due to the issues many of us face when dealing with the ADF upon discharging. Stories of supportive transitions from the ADF into the civilian world are becoming increasingly rare; with many long-term servicepeople claiming (insert service) has changed. Couple this with often frustrating interactions with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the RSL; it should come as no surprise many Veterans seek out an independent entity for support.
With so many Australian Veterans putting their hands up and asking for help more than ever, I, and many others, expect a more collaborative environment between ESO’s, Veterans and the ADF. Sadly it seems to be the norm that no open dialogue exists in this realm. Instead it seems increasingly more common for ESO’s to align themselves with and become more entrenched with the ADF way of thinking.
For many, including myself, this is moving away from what makes interacting and engaging with an ESO a more valid, positive and crucial experience; we crave and need separation between the ADF for a chance at a positive recovery from injuries both physical and mental.
What we need more than ever is not to have our collective voices heard but to have our individual stories listened to. In the past few years actively supporting, and being supported by ESO’s, it has become very clear that a shift across most organisations has occurred with charities set up to support Veterans transforming into an organisation competing for a bigger profile and more funding. In order to achieve this new goal and fight over finite sources of funding, Veterans’ experiences and stories are constantly being mined and treated as a commodity in order to achieve that new goal.
I’m aware that this opinion will evoke a large amount of criticism. But I counter with my own experiences with ESO’s over the past four years. The shadow cast by expectation of both the ESO and yourself to keep providing your time and representing Veterans is a cold darkness that is hard to escape from. It makes those critical steps to recovery much harder to scale without a beacon to guide us. With the commercialisation of the modern Veteran, we are rapidly losing our identity under the guise of supporting others like us.
The recent appointment of former CDF and current NSW Governor, GEN The Hon. David Hurley AC DSC, as Patron in Chief of arguably Australia’s largest and most well-known Veteran ESO, Soldier On, is indicative of a larger culture change in ESO’s from supporting Veterans to expanding profile.
As another ANZAC Day approaches and emotions come to the fore, many Veterans who have been quietly fighting their own internal battles choose this time to open up to their mates and family and ask for help. Many harbour feelings of resentment and sadness from their treatment in the ADF and towards the upper echelons of rank of their respective service. Was it really the best decision to appointment a previous Chief of Defence Force, especially one so divisive with his attitude in-regards to PTSD and Veteran Suicide, as the new Patron In Chief and most public representative of Soldier On?
ANZAC Day is not about the parades, the suits; nor is it about the medals. It is about the men and women with whom we served.
They have stood beside us through the best and worst days of our lives; both in and out of uniform.
These are the people that know us better than our own family.
It is the one day of the year where we commemorate the past; remember the friends who never came home and reconnect with those we share an unbreakable bond.
The day will come when we are long gone and our service to Australia is marked by the laying of wreath against a simple embossed plaque baring the name of a foreign country.
This is the ANZAC Spirit; as one generation fades into history, another takes its place.
DAY 3 – Thursday 24 April 2014 (Collector To Canberra – The Run Home)
After the media commitments with the Prime Minister were complete, we saddled up and began the ride towards Canberra and our final destination on this huge adventure; the Australian War Memorial.
I sat at the back of the pack with Robbie and watched as the PM was swamped by the sponsor’s representatives. Slowly but surely, the Veterans had their chance to speak to him. Our roll into Canberra was slow and steady as Mr Abbott controlled the speed up front with Scott.
As we descended along the Federal Highway towards Northbourne Avenue, we were joined by Mrs Janny Poate (mother of Private Robert Poate – KIA in Afghanistan 29 August 2012) who was riding her mountain bike. She was ushered and helped to the front of the pack to speak with the PM. One of the most memorable moments of the ride was seeing Jeffro pushing Mrs Poate past us and alongside Mr Abbott.
As we neared the last few kilometres of the ride, Robbie and I moved to the front and flanked the Prime Minister. We were to escort him in the AWM and it was during this time I was able to speak with Mr Abbott. I didn’t hold back. I spoke not only of my struggles, but also that of my friends and the many others that have not been able to gain access to the appropriate support services. He was receptive of what I was saying and also very aware of the steps DVA was taking to help veterans access support services once they have discharged from the ADF.
The remainder of the ride was quite relaxed with Mr Abbott speaking quite candidly and without reservation. Our short leg up to the AWM sparked the PM’s desire to attempt a breakaway sprint which I quickly reigned back in. We rounded the final round-a-bout and entered the grounds of the Australian War Memorial to the waiting crowd of supporters and media.
At the end of the post-ride event/function I went home with my Wife and Parents and returned to the AWM a couple of hours later for a guided tour with some of the other other riders. I was still excited but very fatigued by this stage. With ANZAC Day the following day I was knew I wasn’t going to get much rest in the next 24 hours. Before heading home to get ready for the night’s function I had to swing by my work to pick up the on-call phone (yep…winning at staff retention!).
A huge thank you to my Wife, Parents, Sister, Brother-In-Law, Nieces and friends for their support leading up to and during the ride.
Thank you to Soldier On: John, Tony, Dion, Shane, Anna, Robbie, Pearl and Danielle.
Thank you to Scott Sunderland and the other members of Team Soldier On.
Thank you to Matthew Connors for the awesome photos.
Thank you to The Citadel Group, Mittagong RSL, Bushranger Hotel, Australian War Memorial, Dr Nelson, the Prime Minister and of course all the people that waved at us while we were riding!
DAY 2 – Wednesday 23 April 2014 (Mittagong To Collector)
The second day of our ride along the Remembrance Driveway would see us ride 120km along the Hume/Federal Highway into Collector.
We pushed off at 09:00 after breakfast and coffee with the Soldier On Team in front of the Citadel Group riders. Scott wanted us to start riding together and getting used to being side-by-side and wheel-to-wheel. It wasn’t long before we were finding our rhythm and we were cruising down the Hume Highway at speed.
Our first stop was at the 32km mark with a couple of the sponsor riders opting to hop into to the support vehicles and rejoin us at the end of the day (to be honest this was the smart thing to do considering the climbing and fast pace that would soon be occurring).
Our second/lunch stop was at the 74km mark with a decision being made by both Scott and Soldier On event organiser TC that the slower riders would ride in the support vehicles until the 105km mark for safety reasons. We were unable to average a safe speed, particularly on the long climbs, and it was becoming increasingly more dangerous with large trucks not being able to see us as they crested the hills. This would definitely explain the burnt rubber we were smelling shortly before this stop. While it wasn’t the most popular decision, it was the right one.
Our next 30km was an ad-hoc training session from the one and only Scott Sunderland. It was fast bunch riding; something I am not very experienced with. It certainly got the heart rate up and I was somewhat relieved when we eased up on the pace and the slower riders rejoined us for the roll into Collector.
DAY 3 – Thursday 24 April 2014 (Collector To Canberra – The First Bit)
Our final day of riding started early; before dawn. I was up, packed and ready for the ride to the Lake George lookout where we would meet Prime Minister Tony Abbott for the final leg into the Australian War Memorial.
While the others were waiting patiently to start the final day’s riding, I was on the phone to Mix 106.3’s Kristen & Rod.
Our ride to Lake George was extremely quick and I soon regretted my decision to wear my wind-stopper jacket. Scott was pushing us along the Federal Highway at over 40km/hr for the 30km leg.
We reached the top of the Weereewa Lookout and patiently waited the arrival of the Prime Minister.
DAY 1 – Tuesday 22 April 2014 (Sydney To Mittagong)
There was a lot of nervous energy amongst all the riders, in particular myself and Robbie. We had spent a lot of the morning in front of the media and both of us just wanted to get on our bikes.
At a little before 14:00 we finally rolled off onto the Hume Highway for the start of our three-day journey to Canberra. The first day’s ride was scheduled to end at Mittagong, a relatively short 70km away. The riding was slow and steady at first but we soon picked up the pace under the mentoring of Scott Sunderland.
After only an hour or so of riding, including a few small but taxing climbs, we stopped at the Frank Partridge VC Rest Area, for a quick rest stop. By now some of the sponsor riders were feeling the effects of the climbs and little to no lead up training; but still they persevered.
There was a little bit of bush mechanic work on a stubborn seat post clamp before the group headed off towards Mittagong once again.
As before the pace began to slow and our group was banding together to keep the others on pace and more importantly on their bikes.
A quick re-org of the riding order saw a few of the slower riders moved up front to set the group pace and stop the rubber-band effect that was tiring those that were at the back.
As the afternoon got a little colder and the shadows longer; concentration started to lapse among some riders. A few instances of half-wheeling began to occur when suddenly two riders hit the road at around 30km/hr. I was in the right lane and broke formation to avoid the carnage and quickly pulled over to the side of the road. Amazingly there were no serious injuries to downed rider (carbon bikes don’t like such spills!).
After some first aid work on the downed riders they were ushered into the support vehicles, the bikes strapped to the wagon’s roof and we resumed riding our final leg into Mittagong. We arrived a little after 17:00 and were greeted at the Mittagong RSL by the sub-branch representatives.
We checked into our rooms (apparently it’s funny to put two Chad’s in one room), showered and made our way over to the bar for some light refreshments and dinner at the bistro. We were joined by the Australian War Memorial’s Director, Dr Brendan Nelson, for dinner and after a quick recap of the days activities and a run down of timings for the next day, it was time for some bike prep and then bed.
The 2014 Soldier On Remembrance Ride was a feat only achievable by a great deal of hard work, volunteers and good luck. With only a couple of months to get the wheels rolling, Soldier On had their work cut out for them to get things ready in time; and being privy to the process some things came down to the wire.
I was asked to participate in the ride very early on and I jumped at the opportunity. Three days of riding from Sydney to Canberra with a group of Australian Veterans and some members from our corporate sponsor; The Citadel Group. Also along for the ride was pro-cyclist turned coach/mentor Scott Sunderland.
Before the drive up to Sydney even happened we were locked into a steady routine of media commitments and admin duties at Soldier On HQ.
The drive up to Sydney was an uneventful affair with a couple of bikes strapped to the back of the Soldier On Audi and four of us squeezed inside with our gear and luggage (the car is really spacious, we just crammed a lot into it). After unloading the car and checking into our hotel opposite Hyde Park, we quickly went through the next days timetable and retired for the night.
DAY 1 – Tuesday 22 April 2014 (The Event Launch)
The morning of the ride was a whirlwind of interviews, photos and a lot of standing around waiting. Soldier On CEO John Bale presented the team to the waiting media and soon we were being told to pose and look at this camera, move, look at that camera and of course speak to the media. Ordinarily I’m not a huge fan of interacting with the media; but sometimes anxiety and nervousness must be set aside for the greater good. I conducted three TV interviews at Hyde Park with SBS, ABC Sydney and SBS Cycling.
After our event launch it was time to pack the cars and go for the short drive to our start point (due to Sydney’s stupidly unsafe roads we couldn’t ride out of the CBD).
Over 22 April to 24 April 2014, I will participating in a fundraising/awareness raising ride to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Remembrance Driveway.
The Remembrance Driveway was created as a living memorial to those who served the nation from WWII and beyond and links Sydney and Canberra via the Hume and Federal Highways with a series of rest areas dedicated to the Victoria Cross recipients.
On 22 April, we will depart Sydney and arrive at the Australian War Memorial on the morning of 24 April in commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the Remembrance Driveway.
We will be riding over 230km in 3 days with an emphasis of fundraising and awareness raising for Soldier On along the way.
Donations to Soldier On can be made via the link below.
Thank you for your support!