I had the honor of addressing the attendees of the ANZAC day service at the Capel RSL on the subject 'What does ANZAC Day mean to me?' This was an interesting speech to create and it ended up completely different to how I originally imagined but this is what I said:
What does ANZAC day mean to me? When Duncan, the president of the Capel RSL asked if I could talk today I thought it would be easy. I am a young veteran, I deployed to East Timor with 2RAR in 2006 and served until a series of decisions lead to me becoming a quadriplegic. Little did I know Duncan was unloading a doozy of a subject onto me and it wasn’t until I seriously started thinking about it that I realised how hard it is for veterans to put the importance of this day into words.
I have been fortunate enough to have formed close friendships with a wide range of veterans over the years. There is my wife’s grandfather, Ernie, a 96 year old kiwi who is the last surviving member of his company. He served as a truck driver in Europe and Africa during World War II. There is also a Korean war veteran who asked not to be named and was my confidant in the months after my return from East Timor. There have been managers who served in Vietnam, Sergeants who served in Rwanda and close friends who have served both in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In all of my conversations over the years with veterans from both Australia and New Zealand there have been the themes that are celebrated each year:
I would like to add another word to these descriptions…
It is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.
Joining the military is a unique experience, and while everyone has their own reasons for signing up, Patriotism, Idealism, Conscription or A lack of job prospects to name a few, most people do not realise you are giving up the opportunity at a normal life.
You are trained to automatically follow orders, use weapons and, if required, take another life.
When serving you are completely at the whims of others, you spend a lot of time away from society, family, friends and relationships.
The military always comes first.
This mindset is extremely foreign to the majority of society and as a result when veteran’s discharge they often feel alienated because most people do not understand the unique experience that is military service.
This isolation is reported to be one of the leading factors behind the increased suicide rate of young veterans and sadly I have had more people I served with take their own life than die in active service.
So now, back to me and my experiences. Those series of decisions leading to me becoming a quadriplegic? The feeling of isolation was a major factor.
When I returned from East Timor I felt the need to be stoic.
To not show my true feelings.
To not talk about the issues inside my head
To pretend that everything was normal.
I felt that I needed to protect those around me from getting stained by the blood on my hands.
I felt that if I spoke about what had happened then society would isolate me, but by doing this I was only isolating myself.
Societies need to glorify service means that veterans are reluctant to share the mud, blood and hidden tears. Instead we each have our own ways of coping with our reality. Mine included a hell of a lot of alcohol. This was my way of escaping the memories.
This lead to a life altering moment that in turn lead me to facing my reality. I now speak in depth to people I trust and I undergo monthly professional counselling to help me deal with my past. I have found that by talking about it that I am a better person.
Yes, I still do and will always continue to have hard days, but I have learnt that these days are not as bad when there are patient people who are truly understanding and accepting of me and my experiences.
So what does ANZAC day mean to me? It represents an opportunity to increase the empathy and understanding of society. To make our communities aware of the struggles of our veterans and to hopefully reduce this isolation they encounter.
This is the responsibility of both sides, veterans, we need to be more honest with people and let them know what it was like to serve, no matter how much it hurts, because unless we let people in they will never truly understand.
Everyone else, I ask you to listen, give us empathy, attempt to understand, even if only a little, because this is the first step to reducing the isolation and giving these men and women who have sacrificed so much for our freedom, a chance to thrive in society.