Fifteen years ago, Sharon Bown narrowly escaped death in a helicopter crash in East Timor.
She was a young aeromedical evacuation nurse in the Royal Australian Air Force on her way to help save the life of a Timorese woman when the UN helicopter she was in crashed as it tried to land near the remote village of Same.
“I remember very clearly the mayday call,” she said in an interview about the crash. “That realisation that, sitting in the back of this helicopter, I have absolutely no control over what is about to happen, and again, the realisation that whatever is about to happen is either going to hurt – a lot – or, this is it. This was going to be the day that I would die.”
Sharon was pushed from the wreck, soaked in aviation fuel. She had suffered a severe spinal injury, multiple facial fractures and chemical burns to her shoulders and back.
“Within a split second my life had changed,” she said. “I didn’t lose my life on that day, but I lost the life that I knew and everything from there would change.”
She spent weeks in hospital learning to walk again, but it was the unseen scars of chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder that would continue to test her resilience.
Determined to be a survivor, not a victim, she made a conscious decision to not only survive, but to continue to live.
A year later, Sharon deployed to Bali, providing immediate healthcare and aeromedical evacuation to victims of the second Bali bombings.
Within four years of the crash that almost ended her life, Sharon was leading a surgical team in Afghanistan, delivering lifesaving care to Australian soldiers at war.
She hung an Australian flag in the operating theatre so that it was the first and last thing Australian soldiers saw when they fell asleep and woke up on the operating table.
Today, the retired wing commander is a member of the Australian War Memorial Council and a passionate advocate for younger veterans.
She shared her story as the Memorial unveiled the next chapter in its continuing story.
“I am here today to welcome you to our home – the Australian War Memorial,” she said. “The place in which we feel valued, respected and somewhat understood; the place in which we now know that our continuing story of service will be told; the place to which we return alongside our fellow Australians to honour, to learn and to heal.”