ACT Remembrance and Thanksgiving Ceremony

Nurses and Midwives

2019 Commemorative Address

Lieutenant Colonel Kim Sullivan

Ladies and gentlemen what a privilege it is for me to stand here this afternoon and to deliver this address. On this day we remember those military nurses who have preceded us; we honour their legacy, their determination, their sacrifice. While we remember those who went before us please think of the nurses who are currently deployed.

I would also like to acknowledge and remember those civilian nurses who work and have worked in conflict zones and disaster areas such as the Australian civilian surgical team that served in Vietnam and the Australian Medical Assistance Teams. Also the nurses who have and do serve, who risk and have given their lives with organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Medecins sans Frontiers.

Words are a shorthand way to define who we are. Man, woman, mother father, husband, wife. When we use those terms we have a mental picture of what that means. If I use the term Army nurse the imagery that springs to mind is a woman in a grey dress, with a red cape and a white veil and addressed as Sister or Matron. As nursing has changed so has the face of military nursing.

If you will allow me the indulgence of reflecting on my own career and how I think things have changed.

I began nursing in the late 70’s, nursing education was moving into the tertiary education space. The terms sister and matron were still being used, in general sisters wore white and while veils were on the way out they were still being worn but change was afoot. As an aside the veil remained an official part of the Nursing Corps uniform until the early 90’s.

My career has been influenced directly and indirectly by those who came before me and those who we honour today. The military is pretty good at remembering its history and its people. Its shared experience and traditions help to foster its culture and esprit de corps and so it is for military nurses.

We all have heroes, those whose behaviour and actions inspire us to be better than we are. As I approach retirement I have been reflecting on the heroes that inspired me.  Some are well known.

I was privileged to meet Vivian Bullwinkle at Banka Island in 1993 at the dedication of the memorial to the victims of the massacre, she together with the other survivors were a formidable group of inspiring women who were still reflecting on the inability to properly care for their sick and dying comrades. It was a firsthand experience of the expression “age shall not weary them” for they described those who had fallen as young, vibrant women forever frozen in their youth. I met Ted Kenna, in Papua New Guinea at the site of the action that led to him being awarded the Victoria Cross, he was a modest man who didn’t think that he had done anything special, but his mates who were there disagreed. Ted and Vivian are examples of people who are well known for their conspicuous actions, ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

However it is the unsung heroes that loom largest in my thoughts, the nurses who quietly went about their duties who in the First and Second World Wars and later in Vietnam who realised that it was more than competent nursing that was required. They nursed their patients for long periods of time, they developed relationships with their patients and up until the 1970s, they were all women, perhaps the only women around and their femininity and gentleness and presence was acknowledged as a significant part of the psychological care that they  provided as much as anything else.