Nurses and Midwives Remembrance

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Welcome address given by Mr Matt Anderson PSM, Director, Australian War Memorial for the Nurses and Midwives Remembrance and Thanksgiving ceremony, 9 May 2023.


Dhawura nguna, dhawura Ngunnawal.

Yanggu ngalawiri, dhunimanyin Ngunnawalwari dhawurawari.

Nginggada Dindi wangirali jinyiin

Today we meet on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal people and I pay my respects to elders past and present.

And, as we do every night here at our Last Post Ceremony, I welcome those who have served, those still serving, and the families who love and support them.

We are here today to honour the service of Nurses and Midwives.

Those who choose a life of service before self, often in the background, unseen until needed. 

It is our hope that events like today will shed some much needed light on the acts of nurses. 

It is a very public way of saying thank you.

Because Australian military nursing has a long and proud history. 

The Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) was formed in July 1903 under the Australian Army Medical Corps. 

Women were recruited to the AANS after the declaration of the First World War, with strict eligibility criteria. 

Nurses had to be female.

Nurses had to be aged between 21 and 40.

They had to have a minimum of 3 years of nursing service. 

Nurses had to be unmarried. Or widowed.

Female doctors were not permitted to join the medical services, because it was thought women would be too "delicate" for war medical work. 

The nurses enjoyed the ‘priveledges’ of rank, but did not receive a commission.

By October 1914, only 3 months after the declaration of war, 300 nurses had volunteered. 

25 nurses were on the first convoy of the AIF.

Over 2000 nurses would serve overseas in that war.

An additional 400 remained in the Military Hospitals in Australia.

And 25 would die.

For their bravery and dedication to the sick and wounded 388 nurses were decorated.

Eight Military Medals were awarded to Australian nurses for ‘acts of gallantry under fire’.

By the Second World War, the Royal Australian Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force had their own nursing services.

Fifty five nurses decorated for distinguished service.

Tragically, 77 Australian nurses were killed in service, including 11 on the Centaur, and the 21 nurses we will soon honour permanently here on the grounds of the Memorial with the statue of LTCOL Vivian Bullwinkel;

sole survivor of the Banka Island massacre,

Prisoner of War,

Director of Nursing at Fairfield Hospital,

first woman to serve on the Council of the Australian War Memorial, and

President of the Australian College of Nursing.

After the Second World War, the nursing services evolved and became more integrated with the services themselves. 

The AANS became the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps in 1951. 

In 1977, the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service was integrated into the RAAF and the Navy followed suit in 1984.

During the Korean War, advances in technology such a helicopter and transport aircraft meant casualties were able to be treated much sooner than in previous conflicts, and were able to be evacuated more effectively. 

Medical evacuation flights started 6 months into the Korean War.

20 RAAF nurses served in Korea, assisting in the evacuation of more than 12,000 casualties.

Of course, these advances brought with them new risks. 

As always, nurses served alongside the armed forces, regardless of the risk.

The four black granite pillars that sit at Isurava and stare down the valley towards Kokoda are engraved with the qualities that typified the Kokoda Campaign; Courage, Endurance, Mateship and Sacrifice

If there was a similar statue on Lemnos or Banka Island, Iraq, Timor, Bougainville or Afghanistan for nurses, I think its pillars would be engraved;

Commitment, Compassion and Courage.

Or, at an event earlier today, Adjunct Professor Kylie Ward spoke on receiving a CDF’s Commendation, of Integrity, Morality and Service. Traits of all nurses and midwives, whether in the ADF or the broader community.

I need only look at Council Member and retired Wing Commander Sharon Bown – or Coops, as she’s known to her Mates!

I was recently walking through our temporary entrance with Sharon, when she remarked on one of the pictures in our entrance.

It was of an unnamed RAAF sergeant, treating a Pakistani child at Camp Bradman as part of Operation Pakistan Assist.

“It’s good to see you’ve got Maria up there. After my accident, she wouldn’t let us leave until we had evacuated the woman we had flown up to assist.”

As ever here at the Australian War Memorial, there’s more to a story than most veterans let on!

Sharon 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.

Sharon suffered terrible injuries and the UN chopper that flew in to recover her, a Russian built and crewed Mi-8, was concerned about deteriorating weather and failing light.

The crew wanted to leave before all patients had been loaded, including the woman in obstructed labour, who was the patient – and the point – of the original medivac mission.

Sharon’s book – One Woman’s War and Peace – notes it was three defiant Air Force women; Squadron Leader Sharon Sykes, Flying Officer Sharon Higgins – now Sharon, I was beginning to think every RAAF nurse needed to be called Sharon! – and then there was Corporal Maria Brown. Charlie to her colleagues.

‘Maria stood with her foot on the rear ramp of the helicopter and the other on the ground’ refusing to move until all passengers were loaded. They were not leaving without all of the patients.

Here at the Australian War Memorial we honour nurses and midwives who have chosen a life of service and for whom, often, that service comes before self. 

Those who choose to tend to the needs of others, in the dark of night, in the cold, in all manner of extreme and hostile environments.

From the heat of Nias Island to the dust of Uruzgan.

Today, in this place where you are all and always welcome, we pause to honour that choice and everything that it brought with it. 

And soon, in addition to the Statue of Vivian Bullwinkel, we will also install in the new Atrium being built between the Memorial and ANZAC Hall, a 5th Aviation Regiment Blackhawk  - Saracen – which provided aeromedical assistance to remote regional villages in Pakistan, and in Timor.

Know that Saracen will be as much a tribute to you, the nurses and midwives, as to the men and women who flew it and maintained it.

As this is your place.

And here we honour you.  

We welcome you and we thank you for putting service before self.

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