Corporal Daniel Keighran VC, member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial
2020 has been a year like no other.
It will be forever ingrained in our memories – and in history books – as the year that started with flood, fire and drought.
The year the nation endured more than its fair share: and we all felt that surely, the difficult days would end soon.
Then came the global pandemic.
Coronavirus – unheard of by many just a few short months before – shut down our communities, our businesses, our ability to connect with family, friends and loved ones.
It made us acutely aware of our national and international borders and just how quickly we could be cut off from the people, places and things that we hold dear.
The pain and suffering of our nation and its people have been immense.
So too have been the courage and conviction of all of us who understand what it means to be Australian during this difficult time.
Dealing with adversity with grace, dignity, a sense of humour and courage is part of the Australian way.
It is not the first time our nation has faced collective suffering; and if you reflect on the past, history tells us that it most likely will not be the last time.
A century ago, Australia still wore the very fresh scars of the First World War.
At that time, our forebearers were faced with the deadly Spanish Flu that infected some 500 million people, of whom 50 million died. Among those claimed by the disease were twelve thousand Australians.
That was on top of the long-lasting legacies of Australia’s First World War. Of the 420,000 who had served in the war, 213,000 became casualties. Of them, some 60,000 had died.
For a nation with a population of just 4.5 million, the First World War cast a long shadow in the decades that followed.
But through every challenge and the darkest of days, Australia still showed resilience and perseverance, time and again.
We are a nation built on the foundation of mateship – rolling up our sleeves, helping our neighbours and doing it with a smile the best we can.
The resilience of Australians has been shown through the First World War, the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam and the subsequent conflicts in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. That we have persevered through bushfires and coronavirus, among many other things, is nothing short of remarkable.
Our country has fought and stood for something, every time our freedoms and way of life were threatened.
On Remembrance Day, it is important that we come together, pause, remember and honour those heroes who have shaped the very fabric of the nation that we hold dear today.
Australia has been tested by both seen and unseen enemies.
We have gritted our teeth as we have fought battles overseas and here at home.
Wars and pandemics have one very stark thing in common – they do not discriminate by race, gender or age.
In the darkest days, there is always a glimmer of light found in the mateship, comradeship and loyalty that is, at its very core, the essence of all it means to be Australian.
Reflecting on my childhood growing up in regional Queensland with dirt floors, no electricity and a lack of clean drinking water – my Grandfather was my guiding light.
He served in the Second World War and lived through the toughest of times.
But he didn’t let those dark days define who he was.
Instead, he was grateful to be with us, and knew he was lucky to come home from the war when some 40,000 Australians did not.
I also know the guilt and pain of what it is like to come home when others tragically, have not.
In honouring those who died and guarding their memory, I approach each day with a promise to make it count.
The events of 2020 have challenged us all.
Like war, they have sharpened our focus onto what is important.
Family, friends and loved ones.
Australia truly is the lucky country, and even in the most challenging of times, there is nowhere else I’d want to be.
During conflict in remote countries – as during this pandemic – there is comfort in the simplest of things – a laugh, a drink with a mate, a phone call home and a hot shower.
In 1942, Charles Bean, the founder of what became the Australian War Memorial, wrote:
“Here is their spirit in the heart of the land they loved; and here we guard the record that they themselves have made…”
It is the Australian way to protect and honour those things that we hold dear.
That means remembering all that we have lost, including more than 102-thousand Australians who never made it home from war.
We must never forget their sacrifice.
Every single one of those people was a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife, a partner, an aunt, an uncle, a friend or colleague.
The pain of their loss is immeasurable for their loved ones and for our nation more broadly.
As I looked up to the stained glass windows surrounding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier here at the Memorial this week, one quality stood out to me above all else – ENDURANCE.
Endurance is represented by a wounded soldier, holding a broken sword point.
The images of the pyramid and a column carved in rock symbolize stability and endurance.
Put simply, we must never give up.
Whether during war, peacekeeping, or on humanitarian operations or at home, we face our day-to-day challenges the best way we can.
Helping each other get through difficult times is as important today as ever.
After drawing enemy fire while serving in Afghanistan, I was awarded the nation’s highest honour, the Victoria Cross for Australia, and was considered by many to be a “national hero”.
I don’t see myself as a hero, or what I did that day as heroic.
I was simply in the privileged position of having faith and trust in my team – I knew that even if the worst happened and I was shot, my team would do everything within their power to get me out, one way or another.
As every Soldier knows, we are only as good as the strength, effectiveness and cohesiveness of the team around us.
The bond of mateship – the Australian way – is the only reason I’m standing here before you today.
We can all draw on the words in the windows of the Hall of Memory to sustain us in testing times.
They are qualities that have sustained Australian society through the most challenging of days.
Personal qualities of resource, candour, devotion, curiosity, independence.
Social qualities of comradeship, ancestry, patriotism, chivalry and loyalty.
I have seen all these things on the battlefield, and they live on in each of us today – as well as in our memories of those who are no longer with us.
As Australia battles through the global pandemic and all that 2020 has thrown at us, we can have faith in knowing that the qualities that have served us in the last century, still serve us well today.
They are us and we are them.
We will persist and draw on those words when we need them.
Lest we forget.