At the end of the day, it's about touch; holding a patient's hand. It's personal. That hasn't changed.

Lieutenant Colonel Kim Sullivan

In many ways, modern service nursing is unrecognisable from the "grey and scarlet" days of last century. Gone are the starched cuffs and veils, and the "unmarried females only" requirement. But military nurses, now members of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and with a high level of specialist training and improved technology at their disposal, continue to provide essential medical treatment to those wounded in war. Nurses are also deployed in tri-service, peacekeeping, and humanitarian operations, providing care to local military personnel and civilians in countries ravaged by war or natural disasters.

Currently, there are more than 600 nurses attached to Joint Health Command in the ADF. Reserves with civilian jobs account for around half of the total number, and male nurses make up 40 per cent. Today nursing officers have completed a university degree and have at least two years' experience on entry to the service of their choice. As officers they take responsibility for command, and carry weapons in combat zones, "for last resort protection of their patients and themselves".

The notions of patient care and comfort, and "getting on with it" despite unfamiliar and often hostile surroundings, remain at the core of professional military nursing.

As a nurse you don't discriminate, they're all casualties.

Captain Roneel Chandra, RAANC

Lieutenant Meg Frugtniet, RAN
Pacific Partnerships, 2006, 2008, 2010

It was an opportunity to do something different with my nursing.

 

A reservist in the navy since 1997, theatre nurse Lieutenant Frugtniet has participated in three short-term multinational operations providing humanitarian aid to countries in the Pacific. Aboard USNS Mercy, Frugtniet worked as part of a medical team in Banda Aceh in 2006 and East Timor in 2008. Her third deployment, two years later, was aboard HMAS Tobruk, which sailed to New Guinea and East New Britain.

As a specialist theatre nurse, most of her time was spent with surgical cases, often children: "I felt so privileged to be there. It was so gratifying to assist with procedures like repairing cleft palates; giving people back their smiles."

Captain Lewis MacLeod, RAANC
Rwanda, 1995

After Kibeho we operated non-stop for 48 hours, and they just kept coming through the door.

In April 1995 Lew MacLeod, a senior nursing officer with trauma and operating theatre experience, was working in the Australian Medical Support Force (AUSMED) wing at Kigali hospital, in Rwanda. AUSMED's initial task was to provide care to UN troops and UN Assistance Mission employees. But, with fewer UN casualties than anticipated, the Australians assisted the local population, treating gunshot wounds, mine injuries, and road trauma cases.

On 22 April 1995 violence erupted at the Kibeho Internally Displaced Persons' Camp, and Rwandese Patriotic Army soldiers massacred up to 4,000 refugees. Australian troops and medical personnel, bound by strict UN rules of engagement, and not wanting to risk the lives of civilians, were powerless to stop the slaughter. The massacre made a lasting impression on the Australians: "The ones that had been there were certainly traumatised … the medical officer was sitting on the step looking out ... they call it the 1,000-yard stare."

Squadron Leader Sharon Cooper, RAAF
Afghanistan, 2008

I struggle with the knowledge that I can't deliver my team to their families in the condition I received them.

 

Tasmanian Sharon Cooper joined the RAAF as a direct entry nursing officer in 1999. In 2004, during her second deployment to East Timor, she experienced first-hand the dangers of military nursing.

While flying to the aid of an East Timorese woman undergoing a difficult labour, Cooper sustained severe injuries when the helicopter in which she was travelling crashed. She suffered facial fractures and serious spinal injury, requiring 12 months of rehabilitation during which she had to learn to walk again.

Following her return to work, Cooper assisted in the aero-medical evacuation of injured Australians following the Bali bombing in 2005. After a promotion to squadron leader in 2007, she was appointed Officer-in-Charge of the Australian Medical Treatment Facility (AUSMTF 2) in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan, for three months in 2008.

In her diary Sharon recorded a day in September when "we received the largest number of Australian casualties in one attack since Vietnam … there is little more confronting than treating one who wears your uniform".

Captain Roneel Chandra, RAANC
Afghanistan, 2008

Flying around over the desert picking up casualties, doing my job.

 

During his six months as a nursing officer with the Primary Health Care Team in Afghanistan in 2008, Roneel Chandra was regularly called on to assist with aero-medical evacuations. One night-time casualty retrieval did not go according to plan.

Coming in to land in the dark, and with poor visibility owing to the dust, the US Black Hawk pilot misjudged the landing zone, and the helicopter rolled over. Chandra and the two American medics were pitched around in the back of the helicopter. Despite their own injuries, their "priority was to look for casualties, and we made sure that the two waiting soldiers were OK and stabilised ... People put a lot of trust in you, they rely on you to do the best job you can." Later that day, they were all airlifted safely to Tarin Kowt.

Chandra, like the many Australian service nurses who have come before him, is motivated by a keen sense of loyalty to his mates:

We're there for the soldiers, to make sure they get first class treatment and come home safely to their loved ones.