'All our war veterans, living or long gone, deserve their stories told in one memorial' – Wing Commander (Ret’d) Sharon Bown

29 November 2019

The “Invictus Generation” is the description Prince Harry gave to men and women who served in war and in military operations since the late 20th century. This generation includes Australian veterans and families whose stories of service exist, whose sacrifice has been made and is still being made, but whose stories largely remain untold. This must change.

Under the leadership of outgoing director Brendan Nelson, Australian War Memorial staff have worked within tight budgetary, staffing and space constraints to share some of the Australian experience of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in peacekeeping operations.

This small but powerful effort has had a noticeable therapeutic effect on the veterans and families who struggle to reconcile the sacrifices of their service with the purpose of that service.

A trip to the memorial has become a pilgrimage for veterans of Afghanistan who wish to write their names alongside those of their colleagues on the blast wall from Tarin Kowt. Those experiencing post-traumatic stress are supported by staff to visit after-hours. The peace in the galleries allows for quiet reflection upon their service, their sacrifices, and the road ahead.

I know from personal experience as a returned-service nurse who was seriously wounded in a helicopter crash in East Timor that the unique health challenges veterans face are complex and require the highest standard of clinical intervention. But the war memorial's acts of understanding, compassion and gratitude are nonetheless healing. They complement treatment and contribute towards the wellbeing of our veterans and their families.

The planned expansion of the memorial, which will greatly enhance its exhibition space, will further this effort and ensure the stories of Australia's Invictus Generation will be told, not only for the benefit of those who have served, but for all Australians.

Plans have been approved by the memorial’s governing council, which includes, among others, key citizens, the chiefs of navy, army and air force, and has been supported by the elected voice of the people – the Australian Parliament.

Suggestions have been made that our story can be told at a storage facility off-site and that the scale of the conflicts and operations in which we have served is not equal to those whose stories have already been told nor as traumatic for the nation. But service in the defence of Australia is not a competition; nor should its worthiness for recognition be judged by these measures.

Our service is built upon the finest traditions of those who have gone before, and we trust that our service, at home and abroad, will protect future generations from the need for war. No matter the statistician’s final tally, the dead are dead, and no one who remains is ever unaffected by their service. In the words of the philosopher and poet George Santayana: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

As the memorial’s founder, Charles Bean, intended, it is a “gem of its kind” and will never be “colossal in scale”. This is particularly so if the comparative scale of measurement is the loss that our country has endured in war and on operations.

In our free and democratic society, individuals have the right to question the cost involved in supporting our service men and women, but may we never forget that the Australian War Memorial has already been paid for – with the blood of Australia’s finest.

Retired wing commander Sharon Bown is a nurse who served in Afghanistan and East Timor and is a member of the Australian War Memorial Council. This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 29 November 2019.