Ross Bagnall is proud to be in the Royal Australian Navy.
“I joined as a radio operator and I just loved it from day one,” he said.
“I always had a fascination for radios and all that sort of thing; I finished my HSC in 1988 and I joined the Navy in October 1989.
“My dad was always proud of me. He had a bit of a nautical background and he always said that he always wanted to join the Navy when he was young, but his parents wouldn’t let him.
“My mum’s father was a boilermaker who worked out of Cockatoo Island during the Second World War, so he used to work on the ships when they came in battle damaged from mines and things like that.
“I’m very proud of serving in defence.”
Thirty years later, he remains passionate about the Navy and his time at sea.
“Time away from family is always tough, but parts of being at sea I just love,” he said. “I love standing on the upper decks, looking out to the horizon. I love being in company with other ships, looking over at them, and wondering what they are doing.
“A ship’s schedule is just so busy, it goes 24 hours a day, and we’ll do lots of exercises and evolutions throughout the day.
“I really enjoyed turning recruits into sailors, and sending them out. They think that’s it, but no, the training never stops. When you get out there, it keeps going on. Even commodores and admirals still train every day; it never stops.
“I do love travelling on a ship. Even now, I still think it’s amazing, how you sail from Sydney, go to work, and two weeks later you’re pulling into some port you’ve never been to before. You’ve always got your bucket list of where you want to go to – Dubai, Pearl Harbour, Singapore, and Suvla Bay; all the ones you’ve heard about over the years – and it is nice to finally pull into them. It’s always very interesting.”
He sailed for the Middle East in 1993 on HMAS Sydney as part of Operation Damask VII. It was a long way from where he grew up in Coffs Harbour.
“We were working out of the North Red Sea just off Egypt,” he said. “I was a member of the boarding party on HMAS Sydney and we boarded merchant vessels, enforcing the trade embargo against Iraq.
“I look back now and that was just amazing; we were all kitted up and climbing up the sides of merchant ships, and fast-roping off helicopters onto merchant ships and that sort of thing, and I felt very lucky to have been involved.
“Some of them were quite angry about us boarding and weren’t quite happy about us being there. They’ve got a job to do and it costs a lot of money to stop a merchant ship in the water to wait for us to come along and board, but of all my deployments, HMAS Sydney in 1993 was very special. She’s gone now. She was paid off a few years ago, but the actual name HMAS Sydney carries a lot of history.
“A lot of people talk for years and years about one particular ship and for me it’s HMAS Sydney. To me, it’s probably the most special of all the ships that I’ve served on, and a lot of us are like that; we’ve all got our favourite ship.
“Even now, with the new Sydney coming on line, people are lining up for that new ship because they want to serve on the Sydney. They either served on it as a frigate or they just know that it’s one of those amazing ship names that will always be in the navy. You get a soft spot for a ship.”
He deployed to the Middle East again in 2011 aboard HMAS Stuart.
“The first time you go up through the Strait of Hormuz, you think, this is it, Missile Alley; Iran one side, Oman the other, lots of banana boats, lots of force protection, so it was quite an interesting time.”
He left the Navy soon after, working as a public servant with the Department of Defence in Canberra, but rejoined in January 2014 and has been in the Navy ever since.
For him, the Australian War Memorial is a place to pay his respects to those who have served and reflect on their sacrifice.
“I’ve been coming and going for quite a few years now, but as I’m getting older, I’m seeing more familiarity,” he said.
“When I first went to the Memorial, it was all very eye-opening. I remember walking into the early wars and the First World War galleries, but these days I’m starting to see things that I know – ‘I used that piece of equipment’ or ‘I served on that ship.’
“And now when I walk in, I’m not so much there to look at the exhibitions, I’m there to go into the Hall of Memory and reflect.”
He believes it’s important for the Memorial to tell the stories of modern conflicts and the service and sacrifice of younger veterans. His sister is a nursing officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and his step-son, Riley Surendra-Nicholas, joined the Navy in August last year. He is looking forward to the day he can take his daughters Olivia (12) and Emily (11) to see the expanded galleries at the Memorial to learn more about recent conflicts and the sacrifices that servicemen and servicewomen have made and continue to make.
“It’s really hard to explain to people,” he said. “A lot of people can’t relate to my time in the Navy; I don’t want to have praise heaped on me or anything like that, but the more that we can do with our War Memorial so that people can see not only what happened, but what continues to go on now, is really important.
“The sacrifices that people have made over the years, and I’m not just talking about in battle, but in general, and that’s really important. I’ve spoken to so many people who have missed times with their families – ‘My kid is 16 and I’ve only spent really four years with them’ – and really sad things like that … People have sacrificed a lot over the years just by being away from family and friends.
“The people in the defence force, they love being in the defence force, and they love the comradery and friendships and the bonds that are formed, but at the end of the day, it’s about family; my mum’s proud I’m in the Navy, and my wife’s proud, and a lot of people don’t quite understand that until they have someone that is in the defence force.
“We don’t have a steep military history, but we’re working on it.”
The Australian War Memorial acknowledges the traditional custodians of country throughout Australia. We recognise their continuing connection to land, sea and waters. We pay our respects to elders past and present.