I have never been directly touched by war. Nor were my parents or grandparents.
My grandfather, as a country baker, was deemed to be employed in an essential service so wasn’t permitted to enlist and my father was too young for WWI.
I missed a possible call-up for the Vietnam War because conscription was abolished in 1972, a couple of weeks before I was to become eligible.
At university that year, I had been surrounded by anti-Vietnam War protests. At La Trobe Uni, we hid draft dodgers on the campus, moving them from college to college as police searched for them.
I observed regular protest rallies from the comfort of the campus coffee shop because I was torn between protesting against an unwinnable war or doing what my country was asking of me.
I listened to veteran soldiers talk about their Vietnam War experiences and I wondered what sort of soldier I would make. Would I be able to kill? Would I cope with the fear? Would I be mentally and physically strong enough to cope with what was going on around me, day after bloody day?
It didn’t happen. Conscription ended in December 1972. Some 63,735 people had been called up for national service in the Army, of which 15,381 were deployed to Vietnam. About 200 were killed.
That’s as close to war as I’ve come.
Jump forward a few years and I’m sent by my newspaper to cover an ANZAC Day service at the Shrine in Melbourne and then the march down Swanston Street.
At both, the tears well and this genuinely surprises me.
I’ve been to a few Dawn Services since, too few I must admit, and I’ve found them all to be emotional experiences. I look at the veterans in their uniforms and wonder if they killed and lost friends or family.
I look at people in the crowd and wonder if they served or whether they lost friends or family, and I think of my own three sons and daughter and try to imagine how I would feel if they left for war.
And now and then, if I find myself near somebody in uniform, I try to get up the nerve to shake their hand and nod, because that’s all I can offer.
The other day I played golf with a chap named Barry who served in Vietnam. He lost a finger, and he jokes that it’s still over there and that hopefully someone will find it and return it to him.
The battlefield on which Barry lost it, he says, is now a car park. Life has moved on, but scars remain. His missing finger is one, nerve damage to his feet is another. Only he and those close to him know of any mental legacies.
I often wonder whether those of us who didn’t serve recognise in a substantial way the sacrifices made by those who did.
Americans observe Veterans Day on 11 November when they honour those who serve and served, and Memorial Day in May when they recognise those who died serving in the military.
In America, veterans are often called on to come forward at major sporting events, and the crowd stands to applaud them.
It’s a nice recognition, for shaking a veteran’s hand, and maybe saying thanks, is pretty much all we can do now. Maybe, in 2018, you can make this your ANZAC Day challenge.
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