An ode to those ragged, bloody heroes

The year I turned 15 I spent a great deal of my school year as a senior debater and public speaker. I competed in numerous events and in one of those, for Legacy, I was selected to represent Tasmania in the national competition - that year to be held in Brisbane.

It was a huge undertaking learning my 6 minute speech by heart, but it was the moment I fell in love with being a speaker. Sharing important messages with groups of people became part of who I was, and I leaned into the joy that speaking brought me.

Recently I found that speech and as I read the beginning of each sentence, I could finish the sentence with my eyes closed - such was the extent that I practiced. I came second in Australia that year with this message about Australia's ragged, bloody war heroes.

Today is a perfect day to share this message.

I was taken on a trip down memory lane when I found this. I thought of my grandfather, who I called Cubba - a pilot in WWII. I thought of all others who have served this country so that I and my family and friends can have the freedoms that we do. And I thought of those serving today - those who CHOOSE to step up and represent this country on the front line, on the back line and all the roles in between. I thank them all. I respect them all and I honour them all with this message.

Appreciating, honouring and respecting those who have gone before and those who are currently serving their countries gives me hope. It gives me strength and it definitely gives me a sense of renewal - that if they have the strength to act in this way, then I have the strength to forge forward when times are tough.

Those ragged, bloody heroes

Can we imagine what it must have been like for the men fighting at Kokoda, those gaunt spectres with gaping boots and rotting tatters of uniform hanging around them like scarecrows? These men were pushing the barriers of physical exhaustion and human endurance.

Can we really imagine the courage it took for the aircrews who flew off towards the Battle of Britain knowing that so many of their men would not return?

Can we imagine the horror experienced by the 1,200 brave souls who went down on the cruiser Sydney and were never found? Their screams fell on deaf ears and not a soul to save them for thousands of miles.

Our spirit of Anzac was exhibited by these forces, our land army, navy and air force.

We cannot possibly imagine the terror these men went through, but we can acknowledge the bravery it took to stand up and fight, not only for themselves but for their country. These men all risked the ultimate sacrifice and Australia indeed owes them a great legacy.

Even though time has passed since those fateful years, we will never forget to acknowledge our debt to them. The men and boys who fought in World War II were not just soldiers, airmen and seamen.

The were Australia's ragged heroes.

Morale and courage were high above the men as they marched into battle and the foundation of this morale was a combination of factors and stems largely from a positive acceptance by each individual soldier of the intrinsic worth for the cause for which he or she was fighting.

Australian soldiers fought and continue to fight with an unbelievable passion and fortitude. Theirs is a story of strength, an example to us all of courage, valour, will power and refusal to give way as they battled the elements, the terrain, fear and the enemy. Everyone was equal, everyone a hero. 

But let's stop a minute. Let's think not only of the men who fought and died serving their country, but also of their families, their wives, siblings and parents. Life stops for them also but in a very different way. Can you imagine following a large black car up the driveway with your eyes, dreading what the man in the uniform was there to tell you?

Then comes the telegram. They've passed in the line of duty.

Everything seems to collapse, your world, your heart and your strength.

Many Australians became affected and involved in war without wanting it or knowing it and many families continue to be affected by war. The servicemen and women, the family of those in battle and those who, in one way or another, were responsible for caring and medically attending to the wounded and saving the lives of the hopeless were all pillars of strength during the war.

Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop

Ordinary men and women performed medical miracles and such miracles made these people heroes. One such man was born in country Victoria in 1907 and grew to become one of Australia's most successful war stories. I continue to be inspired by him.

Sir Edward "Weary" Dunlop, as he was know after his knighthood in 1969, was a lighthouse of sanity in a universe of madness and suffering. Dunlop studied medicine at Melbourne University in 1927 and soon after graduating became a ship surgeon and sailed to London. When World War II broke out, to quote Dunlop, "I just couldn't get into the army quick enough."

A year after enlisting with the Australian Army, Weary was sent to Java where he was needed to treat casualties. Two weeks after his arrival, the town where he was staying was captured and all prisoners sent to Thailand. Here he was sent to the construction site of the Burma/Thailand railway, where 2,710 Australian prisoners of war (POW) died. Many of the survivors suffered health conditions for years and even decades after the war, however, many more men would have died had it not been for Weary Dunlop and his fellow medical officers who worked tirelessly to save the lives of many Australians.

It was desperate times and medical officers had little or no medicine or equipment, constantly requesting resources or more humane conditions for their patients. Such were the circumstances that Weary Dunlop himself suffered bouts of malaria and maybe dysentery and tropical ulcers. One ex-POW remembers thousands of a starved, scourged, racked with malaria, dysentery, beriberi, pellagra, and the stinking tropical ulcers that ate a leg to the bone in a matter of days, and always Weary Dunlop and the medical officers stood up for us, were beaten, scorned, derided and beaten again, but they always stood up for us all.

Weary Dunlop, despite his experiences as a POW medical officer, was able to find it within himself to forgive those he fought. After one encounter with some wounded Japanese men sent to Thailand from Burma at war's end, Weary wrote the following account.

"I paused before a man who's wretchedness equaled that of one of my own men. One leg had been hacked off at mid-thigh and the bone stump projected through gangrenous flesh. His eyes were sunken pools of pain. I moved to help him when he was trampled under in the rush, but his hand was limp and dead and his tortured face was at peace. The memory dwelt with me as a lingering nightmare and I was deeply conscious of the Buddhist belief that all men are equal in the face of suffering and death."

Weary Dunlop was an Australian hero, awarded Australia of the Year in 1976 for his service to the medical profession in times of war. Australians such as those who fought and died in battle, medical officers such as Weary Dunlop and families who were ever hopeful back home are all examples of an impassioned race. War was a time when ordinary people became heroes and heroes continue to be made during ongoing times of war today. Time may dull even the untarnished gold of their emblazoned battle honours, but time cannot blow the sacrifice that these men made.

The Australian men and boys who fought during World War II and the men and boys who fight now are the soldiers who built the picture and continue to build a picture of the bronzed Australian digger as a fighter who will not give up no matter how tough the conditions.

Men and women who die for their country, die with an honour that many of us will never experience. They are an example of what Australia is made of. They demonstrate courage, strength and hope. These men and women have great courage, nerves of steel and the unbelievable ability to fight with a passion that comes straight from their hearts.

The courage of heroes is consecrated in their hearts and engraved in the history of the free.

At the going down of the sun and upon it's rise the next morning, we shall remember them, Australia's ragged, bloody heroes.

Anzac Day 2017