Let me start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet this evening —and pay my respects to their elders past and present — and to the children of today who will be the leaders of the future.
This place in which we gather is not just a memorial. It not just a shrine. It is a place of remembrance, a place of memory and a place of national record.
For over 100 years Australians have served in theatres of war, in peacekeeping and humanitarian relief operations, far from our shores. And this place records their stories. Not that we may glorify them, but so that we never forget.
There are more than 102 600 names etched into these walls. Each one an Australian. Each one with their own story of service and sacrifice. But for each of these names there is another story – of those that loved them, those that cared for them, those that grieved for them and those that miss them still.
Just one of these names is Private James Charles Martin. James Martin was born some 500 miles from here, at Tocumwal in the heart of the Riverina.
In 1915 he was, so like so many other Australians, eager to enlist, and serve his country. And so he donned the khaki uniform of our young Imperial Force, was schooled in all things military at Broadmeadows Camp and, on the 28 June 1915, departed for Egypt with the 21st Infantry Battalion.
He wrote a number of letters home to his parents including one on Thursday 26th August from Heliopolis, just before he left for the Dardanelles,
‘Dear Mum and Dad…, ’ it started before he penned a few lines of reassurance about the food and his mates. In the early hours of 7th September, after an adventurous journey, during which his ship was torpedoed and he’d spent several hours in the water before being rescued, James Martin landed on Gallipoli.
By then five months of fighting had taken its toll on the peninsula. The Australians were pinned down, short of rations and suffering from sickness, flies, lice and mosquitoes.
By late October James Martin was also sick with typhoid fever. He now weighed less than half his original body weight. On 25th October, he was put aboard a small derrick and evacuated to a hospital ship.
As he was rowed out to the ship, his body weakened by malnutrition, I wonder if he regretted his decision to enlist? Did he, in his fevered hallucinations, imagine he was back home, in the Riverina, along the banks of the Murray? As the typhoid toxins coursed through his system, did he call out his mother? We will never know. Because two hours later he was dead.
Private James Charles Martin was just 14 years and nine months old. A boy. A boy who swapped his school bag for a rifle. A boy buried at sea - lost to his family and lost to his nation.
Almost a century later I was working in a multinational health care facility in Afghanistan when another boy, perhaps 10, perhaps 12 years old, was brought in. Our ‘hospital’ was a small forward military facility materialised from Hesco and shipping containers in the desert sands of Uruzgan. We had a ballistically protected operating theatre and every sophisticated battlefield medical technologies you would expect but, like all such facilities, we were not set up for children – we had no paediatric equipment, no paediatric trained staff, but regardless, from time to time children found their way into our system.
This young boy had been diagnosed with appendicitis. But when I took him to the operating theatre it became clear that he did not have appendicitis. He had perforated his small bowel from typhoid – the same disease that afflicted Private James Martin.
Schwali had a long and complicated course – arguably too long and too complicated. He returned to the operating theatre multiple times with the complications of peritonitis.
I never met his mother. I never met any of the mothers. But I wonder what she would have thought.
I did meet his father – a man who day after day entrusted me with the life of his only son. After one of those many trips back to theatre, Schwali’s bed was wheeled out into the sunshine so he could spend some time with his father, play with our nurses and see the sky.
That night Schwali did cry out, just as I imagine James Martin did a century before. But whether it was to his mother or to his God, I will never know.
He died in his father’s arms in our intensive care unit.
What I do know is that Schwali stays with me. I still have as a talisman a small knitted bear that went with him on each of his (increasingly futile) trips to the operating theatre.
It is, for me, a reminder that the world can be a cruel and unfair place. It reminds me of the hubris of Western Medicine and of my own fallibilities.
And it is a reminder of my own privilege, that my then pre-school children could be tucked up safely in their beds thousands of miles away from a conflict zone. That I did not have to worry about the safety of their water supply and that they had the fortune to be vaccinated against the very disease that took Schwali’s life.
But mostly for me it is the very personal gift of grace I received from his father – a man who had every right to be angry at the world, angry at us, angry at me.
A man who, instead of offering retribution, offered a gift of redemption. There was no blame. “Inshallah” – “This was the will of God.”
In all wars it is children who bear the burden of violence, of death, of disease. Their as yet fully formed bodies and minds are vulnerable, reliant on protection from those who should protect them. Those who should be an example.
Another boy I operated on in Afghanistan was scarcely old enough to be called a teenager. He had been herding goats when he reached down, picked up a sack and it exploded.
Improvised Explosive Devices – IEDs – the weapon of choice in Afghanistan. Indiscriminate.
My team did what we could. We amputated his right arm. We cracked open his chest and abdomen to deal with the effects of bleeding and blast. ‘Damage control‘ it is called – our way of stabilising someone so that they would survive the helicopter journey to a bigger and more resourced hospital at Kandahar.
So, should it have mattered to us that this young man – a victim of blast was an apprentice in his father’s business?Making IEDs? IEDs intended for us? Explosives that so easily could have seen an Australian solider in his place?
Should it matter to us that a boy of that age should be in school, learning chemistry to improve the world, not to destroy it?
The Argentinian poet Jose Narovsky said, ‘In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.’
And it is true that no one serves in a conflict zone without it leaving a trace – an imprint. A mark of all that we have seen and all that we have done.
But how much do we also take note of those who watch us, who observe us and who learn from us and absorb our values?
Those for whom war and conflict is all they know of ‘normal.’ Because, like us, they cannot unsee what they have seen.
And how much attention do we give to the intergenerational anger and the intergenerational pain that is passed down from father to son, from mother to daughter? Witnesses of violence who too readily become perpetrators of violence.
It is, of course, not just in war that children are made victims, it is also in the peace that follows.
Over more than 50 years Australian servicemen and women have worked with, and alongside other international agencies to bring peace. To provide security. And to break that cycle of violence.
The exhibition ‘Courage for Peace’ currently open here at the Memorial powerfully recounts the stories of how we, as a nation, have contributed to bringing peace and security - in Rwanda, in Somalia, in Cyprus, in Timor Leste, and in so many other parts of our globe.
Our ADF has worked with the United Nations, DFAT, our police, our diplomatic corps and with Non-government organisations – including Save the Children – in a shared commitment to that peace and security.
I have experienced first-hand the devastating aftermath of conflict – on the war-torn islands of Bougainville and before that in Cambodia.
In 1993 I was serving as the Regimental Medical Officer with an Australian Signals Regiment as part of the UN intervention in Cambodia – a country torn apart by a genocidal regime. At the age of 27 I saw first-hand the effects of a fragile political environment, of a country with no functioning judiciary, no functioning security force (except that provided by us as foreigners), of needing to rebuild education systems and health care – and of the legacy of
land mines which left in its wake a generation of orphans and amputees.
Even today – despite the best efforts of the international community – there are an estimated 3 million mines still active in the ground in Cambodia – and their victims today, as they were then are predominantly children.
That year I also saw the impacts of sexual exploitation. In the early 90’s HIV-AIDs was at its peak. That year I met Khmer prostitutes as young as 14.
My youngest daughter has just turned 14 years old.
She attends school, she plays sport, she learns a musical instrument, she is free to choose what she wants to study…and she has dreams for her future.
So tonight I say ‘Thank you’.
Thank you to Save the Children and your supporters for the work that you have done over the last century, and continue to do, in protecting and supporting and bringing hope to the world’s most vulnerable children.
Thank you for shining a light into the dark recesses of our world, where we as adults have failed.
But I also thank you also for challenging me.
For reminding me, as a member of the Council of this Memorial, of the importance of the stories we tell and of ensuring that ‘our continuing story’ is one that includes the voices that are not often heard or cannot speak for themselves.
Because the stories that we tell define us; they demonstrate our values. What we stand for and what we stand by.
But equally powerful are the stories we do not tell. The stories we overlook. The voices that remain silent.
Thank you for reminding me, as a mother, that these are all our children and in each and every one lies our common hope for – and our responsibility to provide – a better world and a better future.
As I look at my own, now teenage, daughters – I see two beautiful, healthy, strong minded, young women.
In just a few years they will be able to drive, to vote, and to choose the life they wish to live.
Every child has the right to grow up to be the person they are meant to become.
And thank you for reminding me that, as an Australian, I am an inheritor of the sacrifice that is carved into these walls. Sacrifice that means that I also inherit a responsibility.
A responsibility to make every day matter.
So that they, who gave so much, might be proud.