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A letter to those in Orange who served ...

April 25, 2023

By Peter Holmes

For many Generation X Australians, our first emotional response to war was triggered on an April 25 in the 1970s, by the pre-dawn sight of jug-eared old men, hair slicked back with Brylcreem, standing at the local suburban cenotaph in their best suits, war medals pinned to their jackets.

Wet eyed, stoic.

We were too young to understand, of course we were, but we knew enough to comprehend we were watching something deep and solemn, something that went to the core of how we saw ourselves.

The 1981 Peter Weir film Gallipoli shocked us. The final scenes - in which young Australian men, in a futile exercise ordered from above, clambered from their trenches and charged directly into the face of enemy fire - remains tattooed on our consciousness.

We read the letters sent home by young navy, army and air force personnel during World War II.

Don’t worry.

I am OK.

If you don’t hear from me, it will be alright.

And the pleas from the front line during any war where mail could be sent - tell everyone that man cannot keep doing this. Make people aware that it must stop.

On Anzac Day, I reflect on those in their teens, early-20s and beyond who signed up, or were signed up without a say, and sent off to places such as Iraq, Vietnam, Borneo, Britain, Thailand, Egypt and Turkey.

I reflect on those who never made it home, and those who did.

The nerve-shredding fear they must have experienced. The brutal injuries. The anonymous graves. The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The expectation that they would somehow just blend back into society, as if nothing had ever happened.

The self-medication. The drinking and drugging. The therapy. The broken marriages. The violence. The silent rage. The isolation. The guilt.

I reflect on the times I visited a loved one in a health facility in Sydney. The courtyard, and the young men chain smoking, drinking coffee, some still in their dressing gowns. Young men completely, utterly broken, because we had sent them off to Iraq and Afghanistan.

I reflect on the families, partners and friends, yearning for someone who never came home, or came home as another person.

I reflect on the privileged, powerful men in suits who sent other parents’ children off to be blown to smithereens in wars we had no business wading into. I wonder how they coped? Did they feel anything? Did they rest well at night?

I think about the people of Russia and Ukraine.

The Russian soldiers who were sent off to die. The Ukrainian soldiers, and those citizens with unknowable courage who are resisting, and those who are resisting because they are not allowed to leave, and the children and babies who are collateral damage. The unbridled slaughter in the name of expansion.

I think of the millions of Ukrainians who are now refugees, fanning out across Europe to wait out whatever is coming. The grey images of their villages, towns and cities - buildings pock marked by bombs, dead bodies in the street, reports of kidnap, rape, torture.

I think of the Russians denied all but the oppressive weight of state controlled propaganda. I wonder if we would be any different, in the same circumstances.

I think of Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin - two old men with the capacity to begin something with an unknown ending. Those of us in Generation X lived through this in the 1980s, we saw the Berlin Wall fall, and we stupidly hoped the threat of nuclear destruction had been dealt with.

Today I reflect on the men and women in Orange and surrounds who served with honour, are alive today, and who came back to a life that was never, ever the same.

Teenage soldiers in the vast, sweaty jungles of Vietnam, surrounded by a camouflaged enemy. Soldiers who returned not to parades but scorn and exclusion.

Young men and women in the Middle East, walking door-to-door through villages, not knowing what was waiting behind each one. They are among us here in Orange, but their stories largely remain untold.

I try to comprehend the fear. The adrenalin. The exhaustion. The boredom. The grief. The courage.

I cannot.

- This editorial was first published in 2022.


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