THE UNVARNISHED TRUTH OF SERVING YOUR COUNTRY
WHEN Gary Wilson was rescued from a Black Hawk helicopter that crashed in Afghanistan three and a half years years ago, he was trying to crawl away from the wreckage. But the Special Operations soldier could not go far because he was barely conscious and badly wounded. His left foot, knee and forearm, his ribs, pelvis, fingers, nose and jaw had been crushed in the devastating accident. ‘‘ I broke pretty much the left-hand side of my body,’’ is how the signaller would later describe his catalogue of injuries.
Wilson was carried, in enveloping darkness, to a rescue helicopter and quickly lapsed into a coma. Ten weeks on, when he swam back to groggy consciousness, he was convinced he was a prisoner of the Taliban rather than a patient strapped to a hospital bed in Sydney. Again, he had one impulse — to flee. He tried to make a run for it, but he couldn’t walk, let alone sprint. ‘‘ I couldn’t balance so I smashed my face into the floor and split my lip,’’ he recalls, his account so precise and composed he might be describing a series of calamities that happened to someone else.
Now based in Canberra, the lance corporal with the black-framed, Clark Kent-style glasses and easy, confiding manner narrowly survived one of Australia’s worst military catastrophes in Afghanistan — the 2010 crash of a NATO helicopter that claimed four of his comrades and seriously injured eight Coalition troops.Yet when asked about the worst aspects of his three tours of duty to East Timor and Afghanistan, the 32-year-old replies unhesitatingly: ‘‘ Worst thing probably — mates dying.’’ He also mentions separation from his family and fiancee, Renee (whom he has since married). ‘‘ Everyone pretty much lies to each other on the phone,’’ he reveals. ‘‘ If you’re having a bad day, you say, ‘ Honey everything’s great, we’re as safe as houses.’ ’’
What the self-effacing soldier conspicuously omits to mention is that he almost died in that helicopter crash in northern Kandahar. He suffered a brain injury, his foot and arm had to be reconstructed, and he has been through the slow grind of rehabilitation — a word he struggles to pronounce as the accident left him with a speech impediment.
Despite this disability, Wilson has signed up for a bold experiment, a new play called The Long Way Home, to be co-produced by the Sydney Theatre Company and the Australian Defence Force. For this historic project, he and other injured servicemen and women will appear on stage alongside professional actors to talk about the physical and pyschological traumas they have endured while on operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor. Wilson is one of 12 soldiers, from private to brigadier, who will perform in this semi-fictionalised drama by Melbourne playwright Daniel Keene, which draws heavily on the personal stories of Australian soldiers who have served in some of the planet’s most troubled places.
The Long Way Home is one of two large-scale theatre works being staged this summer to mark the centenary of the start of World War I; it opens in Sydney on February 7 and will tour nationally. The second work, Black Diggers, is a $1 million co-production between the Sydney Festival and Queensland Theatre Company; it opens at the festival on January 17 and in Brisbane in September. Written by Tom Wright
EVERYONE ASSUMES THAT BEING WOUNDED IS LIKE IN THE MOVIES, THAT A BULLET GOES THROUGH THEM AND THEY KEEP GOING . . . THE VAST MAJORITY OF OUR WOUNDS ARE LONG-TERM
LANCE CORPORAL GARY WILSON
in close collaboration with indigenous director Wesley Enoch, this intensively researched play highlights the largely unsung contribution of Aboriginal troops in World War I. If Black Diggers is an act of historical awakening, reclaiming the often-neglected narrative of indigenous soldiers who risked their lives for a country that regarded them as non-citizens, The Long Way Home is a highly emotive venture between unlikely allies: the military and the nation’s largest theatre company.
Initiated by David Hurley, Chief of the Defence Force, its purpose is twofold: to speed the recovery of the injured soldiers taking part, and to give audiences unvarnished insights into how our fighting men and women endure long-term and permanent injuries in the name of serving their country. Among the soldiersturned-thespians are those who have seen mates blown up or fail to return from missions that were meant to be routine. One sergeant was badly injured when a rocket exploded in her sleeping quarters; another has photo- graphed 28 funerals and ceremonies for deceased troops — the coffins draped with the Australian flag broke her heart, every time.
Others have spent their adult lives believing they are Teflon-coated and have been unable to admit to themselves, let alone their bosses or loved ones, when they are in psychological distress.
Wilson’s recovery was arduous, to say the least. ‘‘ I had to learn to do everything,’’ he explains calmly. ‘‘ My wife says it was like watching an infant all over again. I had to learn how to breathe by myself. I had to learn how to chew and swallow by myself and my speech, I still go to rehab for that.’’ He re-learned how to drive, and was told he might never walk or run — he now does both. He was diagnosed earlier this year with depression, but only after his wife forced him to see a psychologist.
‘‘ I was in denial,’’ he says, crossing his arms defensively. ‘‘ Everyone assumes that being wounded is like in the movies, that a bullet goes through them and they keep going. They assume that within six weeks they’re back to 100 per cent. The vast majority of our wounds are long-term.’’
Wilson reveals that when he was asked to do the show, ‘‘ I wasn’t too confident about speaking publicly, with my voice the way it is. I thought it would be quite difficult.’’ However, after working intensively with STC voice coach Charmian Gradwell, his speech improved dramatically. After the accident, he avoided talking to people who weren’t close friends or family — a barmaid once refused to serve him, assuming he was drunk because of his slurred speech. He says: ‘‘ I’m braver now. I can walk up and speak to people that I don’t know.’’
So it is that on a late spring morning, Wilson and 14 other soldiers find themselves in an STC rehearsal room, doing warm-up voice and movement classes. (Twelve of the 15 workshop participants will appear in the final show.) There is an unassuming steeliness about this battle-scarred band of brothers and sisters, most of whom are still serving in the army. Yet in this large, open room built above the eddies and backwash of Sydney Harbour, they sing scales and hum sensuous melodies, beat time with one hand, releasing tension in their shoulders, eyes and jaws. In pairs, they perform a surprisingly confronting eye contact exercise — who will break first? — before moving on to a kind of pass-the-parcel, transferring simple gestures and breathy exclamations from one person to another.
A middle-aged soldier with a buzz cut, Dennis Ramsay lost both his feet to a lifethreatening blood infection but continues to work for the army as a warrant officer. His thin, artificial legs are thrust into running shoes and he displays an extraordinary agility during a manic game of tip, weaving and spinning away from his opponents, turning full circles, before dropping heavily into his wheelchair.
Gradwell is using these exercises to loosen up the bodies, voices and memories of this improbable group of performers, who will go on to share their stories, providing Keene and
director Stephen Rayne with a rich seam of raw material. Rayne is from Britain and became involved in this production after Hurley saw a play he directed, The Two Worlds of Charlie F, in London in 2012. In this searing work, wounded British soldiers, including four amputees, told their stories on stage, and Hurley immediately saw the need for an Australian version. The director jokes he was signed up to oversee The Long Way Home because ‘‘ if it fails miserably they can always blame me and say it was a Pom who was involved in it’’.
Rayne says he and Keene ‘‘ have started from kind of point zero with a group of wounded, injured and ill soldiers who have never acted before, who’ve never been on a stage before, who’ve never been in a theatre, some of them ... It’s a very daunting proposition.’’ For the director, the play’s key objective is to convey the enduring, often hidden nature of soldiers’ injuries. According to the ADF, more than 260 Australian troops have been wounded in Afghanistan since 2002, and emotional scarring may only become obvious years after a soldier’s tour of duty finishes. Psychological injuries, Rayne says, are ‘‘ beginning to be taken seriously by govern- ments . . . but it’s a very long shadow cast into society’’. Statistics in the US and Europe point to a high number of military men and women who committed suicide and ‘‘ have not properly been taken care of once they leave the forces’’. With the drawdown from Afghanistan, he warns, ‘‘ there are going to be more and more people coming back into society — in Australia as well — who are going to be suffering the effects of having served overseas . . . It is a legacy that will continue for many, many years and many generations ahead.’’
Sarah Webster no doubt would agree. Like Wilson, she has been seriously wounded — she was injured on her first tour of duty to Baghdad’s Green Zone in 2006, when a Katyusha rocket exploded where she slept. And like Wilson, she will make her acting debut in The Long Way Home. A sergeant now living in Melbourne, Webster enlisted in this highly unusual venture because ‘‘ anyone who hasn’t been through a war, there is no way they can understand that [the associated trauma] ... The public don’t see dislocation, the effect on the families. You don’t see the fact that some of these people intend on being military their whole lives, but all of a sudden their careers are cut short . . . A lot of the guys take years to get over what happened to them. A lot of them have issues socially or with family.’’
After Webster was injured — she suffered a fractured skull, torn spleen, dislocated hip and broken kneecap — she developed anxiety and sought professional help. But some of her colleagues, she says, wouldn’t dream of telling their chain of command that they were having psychological problems.
Now 33, Webster describes the rocket attack of August 14, 2006, with almost devastating understatement. ‘‘ I was in bed at the time the rocket hit,’’ she says. ‘‘ Unfortunately, the room that was hit was mine.’’ She had been sleeping and was knocked unconscious. She was 26 and needed five months of rehab, which was ‘‘ very hard work’’. Remarkably, she was determined not just to return to work but to go on another overseas operation. She was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008. ‘‘ It was a perfectly normal trip,’’ she says, her definition of normal clearly expanded by years of being immersed in a warrior culture.
If someone had told her while she was in Afghanistan that she would one day appear behind the footlights, ‘‘ I probably would have laughed at them’’, she says. During the workshops, she admits, ‘‘ I did get a bit teary telling my story’’, but she is excited to be going on stage. ‘‘ I hope my inner actor can come out and do a good job,’’ she says, laughing. WORLD War I must have struck terror into the hearts of thousands of Australian mothers who had sons of fighting age. But Hannah Lovett had more to fear than most. Lovett was a mother of 12 from Victoria’s Lake Condah region, and five of her children served in the war that killed far more Australian troops than any other. Alfred, Leonard, Edward, Herbert and Frederick Lovett put their lives on the line amid the blood, mud and despair of the Somme, Passchendaele, Amiens and Palestine.
It was not merely the Lovetts’ collective contribution to the Great War that was extraordinary — these brothers fought for king and country even though they were regarded as non-citizens in their own nation. They were Aboriginal, and at that time indigenous Australians were denied full voting and citizenship rights, equal wages and the right
to marry whomever they wanted without obtaining official permission.
In July 1915, just before he set off for the grim battlefields of the Somme, a studio portait was taken of Hannah Lovett’s eldest son, Alfred, and his young family. The portrait shows a stocky, handsome man in a drab private’s uniform with a slightly crooked collar. Alf poses with his wife, Sarah, and their two young sons. The boys are dressed in short coats with lace collars that swamp their narrow shoulders. Sarah is a picture of calm in a white blouse edged with ribbon, a lifelike toy rifle resting against her thigh. Alfred, in contrast, looks tense. His mouth is clamped tight, his large, almost startled eyes fixed intently on the camera, as if braced for bad news. Was the 35-year-old husband and father thinking about the immense risks he was about to take?
During World War I, such family portraits were often shot as a kind of insurance against death; as the Australian War Memorial puts it, ‘‘ against the possible contingency that the person would not return from the war’’.
Happily and astonishingly, all the Lovett brothers made it home. Even more astonishingly, at least three of those five World War I veterans, including Alf, went on to serve in World War II along with other relatives. This unusually patriotic family was among the 1000 or so Aboriginal soldiers who fought for the British Commonwealth in World War I and whose collective experiences form the bedrock of Black Diggers.
Black Diggers’ narrative will be fictionalised and episodic in form, and dramatist Tom Wright says it will ‘‘ reinstall black faces into what has otherwise been a white pantheon of national heroes’’. He adds hastily, as a stampede of buses belch fumes into the Sydney cafe where he and director Wesley Enoch talk to Review: ‘‘ I don’t think there’s any particular desire to, in any way, criticise or denigrate the reality or the myth of the Anzac.’’
Enoch, as chilled out as his collaborator is intense, makes clear the play isn’t just about a war but our foundation stories, and who features in them. ‘‘ World War I was such a defining feature in this country,’’ says the man who runs the Queensland Theatre Company.
‘‘ We talk about the Anzac traditions but also the blooding of a nation. This country is built on all these stories; to question them and place an Aboriginal perspective in there is fascinating. I’ve often talked about writing on to the public record a history that is [largely] unknown and unspoken.’’
The Lovetts are a startling case in point. The family’s five-man contribution to World War I is thought to be unrivalled across the commonwealth. In 2000, the high-rise Canberra building that houses the Department of Veterans’ Affairs was named after the Lovetts, whose descendants fought in Korea and Vietnam. Yet despite this recognition and their unique service record, these Aboriginal brothers are far from being household names.
Why did hundreds of Aboriginal men who were denied rights others took for granted risk their lives in the trenches?
For many, the lure of adventure and equal wages, and the promise of unbiased treatment, proved irresistible. As Wright explains, the Australian Imperial Force was the only commonwealth military force that integrated white and non-white soldiers in World War I, and Aboriginal soldiers were paid the same as nonAboriginal servicemen — the AIF has been described as the nation’s first equal opportunity employer. Enoch, whose grandfather served in World War II, reflects: ‘‘ If you joined the AIF, suddenly you were thought of in a different way.’’
Nonetheless, during the early war years, Aborigines initially were excluded from joining up on racial grounds — enlisting soldiers had to be of ‘‘ substantial European origin’’. The turning point, Enoch says, was the failed conscription referendum in 1916. ‘‘ When it was defeated, a lot more Aboriginal soldiers were signed up. The AIF was desperate for
THE AIF HAS BEEN DESCRIBED AS THE NATION’S FIRST EQUAL OPPORTUNITY EMPLOYER
in my life I felt like my colour didn’t matter.’ ‘‘ What many soldiers also reported was, when they came back they found it very hard to find a place for themselves in the black community, but they certainly didn’t feel there were any doors open for them in the white community. They found themselves, having left a no man’s land behind in Flanders, caught in another no man’s land here.’’
For example, some soldier settlement farming schemes took land from Aboriginal missions to give to returned white soldiers, but returned indigenous soldiers were often excluded from such land grants. According to the Australian War Memorial, although he fought in both world wars, Alfred Lovett was denied land and farming assistance because he was not officially an Australian citizen.
Despite such overt discrimination, there was widespread affection and respect for Aborigines who served, too. Wright comments: ‘‘ For every instance where Aboriginal servicemen found themselves left out of the Anzac narrative, there were instances where particular colleagues went in to bat for them.’’ He cites a case in Casino, northern NSW, of former Aboriginal soldiers being discriminated against and ‘‘ the local RSL went in most vociferously to stand up for their rights’’. (A host of books and articles also has documented the indigenous contribution to World War I.)
Aboriginal men — including those who did not publicly identify as indigenous — served in all the World War I campaigns that involved Australian troops, from the Gallipoli landings, to the Sinai and the Western Front. A significant proportion of the Light Horse Brigade — ever-glamorous with their emu feather-plumed hats and sleek mounts — were Aborigines who came from big pastoral stations and were skilled riders. Indeed, the 20th reinforcement of the 11th Light Horse Regiment included so many Aboriginal soldiers it was nicknamed the Queensland Black Watch. Cathy Freeman’s great-grandfather, Frank Fisher, served in this outfit.
If the Lovetts made the biggest documented contribution of any single family to World War I, the Ngarrindjeri Anzacs from South Australia’s tiny Point McLeay mission (now known as Raukkan) surely made one of the biggest community contributions. Out of a population of a little more than 100, 21 men from the mission signed up, according to Williams. At least five did not come home.
Among the dead were brothers Rufus and Cyril Rigney — Rufus was just 16 when he enlisted in 1916; he lied about his age so he could go to the front. He died in 1917 at Passchendaele and is buried amid a sea of silent white headstones in Belgium’s Harlebeke New British Cemetery. Intriguingly, Sydney Festival director Lieven Bertels, who is from Belgium, spotted this lone Aboriginal grave at the cemetery and was struck by how this ‘‘ brave Ngarrindjeri boy . . . chose to fight for a country that wasn’t even his, according to the government of that time’’. Bertels went on to commission Black Diggers, spurred by the conviction that ‘‘ we had to tell their story’’.
While researching the play, Enoch visited the descendants of Aboriginal Diggers in SA, NSW and Queensland. He sat with the Rigneys’ relatives in Raukkan’s restored sandstone church — the same church that appears on the $50 note, behind that other Point McLeay hero, David Unaipon. The director was moved, but found these soldiers were so lionised by their relatives, they were unrealisable as stage characters. He asks aloud: ‘‘ What kind of show do you make around such mythic men? It’s almost impossible.’’
This is one reason the Black Diggers team fictionalise their extensive historical research and tell a wide range of stories. ‘‘ This material is incredibly culturally sensitive,’’ Enoch confides. ‘‘ No one’s alive now, but there [are] a lot of cultural protocols around it.’’ He says candidly he sometimes had to reject a community’s claims of ownership of an ancestor’s story to help create the play.
Research about black World War I veterans continues, but it is taxing work given the AIF did not record the race of enlisted soldiers and some indigenous soldiers did not identify as Aboriginal. Still, staff at the Australian War Memorial are rapidly adding new names to the roll — the confirmed headcount has grown from 500 names several years ago to 1000 now.
Enoch says: ‘‘ Everyone knows the Gallipoli story. We’ve watched the films, we’ve read the books, we’ve seen the marches, all that stuff. But to know Aboriginal people were there then . . .’’ His voice trails away and then he says with quiet deliberation: ‘‘ That we don’t exclude indigenous Australians from our formation narratives — that’s a big thing for me.’’ reinforcements, so it became much easier for indigenous soldiers to get in.’’
Black Diggers has an all-male indigenous cast, including one Vietnam veteran, and will present a broad sweep of stories reflecting indigenous soldiers’ often opposing reactions to the war — some returned home sickened by their war experiences; others remained unwavering patriots. The play is divided into three parts: enlistment; black experiences of the war; and coming home.
While the play’s researcher, David Williams, didn’t find much evidence of institutional racism within the armed forces, it was a different story when black World War I veterans attempted to reintegrate into Australian society. Explains Wright: ‘‘ Every Aboriginal who served in the First World War said they encountered far less [discrimination] when they were in uniform than either side of the war. In fact many said, ‘ That was the only time
Above, in a workshop for The Long Way Home, actor Tahki Saul and Warrant Officer Dennis Ramsay, left, and (in pale blue shirt) Sarah Webster, right; facing page, Australian troops in Oruzgan province; and, below left, Lance Corporal Gary Wilson on duty in 2010, before the crash in which he almost lost his life
From top, studio portrait of Alfred Lovett with his wife, Sarah, and two sons taken before he left for World War I; a group of Diggers, including indigenous soldiers, who served at Gallipoli; Wesley Enoch