The Gold Coast Bulletin - Gold Coast Eye - - FEATURE - WORDS: ANN WA­SON MOORE PHOTO: GLENN HAMP­SON

When Sarah Can­non walked aboard the ship, she won­dered if per­haps she was car­ry­ing an in­vis­i­ble dis­ease. It was 1995 and the now 53-year-old was one of 30 women to join the HMAS New­cas­tle, the first women to ever step foot on the ves­sel as naval of­fi­cers. “I ac­tu­ally felt sorry for the men,” Sarah says. “They were just so un­com­fort­able see­ing us there. Prior to the mid 80s, women had an en­tirely sep­a­rate Navy, I was part of the last in­take when we were still seg­re­gated — and I was part of the first group of women who served along­side the men when we merged. When we walked on board, those men were ner­vous. They’d al­ways been told ‘don’t touch, don’t look, don’t frater­nise’ and now we were walk­ing past them. It was like we walked past car­ry­ing the plague.

“We tried to put them at ease. We ex­plained we’re just here to do our job, chill out, it’s go­ing to be fine.

“Within weeks it was like we’d al­ways been there. We were no longer the en­emy but their part­ners. They saw we were just as com­mit­ted and ca­pa­ble. We be­came a team that turned into fam­ily.”

While women have al­ways had a role in war­fare and its as­so­ci­ated in­dus­tries, their place at the front­line is still rel­a­tively re­cent. So much so that many women are ques­tioned — some­times ag­gres­sively — when they wear their medals.

“I think women have al­ways been ret­i­cent to dis­cuss their ser­vice,” says Sarah, who is help­ing co-or­di­nate a cam­paign by the Women Veter­ans Net­work Aus­tralia to en­cour­age fe­male vets to march on An­zac Day.

“In the past, women some­times felt that, while their ser­vice was worth­while, they per­haps weren’t wor­thy to walk along­side those who saw ac­tion in the front­lines.

“Of course, their con­tri­bu­tion was cru­cial then — and now their con­tri­bu­tion is equal.

“While we re­mem­ber the heroic ser­vice that our older veter­ans gave their coun­try, we for­get that younger peo­ple — par­tic­u­larly women — are still serv­ing in the here and now.”

At 37, Jo Cal­low prob­a­bly doesn’t fit what most peo­ple would de­scribe as a vet­eran.

But the mother of one joined up in 1999 when she was only 18 and served for more than a decade as a lead­ing sea­man in com­mu­ni­ca­tions and in­for­ma­tion sys­tems, un­der­tak­ing two op­er­a­tional trips, in­clud­ing to Afghanistan.

She says the chang­ing face of the mil­i­tary means it’s time to change our de­scrip­tion. “I think as a na­tion we will al­ways hold the old Dig­gers in our hearts as the pic­ture of what it means to serve. They will never be for­got­ten,” Jo says.

“But I think we have to start re­mem­ber­ing the gen­er­a­tions who have served since as well. We look dif­fer­ent — we’re black, white, fe­male, male, young, mid­dle-aged — but we all have Aus­tralia as our fo­cus.

“I still meet peo­ple who think women shouldn’t be in the mil­i­tary but, thank­fully, that at­ti­tude is drop­ping away. It’s still some­times a sur­prise to them who I am and what I have done, but not nec­es­sar­ily a neg­a­tive one.”

Army trans­port driver spe­cial­ist Jackie Clark says at­ti­tudes within the mil­i­tary have changed dra­mat­i­cally since she signed up in 2001 at the age of 17. Rather than mak­ing women prove them­selves against the boys, she says the in­dus­try is now one of the most flex­i­ble when it comes to work­ing moth­ers.

“The army has changed so much since I signed up. Mind you, I have too. I did my Schoolies and then the next week I went to re­cruit­ment train­ing,” says Jackie, who was awarded an Aus­tralia Day medal for her ser­vice in 2013.

“I never re­gret­ted it, but at that time we women re­ally felt we had to show every­one that we were wor­thy to be there with the boys.

“It’s very dif­fer­ent now, we’re not just wel­comed but em­braced. I have a three-year-old son and I still work full-time — as does my hus­band — be­cause the Army makes it work for us.

“It’s very much equal op­por­tu­nity. We owe it to our­selves to stand up and be recog­nised.”

De­spite the changes, all of the women agree one thing has re­mained the same: the cul­ture of mate­ship.

Sarah says, while it may not be a boys club any­more, the mil­i­tary is very much still a club — but one that is like a fam­ily.

She says a change in per­sonal cir­cum­stances meant she left in 2010, but she’d do it all again in a heart­beat if she could.

“It’s a bloody tough job, which is why any­one who serves de­serves the re­spect earned from wear­ing their medals,” she says.

“But the truth is that, as hard as it could be, I loved ev­ery sin­gle sec­ond of serv­ing.

“It’s not just a job you sign up to, but a life­style. It suited me down to the ground.

“My fa­ther was in the mil­i­tary and my hus­band was a sailor, so I guess it was in my blood. It’s one of those ca­reers like nurs­ing or emer­gency work, it’s in your heart that you want to be of ser­vice.

“It’s al­ways a big tran­si­tion when you leave, but your friends on the in­side are al­ways still there.

“Men and women alike, we’ve got each oth­ers’ backs for life. We’re fam­ily.”


To high­light the chang­ing face of our veter­ans, a new ini­tia­tive is en­cour­ag­ing women to stand up and march this An­zac Day.

By the Left, which is named for the side of the chest on which medals are worn by those who earned them, is a na­tional cam­paign aim­ing to broaden the pub­lic’s per­cep­tion of what a vet­eran looks like.

Cam­paign or­gan­iser Kel­lie Dadds, a vet­eran who

has been de­ployed eight times, says women veter­ans reg­u­larly find them­selves wrongly chal­lenged in per­son or via so­cial me­dia about wear­ing their hus­band’s/ fa­ther’s/grand­fa­ther’s medals on the wrong side — when the medals are ac­tu­ally their own. She says, al­though 15 per cent of the to­tal per­ma­nent serv­ing Aus­tralian Defence Force are women, the com­ments have up­set some so much that they have stopped at­tend­ing com­mem­o­ra­tive events al­to­gether.

“Many fe­male veter­ans no longer march on sig­nif­i­cant oc­ca­sions such as An­zac Day, and many have also dis­tanced them­selves from the vet­eran com­mu­nity cit­ing a sense of not be­long­ing due to not feel­ing recog­nised as a vet­eran,” she says.

“Fe­male veter­ans do not want to be dif­fer­ent, we want to be viewed the same — as veter­ans. But to achieve this, we must first be seen.”

She says all veter­ans are in­cluded in the By the Left cam­paign — male and fe­male.

“The term vet­eran in­cludes those who pro­vided home ser­vice. There is a gen­er­a­tion of veter­ans who served be­tween Viet­nam and East Ti­mor who did not have the op­por­tu­nity to de­ploy, how­ever, their ser­vice is no less val­ued than those who did serve over­seas.

“By the Left is not about medals, it is about the iden­tity of a vet­eran.”


There may be equal­ity across the armed forces now, but it was only seven years ago that women were granted ac­cess to com­bat roles.

It was an­other three years, in 2014, that women cur­rently serv­ing with the Aus­tralian Defence Force were al­lowed to join Spe­cial Forces.

While there are still far more men than women in the ADF, it’s been a slow and steady bat­tle for the fairer sex to win the right to de­fend their own coun­try.

The out­break of World War II in 1940 first saw the cre­ation of the Women’s Aux­il­iary Aus­tralian Air Force, the Aus­tralian Women’s Army Ser­vice and Women’s Royal Aus­tralian Naval Ser­vice.

These were dis­banded in 1945 as peace was de­clared, only to be re­formed in the early 1950s as WRAAF (air force), WRAAC (army) and WRANS (navy).

By the late 70s the women’s forces be­gan to be ab­sorbed into the main­stream ser­vices, with the fi­nal corps be­ing WRANS’ in­te­gra­tion with the Royal Aus­tralian Navy in 1985.

Equal pay was achieved for women in the ser­vices in 1979, and in 1992 then-PM Paul Keat­ing an­nounced that women could serve in all Army, Navy and Air Force units, ex­cept di­rect com­bat units.

This bar­rier was over­turned in Septem­ber 2011, with women al­lowed to di­rectly ap­ply for com­bat po­si­tions as of 2016.

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