WE WALK TOGETHER
WE SELDOM HEAR FROM FEMALES ON THE FRONTLINE, BUT A NEW INITIATIVE IS ENCOURAGING WOMEN TO STAND UP AND MARCH THIS ANZAC DAY
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.”
THE FIGHT FOR EQUALITY
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.”
FEMALES ON THE FRONTLINE
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.