Lest We Forget

I was never in the Army. I was never asked to fight for my country. But my father was. He served during — and in — the Vietnam War, a volunteer who wanted to serve his nation.

My father came home in 1972. But he never fully came home.

Beset with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, he gave up the claustrophobia of less meaningful work in an office for the open spaces and community service rendered as a firefighter.

But throughout his career, and at home, he could never truly escape the psychological damage of his time in country in Vietnam.

So much so that he was medically retired from the NSW Fire Brigades well short of his 65th birthday. The damage and burden were too much, especially in his role in charge of his station.

My father, Ian Phillips, died of cancer a few years after he left the Fire Brigade. We’ll never know what, if any, role his service had in the cancer he suffered, but we know for sure that his PTSD — and the impact of that on his work and home lives — was real, and caused by his service. It was exacerbated by the way he and his fellow servicemen were treated on their return to Australia.

I have very vivid memories of the Welcome Home parade in Sydney in 1987. It was a decade and a half too late, but it was something. It allowed some veterans’ wounds to heal, and it closed a sorry chapter in our social history.

It was overdue, and welcomed by most Vietnam Veterans. I know my father appreciated it, and was proud to march. I know other Veterans who still couldn’t bring themselves to join their comrades in the parade, such was the toll taken by 15 years (some more, some less) of neglect by the country they served.

This time in our history — particularly with the First World War having raged exactly a century ago — seems to bring milestone after milestone, as we mark the anniversary of important dates in different wars.

This year marks 50 years since the most notable Australian engagement of the Vietnam War, the Battle of Long Tan. It’s an important milestone, and a reminder that all of our Veterans are getting older. The 20-year-olds who fought in that battle will be 70 this year.

50 years is a long time to bear the scars of that service.

My father served as the President of the Engadine RSL sub-branch for a few years before cancer rendered him unable to continue in that role. His successors continue to do a wonderful job.

As a kid, some of my fondest memories of my father are of attending ANZAC Day commemorations with him. It was, and has remained, a ritual for our family. It is the day of the year I feel closest to my father.

Each year, the remaining Veterans, bolstered by those who saw service in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan, solemnly discharge what they see as their duty — to remember their fallen comrades, and to help us remember, too.

Even as they get older, fighting the effects of their service and the advancement of old age, they discharge that sacred duty.

John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields, was written of a time and place. Yet it has become universal and timeless, in part because of its sentiment, and in part because it describes the discharge of that duty.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place: and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

It also reminds those of us who didn’t go to war that we also share in that sacred duty. To remember, to be thankful, and to honour their service. To pay our respects.

Those Veterans who remain with us will selflessly focus their attention on their mates who didn’t return. We should share in that remembrance. But we should also recall the service of those who did return, but who regardless left something of themselves on those battlefields.

ANZAC Day gives us an opportunity to remember, and be grateful for those who laid down their lives in the service of their country — and to share in their inheritance. We should also make sure we remember and honour those who served and returned.

To all of our service personnel who served in wars and conflicts in our name, thank you, and Welcome Home.

And we remember those who did not return.


They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

Lest We Forget.

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