Think Piece: Defining the Contemporary Veteran

Source: Published 20 July, 2017 by MAJ Clare O'Neill

Contemporary veterans are a diverse group with no ingrained stereotype. Some are still serving military members and will participate in Anzac Day marches with their units. Others have transitioned to civilian life and may march under an ex-service organisation’s banner. Some will opt to stand undetected on the sidelines while others, who hold painful memories of war, may wish the day was not filled with military reminders. So how does the stereotype of ‘Anzac’ and ‘veteran’ compare alongside the mould of our most recent veterans on Anzac Day?

The image conjured when I think of Anzac is that of rugged men muddied in trenches. They stare out at you from history books with toughness, resilience and bashful courage. Their knowing eyes defy their youthful faces. Anzac is the image of our past and provides the foundation for our present.

The image of a veteran, to me, has always been my grandfathers. Both served in World War II, one Army and the other Air Force. Their tales from Papua New Guinea, Britain and Burma were lost with their passing some years ago as neither shared their war stories when alive. As they reached the end of their lives their features mirrored those often flashed up on screens during Anzac Day — that of aged men with worn medals clanking across their chests. This vision of veteran is often shown with the dichotomy of youth; an iconic visual of the veteran’s actions and sacrifice as their legacy to future generations. Their youthful faces passed on to the next generation but without the toughened glare of war.

I only had one fleeting moment of conversation with each of my grandfathers about their roles in World War II. War was rarely discussed. The first was with my grandfather who served in Papua New Guinea. I was 20 years old and had just completed Exercise Shaggy Ridge (a sleep and food depravation training exercise) as a cadet at the Royal Military College Duntroon. I was proud I had completed the arduous activity when others hadn’t. My grandfather paused in his response to my story, “Shaggy Ridge, yes, I patrolled in that area. I was so bloody scared of heights that I was more afraid to look down than I was of the Japs”. This ephemeral exchange of stories with a World War II veteran forever put my Army warries back in the box.

The second exchange was with my grandfather who served in the Air Force. I was about to deploy on my second tour of Afghanistan and was visiting him during pre-deployment leave. I chatted about my first deployment to Afghanistan and explained how my second deployment would be similar. During the conversation my grandfather disappeared. A couple of hours later he re-emerged holding two photographs. The first was a photograph of him in Afghanistan, taken while he was transitioning from Britain, where he had been a Night Intruder, to the campaign in Burma. “Afghanistan’s pretty rough, don’t trust the locals in a card game, they slit a chap’s throat when he didn’t pay his debt”. Handy advice. The second was a photograph of his Flight taken in Britain. For all bar two, the word ‘dead’ or ‘maimed’ was bluntly stated as he pointed at their youthful faces. I’m grateful one of the two was a younger image of my grandfather. With the words “war’s not the same anymore”, he disappeared again. This grandfather never attended Anzac Day.

I will never know the rest of my grandfathers’ stories but they will always be my image of a veteran and what I personally remember each Anzac Day. I cannot change my own stereotype image of Anzac and veteran. The textbook definition of a veteran may be simple but having a sense of being a modern veteran is a little more complicated when analysed against the past and ingrained stereotypes. The word veteran may never sit comfortably with me when pointed in my direction.

Who we are and who we are not

On Anzac Day the song ‘And the band played Waltzing Matilda’ rang out at my Regiment’s Dawn Service. Images of frail aged men once again flashed up on an overhead screen as the song struck the words:

“But the band plays Waltzing Matilda, and the old men still answer the call. But as year follows year, more old men disappear. Someday no one will march there at all.”[iii]

But there will be someone. They are the contemporary veterans.

My thoughts coincide with reading James Brown’s book Anzac’s Long Shadow. Brown, a contemporary veteran himself, has eloquently captured the thoughts of many of us who are struggling to define ourselves against the Anzac stereotype.

Against another era of veteran, contemporary veterans do not face the Vietnam veteran’s adversity of returning to a nation that scorned their deeds. Our return has the support of the broader Australian community. We also have a blank canvas for our image. Brown points out that little is known in the general Australian community about the role of Australian Defence Force personnel in recent conflicts including East Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan and Solomon Islands.

Indeed serving personnel sometimes have misconceptions of veterans. During Anzac Day in 2011 I overheard an Australian Army soldier question why a member of the Royal Australian Navy was wearing an Afghanistan Campaign Medal. The tone suggested unworthiness of the honour; Afghanistan after all is a land-locked country. I was affronted by this comment as I had deployed to Afghanistan with Navy personnel who were Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technicians and Air Force personnel who were Joint Terminal Attack Controllers. If you know what these roles are, you will know how much admiration I have for their contribution to the survivability of our team. As I explained to the soldier — even though medals look the same, each medal comes with its own story. Every contemporary veteran’s contribution should be valued without judgement.

Similar stories are also presenting. Women are often judged to have only completed sedentary roles in Afghanistan and Iraq when there are many examples of the opposite. I have had young sappers tell me they have attended RSLs on Anzac Day and been told to move their medals to their right side as ‘don’t you know, medals awarded to a family member go on the right side of your chest’. Someone needs to remind these self-appointed hall monitors that the sentiment of the song ‘I was only 19’ applies not only to wars of bygone eras but also to our most recent conflicts. Having to justify your medal and convince people of the violence you faced in conflict because of your gender, age, service or corps is something I hope is a passing fad. This is a dangerous form of stereotyping that may become ingrained if our stories are not shared.

I don’t have a definition for the contemporary veteran or what mould we are made from. The lack of a stereotype may be our defining feature in the end. What I do know is that we own the image of the contemporary veteran because we are the contemporary veteran. We should not sit passively by and let others define who we are or who we are not. If we don’t own the image of the modern-day veteran then someone else will define it for us. Brown calls for proactive participation of serving members in intellectual debate and the “fluid exchange of ideas and the honest and intelligent study of the past.” Reflecting on our own contribution to the past and its meaning to our future may be a good place to start.

I caveat this call for action. There is no romanticised version of war, and men and women sign up to protect the general community and their loved ones from the horrors of war. It is difficult to share the horrors with people outside the military fold when it is those people who you served to keep the horrors from. Some contemporary veterans might not be ready to share. Like my grandfathers, the time may never come when the stories flow in general conversation. It is in this space that the voice of other veterans becomes ever more important.

To me the words veteran and Anzac conjure images of courageous men. Those men who returned home are now wearied by age and those who did not return home are forever suspended in youth. It is the spirit of Anzac and actions of veterans past that found the human qualities of the contemporary veteran — qualities of mateship, resilience and courage. They give meaning to our present and a reassurance in our human spirit for the adversities of the future. With this foundation and remembrance it is time for contemporary veterans to define our own image.


MAJ Clare O’Neill is a Royal Australian Engineer in the Australian Army who’s operational experience includes deployments to Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. Clare was the 2013 Chief of Army Scholar and Fulbright Professional Scholar in Australia-US Alliance Studies at Georgetown University. Clare is the Founder of Grounded Curiosity and Executive Director of the Defence Entrepreneurs Forum Australia. After completing sub-unit command at the 3rd Combat Engineer Regiment, Clare completed Australian Command and Staff College and is now the Military Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Army.