ANZAC Day and Christmas Creek Memorial Assembly special address to the School

On Wednesday 18 April, Air Vice-Marshal Julie Hammer AM CSC (1971) addressed the School at the Commemorative Assembly for ANZAC Day and the 39th Anniversary of the Christmas Creek tragedy. The following is her address. 

As we do each year, today’s service honours the sacrifice of those who fought, those who survived, and especially those who died at Gallipoli in 1915. Landing at dawn on 25 April, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps anticipated a swift and decisive battle against the Turks, but this was not to be.  Eight months later, some 8000 Australians and 2700 New Zealanders had died.

World War I claimed the lives of 60 000 Australians, with another 150 000 wounded. Since then, many Australians have continued to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect our national security: in World War II;, in Malaya; Korea; Indonesia; Vietnam; the Persian Gulf; East Timor; Iraq; Afghanistan; and in many United Nations missions during the past several decades.

But, it is the story of the ANZACs that has been enshrined in our heritage and in our hearts. Many feel that the spirit of the ANZACs has been instrumental in shaping our national culture, in defining what it means to be an Australian. Whether you believe that or not, it is worthwhile noting those characteristics attributed to the ANZACs and to us as Australians. They include courage, mateship, perseverance, audacity, larrikinism, and a wicked sense of humour. Today, I would like to single out and discuss just one of these characteristics—courage.

I wonder whether you have ever thought about courage? Just what is it? How do we judge or measure degrees of courage? How do you know when you might be faced with a situation in which you may need to be courageous? How do any of us know how we would react? Some of you may have already faced a situation like this and may know the answer. But, many of us have not.

I had never had occasion to think very deeply about courage until 1996 when I was invited to serve as one of the Prime Minister’s Representatives on the Governor General’s Bravery Council. This is the 12-member committee which recommends to the Governor General those people who should be recognised for their acts of bravery in the course of civilian life. It does not consider bravery decorations awarded for actions in combat situations. I was privileged to serve on this committee for three years.

Reading hundreds of accounts of courageous deeds and needing to make judgements on whether individuals should be recognised with a medal, and if so, at what level, made me think in some considerable depth about courage.

Courage is about facing and reacting to a situation of physical danger. Courage is not about being foolhardy or reckless. It is not about seeking attention or showing off. Courage is about knowingly putting yourself as risk, because there is no other obvious alternative, to save or help another person, or to uphold a belief, as is the case in war. In some situations, courage can be instinctive—in others, it can be calmly considered and carefully decided.

One factor that affects how much courage you might need to rustle up is your own personal ability. If you are a strong swimmer with training as a life-saver, you are probably not being quite as brave when you jump into a fast, flowing stream to save a person in difficulty as someone else who is not as confident a swimmer and has no specialist training.

Another factor that contributes to courage is your level of understanding of what you are facing. If you are going into a situation with some unknowns, you will need to summon up quite a lot more courage to face the risks that you may encounter. Trying to get survivors out of a burning car takes a lot of courage if you don’t know whether the petrol tank may explode at any moment.

Endurance is another aspect that comes into play. How long you may need to place yourself in danger is a significant factor in determining the degree of courage that you might need.

Courage is especially admirable when there is no responsibility, no duty of care.  What do I mean by that? Well, a parent has a duty of care to keep their children safe, a teacher has a duty of care for the well-being of their students, a lifeguard has a duty of care towards swimmers in the ocean. To put yourself in danger when you have no need, no responsibility, no duty of care, is truly selfless…and courageous.

Courage is what it takes to lay on the line your safety and even ultimately your life.  This is what the ANZACs did, this is what many members of the military are doing today in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this is what many seemingly ordinary women, men and sometimes even children, do in extraordinary circumstances.

But, courage is not always about situations of physical danger. Probably some of the most difficult situations you will face are those that demand moral courage. This could mean that you must stand up and be counted. You must know and uphold your beliefs. Even if you are never faced with a situation of real physical danger in your life, I am sure that you will face situations in the years to come that will need you to show moral courage.

In doing so, you might have to be the odd person out, the one, perhaps the only one, who is different, and many of us don’t find it comfortable to stand out from the crowd. You might have to risk isolation, perhaps even ridicule or scorn. But, being true to your beliefs, standing up for what you know is right, true and just, is vital for preserving your own self-respect. Showing moral courage may not require you to put your life at risk, will not win you a bravery medal, but it will allow you to achieve and maintain your own peace of mind, your own self-worth.

The term ‘hero’ is one that I think has regrettably had its meaning changed in recent decades. I was watching sporting coverage of an Olympic Games, quite a few years ago now, where we were all being implored to send ‘hero-grams’ to athletes to encourage or congratulate them. That continues today. I commented with some anger that I despised the use of the term ‘hero’ in that context. My 12 year-old step-son was puzzled and asked why shouldn’t they be called heroes. I realised that he, like you, had grown up in a time when heroism did not equate to bravery or courage, did not require anyone to be faced with danger, did not require anyone to put others before themselves. I think it is sad that we have lost this original meaning of the word, that we label many people who do not display courage as heroes.

In my mind, the ANZACs were heroes more than a century ago, just as many of the men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan in more recent years are heroes. There are many heroes in day-to-day life: let us not denigrate their actions by undeservedly calling others heroes. Let us today solemnly honour the sacrifice of the heroes of Gallipoli, and the heroes of the many other military actions in which Australians have courageously fought, and work hard to be worthy of the legacy they have left us.