When I think of Australian women’s military service, particularly in relation to World War 1, I think of the women of Australian Army Nursing Service. 2,139 AANS nurses served overseas during World War I attending wounded Australian soldiers in all major campaigns. They worked behind the lines in field hospitals and on hospital ships that anchored offshore near battlefields such as Gallipoli. They served in Egypt, Salonika, Lemnos, India, England, Belgium and France. Twenty-five died and 388 were decorated, eight receiving the Military Medal for bravery. The novel The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally imagines the lives of two sisters serving with the AANS with an almost unbearable reality.
During World War II, 3,477 AANS nurses served overseas in the Middle East, Greece and Crete, Ceylon, Malaya, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Island and England. Seventy-one died on active service, some as prisoners of war of the Japanese suffering the brutality, deprivation and cruelty that typified these camps. Firsthand accounts of the nurses’ experiences in these camps can be found in White Coolies by Betty Jeffery and In Japanese Hands by Jessie Simons.
In 1951 my mother joined the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corp (the year the RAANS achieved corps status) and from February 1953 served at the British Commonwealth General Hospital at Kure, Japan where the sick and wounded of the Commonwealth Division during the Korean war were cared for. She was not a trained nurse but was trained to RAANC standards as a nursing aide; these standards were higher than those for civilain nursing aides. She left the RAANC in 1954 to marry my father, a sergeant in the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps. Stories of military nurses were part of my childhood. My mother regarded World War I nurses as the pinnacle of nursing expertise and credits her survival of a medical catastrophe following my birth to two former AANS nurses Sister Annie Catherine Cameron and Sister Mary Genevieve Dwyer of St David’s Hospital Maffra, both were mentioned in despatches. While the nursing was superb, the doctors in Maffra could not even get the diagnosis right.
There were also stories of the nurses with whom my mother served and others who had almost legendary status among the nurses such as Vivian Bullwinkel, survivor of the Banka Island massacre. Then there was Mum’s friend Beryl Hogarth, a regular visitor during my childhood. She joined the RAANC at the same time as my mother and also worked as a nursing aide.When her period of service ended she left and trained as a general nurse. She then rejoined the RAANC and served in Vietnam during the war there, among other places. She rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and was awarded Associate of the Royal Red Cross in the Queen’s Birthday honours in June 1978 for services to Army nursing.
Of course the Australian Army Nursing Service was not the only nursing service in the defence forces. The Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service was formed in 1940 and the Royal Australian Navy Nursing Service in 1942. Both continued until the 1970s and 1980s when, with increased recognition of the roles and abilities of women in all walks of life, they were incorporated into their permanent forces. Today nurses continue to play a critical role in the Defence Forces particularly when on active service. The story of one modern woman who has continued in the footsteps of the World War I nurses, demonstrating the same skill, humanity and endurance is retired Wing Commander Sharon Bown. Her memoir One Woman’s War and Peace : A Nurse’s Journey in the Royal Australian Air Force tells of her own experiences as a nurse during her sixteen year career in the Royal Australian Air Force.
Sharon Bown (nee Cooper) grew up in an ordinary family in Hobart, Tasmania. Her father was a police officer and her mother a nursing aide caring for the elderly. In 1999 aged 23, she joined the Royal Australian Air Force as a Nursing Officer hoping to serve her country and have the opportunity to provide rapid delivery healthcare to those in need. After her initial training she was deployed to the United Nations Military Hospital in Dili East Timor. At that time the International Force for East Timor, organised and led by Australia, was present in East Timor to address the humanitarian and security crisis resulting from violence by pro-Indonesian militia in reaction to a UN-sponsored referendum in 1999 that overwhelmingly supported East Timorese independence. While in Timor, as well as her duties as perioperative nurse in Dili, Bown also spent time teaching East Timorese orphans English. On her return to Australian in 2000 she was posted to Richmond, New South Wales and to Amberley, Queensland. She returned to East Timor in 2003 and in June 2004, as part of an Aeromedical Evacuation team on its way to assist a local woman experiencing birth complications, was involved in helicopter crash which left her with a broken back and shattered jaw. Bown struggled not only for her life but slowly to regain her health and independence and finally her career within the Air Force, returning to full time duties in December 2004. In October 2005 she was posted to Bali again as part of an Aeromedical Evacuation team to assist with the evacuation of Australians following the Bali bombings. On her return from Bali she worked for twelve months as Aide-de-Camp to the Minister for Defence, Brendan Nelson and was promoted to Squadron Leader. From Canberra, Bown was posted to Townsville where she worked as a Military Support Officer providing advice to ADF members and, where necessary, assistance to bereaved families. A year later she was deployed to Tarin Kot, Afghanistan where she commanded a combat surgical team treating wounded Coalition soldiers during periods of intense fighting in that region. The hospital also provided medical treatment to Afghan people and, most heartbreakingly, to children. Following her return from Afghanistan, Bown recognized the effort that was needed to ensure that she was home psychologically as well as physically and some time later was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2015 she was discharged from the Royal Australian Air Force as medically unfit.
This book is far, far more than a chronology of a remarkable woman’s career in the defence forces. Wound through the narrative is her own personal story which includes her mother’s fight against and death due to breast cancer, her father’s struggles following his shooting while off-duty by a homicidal psychopath, her reactions to the challenges of treating people from cultures who place a different value on life. There are moments of genuine humour as well as uplifting stories such as that her friendships with East Timorese women, especially Miss Gabriella who partly through Bowns assistance graduated from Cornell University in 2013 and has returned to East Timor to help with the development of her country. Bowns’ husband and her children are also a presence in the later part of the book.
One Woman’s War and Peace presents a clear picture of the current role of the Australian Defence Forces and the price that the individuals within it pay for their service, service that is ultimately to the benefit of us civilians. Bown is unflinching in her examination of her PTSD and the effect it has generally on the lives of service personnel. It is to be hoped that such honesty will be rewarded by a thorough recognition of the nature of PTSD and the support needed by defence personnel by those in a position to effect changes in the way they are treated.
The book ends with Sharon Bown’s speech at the ANZAC Day Dawn Service at the Australian War Memorial in 2014. Two sentences stand out and do honour not only to those who died or were injured but also to those medical and nursing personnel who over the decades have battled to save the lives of their injured comrades. Sharon Bown is truly their worthy successor.
I have worn their blood. So many of us have worn their blood.