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Returned servicemen and women, distinguished guests, families of our ADF personnel, ladies and gentlemen,
Last week it was my privilege to attend the 70th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of El Alamein in Egypt. Both while I was there and since I have had time to reflect about what I wanted to say to you today. At the outset, let me be quite clear – there are no words to convey the respect that you have earned, or to thank you for your service to your country. But I will do my best to express my thoughts to you and the families who waited behind for you.
Operational service demands a great deal from soldiers and a lot from their families. There are precious days gone now that you simply cannot share – the first words or steps of a child; events in the life of friends and kin to which you were at best a distant virtual observer, just the routine comfort of a family dinner or time with close mates. These are the intangibles of great value.
And of course many of you experienced the human cost that is paid in the military operations of which you have been a part. Some have experienced the deaths of close mates. All of you have seen poverty, suffering and things that you would rather forget. Again, I can't offer comfort or logic for some of these things, all of which you bear as Australian soldiers on behalf of your fellow citizens who simply cannot imagine what you have seen, heard and felt. You deserve to be proud of what you have done.
When I spoke to the old diggers of El Alamein they were very interested in you. They have watched your progress and prayed for your safe return. Be assured that they know the torch they carried so far is in very safe hands. They were soldiers too and young, and they want me to tell you that they are growing old in the comfort that the things they fought for are in the hands of young men and women who are their equal. Like you, they gave something precious and irreplaceable so that other Australians neither had to face nor bear the privation of war or operational service. This makes you men and women apart; not in an arrogant way, but in a way that can make you older than your peers and a little more serious in your purpose.
Earlier I said that few of your fellow Australians truly grasp the nature of your work and your sacrifice. However, let me reassure you, in no uncertain terms, that the respect for you among them is deep and universal. In my thirty four years in this Army I have never seen such widespread affection and regard for the men and women who wear the slouch hat and rising sun badge.
I watched my own father lead his battalion, 9 RAR on their return from Vietnam, through an Australian city to jeers from some in the crowd. That would never happen today. No matter what any one thinks of the war in Afghanistan they do not question your honour, courage or motivation.
Just like the veterans of El Alamein, you have added you own chapter to one of the great narratives of the Australian nation, that of young diggers setting off for far lands to fight for what they believe is a good cause. That is what the men of El Alamein did. That is what you have done.
Our Army has always been deployed as the single most solemn expression of our national intent that world peace and order be preserved.
Throughout our history we have only ever sent our soldiers into harm’s way for the right reasons. Always and everywhere, we have helped the underdog, stood up to oppressors and in so doing displayed courage, teamwork and initiative in standing by our mates.
The same applies to those of you who have returned from Timor Leste. That operation is less on peoples’ minds, mainly because of the great job our soldiers and police have done in restoring peace and tranquility to that new nation. The security of the island chain to our immediate North is simply indispensable to our security and the demands of complex peace operations impose their own particular pressures. You too have much to be proud of.
So to all of you I say warmly: “Welcome home! You have done yourselves and Australia proud.” Be assured that the whole Army family is behind you to help you to settle back into your normal lives. Those who have been wounded, rest assured that we won't leave you behind. To all of you – if over time you experience anxiety or depression from your service – reach out and get help. It is a normal response to the sights and sound of war. Don’t bottle up your emotions. They are nothing to be ashamed of. And there are people who want to help and who understand.
In closing it occurred to me that tomorrow is St Crispin’s Day. On that day in 1415 was fought the Battle of Agincourt. It prompted the greatest writer in the English language – William Shakespeare – to write a play in which he summed up- better than any one I know -what it means to be a soldier who has faced danger in the company of friends. In one of the most powerful passages of prose I have ever read, he said that when people shed their blood together they become a band of brothers whose deeds shall never be forgotten. I am proud that today we build bands of brothers and sisters. Your deeds will be remembered with pride by a grateful nation.
Let us pause a moment to remember our brothers who died with you in your deployment to Afghanistan:
Private Robert Poate
Lance Corporal Ric Milosevic
Sapper James Martin
Private Nate Gallagher
Private Merv MaDonald
God bless you and your families.