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Celebrating all our heroes

Date

Brendan Nelson

Honouring soldiers should transcend generations, Brendan Nelson writes.

An Australian soldier on patrol in the Mirabad Valley in Afghanistan.

An Australian soldier on patrol in the Mirabad Valley in Afghanistan. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Success in life requires three things: show humanity toward others, nurture the inner integrity of your intellect and keep an open mind - open to new ideas and people.

When recently in Afghanistan, an Australian soldier remarked, ''Sir, when I take my son to the War Memorial, I can show him what his great-grandfather did. I can show him what his grandfather did. But I can't show him what I'm doing.''

He's right. Australian men and women in Afghanistan have been serving our nation in our name, our uniform and under our flag for over a decade. Their story needs to be told through their eyes and voices - now.

It should encompass the entire Middle East area of operations and three services. It should show Australians not only the danger and valour of sharp-end operations, but also the heroism of those who train Afghans, counter the threat of explosive devices, build bridges and schools, maintain aircraft and patrol the Persian Gulf among many others. It should also reveal the remarkable sacrifices made by families in support of them.

This exhibition will be in the memorial this year and remain in place until there is a permanent display. The Afghanistan story needs to be told now to educate Australians about the conflict and the extraordinary efforts made on our behalf.

There is also a significant and growing ''therapeutic'' need for what is now a small army of veterans, many of whom are still serving. They must know their story is being told through their eyes and voices. They should be able to visit the memorial to see, hear and feel something of their service.

If we had been able to present the Vietnam War a little sooner, perhaps those men might not have suffered quite as much.

Having examined all viable options, the only space for the Afghanistan exhibition is that currently occupied by the online gallery.

Established in the late '90s, this gallery has provided a greatly appreciated service to Australians researching their family's military history, guided by volunteers on computers. Long before the ubiquitous availability of laptops, tablets and smartphones, it has helped thousands of visitors. While the search can be undertaken anywhere from any computer outside the memorial, having a person help is a comfort.

However, it occupies the memorial's most precious commodity beyond its staff and volunteers - space.

We are looking at alternative delivery models for the service - fewer computer terminals in another area, tablets and online advice among them. But whatever the outcome, Afghanistan is an urgent priority going to the very core of the memorial's mission.

On another front, others have criticised me for being photographed with Ben Roberts-Smith VC in front of the memorial with a Bushmaster promoting Anzac Day. The fact is we should be concerned that Australia's young veterans from contemporary conflicts are not joining RSL marches around the nation on Anzac Day.

Many attend the Dawn Service but think marches are for an earlier generation of veterans. I asked Roberts-Smith to consider coming to Anzac Day at the War Memorial in Canberra and to march. That he agreed to do so reflects deep leadership qualities and a sense of service.

Young veterans of Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor and the Solomon Islands should know it is for them as much as their forebears, that we are proud of them.

About 25,000 people attended the Dawn Service at the memorial last year. That is likely to grow. Some begin arriving about midnight to get a spot where they can see. One father told me he had stopped bringing his children because they couldn't see.

From midnight we will project in light onto each side of the memorial the names of the biggest battle sites over a century, from Gallipoli to the Chora Valley across land, sea and air. As one name fades, another will appear. So too on the inner pillars we plan to project images of Australian service and sacrifice from the memorial's rich pictorial archive.

From 4.30am there will be readings to the crowd - Charles Bean's description of the Gallipoli landing, diary entries and letters from soldiers, and Kokoda as examples. At 5am, Roberts-Smith will similarly read evocative descriptions from Afghanistan. All will be quiet and dark at 5.15am with the Dawn Service starting at 5.30am.

Two large screens will be placed either side at the roadside edge of the parade ground, well in front of the memorial so people can actually see the service. The only musical addition will be the defence wives choir and other groups singing hymns during the service.

Far from detracting from its ambience, this can only enhance the experience.

Change for its own sake is dangerous. Change can also be very painful. But in facing new and distant horizons, the stories told within the memorial and the experiences it provides on Anzac Day are paradoxically more about our nation's future than its past.

Brendan Nelson is director of the Australian War Memorial.

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