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Veterans' families serve by securing the base in wartime

Military spouses carry a burden every gram as heavy as those in uniform, writes Stephen Day.

When the soldier goes the family is left.
When the soldier goes the family is left.  

I attended the Sydney Theatre Company's excellent show The Long way Home … and left at half time. Not because I was not appreciative of what was on display, I was, but because I had an urge to rush home and embrace my wife. Which I did.

The show was about the soldier's homeward journey from war but for a moment it touched on the struggle of a young wife trying her best to help her troubled husband. It reminded me of the struggles, the strength, the dignity, the unspoken concerns and the private tears of thousands of families of veterans … and of my own wife.  

The story less told is that of the families of veterans. It is a story of inspiration and heartbreak.  

I am a returned soldier. I have had the privilege of serving my country in Namibia, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan.

So too has my family.

When the soldier goes the family is left. As the plane disappears from sight the family's first thought is "Will I ever see him again?" That thought stays with the family for the duration of their soldier's tour.

And then the family, the wife or husband now left on their own, turns back to their roles. Their workplaces are of extraordinary variety, cleaners and doctors, journalists and office workers, stay at home parents and students.

No matter where they work, the families have two things in common.

They are reluctant to tell their workmates or neighbours of their new circumstance; they do not seek any special consideration. They prefer no-one notice the strain; they proceed indomitable, uncomplaining.

And they all have to maintain a home. They do this with half the team missing. Of course the work is not similarly reduced and so the partner left behind has to pick up the additional load.

With devotion and dignity they keep all together. They are better at time management than an executive, they have more endurance than an athlete, and they have hearts as big as lions. Our families are as tough as us: they need to be. They are an inspiration.

But there is also the heartbreak. Not all of us come home. And all of us who do are changed.

To be at war is to be transported into the blackest corner of human activity. Unspeakable things happen; it is not possible to experience it and be unchanged. Often a family's struggle does not end with the return of their soldier.

A soldier I knew bought his emotional scars home.

Like too many of us, he opted to have his wife as his sole confidant and so, alone, she carried the burden of his troubled emotions. Would he be home for dinner? Would he lose his temper at the kids complaining about the brand of runners they had? Do I dare try again and suggest to him he needs help? She was physically exhausted, emotionally drained, prematurely aging but no-one noticed.

After two years, with no tears left to shed, she reached out to me. Unhappily she is not one, she is many.

To those of you who are still trying to conquer the challenges of the unspoken fears or caring for your troubled veteran I salute you, I offer my deep appreciation for your service. And I say, don't suffer in silence. Speak up: you are not alone.

To the families who have come through the experience closer and stronger, and who are more able than most to greet life's challenges with a smile, I salute you and offer my deep appreciation for your service.

To my fellow citizens: reach out to the families of veterans. You might be a neighbour or a workmate, ask them how they are going. Most will be doing just fine, and will appreciate the thought. Some will still be dealing with the collateral experience of war. Show them they are not alone.

Our families wear no uniform, they have no medals, there are no memorials to them. There should be.

To the list of statues at the Australian War Memorial we should add one: to the family. It would appropriately recognise the role our families play in securing our base when our military are at war.

And it would enduringly remind those who send us to war that our nation's families carry a burden every gram as heavy as those in uniform … lest we forget.

Major General Stephen Day  has served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Namibia, and Timor.

Support services available to families of veterans:

  • The Defence Family Helpline (1800 624 608) is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and is staffed by qualified human services professionals including social workers and psychologists.
  • Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS) – 1800 011 046. VVCS is a specialised, confidential service that provides nationwide counselling and support to Australian veterans of all deployments and their families.