‘That one special day of the year’: What the return of Anzac Day events means for veterans

For the first time in three years, Australia’s veterans and their families have commemorated Anzac Day together in person on the 107th anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli.

Monday marks the long-awaited return of face-to-face camaraderie on what is otherwise a solemn day, with thousands gathering at dawn services across the country and world.

“For many veterans, Anzac Day is the only time they might catch up with their mate – the guy they served with in Vietnam, or the guy from whatever ship they served on,” Vietnam War veteran and RSL Victoria president Dr Robert Webster OAM told The New Daily.

“So it’s that one special day of the year.”

Thousands of Australians huddle before dawn to pay tribute. Photo: AAP

The national dawn service in Canberra began with a moment of quiet reflection followed by the sound of a didgeridoo played by Worimi man, Leading Aircraftman Tarryn Roach.

Army veteran Mike Ruffin — who served in Malaya, Borneo and Vietnam — told the service at the Australian War Memorial it was a day to reflect on the Anzac spirit.

He spoke of his personal experience on New Year’s Eve in 1968 during the Vietnam War, which had forged a lasting bond between mates.

“In hindsight, it seems inconceivable that five men could run across 100 metres of open ground whilst being subjected to that amount of fire and not receive a single gunshot wound,” he said.

“Had any one of us been wounded, that would have been the end as we would never have left a mate behind.

“Every Anzac Day, I reflect on that experience and am so grateful that we all survived. We still keep in touch to this day.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Labor deputy leader Richard Marles will be in Darwin for services, as Labor leader Anthony Albanese remains in isolation at his Sydney home as he recovers from COVID-19.

In Victoria, thousands gathered outside Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance, with crowds sitting quietly in chilly conditions.

Dr Webster expected numbers to be slightly down on pre-pandemic crowds due to the long weekend and school holidays.

After Monday’s dawn service, veterans will walk through the Melbourne CBD for the traditional Anzac Day march.

But this year, which marks the 60th anniversary of Australia entering the Vietnam War, will also see a focus on smaller, community-based commemorations.

“I don’t mind if people don’t turn up at the Shrine [of Remembrance] as long as they turn up at Greensborough, or Hawthorn, or Dandenong, or wherever,” Dr Webster said.

Veterans pause to remember at the Sydney Dawn Service. Photo: AAP

Sydney’s Martin Place was filled to capacity for the Anzac Day Dawn Service.

David Young, a serving member of the Australian Navy, said he was back at the service to educate his children about his military career.

“Being in the Navy for 24 years, this is a chance to remind the kids of the history behind why I serve,” he said.

“I’ve lost guys that I’ve served with and it helps to explain what I’ve done in the history of my career.”

Cameron Barnett, 24, from the Scouts, said many former members of the youth group ended up going to war, and Anzac Day was of major significance to the organisation.

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet arrived with one of his daughters under an umbrella, as patchy rain fell.

The premier read the poem Salute, by Sydney Napier, written during the First World War, and published in 1937.

The Royal Australian Air Force will also conduct flyover displays in more than 50 locations across NSW, including in Sydney, Newcastle, Wyong, Cessnock, Ourimbah, Woodburn, Grafton and Bega.

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet with his daughter. Photo: AAP

But NSW RSL president Ray James OAM, who is also a Vietnam War veteran, is concerned about the future.

“This year’s commemorations are safe in the hands of our incredible members, but we need to take action now to keep these events going,” he said.

“And that’s where younger veterans can help.”

Australian soldiers and Turkish war veterans during the international service on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Photo: AAP

Only in Western Australia will the day’s events be scaled back due to pandemic considerations.

“Managing proof of vaccination and social distancing in low light before dawn would be extremely difficult and contact tracing would be impossible,” RSL WA chief executive John McCourt said.

It comes after a lone man, who was not a veteran, marched through Perth CBD on Anzac Day last year when the city was in lockdown.

Dr Webster told TND that this year’s commemorations have a particularly personal significance for him.

“My brother, who was a Vietnam veteran, died in May 2020,” he said.

“I’ll catch up with some of his mates this weekend who I haven’t seen, because we weren’t able to have a funeral [beyond limited numbers].”

It’s a day of mixed and complex emotions for many veterans and their loved ones.

But Dr Webster said most are just looking forward to the reunions that are three years overdue.

“Now, whether it’s the march, or whether it’s a unit reunion, or whether it’s, you know, just in their local suburb, I think there is an expectation that it’s going to happen.”

-with AAP

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