Remembering those who serve

Early today, thousands of New Zealanders will meet at war memorials throughout the country to remember soldiers and support staff who died serving their country in far-away battlefields.

Interest in Anzac Day, commemorated, celebrated and remembered in many parts of the world, has grown exponentially in recent years. It is a phenomenon. From small intimate services held in New Zealand and Australian towns, the services have grown to large gatherings involving several generations of families touched in one way or another by the wars New Zealand has been involved in. Family members proudly wear the medals of their loved ones who fought, and sometimes died, in the service of their country.

As the World War 2 veterans age, their numbers are replaced by men and women who served in Asian campaigns. Being a veteran from Vietnam has not always been seen as something of which to be proud. In the United States, Vietnam veterans had to continue their fight for justice after the war became so demonised. In New Zealand, acceptance has become easier. Soldiers do not often get a choice about where they serve and it is fitting, as a country, New Zealand can openly acknowledge the pain and suffering of many veterans from campaigns stretching from Europe, the Middle East through to Asia and Afghanistan.

How Anzac Day started in 1916 is horrifying. How brave were the young men and women who went abroad to serve their countries? While much of the focus is on the hundreds and thousands of young men who died or were injured enough to cause their early death, young women went abroad to nurse and provide pastoral care for those soldiers. The bravery of those women can often be swept aside by the tragedy which almost wiped out a generation of New Zealanders and Australians at Gallipoli, and on the Western Front. Eventually, Maori overcame overt racism from the British to provide a valuable and telling contribution to the war effort - although not all Maori believed they should fight for an imperial power which took their land.

Visiting the National War Memorial Museum, in Wellington, can provide some of the answers to why New Zealanders have become passionate about remembering the fallen. The names of the dead, including the day when many of the Otago Mounted Rifle soldiers died, are writ large. Yes, the names are on the wall. But the photos of the young, dying and dead are left imprinted in the mind. Gallipoli was a disaster brought on by old men sending youngsters to their deaths. The fact so many survived, only to be sent to Europe for another battering, is something of a miracle. ``Home by Christmas'' was a popular saying as the young men set off on their adventure. The shame of it was how many Christmas days it took for the living to come home.

New Zealand and Australia are different countries from what they could have been. If the soldiers had not been sent to fight in the wars, and had lived productive and fruitful lives, society would be different. Some of the men were never the same, suffering then from what we know now as post traumatic stress disorder. Their lives, and those of their families, were irrevocably changed.

A typical commemoration begins with a march by returned service personnel before dawn to the local war memorial. Military personnel and returned servicemen and women form up about the memorial, joined by other members of the community. Pride of place goes to war veterans. There will be more war veterans for New Zealand to remember as conflicts continue to rage around the world. That is why it is important to remember the words of Laurence Binyon's ``For the Fallen'':

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.


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