Reflections on Anzac Day during the COVID-19 lockdown
by 2012 Origin Foundation John Monash Scholar Squadron Leader Chris Lowe
Anzac Day in 2020 was unlike any other in living memory, with people told to stay at home instead of attending traditional Dawn Services and other commemoration services. It gave me pause to reflect on my own military service and how it relates to the strange times we find ourselves in.
Does this sound familiar? The place you work is within a few metres of the place you sleep. You are mostly confined to a small area nearby your home, with a few exceptions such as essential work that cannot be performed remotely, exercise, and medical treatment. Strict travel restrictions mean that you are unable to leave except in the most exceptional of circumstances. You are unable to visit family and friends, reduced to video chat software and similar communications tools. There are very few stores open, and certainly no pubs are open. Supplies of many daily items are hard to come by. One day has a habit of merging into the next with growing monotony. However, all the while a menacing but largely unseen threat looms that can strike down anyone at any time, and the situation can change at a moment’s notice. Important life events like weddings, births and deaths are missed. On the worst days someone close to you may die, but you are unable to attend their funeral.
This is what life is like for many people now isolated at home as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the globe. However, it also is a glimpse into what life deployed on military operations in war-torn areas like Afghanistan and Iraq is like for many.
I spent most of 2011 deployed to Kandahar in Afghanistan as an Air Force officer leading a team of highly skilled sailors, soldiers and airmen providing communications systems for the Australian contingent at that base. Home during that time was a cramped space in a room shared with three other people, all working unusual hours. My office was in the adjoining building, where I spent more than 12 hours nearly every day. Besides a nearby gym, dining facility and a few remote worksites, there was little reason to leave the camp. The only way in or out of the base was by military transport aircraft or armoured vehicle, and the only contact with home was occasional Skype calls using a meagre 1 Mbps connection shared between over 100 people.
Despite the depiction in many war movies, the reality of armed conflict is that there are long periods where little very exciting happens, with an oft-repeating daily routine that can quickly become tedious. That isn’t to say that crisis and frantic action don’t happen. Our base came under frequent rocket attack from the surrounding mountains - and we were relatively safe compared to those combat troops patrolling beyond the bases. During my deployment, nine Australians were killed and many more wounded. The physical toll is devastating for those affected. For many though, one of the biggest challenges of those long deployments is the unrelenting mental strain that comes with being isolated from the rest of the world in a dangerous and uncertain environment.
The sacrifice we are all making now is important to defeating COVID-19 and to protecting the most vulnerable people in our communities. No-one asked for this pandemic to be thrust upon us, but our collective response is essential to combating it. These are uncertain times and many people are struggling to get by. These sacrifices are unlikely to be commemorated in the same way we remember the fallen from Australia’s conflicts since that first Anzac Day in 1915, but it is no less important to the future of our country. As this unique Anzac Day passes, the experience of the current lockdown offers some insight into the sacrifice made by Australian servicemen in our current and past conflicts and may serve as a conversation starter to help understand their experience. Talking about our shared experience is one of the best ways of coping with these trying times.
Chris Lowe is an aerospace engineer currently working in the Australian space industry to provide communications services to the Australian and New Zealand population. He completed a Masters of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2014, supported by the Origin Foundation. His research focused on integration of unmanned aircraft into civil airspace. He was a member of the Royal Australian Air Force from 2005 to 2018, and was deployed to Kandahar in Afghanistan for the majority of 2011 providing communications systems for Australian units including the Heron unmanned aircraft and Chinook helicopters. From 2015 to 2018, he was involved in major unmanned aircraft acquisition projects and drafting policy and regulations for the use of unmanned aircraft by Defence.