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Far from the comfort zone

They serve close to the fighting, often in harm’s way and in extreme conditions. They are Australia’s army nurses, who go willingly into the fray. By Annie May.

When army nurse Lieutenant Colonel Judith Spence stepped off the plane after being deployed to Rwanda, the first thing the hit her was the smell. The combination of sewerage and death.
It was 1994, the year of the Rwandan genocide where an estimated 800,000 people were killed in 100 days. The scene couldn’t have been further removed from her memories of the last time she was in the country during the mid-80s.

“I was only there a short time, but I remember it vividly. It was vibrant – the capital city was busy, the women wore bright and colourful clothing, and there was music and singing everywhere,” says Spence.

“Going back after the genocide, I found it quite disturbing. It was not the Africa that I knew. It was so quiet. The worst was the smell of death, with dead and dying bodies on the ground.
“Massacre became more than just a word to me. It has a smell, feeling and image.”

For six months, Spence had to make the daily, and horrible decision, of who to help and who to turn away – often back to the side of the road, alone.

“You quickly learn that the best you can do is the best you can do. The country had a poor health system which was further decimated after the genocide. There was no x-ray, no pathology, and no intensive care. And you didn’t know when you would get a resupply.

“It was impossible to save everyone, so you had to focus you time on those who had the most chance of surviving.”

She recalls working in a roofless facility tending to people who had lost eyes and fingers.
“You might have a mother who stood on a landmine with a baby on her back,” she says.

“Sometimes, injuries, they’re not survivable and you have to be rather accepting of that.”

To many, Spence’s story is shocking. Both for the horrors she witnessed and experienced and for the compassion required and adventure had. But her story is not unique.

Before Australia became a nation, army nurses tore up their petticoats to make bandages for troops in the Boer war. Military nurses were stationed on ships as the Anzacs prepared to storm the beaches at Gallipoli.

In World War II, Vivian Bullwinkle lay in the ocean and pretended to be dead when the Japanese massacred 21 fellow nurses on Radji Beach. She was the sole survivor.

There are many things that have changed over the last 100 years. Nurses no longer simply care for wounded soldiers but also now treat refugee children and inhabitants of war ravaged countries and provide relief aid after natural disasters.

But whether they are part of peacekeeping missions, or accompanying soldiers in unpopular wars, Australian army nurses continue to carry out their duty with pride, professionalism and warmth, and more often than not under less than ideal conditions.

They are ordinary people who are taken far from the comfort zones of their normal lives for what is often a life-changing experience.

So, Willingly into the Fray is a fitting title for a book that honours the integral role Australian army nurses play in the defence force.

A collection of first-hand accounts from 65 female and male army nurses, many told for the first time, the idea for the book came to Spence in 2003 - the 100th anniversary of the Australian Army Nursing Service’s official formation. They became the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps in 1953.

There are many histories of army nursing, but none had given nurses their own voice and to share their experiences, says Spence.

“This is not so much a book about history but about people. It’s nurses sharing what they experienced and how they felt. It is their stories,” she says.

Beginning in the Boer War of 1899 and ending in Banda Aceh in 2005, Spence says despite her own experiences, when reading the book she still sometimes can’t understand why army nurses do it.

“While communications, quality of food and knowledge has changed in the past 100 years, army nurses work in places of incredible trauma. That hasn’t changed.”

When launching the book, Army Major General Paul Symon AO, says the ability to persevere under adversity is a constant theme throughout.

“Australian army nurses did what they could under trying conditions, and when there was little more medically that could be done, comforted patients with the resources at their disposal,” says Symon.

“Nurses joining the 2/10th Field Ambulance were captured on Rabaul by the Japanese. Foraging for whatever food they could find, they continued to feed their patients while in captivity.

Transported to Yokohama, these nurses spent the rest of the war as labourers for the Japanese.
“Other nurses as POWs in Palembang camp on Sumatra, were approached to provide comfort to their Japanese captors.  Their dignity, pride and courage saw them avoid this fate and survive. These stories, as well as the massacre of nurses on Bangka Island, are told in this book.”

Presenting these stories for others to hear was a challenging task, says editor and former army officer Catherine McCullagh.

“I was given a stack of loose leaf articles, and thought what had I gotten myself in to,” she says.
But as the stack started to thin, McCullagh was hooked.

“There were some absolute gems – the stories, and what these nurses had seen and done, were incredible,” she says.

“The nurses’ ability to adapt to almost any situation regardless of the conditions and level of personal danger is a common theme.”

From stories of nurses having to leave soldiers behind, to those who survived POW camps and others who, when nothing medically was left to do for AIDS patients, would sit with them on the side of the road and pray that death would come soon, McCullagh says there were many times when she found herself sobbing.

“What they had been through is beyond description. Yet, they were resilient through it all. That, I am told, is what they were trained for and how they survived,” she says.

“I tried as best as I could to keep the words of the nurses as they said them. You can read their feelings in their words.”

The book finishes in 2005, but the stories continue.

“Australian army nurses will continue to serve close to the fighting in conflicts and take part in humanitarian work,” says Spence.

“It is a little too early to think about the next book, but we won’t be able to stop telling our stories. And we shouldn’t.”

Willingly into the Fray, published by Big Sky Publishing in conjunction with the Australian Army History Unit, is now available at bookstores of online at

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