An Australian War Widow’s ANZAC Message

Sydney – April 20, 2018

CONSUL General Valerie Fowler began ANZAC Day commemorations this year by attending the War Widow Guild’s ANZAC Remembrance Service at St Andrew’s Cathedral Sydney on Friday, April 20.

At the service, contemporary war widow Gwen Cherne shared her experience with the congregation. Gwen’s poignant words resonated powerfully with Consul General Fowler, and she thought it important to share them this ANZAC Day.

 

Good morning.  I would like to acknowledge his Excellency Governor Hurly and Mrs. Hurley and all our distinguished guests.  

What brings you here today? Why did you come? Was it to honor someone?  To remember those we have lost? To grieve? A husband, a wife, a father? Or are you here to support someone perhaps?  Obvious answers? Maybe. But these seemingly simple questions really shed light on a few key things for me today. 

I am Gwen Cherne, I am a contemporary widow and a member of the Guild.  My late husband was Sergeant Peter Jon Cafe of the Second Commando Regiment. He served in East Timor, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Iraq to name a few.  He is survived by myself, his daughter Ashleigh, and our children Tom, who is 19 and lives Townsville and serves in the Army, Emily who is 6 and Lachlan who is 3. 

When I first heard about the War Widows Guild, I thought it was something that didn’t apply to me. It was something of the past, something old, something I couldn’t relate to…or so I thought.  

For better or worse, I became a war widow on the sixth of February last year. 

At first calling myself a war widow, or reading it on my Gold Card made me well up with tears.  Now, it just makes every receptionist I hand my card to, burst into tears, because, let’s admit – it is confronting. 

Now, it is a part of my identity, and one that is a terribly painful reminder of this life I have to create without my husband by my side.  But, it is a clear and powerful reminder that I am not alone in all of this.

A year ago, Bree Till – another contemporary widow – called me and told me I would be accompanying her to a war widows event; this event.  I was still so very fragile at that stage, but decided to come.  I trusted Bree and knew deep down that she would make sure I was doing things that would help me heal.  

As I was getting ready, I was nervous, really nervous, and not entirely sure I should come, but I decided to show up and figure the rest out when I got here. 

As Emily and I walked up the steps to this very Cathedral, I felt like running away. I felt like I would be judged, unwelcome.  I felt vulnerable and raw, like the nerves on my skin were completely exposed to the air. 

I thought we had arrived just on time, so we could just blend in in the back, but as it turned out, we were here early. Hours and hours early.  Sometimes, God has funny of way of giving us what we need, and not what we think we need. 

I cannot remember whom I met first.  It was a blur of lovely and helpful women whisking Emily and me into the church pews and making sure we were ok. I felt welcomed and cared for, but I was still skeptical that if the truth of Pete’s death was spoken, I would not be so welcome. 

Meg Green came to sit with me and asked where Pete had been when he died.  It was the question I was dreading, the one I felt would expose me, our story, and how I didn’t belong here with all of you. 

I was worried that Pete’s death would not be accepted.  I thought that he would be seen as a coward, and therefore his service would not be valued the same as someone who had lost their life in combat or in training.  I believed this even though in Australia we lose one veteran to suicide every. Four. days. 

In that moment of such raw vulnerability, I held on to the fact that the Australian Government had recently acknowledged that Pete’s death was due to his service. I remember staying myself and forcing the words out of my throat. I said, “He died at home. He took his own life.” 

I could literally see her heart break for me. The empathy and compassion that Meg showed me in that moment was nothing short of a blessing.  

From that moment on, the War Widows Guild did what it does best.  You wrapped a blanket of love and support around me, around my family.  

Rhondda, Meg, Patricia, other staff and so many widows approached me, sat with me, held my hand, held Emily’s hand, chatted to us and included us in the ceremony.  

You showed me that I belonged.  You understood me, my pain, my loss, even my relief.  

You understood the burdens that I will bear for all the years of my life.  For you too have walked this path. 

I realized during that day that I was now a part of this fabric, this beautiful club of strong women, and strong men.  And, while I was amongst complete strangers, you all seemed to know and understand me in a way that my family and closest friends simply cannot.  There is a look you give, an understanding you have. No words are necessary.  And when there are words, they are usually the ones I need to hear. 

I had never before understood the power of being acknowledged for all we had been through and all we were going through. 

I had never been on the receiving end of empathy that is so healing.  

I am grateful that you welcomed me so warmly into the fold.  I would not be standing here without your love and support. Today, calling myself a war widow is something I wear with pride and gratitude. 

The War Widows Guild not only wrapped me in love and support; it gave me a voice that I had all but lost.  

Over the last year, the War Widows’ Guild has amplified contemporary widows’ voices in a way that was near impossible individually – and don’t think they weren’t trying.  

We are grateful to the Guild for supporting our work to improve services for veterans, families, widows and widowers, for there is already enough loss, grief and heartache from death and disability due to our veterans’ service. 

I have just been asked to be an Ambassador for the Invictus Games for ClubsNSW to help raise awareness for our wounded, ill and injured veterans, and to shed a light on the fact that not all their wounds are visible. Whether their struggles, disabilities or deaths are from combat, physical wounds, illness or mental wounds – the suffering and the trauma is what connects us, the families, their carers. 

The more I learn about the War Widows Guild, the more I reach out to other wives, husbands, and widows and widowers, the more I realise the strength of an organisation like this one.  And yet, the more I see there is to be done.  

On behalf of myself, and other contemporary widows and families, please know we respect and honor the past, we are grateful to you for the way Jessie Mary Vasey and all of you have paved for us.  We hope you will welcome us in bringing our needs to light as the Guild continues to grow and change.  

Jesse began advocating for herself and her peers in 1945.  She left quite a legacy. We are in a unique moment in time where we have the opportunity to lead, to come together, to collaborate between organisations, to support one another inter-generationally and to make a mark on history. 

Last year, I may have felt like I didn’t belong when I first arrived, but each and every one of you whom I have met, each one of you who has shared your story with me have shown me that you too understand.  You understand the pain, the suffering, the trauma.  

Each and every one of those men and women who have served and whose deaths were related to their service…they all deserve our gratitude, our honor and they deserve to be remembered.  

But, if we are honest with ourselves, the men and women we remember today served on the backs of our families.  It was because of our love and dedication to them that they were able to do so much for this beautiful country.  And for that, we should honour each every family of those who served in the past and of those who are still serving today.  They too should be honored for their sacrifices and for their service. 

So, today I say thank you.  Thank you for your often-overlooked service.  For the time, love, patience and suffering you have endured.  

My question at the beginning may have seemed simple to you.  Why are you here? But for me, it was an important one to answer.  I am here today to honour all those we lost, yes, but I am also here to honour all of you who have been left behind.  All of you who forge on every day.  I am here today to say thank you for helping to leave a legacy of love, resilience and support for those of us who have come after you and for those who will come after us.     

Thank you.

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