Opinion: Respect all veterans, male and female

CHANGES: Camden's Samantha Dickins, who is now serving in the Middle East, and a 2016 photo of the unveiling of Sister McRae's plaque - relative John McRae, me, and former Campbelltown mayor Paul Hawker.
CHANGES: Camden's Samantha Dickins, who is now serving in the Middle East, and a 2016 photo of the unveiling of Sister McRae's plaque - relative John McRae, me, and former Campbelltown mayor Paul Hawker.

Uncovering the story of Sister Elizabeth McRae, one of our great local WWI veterans, remains one of my most satisfying moments from the days when I was editor.

Because of her severe (gas) injuries in the war, she had to move away from Campbelltown and, having no kids as a career surgical nurse, she'd been forgotten by our community.

It was only a brief mention in an old 1920 newspaper that took me on a detective hunt that led to her relatives, old photos, and an incredible story of a brave woman.

After tending the Gallipoli wounded, she served in France at a casualty clearing station immediately behind the front line, often up her her elbows in blood as she saved Diggers' lives.

She saw more action than some soldiers, but on her return was left off honour boards because she was missing a penis. The sad fact is, that after serving overseas, many women of WWI and WWII did not identify or march as "veterans". So wrong.

It is only right that we now have an Elizabeth McRae Street in Minto (on the site of her old Ben Lomond farm) and a plaque in her honour, courtesy of Campbelltown Council.

More than that, she is the subject of lessons at local schools, and St Patrick's College in particular has embraced her (and other nursing veterans) - with students to wear their uniforms in the Anzac parade.

I've got to admit, as a child of the 1960s-80s, we were raised thinking of Anzacs as men, perhaps reinforced by family memories. I grew up knowing about relatives such as Roy McGill (killed in 1918), and Walter McGill who was awarded the Military Medal for bravery.

And old photos of Anzac Day marches show mainly men, so it's wonderful that our nurses are more recognised.

But here's the thing... these days women are not just nurses, but active combat soldiers.

A decade or so ago, I interviewed former Campbelltown girl Corinne Van Beek who was beginning her fifth tour of duty in Iraq, her service ranging from intelligence briefings to armoured patrols.

Our women have served at the front line of danger in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan, some of whom have returned and worn their medals at Anzac Day, only to be told by someone: "You should be wearing them on the right hand side because they'll be your father's or grandfather's."

Um, no.

By the Left is a campaign, supported by the RSL, encouraging people to thank women and younger male veterans for their service, rather than casting doubt on the position of the medals on their chest.

I think it's great to see veterans, of all sexes, ages, colours and surnames participating - as we keep in mind the many who can't march.

Either because they are too old, or have paid the supreme sacrifice.

Or...because they are serving right now.

As we gathered on April 25 my young friend, Samantha Dickins of Narellan Vale, was serving with our Australian forces in an overseas war zone.

Her mother - my dear mate Roma Dickins, who replaced me as editor when I stepped down - is rightfully very proud of her daughter.

I took this photo of Samantha at Camden's Macarthur Park cenotaph as a young recruit about four years ago - just a local girl wanting to help others and serve her country. Now in a war zone.

Thanks to all our local Diggers for their service. Lest we Forget.