22 July 2020

Government won't fund $500,000 AWM sculpture to honour veterans' suffering

| Ian Bushnell
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Brendan Nelson

Former director Brendan Nelson set up the committee looking at a way to honour the physical and mental suffering of military veterans. Photo: File.

It has been revealed that a proposed $500,000 sculpture honouring the physical and mental suffering of military veterans to be sited in the Australian War Memorial grounds would have to be paid for through private donations, despite plans for a half-a-billion-dollar redevelopment of the AWM at taxpayers’ expense.

Karen Bird, the mother of Afghanistan veteran Jesse who took his own life in 2017, told ABC Radio National Breakfast that there was no dedicated place for grieving families to acknowledge the loss of their siblings, parents or children who had paid for their service with physical and mental injuries that they had brought home.

She and others had suggested to former AWM director Brendan Nelson that there should be a space at the Memorial that would give families and veterans peace. Dr Nelson formed a committee, including Ms Bird, to investigate the idea.

The committee also includes representatives from Defence, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Soldier On and the TPI Federation.

Ms Bird said the committee had been developing a plan with the AWM to create a space in the grounds, but stakeholders had been asked to privately fund it.

One of the major rationales for the AWM redevelopment has been that the new galleries of more contemporary conflicts would play a therapeutic role for veterans.

Ms Bird, whose son had drawn some comfort from visiting the current Afghanistan gallery at the Memorial, said there was some validity to that point but ”perhaps the most therapeutic space will be outside the Memorial and it’s going to have to be privately funded”.

”I’m happy to put my money towards it but we’ve been asked to raise $500,000,” she said, querying why the government could not come to the party.

Ms Bird said the pain and suffering of the country’s returned soldiers had been the great unsaid.

”It’s a conversation as a nation we haven’t had,” she said.

Memorial Director Matt Anderson said the Memorial fully supports, and is part of, the committee developing an artwork recognising the physical and mental suffering caused by military service, and has been working with stakeholders, including Karen Bird, since late 2018.

But the $498 million for the 10-year redevelopment did not extend to sculptures within the Memorial grounds.

”While final curatorial decisions have not been made, themes associated with Mr Bird’s story will be closely considered as part of the new galleries,” Mr Anderson said.

He said that, historically, fundraising for sculptures in the Memorial grounds had taken place through a range of means, including philanthropy, private donations and/or government funding.

The Committee for the Sufferings of War and Service was established in early 2019 after stakeholders approached the Memorial about their experiences with family members who took their own lives following service, or as a result of their own mental illness as a consequence of service.

At the request of the stakeholders, the sculpture will likely take its place in the Memorial’s Sculpture Garden.

”The intention is to commission a remarkable work of art that will appropriately recognise the complexity of the subject and provide visitors with a dedicated place to reflect on these experiences. The Sculpture Garden is an important part of the Memorial, and the sculpture will be given a prominent place within it,” Mr Anderson said.

He said an Artists’ Brief for the Sufferings of War and Service sculpture had been developed, and the stakeholder group would be meeting soon to discuss a shortlist of artists and invite them to submit concept proposals.

”The Memorial itself was created in part as a shrine for people to honour loved ones lost in the service of Australia,” Mr Anderson said.

The War Memorial redevelopment has come under fire from a broad range of critics including former directors, heritage groups, historians, architects and peace advocates upset at the cost and scale of the project, in which the award-winning Anzac Hall will be demolished.

The notion of a therapeutic milieu has also been controversial, and some critics have said that it does not have any medical credibility, calling for more actual support from Veterans’ Affairs.

But AWM chair Kerry Stokes, also speaking to RN this week, defended the idea, saying the Memorial played an important role in veterans’ wellbeing.

”We’ve had medical practitioners who do tell us there is value in this and you see it for yourself if you’re at the War Memorial with veterans, you see that it has a therapeutic effect for them,” he said.

”The effect is also seen through them being recognised for their service. They’ve done something for their country and their country says thank you, that’s very important.”

If you are a veteran, or are concerned about the welfare of a veteran, free support is available 24/7 through Open Arms on 1800 011 046. Support is also available through Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis support line on 13 11 14.

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