They also serve who only lend a sympathetic ear

Published in the Courier Mail 16 June 2010

This has been a sad week for the Australian Defence Forces, with Brisbane-based sappers Jacob Moerland, 21, and Darren Smith, 25, being laid to rest after making the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty. One, a husband and father; one, a fiancé; both greatly loved.

Watching the footage of the their bodies being returned, one couldn’t help but grieve for their loved ones, who now struggle to adapt to life without the hope of their safe return.

The families of those deployed overseas carry a significant burden. For many of us, it’s one we rarely consider.

In a 2009 study of Defence Force families, it was found that when Australian Defence Force members are absent from their families for six weeks or more, the most common stressor or challenge for partners were ‘dealing with acute life stressors and everyday demands alone, without the emotional and practical support of spouses and partners’.

While it rarely makes headlines, the days that they parent alone are long and lonely. They are ordinary people, making an extraordinary sacrifice and they deserve to receive the gratitude of the wider community.

A recent opportunity to provide volunteers for an event for defence families left an indelible impression on me. Organising the volunteers was a relatively simple task, and they only needed to assist with the event for a couple of hours.

In the lead up to the event, I happened to mention what we were doing to someone I knew in the Defence Forces. Their reaction was immediate and caught me off-guard. With emotion clearly visible, they expressed how much it meant to hear that people from the community were remembering defence families. It was fuel for thought.

After the event, I called to find out how the morning had gone. I discovered that the practical assistance of the volunteers was appreciated, but even more so, the listening ear they provided. Many at the event were navigating life in their partner’s absence with babies, toddlers or school children, and it meant so much to simply have an adult take time out to sit down and listen.

Hearing this feedback, it struck me how easily we can make a small difference. Yet for those of us who aren’t connected to the Defence Forces, it can be a little intimidating to know how to support someone whose life experience is so far outside of your realm of understanding.

I asked a very experienced ‘army wife’ how we can best help our defence families, particularly those who have loved ones serving overseas, and what advice would assist someone wanting to connect and converse with them.

She spoke of the importance of supporting the person, whatever particular political opinions we have about the deployment. We can go a long way to making life a little easier simply by supporting and encouraging families, letting them talk, and assuring them of community support.

It’s important to acknowledge the difficulties that defence families face, and say thank you, rather than ignoring their circumstances. If you know a defence family, an invitation to a bbq or play date could really help, but avoid discussing details of overseas situations in conversations in front of children (particularly young children).

Treating defence families with respect, and acknowledging the reality of their situation, honours both them and their loved one overseas.

Let us not wait until a tragedy occurs to provide support for those with family serving their nation on distant shores. Small acts of kindness are within reach for all us, and can leave a big impression.