Navy veteran co-ordinating the campaign to get women to march, Sarah Cannon, 53, with Navy veteran Jo Callow, 37, at Currumbin RSL.
Navy veteran co-ordinating the campaign to get women to march, Sarah Cannon, 53, with Navy veteran Jo Callow, 37, at Currumbin RSL. Glenn Hampson

Women ready to walk together on Anzac Day

When Sarah Cannon first walked onboard the ship, she wondered if perhaps she was carrying an invisible disease.

It was 1995 and she was one of 30 women to join HMAS Newcastle - the first women to ever step foot on the vessel as Navy sailors and officers.

"I actually felt sorry for the men," says Sarah, now aged 53.

"They were just so uncomfortable seeing us there. Prior to the mid-80s, women had an entirely separate Navy. I was part of the last intake when we were still segregated - and I was part of the first group of women who served alongside the men when we merged.

"When we walked on board, those men were nervous. They'd always been told 'Don't touch, don't look, don't fraternise' and now we were walking past them. It was like we walked past carrying the plague.

"We tried to put them at ease. We explained we're just here to do our job, chill out, it's going to be fine.

"Within weeks it was like we'd always been there. We were no longer the enemy but their partners. They saw we were just as committed and capable. We became a team that turned into family."

While women have always had a role in warfare and its associated industries, their place at the frontline is still relatively recent.

So much that many women are questioned - sometimes aggressively - when they wear their medals.

"I think women have always been reticent to discuss their service," says Sarah, who is helping co-ordinate a campaign by the Women Veterans Network Australia to encourage female vets to march on Anzac Day.

"In the past, women sometimes felt that while their service was worthwhile, they perhaps weren't worthy to walk alongside those who saw action in the frontlines.

"Of course, their contribution was crucial then - and now their contribution is equal.

"While we remember the heroic service that our older veterans gave their country, we forget that younger people - particularly women - are still serving in the here and now."

At 37, Jo Callow probably doesn't fit what most people would describe as a veteran.

But the mother of one joined up in 1999 when she was only 18 and served for more than a decade as a leading seaman in communications and information systems, undertaking two operational trips, including Afghanistan.

She says the changing face of the military means it's time to change our description.

"I think as a nation we will always hold the old Diggers in our hearts as the picture of what it means to serve. They will never be forgotten," Jo says.

"But I think we have to start remembering the generations who have served since as well. We look different - we're black, white, female, male, young, middle-aged - but we all have Australia as our focus.

"I still meet people who think women shouldn't be in the military but, thankfully, that attitude is dropping away. It's still sometimes a surprise to them who I am and what I have done, but not necessarily a negative one."

Army transport driver specialist Jackie Clark says attitudes within the military have changed dramatically since she signed up in 2001 at the age of 17.

Rather than making women prove themselves against the boys, she says the industry is now one of the most flexible when it comes to working mothers.

"The Army has changed so much since I signed up. Mind you, I have too. I did my Schoolies and then the next week I went to recruitment training," says Jackie, who was awarded an Australia Day medal for her service in 2013.

"I never regretted it, but at that time we women really felt we had to show everyone that we were worthy to be there with the boys.

"It's very different now, we're not just welcomed but embraced. I have a three-year-old son and I still work full-time - as does my husband - because the Army makes it work for us.

"It's very much equal opportunity. We owe it to ourselves to stand up and be recognised."

Despite the changes, all of the women agree one thing has remained the same: the culture of mateship.

Sarah says, while it may not be a boys' club any more, the military is very much still a club - but one that is like a family.

She says a change in personal circumstances meant she left in 2010, but she'd do it all again in a heartbeat if she could.

"It's a bloody tough job, which is why anyone who serves deserves the respect earned from wearing their medals," she says.

"But the truth is that as hard as it could be, I loved every single second of serving.

"It's not just a job you sign up to, but a lifestyle. It suited me down to the ground.

"My father was in the military and my husband was a sailor, so I guess it was in my blood. It's one of those careers like nursing or emergency work, it's in your heart that you want to be of service.

"It's always a big transition when you leave, but your friends on the inside are always still there.

"Men and women alike, we've got each others' backs for life. We're family."