We come together each year to recall, as best we later generations can, the sacrifices of all the soldiers, naval and merchant marine sailors, airmen, and nurses in both world wars, Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, Afghanistan and others. And especially our local young heroes whose names are held here in our communities as a monument to their bravery.
We remember also the war widows and orphans, the grieving parents and whanau - they suffered too. As well, the nation at home which gave up much to maintain the war effort.
But today I honour one particular veteran.
He was one of the thousands of eager teenagers recruited in the early 1940's for aircrew training in the Empire Air training Scheme. While still only 18 years old he had graduated as a Sergeant pilot and had joined a dive bomber squadron; and later, towards the end of the war, an operational fighter squadron in the Islands. But still didn't have a drivers licence!
Then in 1952 he flew 120 missions over North Korea mostly working as a pair of aircraft, at first and last light, searching for enemy supply trucks and trains. Also leading air strikes against important targets using 20 or so aircraft. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Next he completed (with first prize) a year long Empire Test Pilot's Course in England, followed by seven years of aircraft research and development work, some of it in Canada; and was awarded the Air Force Cross.
After some years of staff jobs and command of a bomber squadron, a tour in charge of a squadron's night operations in Vietnam followed, for which a bar to the earlier DFC was awarded. Many years later, he retired from a senior defence appointment, looking forward to a quieter life.
Talking recently about wartime conditions he’s at a pain to tell me that the role of an airman is nothing compared to the soldiers stuck in the trenches – face to face combat. That air warfare is just cold professionalism with hot meals and a reasonable bed at night.
He doesn’t really want to talk about it - and would much prefer that I do not either.
And yet I feel the need to.
Because here I stand, privileged to speak at such an auspicious gathering. Knowing that I really have no understanding of the tyrannies of war, so I asked for his wisdom.
He wants to remind me that back in the 1940’s New Zealand was perilously close to becoming a Japanese colony : English and Te Reo could have become just second languages at best. That Australia and New Zealand with little to defend themselves with, were saved from that fate by a generous America.
That the ANZUS treaty was then agreed for the mutual security of all three countries; an incredibly generous insurance policy for New Zealand. It was to be the means of defending the nation in the future – the very purpose for which so many thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen gave their lives – leaving a trust for we future generations to hold.
The outcome brought peace, security, national prosperity. It was entrusted to later generations to meet future threats.
New Zealand chose in the 1990's to withdraw from ANZUS much to his disbelief.
He wonders if today, would not our non-returned soldiers feel let down if the legacy was embodied in no more than the words of the national anthem ‘God Defend New Zealand.’
And so here I stand, pondering these powerful and maybe uncomfortable thoughts.
Once a young person that did not go to ANZAC services because I did not condone war.
Today I once again recognise that much of what this country cherishes is because of some incredibly brave, incredibly selfless people that set out on an adventure, some never to return.
Those that did, never to be the same.
This man asks that we remember what we owe to all those of our old people that we commemorate today; what we should be doing, what we can start now to ensure the security of New Zealand for future generations?
So I ask – what can we doing? To grow hope?
What can we be doing to grow unity? Understanding?
Ultimately, it starts with each of us. We have a choice.
Through forgiveness. Through respect. Through allowing others to be who they are.
But without foolishness, nor naivety.
This is a country that stands tall.
A country of integrity. A country of beauty. A country with a deep soul. How well that surfaced in sympathy for the innocent victims of the atrocity in Christchurch.
We need to protect that. Now and always.
I honour, deeply, those that have sacrificed so much in our defence.
And I honour that young, intelligent 18 year old that went on to defend his country with such bravery. A young man that became a true gentlemen and an absolute hero in my heart.
Lest we forget.