Cheryl Elston - Rwanda veteran

Running time
44 min 4 sec
Place made

Department of Veterans' Affairs


Family tradition

I joined a little bit later than normal. I was 20 when I joined the ADF. Before I joined, I was a divisional therapist at Hammondville Nursing Home and also working for my father. He owned a business in Ingleburn. He'd done 23, 24 years in the army and got out and set up his own business.

So I was working for him, and then I also was working at the nursing home…just about every generation of our family has served in either a conflict or done service. So it was always a given growing up that I was going to join the army. But my plans, or my dreams, were I was going to join the army and be infantry, and I couldn't, so I figured I'd join the army as a medic and fix the guys, and yeah.

Heads up

We started seeing images about this little place, little country in Africa. I hadn't heard of it before. And while you're eating dinner at night, and you would hear the terrible things happening and didn't think too much about it, until one day we had a... there was rumours and furphies going around that maybe Australia was going to send some people.

We didn't know what that looked like or what exactly the mission would be or the role, but we got called onto parade one day, and a list of names were called out, and mine was on that list, and they were the people potentially were deploying to Rwanda.

Becoming a medic

So it was interesting because I still was hopeful that I might be able to go to infantry or artillery, or something like that, and when one of my corporals at Kapooka that said to me, "At what point do you think they might notice that you're not a male Cheryl? 'The showers, maybe?'" But I knew that I wanted to be up and useful and as far forward as I could be, and I knew medic was one of the ways to do that and to look after the guys that were going to the fight. So that's why I wanted to be a medic.

So once we did Kapooka, we were then sent off to our IETs or initial employment training, and that was, at the time, it was down in Portsea, in Victoria, which was a lovely beach-side school of health down there, and it was in the old quarantine station. So it was quite interesting, all the history mixed in there.

We were there for about three and a half months, and we were taught, essentially, basic anatomy and physiology right through to trauma care. And from there, you would then go to one of the field or the military hospitals, which, at the time, was 1 Field Hospital in Ingleburn, or 2 Mil Hospital in Brisbane, Urunga. And you would do another. I think it was about 12 weeks there, on-the-job training or OJTs. Once you completed that six months of training, you would then be posted to your first unit. And my first unit was the 1st Field Hospital at Ingleburn.

A shallow briefing

Yeah, it was interesting, actually, because I guess there was not a lot known, and, initially, there wasn't quite a lot of clarity about who was going, how big we were going to be, and exactly what our role was to be. Like I said before, we had, there were some furphies going around that we were to provide aid to the actual UN troops, and that that was going to be our role, but we didn't know exactly what that looked like, so everybody was sort of, "Am I going or am I not?"

We got a little bit of country briefs, is what we called them now, and, essentially, that gave us a little bit of very, very, what we call wave top information about the two particular tribes and a little bit of the history, and, I would say, even a more shallow briefing of the culture. So for many of us, we hadn't traveled.

We didn't have a lot of exposure to developing countries, etc., so from what we were seeing on the news. Obviously, we'd all, in the recent history at that time, we had Somalia, and we had Cambodia, things like that, so those images were in our heads, that little bit of information. But it was pretty light on initially.

Goodbye to family

So we went from 1 Field Hospital with a bulk, so once the group was confirmed, we went up to Townsville from Ingleburn because, essentially, it was a medical mission. So the bulk of us were from 1 Field Hospital, but we also drew on medics, and nurses, and doctors from other health, and that included, I think it was, 3 Busby at the time.

Obviously, they joined us once we got up to Townsville. Obviously, our protection element, which was the, at that time, 2nd/4th Royal Australian Regiment. I think it was Alpha Company came with us, off memory, I could be wrong on that. And so, we, basically, got up to there, did some further country briefs, and prepared to go from Townsville. So we had to say goodbye to family and everything in Sydney before we left.

The advanced party

Initially, the advanced party, we were quite shocked, there was three, no, sorry, four females named to go on the advanced party. I think there was about 73 of us. So there was a very small group of medics. Obviously, it was heavily infantry due to, obviously, going in and establishing the area.

Initially, we were told that we were going in to set up the health facility, and we believed, at the time, that we were going into the Kigali Hospital. We got told that it had been badly affected but didn't see pictures or anything like that, certainly not at my level, I was a private. So we knew we were going in to tidy up the hospital and get it ready for the rest of the main body to come in and start functioning.

Arrival in Kigali

Well, the airport had been affected, so there was bullet marks up the outside of the airport, windows were shot out. There were no workers, so it was mainly the US and the Canada troops that were on the ground, making it a functioning airport.

So we got into the terminal and got told to sit around and just wait because we were waiting for the transport to take us to where we were going to be located. So we basically just sat around, read, listened to our disc-man, Walkmans, and just talked, tried to look out the windows, but it was, obviously, very hot. It was very dusty, and there weren't a lot of locals around at that time, so it was quite isolated.

Worse than expected

Well, initially, from the airport, we were taken to the hospital, and, obviously, started looking at the hospital and realized it was way worse than we were expecting, and there was a lot to clean up. So, initially, the advanced party, we actually stayed in the hospital.

So we were given a room where there were, I think, there was about seven or eight to ten of us, depending on the size of the room. And for the first week or two, we were located in there. And then, eventually, we moved over to the barracks, which was probably about a three, 400-metre walk from the hospital, and that's where we stayed, and that was our main base.

No power

Yeah, we had no power, had no power for quite some time. We had no showers for quite some time. I remember my first shower. That was fun. Our RAEME guys are amazing. They got power up and going. It took them a while, but they eventually even got the plumbing and sewerage working.

So those guys were working in the background while we were actually cleaning the hospital and getting it to a state that we could even consider bringing a patient into.

Intensive care assistance

Well, we were told our primary mission was to provide a health effect to the UNAMIR troops. So, obviously, that included all the Canadians and everybody else that was over there, and, eventually, Indian troops. That was our primary mission. But, thankfully, not a lot of those troops were injured or become ill. They were quite lucky with that.

So that allowed us to actually shift our focus because secondary mission was, to a lesser extent, we were to provide humanitarian care and trauma support to the locals. And I think quite quickly we realised that that was going to flip because the majority of our patients coming in were locals, so that's where our mission shifted to, whilst always maintaining that we could, at any time, take any UNAMIR troops in if necessary.

My particular role, which, as a medic, I thought we're likely to work on just the ward or something like that, but I was one of a couple medics that was picked to work in intensive care. And at that time, that wasn't somewhere where medics tended to work. But our intensive care nurse, who was the head of the unit, captain, at the time, Annette Outram, hand-picked a couple of medics, and I and a couple of the others worked in there. Not so much assisting but went in to observe and then help with recovery, and it depended on where you were. So when we did some out programs, Butare and a few other places, then we were a little bit more hands-on and assisted in those areas.

12 hour shifts

So, eventually, it was a six to seven-day roster, so there's no weekends or anything like that, and we went to about a 12-hour roster shift for the ICU because there was only a small group of us. Basically, it was a 12 hour on, 12 hours off.

You'd wake up over in your accommodation, you'd have a birdbath, shower or face wash and a bit of a cloth and give yourself a bit of a wipe-down, get dressed, and start to move over to the hospital from the barracks. Once you got there, you would get a handover of the patients from the off-going shift. And then, depending on what patient you had or how many patients you had, you might be assigned to the one, or there might be three or four in there. You would then take care of that casualty, and because they're ICU, you basically had to do everything for them.

We would, obviously, there'd be cleaning duties, there was pickets that you had to do. There was a resuss roster that we had to maintain as well, so you did a 24-hour shift where you stayed at the hospital, and if any resuss' came in, or trauma victims came in overnight or during the day, you were the re-SUS team that treated them. And that was quite a regular occurrence, that happened a lot.

Obviously, we'd eat at the hospital if you're on shift, so hot boxes were brought across, you'd eat them. We had a functioning kitchen after a period of time, over at the barracks, and they would bring those meals over. They'd also provide meals for their patients as well if they're able to eat. We'd do our stores.

There was also a roster that we would go down to because it was quite a large hospital, with a facility, and there were some buildings down the back, outside of our particular area that were actually manned by the NGOs, so the non-government organisations and they were running surgeries, and wards, and outpatient clinics down there as well. So we would go down there regularly and assist them and just help them.

If there were any severe cases that they needed help with, we'd bring them up to us. Those kinds of things, that was a mutual sort of relationship there. Yeah, no day was the same, but there was a saying, Groundhog Day, so just each day blew it into the next.

Care packages

Aw , look, the cooks, army cooks, military cooks are amazing. What they get and what they produce never ceases to amaze me. We used to have to go over, and the UN sourced the food, and they probably didn't go to the most lucrative or nicest producers.

So you would see the food as it was being unpacked, and there'd be mouldy fruit, or the meat didn't look the greatest. So, thankfully, my parents sent a lot of care boxes, and in those care boxes were, new at the time, pastas in a packet, and baked beans, and things like that, so I supplemented my meals. But look, the food that we got, they were hot, you didn't have to wash it, didn't have to cook it, so it was always good.

We got plenty of bread and fresh food, but a lot of it was hot. And, obviously, we were in a hot country. It was very humid and very hot, so you didn't always feel like eating those hot meals, and so we didn't have a lot of fresh salad stuff, etc., so it was a lot of just cooked produce. Didn't starve, so we were okay. Initially, it took a while. I think it was about a month before our first delivery came.

But after that, my mum and dad, and friends and family from back home, my grandparents, so you'd probably get something at least once a week. And that'd be a couple of letters or maybe a care package box. Yeah, I remember once, my grandmother packed Anzac cookies wrapped up in foil, and they went within about two seconds. But, magazines and lollies, and chocolate biscuits, which never looked like chocolate biscuits by the time they got to us. Yeah, so it was pretty regular. It was pretty good.


So I was there for about seven months with the advanced party and that, but, yes, we got two 48-hour leave breaks, where we went to Nairobi, in Kenya. And essentially, just went there, flew over there on a UN flight. We'd stay at a hotel, which was all pre-arranged, which had a swimming pool. Nairobi at the time wasn't very safe, so we were allowed to go out in groups and have a bit of a look around the local area, and then 48 hours later, we were flying back.

We were also, I think it was seven, eight days where we were actually allowed to go home. So a lot of people, obviously, with families and that flew home. I took the opportunity, and I went to Italy because you're allowed to use your fare to go wherever you wanted to go. So some people met their husbands or wives in Europe. Some people went home, obviously, to see kids and things like that.

And I was single, so I went to Italy to explore. I don't think we started because, obviously, they were trying to rotate people through, so I think it was about three months before the first couple of people. And so, obviously, it was very carefully managed, in particular, with the health, because we had to keep that capability at 100%. We couldn't let that affect. So, obviously, the chain of command looked at who could go when, and you're allocated.

People that had families and that, obviously, it was great for them to get home and go first. I didn't mind that. I think it was about four or five months in before, which was actually good because, by the time I got back there wasn't long to go.

Talking it through

I worked in the ICU team, and we were fairly a tight-knit team. Good old Aussies, we use dark humour to get through things. So we used humour to laugh things off and try to get that emotion out. We had a saying in ICU that we had more kills than the infantry because we lost a lot of patients.

And that sounds terrible, but that was our way of, "Okay, let's get to the next patient and see what we can do for them." Annette Outram, who was the captain, like I said, nurse that was in charge, I don't think she realises how well she looked after us. Maybe she did. Maybe she did understand. Because if we did have a loss or a particular traumatic patient that we might have looked after for a number of weeks and they still passed away on us no matter what we did, she would get that team together, and we'd talk about it. We'd go, "Okay, this is what happened. We did this. That didn't work, so then we tried that."

So she'd debrief us at that time, I don't think I quite understood what that was, and I think that assisted our team, in particular, a lot. It's interesting. Somebody said to me a couple of years ago that asked me about Rwanda, and I said, I talked about it. She said, "Do you realize you just used the word survived?"

And I went, "No. No, I didn't." And she said, "Yes, you did." And I went, "Oh, I've never thought of it like that before," but, yeah. I guess. And I think having Annette there and the rest of the ICU team, the nurses, we had a RAAF, Navy nurses, and they were outstanding. They never treated the medics, and there was Army medics there, she and the nurses never treated us anything but equals and involved us in everything, and I think that went a long way to certainly helping me. I had very close friends that weren't medics.

So when we went back to the barracks, we talked about other things, so it got your mind off it. And Theresa DeGroot was a corporal clerk, and her and I were best mates, and again, she was that support that I had. So if we had a bad resus, we had a bad one. I think it was about 10 children brought in that had been playing with an anti-tank mine, and not all of them made it, but that was a real rough day. So when we got back, Therese sat us down, we had our cups, canteen, we made a brew, and we just talked about stuff, everything but, just to get your mind off it. Take a deep breath and back into it the next day.

The boozer

You'd sit, read. There was a bit of a gym sort of setup, eventually. That took a little bit of time to happen. And after about, I think it was about two or three months, we actually got what we call a boozer, or a mess, which is where... there was an officer's mess, a senior NCOs' mess, or a senior non-commissioned officers' mess, where the warrant officers and the sergeants went.

And then, there was an ORs or other ranks boozer. And there we had soft drinks available, some local snacks you could buy over the bar, and things like that. And during certain times, we were allowed to have a couple beers and that was generally local-sourced beers from Kenya and things like that. But that was only open a couple of nights a week, and I think that was Fridays and Saturdays. So if you're on shift, you missed it.

Special days and fruitcake

I don't recall doing anything for Melbourne Cup, but we certainly did for Christmas. Like I said earlier, the cooks did a bit of a special spread. I think we ate plum pudding and fruitcake for about the rest of the six months after Christmas. The RSL had sent us just fruitcake after fruitcake, and it was fantastic, but after, we had boxes and boxes of it. So we had fruitcake for lunch, dinner, breakfast almost.

We tried to make things special. People would send over Santa hats, things like that, so you'd wear them on the ward. But everything, we didn't shut down. We kept going. We had a job. So you tried to dress the place up with what little we had. I always seemed to be on shift, I don't know why, but they'd do something in the mess.

So where the dining hall was, they'd do a bit of special dinner or something like that with what they could. We did have Australia Day over there, and that coincided with the Indian, I think it was the Independence Day, we're about the same time, so there was a bit of a do on that night where they played. It was primarily the Indians. They did dances and displays.

The commander got up and did a bit of a talk. Our guys got up and did a couple of things, and that was a bit of a barbecue. So little things like that just to break the monotony of Groundhog Day. Occasionally, there'd be a trip into the actual capital, into the city. Initially, that wasn't much. There was a little bit of a market. And over time, from seeing it for the first couple of weeks that we were there, and then towards the end where you went in and tried to buy a couple of things to take home, to be mementos and memories, the market had probably grown 100 times. So that was a promising sign that they were healing and people were coming back into the city and re-establishing business as usual, day-to-day life routine, which was good.

Beautiful people

Yeah , obviously, walking from the barracks to the hospital, we actually went past the RPA, the Rwandan Patriotic Army, their barracks. So it was interesting how that relationship changed. So, initially, there'd be quite a few of them at the gate, a show of force, displaying all different weapons and things like that, but after a couple of months, they just didn't even look at us as we were walking past.

But with the locals, the kids were always eager to engage. They'd want to come up, and they'd practice their English with us, or they want to learn English, or they'd want stuff of us, lollies, or something like that, or biscuits. So you'd try to have something on you. When we went out on, because there was quite a few times that we'd go out to local orphanages or we went out to remote areas, and did trips around the country, trying to do some humanitarian aid where we would do some vaccination parades.s We went up into the IDP camps.

We went up to Kibeho and set up clinics up there where we could inoculate them and do what we called sick parades. So if they had wounds or something like that, we could give them some first aid to try to minimize and reduce infection. So, yeah. We did do a lot of interaction with the locals, and that was the best part of the trip. They were beautiful, beautiful, beautiful people. Beautiful.

Changeover of contingents

We had the new team come in. We took them through our area, how it all worked, we handed over our rooms to the next group coming in. It was a pretty quick changeover because, obviously, there wasn't a lot of space. Again, it was broken up into a couple of groups. And so, it was very quick. They came in.

There was about a day, two days, and we went out. I had some friends from 1 Field Hospital, some medic friends that were coming in on the second rotation, so it was great to see them and tell them how we... we'd created some relationships like I had a particular group of little kids up at the camps in Kibeho that I wanted my friend to look after, so I made sure he knew. "When you get up there," I've told them, “You'll see them”. I tried to describe them as best I could, just, "I'll send you over stuff and give it to them if you can." Yeah, little things like that, but it was pretty quick.

Lessons learned

The thing that amazed me, there were some hard parts, like being female on a predominantly male, that was tough. And so, the females tended to stay together because 90% were fine and treated us well, but there was 10% that thought they could say what they like to. And so, you tried to ignore and just get your job done.

But saying that, the thing that sticks with me and hindsight's beautiful, the team, considering we had all different types of trades, we'd never work together prior to stepping into the country, but the professionalism of the infantry boys, there was quite a few incidences where things could have got very bad, but their discipline, their trust in their corporals and their sergeants, they listened to them, and they deescalated situations that could have been very, very bad. Looking back on that now, that impressed me. I went off them, and I watched them, and I tried to go from their lead. And that professionalism, I look back on it now, and I go, "Wow. I'm so lucky I worked with those guys”.

The health team, everybody did what they could, and it was frustrating that we couldn't do more. We wanted to do more, but we couldn't. But just the way everybody came together and supported each other. The hardest part, I think, was when we got back, and we all dispersed. And I think that's where the problems started happening for a lot of people because, on some occasions, some of those people were out by themselves with no other people that had been there with them, and we lost touch, and life went on.

So I think it's similar to Vietnam in that case, where everybody came back, got off the plane, and left. Where, you think about World War I and World War II, they had months, potentially, on a ship talking with the people that had lived through the same things, where we essentially got on an aircraft, and within 24 hours later, you were getting hugged by your family, and it was just a move on type of thing. So I think that potentially sent up a lot of people for a lack of support they didn't get. I think we learnt a lot from Cambodia, Somalia, and Rwanda, and I think also, too, and this is my opinion, I think we, at that time, like my dad's friends that are all Vietnam veterans, that was the time they were finding their voice.

So they'd had their welcome home parade, Vietnam, and the effect Vietnam had on the veterans was now known in society, and I think the lessons they'd learnt from Vietnam, and then, obviously, were relearning from those, like I said, Somalia, Cambodia, and Rwanda, I think they took all of that, and these days we have it better. We don't quite have it right yet. I don't think we ever can have it 100% right, but I think we've come a long way to getting off a plane in Sydney and wave goodbye and get on with it type of thing, so it's good to see that we've learned from that.

Group debrief

We did have a debrief in-country before we left. We were sitting with all of our peers, and the good old Australian soldier doesn't want to show weakness. We don't want our mates to think that we didn't cope. And it was very light-hearted. There was no individual debrief, and that changed. My further deployments, you had an individual debrief, where you had the opportunity to feel safe. But, at the time, it was a group debrief, and I could see it.

A few of my friends had talked to me over our rotation. When we'd had a bad day or a couple of bad resus' they would say to me, "Hey, Cheryl, that one sucked." I think because I was the female. And they'd come up and sit outside my room, and we'd talk, and after that, they'd be fine. They'd got it off their chest type of thing. And I'm glad I was there for that, but I wasn't a professional at, "What should I say?" I was dealing with it myself as well, so we were just honest, and we'd talk about that and say, "Yeah, it was bad. It sucks, and mines should be banned."

We'd talk, say all those things, and share our frustration, and our anger, and our hurt, and disappointment, and all that. But sitting in a room where you had your peers, you just didn't want to say, "Oh, I found that particular one hard," or "He affected me." It's not the done thing in the Australian Army, in particular. We don't show weakness. We're supposed to be tough. So I don't think that was the smartest way of doing it, and I think they learned from that. I think they really, truly believe they learned from that.

A show of force

I think it was 24, 48 hours after we'd arrived. I think it was the first morning. We were in the hospital, and, obviously, we had pickets or people that were on guard, and I remember hearing this noise, and it was a chant. And I remember waking up and looking around. Everybody was sort of, "What's going on? What's going on?"

And our window faced on to the street, and like I said, on the other side of the street was the RPA compound. And all of a sudden, we'd seen line, rank upon rank, of soldiers or armed people, because they had a very mismatched uniform, they didn't have a uniform like we did, with weapons and chanting in the local lingo. And everybody, we stood too, immediately, weapons, we had flak jackets, our UN helmets, and there was a lot of confusion. And I, obviously, understand now, it was a show of force to say, "Hey, look, you're in our country. This is who we are, and you're a visitor here," which I guess any country would do, wouldn't they? But it was quite confronting to go, "Oh, God. What have we done? Where are we?" So that was a bit of a welcome to Rwanda.

I remember, again, the infantry guys just staying calm, good communication, and you could see that they were, "What's going to happen here?" And I just remember trying to watch them because I was only a 12-month plus private, and a little bit out of my depth going, "Oh, Jesus. This is where it's going to get real" because they outnumbered us easily. So, obviously, communications came in that speak French. We had a couple of French interpreters who were Australian Army, and most of Rwanda spoke French because the French was the colony, French colony.

So they'd found out that it was just them doing morning PT run. It seemed to be the only morning they did it, but anyway. But, yeah. That was quite scary. Other times you'd get little interactions with them, where they'd just test us. And like I said, it was always our infantry that would react and just say, "Hey, look, we're ready, but we get it." Their professionalism and their discipline deescalated bad events very quickly, and it was good.

"Rwanda changed me"

It was, obviously, something that helped me discover that that's why I joined the army. We live in such a great country and I'm able to, one, protect our way of life and that. But also, because we do live in such a great country and we do have so much opportunity and such a great way of life, if I can go overseas and assist other people in getting through adversity and setting up their country and helping them to recover from be it a natural disaster or a conflict, or something like that, then it's what I joined for.

It's something I'm glad I have almost done 30 years now, doing that, and I wouldn't change it for a thing. Rwanda changed me. It made me more grateful for what we've got and what I had as a child and my lifestyle, but it also humbled me in the fact that you don't need a lot to be happy. Family and safety is probably the two biggest things. I think it made me a better soldier. I had become very protective of my soldiers after that.

When we did deploy, my main concern was that they didn't have bad memories like I'd had. I didn't want them to have bad dreams that I had. So I wanted to protect them from that, so I guess that I probably overprotected them, and I didn't want them to be exposed to what we'd been exposed to, so they didn't have the bad dreams that you can have and things like that. But I'm grateful for it, and I'm proud to have been and been part of that small group that went."

The Australian slouch hat

So the Australian slouch hat, it's pretty symbolic, and, obviously it's internationally recognized as the Australian Army. So the Australian soldier is quite proud of the hat, and we treat it with a lot of respect. We don't tend to throw it on the ground. We try to look after it. It's changed over time, so these days we wear our corps badge, which is, essentially, what job that you do, so mine is a medical corps badge. And each badge has got small aspects that represent parts of your trade or your corps.

Then you've got the puggaree, and each of the folds represents the states and territories. In Rwanda, we actually wore, were given permission, which I believe is one of the first times that we were actually given permission, and we wore a UN blue puggaree because that obviously kept us identified as Australian with the slouch hat, but we were UN with the blue puggaree.

These days we have our, what we call, colour patches, which is something that harks back to World War I, where they would designate as the colours, and the symbols inside designate what unit and formation you belong to. And most of them, these days, actually can trace their lineage back to World War I units. So we try to maintain that tradition.

Obviously, with the brim up, is more these days with ceremonial dresses, and we wear the, obviously, another symbol of the Australian Army is the rising sun, which, over time, has changed in design. But these days, we have the rising sun and the crown, and the Australian Army written on that. Obviously , in the early days, the weapons were quite long and especially when you put a bayonet on top, that would actually interrupt. So the slouch hat was pulled up so therefore the bayonet and the weapon could actually sit without interfering with the headdress. But these days, we wear it down because, obviously, sun protection.

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