A portrait of multi-generational service

Four years ago, retired RAAF nursing officer Megan Pearson saw an article in the Canberra Times about DVA staff member Jane Gallagher, who had just been awarded the Public Service Medal for outstanding service in the areas of nursing services to veterans. The article included a photo of Jane standing next to a glass photographic reproduction of Second World War nurse Glynneath Powell. The original was taken in 1942, shortly before Glynneath joined the Australian Army Medical Women’s Service (AAMWS).

Megan is Glynneath’s daughter, and hadn’t seen the image since she’d donated the original to the Australian War Memorial many years before. Ten years ago, DVA drew on the Memorial’s photographic collection and printed several glass portraits of men and women who had served over the course of the previous century, then installed them in its offices around the country. Surrounding staff with images of veterans serves as a visual reminder of the people we’re working to support.

Two women standing in front of large portrait of Second World War nurse

Megan and her husband Ian, also an RAAF veteran, approached DVA and asked if they could have a photo taken next to Glynneath’s portrait, along with their daughter Claire who was a serving officer in the RAAF at the time. We were happy to oblige and the Pearson family visited DVA’s head office in November.

‘When I came round the corner and saw the portrait it really hit me emotionally,’ says Megan. ‘I didn’t expect it to be so large. It was nice to be there with my daughter, having the photo taken with my mother’s portrait. So, three generations who have served in the military.’

The portrait is about 1.5 metres high. Claire was also surprised by the size of it. ‘It’s fabulous,’ she says. ‘It’s great to see her centre stage. And in particular that DVA is featuring female veterans, which is really important.’

Between them, Megan, Ian and Claire Pearson have served 84 years in the RAAF. The family has strong military pedigrees on both sides.

‘Part of the ethos of the Australian community is to support their country,’ says Megan. ‘And it seems to go through the generations. The history of my parents played a significant part in our family.’

Glynneath Powell was born in Boulder, Western Australia in 1917. Three of her uncles served in the First World War (two killed in action) and when the Second World War began, she and her two siblings decided to do their bit. Glynneath joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD).

In 1942, she was among the first VAD members posted to the 38th Australian Camp Hospital in the Northam army camp in Western Australia, relieving male orderlies who were volunteering for overseas service. Glynneath took temperatures, made beds, and provided simple treatments.

In December, at the age of 25, she joined the newly formed AAMWS and worked in the blood bank at 110 Australian General Hospital, Hollywood, Perth.

When the war ended, Glynneath, by then a sergeant, helped care for repatriated prisoners of war, many of whom were very ill and required careful nursing. Lance Corporal Les Cody from the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion had been a prisoner of the Japanese and had been forced to work on the Burma–Thailand Railway. Glynneath and Les fell in love and married in January 1948, later raising two sons and two daughters, one of whom was Megan.

Glynneath was president of the AAMWS Association from shortly after it was formed until 10 years before she died in 2011. In 1993, Glynneath travelled to Canberra where she carried the AAMWS banner at the entombment of the Unknown Australian Soldier at the Australian War Memorial.

Megan’s father was one of five brothers who served in the war. Sadly, two of them were killed during their wartime service.

Megan says he barely spoke about his experiences but she feels he probably had post-traumatic stress disorder. In the 1970s, he wrote the book Ghosts in Khaki to record the wartime history of the 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion, which was raised in Western Australia.

Three months after Megan joined the RAAF in 1978, after previously working in a high-pressure civilian nursing position, she felt the slower pace of RAAF nursing was not providing enough professional challenge, and decided to resign. The day before she was going to hand in her notice, the Senior Nursing Officer at 6 Hospital (at RAAF Laverton) told her she was being attached to RAAF Edinburgh in South Australia and was to report the next day. Having not lived in Adelaide before, and with the opportunity to serve on an operational base, she decided to give it a go. Three hours after arriving at RAAF Edinburgh, she met Ian. Eleven days later they were engaged.

Megan remained in the RAAF (permanent and reserves) for 18 years before pursuing a civilian nursing career in Canberra and Adelaide.

‘I miss the camaraderie,’ she says. ‘Feeling like you’re part of a team or family that has a purpose. On operational bases you felt the tempo of what the RAAF was trying to do. The military is like a parallel world, until you get used to it. Then when you leave, civilian life in turn feels like a different world.’

Megan and Ian’s daughter Claire joined the RAAF in 2001.

‘There was no other destiny,’ she says. ‘I wanted to join from the age of five. As a teenager, I joined the Air Training Corps (now Air Force Cadets). I was influenced by my parents’ service but they didn’t push me. But my family have served in every generation going back to the Boer War. So it has become a family tradition.’

Following her transition from the RAAF, Claire has remained at the Department of Defence in a civilian capacity. She deployed overseas on four occasions – to the Middle East, Afghanistan (twice) and South Sudan with the UN – and was awarded the Conspicuous Service Medal among other decorations. A passionate advocate of gender issues in a military context, Claire was recently appointed as a director on the board of the not-for-profit Women Veterans Australia.

‘Women play a pivotal role in national security,’ she says. ‘Deploying women on operations enables the commander to access the full population that might otherwise be off limits. As such the face of veterans is changing with more and more women marching on Anzac Day. I see previous generations of women like my grandmother and mother as pathfinders in this regard.’

Ian served in the Air Force from 1976 until 2021 in maritime flying and various ground appointments. He recorded the operational service of RAAF P-3 Orions during the latter part of the Cold War in his book Cold War Warriors.  

‘Being born in Malta during my father’s deployment there with 78 Wing, educated at the RAAF School Penang, married to an Air Force nurse, and with a daughter in the Air Force I would say that the Air Force has quite literally been my life and my family,’ he says.

‘There is nothing remarkable about our family’s background of defence service, which no doubt is repeated by countless other Australian families. Nevertheless, we are proud of the contribution our family has made to our nation’s security over a number of years. Equally, we are grateful that these stories are recorded as part of our collected memory by institutions such as DVA and the Australian War Memorial.’

Megan Pearson stands in uniform in front of an RAAF plane.

Photo above: Megan Pearson at RAAF Richmond in 1979 while undertaking medevac training.

Ian Pearson wearing a headset look at the camera from the cockpit of a P-3C Orion plane.

Photo above: Ian Pearson in a P-3C Orion during an Operation Gateway patrol in 1985 while serving with No 10 Squadron.

Claire Pearson in uniform kneels, surrounded by children with tents in the background.

Photo above: Claire Pearson with children at the internally displaced person’s camp near the remote settlement of Bor in South Sudan, where she was based for seven months in 2016.