Healer or Warrior: An Historical Account of the Role Duality of the Australian Army Medic in Warzones

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis explores the theme of duality in the role of the Australian Army medic. Army medics are responsible for saving lives, and are bound by the ethical codes of medical staff. Conversely, as soldiers in the field, they also have a duty to support armed combat. This duality appears as an irreconcilable psychological burden on individuals, as well as being an important, under-represented, aspect of military history.

In order to explore this theme, the thesis offers a comparative study of the stretcher-bearers of World War I with contemporary medics who have served overseas in the Middle East Area of Operations. The analysis relies upon the qualitative research method of historiography and is informed by the philosophy of Wilhelm Dilthey. This philosophy foregrounds individuals, their self-definition, and their subjective view of the world, as essential to an appreciation of history. The voices of soldier medics are sought out as authoritative sources to their lived experience of dual roles.

Whilst there has been previous research into the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps, there is limited information pertaining specifically to the individual experience of medics in the vital role of life-saving first-line care in the battlefield environment. The selflessness of the medic in the provision of medical care to military members has remained a constant feature throughout history, despite major changes to the arenas of warlike conflict. However, their military duties, their willingness to participate in winning an armed conflict, and their animosity to their foes, inevitably accompany their humanitarian work.

Most of the research presented in this thesis relies upon primary sources. It begins with the First World War stretcher-bearers from the Field Ambulance divisions. These eager young men were untrained soldiers, who rushed to prove their patriotism by fighting in unknown lands. They tell their stories through diaries and letters written one hundred years ago. The study then moves forward a century to consider current serving army medics, whose stories are portrayed through narratives arising from personal interviews.

The contemporary army medic has dual qualifications. They are trained soldiers and they also hold nursing qualifications and are registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency as enrolled nurses. They, therefore, have two sets of ethical, legal and professional responsibilities and codes of conduct creating dual responsibilities that may, at times, create both professional and ethical conflicts. The connections and divergences of their roles are explored within this analysis.

This thesis analyses the duality of being both soldier and healer and uncovers how the soldiers manage these incongruous roles and responsibilities. The impact on the people who tell their stories is explored, both in the immediacy of the events and on reflection. How combat deployment affects these soldiers emotionally and physiologically is examined, with specific emphasis on its effect on returning home post-deployment and return to post-conflict normality.

The historical analysis presented in this thesis, which contextualises the experiences of the World War I stretcher-bearer and the contemporary soldier medic, and their articulation of their experiences, is an important chapter in the story both of nursing and warfare.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Charles Sturt University
  • Taylor, Therese, Principal Supervisor
  • McLeod, Marg, Co-Supervisor
Award date04 Oct 2022
Place of PublicationAustralia
Publication statusPublished - 15 Oct 2022


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