My Favourite Thing – The Oral Historian


By Stephanie Boyle


I’ve played trivia in Kandahar. Walked through Saddam’s summer palace. And watched the flags go down in Tarin Kot, when an Australian soldier died. Working at the Australian War Memorial has seen me in places curators don’t usually go.

This is my … gosh. Eleventh year at the Australian War Memorial.  Looking back,  I can see my career path could probably be summarised as something like “Well I Never..!”    I started off as an all-round film and sound curator at the Memorial. Before that, I was working at the National Film and Sound Archive, and the National Archives. In that time  I met a lot of creatives, a lot of bureaucrats, a lot of researchers;  both the savvy -urgent industry type and the needy-urgent family history type.  I helped these folks with their research, and I helped acquire audio visual material for national collections.  I didn’t think I’d ever be creating audio visual material.  

I never thought I’d end up working alongside military people. 

And although I helped manage our oral history collection at the Memorial, it didn’t initially occur to me to record oral histories myself.  Partly because there was a prevailing attitude that oral histories were only done by “experts”  – that is, only those  with acutely specific military history or journalistic qualifications.  On the other hand, there were some oral histories seemingly conducted, if not by “experts”, then  by “eccentrics” – colourful characters with (or without),  obscurely academic backgrounds. I didn’t feel I fitted into either group,  so “ I never” thought I’d be doing oral history.       


Next thing you know,  to the horror of my family and frank admiration of my friends, I’m flying to Afghanistan with a camera and a recorder.  I guess I haven’t looked back.  

A short film on one of Stephanie’s first deployments as an oral historian. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial Youtube.

Fast forward to 2017, and I can’t swear that I’m not eccentric. Indeed my colleagues have been known to refer to me as a bit of a crazy cat lady – frankly, that’s  another thing I never thought would happen!  But I can say that as an oral historian for the Memorial, I’ve been able to travel round Australia and “deploy” to the conflict areas of Afghanistan and Iraq.  I’ve been able to meet and interview veterans past and present about their military service, and their partners and family members too when I can – recording and preserving our these stories for the future.   


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Stay Classy Iraq, Taji Military Base. Photo Credit: Stephanie Boyle

I’ve had some of the same pre-deployment training as the military get, including  how to:  survive a gas attack; look for buried explosives; tie a tourniquet, stuff a gaping wound with gauze and  fire a rifle.  I’ve even been briefed about conduct under capture, in case of abduction. It’s all very sobering when you realise these survival skills are being taught because they actually might be needed. But you can’t get worried about it,  because when you look around, everyone else is just getting on with it.  


Concussion mannequins (simulating concussion symptoms) for use in combat medical training. Photo Credit: Stephanie Boyle



Depending on where I was going, I might go by C-130, Chinook, armoured vehicle or regular old four wheel drive; I might be wearing puffer jackets or 50+ sunblock – the weather runs to extremes, though obviously on a submarine that’s less of an issue. And all the while I do my job of meeting Australians  – and occasionally, people of other nations – and talking with them about what they do.  My interviewees have included everyone you can think of and maybe some you can’t – commandos, strike force pilots, submariners and chefs; medics, doctors, chaplains and public relation officers; legal specialists, bombardiers, physical trainers and radar operators. I’ve interviewed cautious intelligence captains and gregarious photographers;  senior commanders who number their careers in decades, and young troopers on their first deployment. 

A padre, who’d enlisted as an engineer; a helicopter pilot who thought he’d be in infantry, and a commando who thought he’d be a pilot. 

A clearance diver on his first deployment, embedded with Americans when Osama bin Laden was killed.

A soldier in the right place and right time, bringing down his insurgent attacker in Uruzgan.

The big tough guy who cried.

The young man who stepped on an IED that didn’t go off; the commander who lost a man in a Taliban ambush.  

Married couples –  both partners in the Army,  and loving it. 

An air force technician who’d met his Canadian fiancé  at a social night ;  a seasoned solider  whose marriage was ending.

An avionics tech who finds himself in the midst of humanitarian crisis;  an engineer who enjoys an Afghan joke (sometimes!).  


“Meta selfie” with Iraqi soldiers awaiting an instruction session with Australian trainers to start at the Baghdad fighting school. 
Photo Credit: Stephanie Boyle 

Some folks I meet are the fourth generation of servicepersons in their families, but others completely surprised their families when they enlisted. And while I’ve met many proud parents of  military cadets, there are some who hope their children would never enlist.  I’ve talked about late night Skypes with loved ones at home, and late nights on the job, whether over or behind the wire. There are so many challenges, benefits, hardships and satisfactions that come with their hard work far from home. It’s certainly true what many say of deployment; “that experiences may differ” – just as people do. If I’ve learned one thing in this job, its that there’s no stereotype of a military person, no “typical” story.


Despite the fact that I had no oral history aspirations, and that I’d never in a million years expected to have a profound association with the military,  I really enjoy what I do.



Despite the fact that I had no oral history aspirations, and that I’d never in a million years expected to have a profound association with the military, I really enjoy what I do. Although it sounds awfully cliché,  I do think its something of a privilege to be meeting people at home and abroad, being allowed an insight into their lives, and recording their experiences for future generations. I guess I’m most glad that of all the preconceptions I’ve left behind, the biggest ones have been about myself!




View more photographs of Stephanie’s deployment experiences here at the Australian War Memorial Website


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