Murray Watene has a way with words. Throughout his life, including his 24 years in the Army, he has kept journals and written poems, many of them powerful reflections of life at war. One of his poems pays tribute to the grave of an unknown Kiwi WWII soldier in Malaya, in a sobering reminder of the sacrifices made by our forces. Another paints a tale of the conditions endured in the field in Vietnam and is enough to give any reader goose-bumps.
These emotional missives are reflective of experiences that are sometimes impossible to capture with simple words. “The poetry is my way of processing and expressing my experiences and who I am,” he says. “A lot of guys in the Army find it hard to express their emotions, and I know parts of my writing have been emotional for my family to read, but everyone has their own way of processing things, and this is mine.”
Part of the Ngāti Kahungunu iwi, and the Taupunga marae in Waimarama, Murray began his career as a policeman, joining the Army in 1961 and later seeing active service in Vietnam and Malaysia. After leaving the military, he joined the services again, with roles including recovery assistance after the Mt Erebus disaster in Antarctica. “I’ve been with the New Zealand services all my life, but it’s an experience I’d never change. It’s taken me all over the world, to some unforgettable places, and has connected me with some amazing and courageous people.”
A feeling of friendship and brotherhood was particularly apparent to Andy when in active service. “When we were in Vietnam, we really looked after our men, we were professionals, and we trained well, so we all knew precisely what to do to stay alive,” he remembers. “We were tight with each other and had each other’s backs. We were, and are, all family.”
A proud family man, Murray met his beloved late wife – the daughter of an English colonel – when he was stationed in Malaysia, with the couple later returning to New Zealand and enjoying a happy marriage of nearly 50 years. “I’m lucky I chose an amazing woman as my partner to be by my side during my time in the forces,” he says. Over the years the Watene family was posted around the country, moving to different bases and locations. “By the end of my time in my Army, when they asked me to move again, I decided it was time to leave so my family could have some stability.”
Murray is quick to acknowledge the huge impact that advancing through the Army has on the home life of servicemen. “When it comes to sacrifice, where do you start? When you’re in service you’re so often away, either training soldiers, on a course or on exercise,” he says. “Of course, with you so often away the family does suffer, they miss out on a lot of your time, but unfortunately being away is a necessity in the Army if you want to progress up the ranks. But your family does learn to adapt, it becomes your new normal.”
Looking back, time missed in his children’s childhood feels like the most significant sacrifice for Murray. “Being in the forces can be a selfish existence, although you don’t even realise it half the time,” he says. “The Army means time away from your family, and you miss out on great chunks of them growing up – it’s the details, like time seeing the kids on a daily basis, not being able to tell them you love them in person every day, not being able to go see their teachers, or the school plays and the after-school sports matches. Really it’s all the little things, it’s all of that time you can’t get back. But saying that, we all gained a huge deal from my time in the forces, and so many of my values I got from the Army, and I’ve passed those on to my kids. I’m proud to have served my country, and I’d do it all again.”
The RSA network directly support partners and children of current and former service personnel. They work alongside some of New Zealand’s most respected education and health providers providing grants for personal development programmes such as Outward Bound and Spirit of Adventure and also for career transition and counselling services. Your donation on Poppy Day helps them to achieve this.
This year on the 12th April you will see Poppy collectors in the street. Please give generously and wear your Poppy with pride.