Leading the Dawn Service march with pride13 April 2023
For the last few years, Geoff Skinner has had the honour of leading the Toowoomba Dawn Service march.
It’s a proud yet nervous occasion for the former infantry soldier, who is humbled by his community’s support.
“It's a great community spirit. Your heart's pounding and you don't want to do anything wrong because you want it to go so well for the community, to thank them for coming out,” Geoff reflects.
“It's a special day for being part of the Defence community.”
An iconic photo taken of Geoff leading the march through morning fog at the 2022 Toowoomba Dawn Service has been used in RSL Queensland’s 2023 ANZAC Day campaign to encourage all Australians to honour veterans’ service.
Inspired to serve
Defence runs in Geoff’s family. His four maternal uncles served in WWII, and his wife, son and stepdaughter served or still serve in the Royal Australian Air Force.
Geoff, meanwhile, served in the regular Army and Reserves for more than 47 years, enlisting as a teenager in 1973.
“My parents took us to the Dubbo Show and there was a military display. After that, I always sort of had the military in my mind,” he says.
“When I was 17, I decided to join the Army, headed off to Kapooka and was allocated to the Infantry Corps.”
Lifelong memories and mateship
Geoff’s Army career took him across Australia and beyond – to New Zealand, Vanuatu, Malaysia, and Iraq.
He recalls many fond memories from service: instructing the next generation of soldiers at Kapooka and Battle Wing (Land Warfare Training Centre) Canungra, teaching other countries in operations and deployment, and representing the Defence Force in sport overseas.
Then there was the ANZAC Day experience in Iraq that he’ll never forget.
“I was in Kuwait and a few people were allowed to go out and be part of the ANZAC Day service. That was very special to be so close to Gallipoli,” he says.
“You are just trying to get that feeling of what the ANZACs would've gone through.
“It was a special day – one which I'll cherish for the rest of my life and share with my family.”
But the biggest highlights for Geoff have been the friendships he’s forged.
“The highlights are the mates you make in Defence. I believe they are your lifetime friends,” he shares.
“We all came from different walks of life and we go through our training. We see the changes happening with our mates, how they're growing up, and we know they're going to stay our mate forever. And out of that comes the sacrifices that we make for each other, our families and so on.”
Through war and peace
That mateship – along with courage, endurance and humour – helped Geoff and his comrades through the challenges of not just war, but also peace.
Many of Geoff’s generation served during peacetime and, sadly, “don't feel that they should march” on ANZAC Day.
“In that period, the only operational service was the deployment to Butterworth. So, a lot of people felt that they had not really done their bit for Australia,” Geoff explains.
“I had spent 20 years in the Defence Force but didn't serve in war until later. So, I understand how they feel.
“I know a lot of my guys from that time still suffer. They don't go to RSL clubs because they don't believe they're worthy.
"And they shouldn't feel that way; they should be proud because they did an outstanding job.
“They have the courage to stay there, and you don't realise that really you are a glue to the bigger picture. What you are doing contributes to making the Defence Force as great as it is.”
A proud honour
When Geoff joined the Army in 1973 – in the Vietnam War’s final years – anti-war sentiment lingered among the public. Marching with his battalion on ANZAC Day was a difficult experience.
“We knew that the community didn't like us, and it was hard to march through the town and have people spitting at you,” he recalls.
Fortunately, ANZAC Day is very different these days – especially in Geoff’s more recent home of Toowoomba.
“The community really supports ANZAC Day,” he says.
“I know they’ll be out in support of our veterans and our service men and women. They'll be out there, like us, reflecting on the past and on what ANZAC Day means to them.
“You feel very proud. When I lead the march at Dawn Service it's different from marching in uniform, when you can hear the crowd but can't see it.
“But when you leave the march and you’re more relaxed and you’re waving, and you see the respect in their eyes, you know the gestures are real. They're thanking you for your service – not only mine, but for the brave men and women that have served before.
“It's an honour to walk in their footsteps.”
HOW WILL YOU COMMEMORATE ANZAC DAY?
Since WWI, more than 1.5 million Australians have served in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations.
On ANZAC Day (25 April), we invite you to honour their invaluable contribution and commemorate in a way that is meaningful to you.
Attend an RSL Sub Branch service, take a quiet moment to reflect at home or donate to the ANZAC Appeal, and help keep the ANZACs’ legacy alive.