Mufti Vol. 61 No. 2
Photographer: Legacy Australia and Gwen Cherne
Gwen Cherne struggled to take in the panic-stricken images she was seeing as Kabul fell into the hands of the Taliban in August.
“I was heartbroken, numb, sad,” she says of the chaotic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan which mark the end of a twenty-year mission by allied forces to bring stability to the war-torn region.
“No one wanted to be there forever but there had to be a better way than what we saw,” she adds, “It was so hard to watch knowing people I worked with and care about are deeply affected by this, and many are still there.”
Afghanistan holds a special place in the heart of the inaugural Veteran Family Advocate Commissioner who spent three years with her sleeves rolled up working in and out of Afghanistan on international aid missions; rebuilding village communities, advocating for displaced persons and educating and mentoring young Afghan men and women.
It was also in the tinder dry firecracker air of Kabul that she met and fell in love with Sgt Pete Cafe, one of 26,000 Australian soldiers who served on Operation Slipper, Australia’s longest war.
While the war brought them together its mental and physical scars also tragically tore them apart when the decorated veteran took his life in 2017.
The fall of Kabul poured salt onto raw wounds for the war widow and many beyond the veteran community with some critics going so far as to label the mission a ‘tragic and a wasted opportunity' but Gwen Cherne disagrees.
"We must never lose hope. A generation of Afghans now know there is another way to live"
“The dedication and sacrifices our service people, many civilians and their families made over 20 years to protect life and human rights and provide health and education services to the people of a war-torn country was amazing, admirable work and yet they were just doing what their government asked of them and then some.
"They disrupted an enormous terrorist network, they taught people how to fight and what camaraderie and mateship meant. Our men and women did not die in vain and those who came home with wounds have not suffered in vain. Australians should be so proud of what they achieved."
Born and raised in Cleveland Ohio, Gwen Cherne, 44, was always drawn to a life less ordinary.
After graduating university, she moved to New York and established a school for disadvantaged children in Brooklyn, but something shifted deep within in her one evening after watching the movie Hotel Rwanda.
The story of the plight of displaced Rwandan people amid a nation at war sparked an international flame and she found her calling. She signed up to work with the Afghan Women’s Network and soon found herself off to the middle east.
Her first night in Kabul in 2006 offered a confronting reminder that she was a long way from home.
“I arrived during Eid, the Festival of Sacrifice,” she explains. “I went out onto the balcony of the house I was staying in to see what was going on and watched on as the people next door slit the throat of a buffalo on the front lawn. During Eid, part of slaughter is to give to the poor and the needy, so they were butchering the animal in the front yard and giving away bags of meat to poor people who’d come to the house. That was my welcome to Kabul.”
“I was probably naïve entering a war zone and of course we knew our lives were at risk, but I was young, free, I didn’t have children and I believed in what was being done to stabilise and rebuild Afghanistan. It was so exciting to be a part of it.”
Gwen spent the next three years working in and out of Afghanistan on various aid projects, from travelling around to remote villages delivering goats and chickens to help build farms and food, to building bridges and vital infrastructure and mentoring young Afghans.
In 2008, she took on a role with a contractor for USAID, the United States Agency for International Development.
It was her third trip into the region and when she arrived in Kabul this time, she was met by decorated Australian commando Sgt Pete Cafe who’d been engaged to head up her security team.
After service in Cambodia and East Timor with 3RAR, and standing up TAG East with the elite 2nd Commando Regiment, Pete was taking time out of the armed forces, working as a private security contractor.
She’ll never forget the moment she first laid eyes on the proud Aussie soldier, decked out in his favourite NSW Waratahs footy shorts and singlet.
“I remember the singlet even had a VB logo on it,” she laughs, “he was so tall and handsome and we clicked immediately, it was a friendship that turned into love very quickly.”
When Pete’s contract ended in early 2009, he came back to Australia inviting Gwen to come with him to see if their war zone romance would survive the rigours of the real world.
She fell in love with Australia too and the deal was sealed, a year later they married but not long after Pete, who’d never formally discharged from the Army, was lured back to re-enlist.
“Pete stepped away from the Army twice but both times he was disappointed with civilian life, it just wasn’t exciting and didn’t bring him the same purpose that active service did,” Gwen says.
“His identity was wrapped up in military life and I understand that totally, I’ve been in a war zone, I understand the pull and the great sense of purpose and passion the work brings.”
On Valentines Day 2012, pregnant with their first child, Gwen waved goodbye to Pete who was headed back to Afghanistan with his regiment. Baby Emily was born a few months later and a son Lachlan arrived in 2014 in between deployments.
In 2016 Pete was sent to Iraq, but tragically, he suffered a stroke in Baghdad and although repatriated to begin rebuilding his life at home, he struggled to regain his health.
Gwen recalls his frustration that his cognition wasn’t coming back as they’d hoped.
“It took him a week to write something which was a page long, his brain wasn’t putting sentences together the way they should’ve been. He never really recovered.”
Although Pete went back to work with Defence, supporting other injured and wounded soldiers, it wasn’t the same challenge he’d thrived on in active duty and at home he was becoming increasingly depressed.
Only nine months after his stroke, Pete took his own life at the family’s Sydney home.
“I knew he was struggling,” Gwen says, “I reached out to his unit who rallied around him, they called him and offered support but he put on a mask and gave the impression everything was fine. Obviously, it wasn’t.”
"On our wedding day I told my best friend that I wasn’t worried about losing Pete in war, I was worried about him dying out of a military zone, sadly that was right"
In the wake of Pete’s death, Gwen found new purpose using her voice to advocate for veterans and their families. She addressed Army Command staff and the Wounded, Injured and Ill diggers conference, passionately calling for greater mental health resources before, during and after service. In 2018, she served as an Ambassador for the Invictus Games, was appointed to the Council of the Australian War Memorial in 2019, was inaugural member of the Council for Women and Families United by Defence Service, served on the board of the Australian War Widows Guild NSW Chapter, was as an ambassador for the Commando Welfare Trust and Gotcha4Life, roles that take on special meaning as Gwen is also Mum to Corporal Tom Cafe, Pete’s son from an earlier relationship who has followed his father’s military footsteps.
Gwen is acutely aware that the toll from Afghanistan weighs heavily on the civilian and military community, 41 Australian soldiers lost their lives during Operation Slipper, a further 261 were wounded and 500 have taken their own lives since 2001.
Submissions are currently being taken for a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.
‘When I came home from Afghanistan, nothing compared to my time there,” she says.
"Everything seemed quite ordinary, even pointless. It takes a while to realise that painting rocks with your four-year old is important"
"Veterans are good at leadership. They need a purpose, a sense of service and they need connection to the community. It’s been drilled into them that they are to serve and help people and that’s what they like to do, so it’s vital that we facilitate that.”
With her lived experience, she is dedicating her new role to advocacy for Australian war widows, suicide prevention, defence and veteran’s families and mental health awareness.
“Afghanistan has frayed the fabric of our own societies because the toll that war has taken back home for all of us, the suicide rates, the brain injuries, the PTSD is staggering. I don’t want to be seen as the grieving widow, I want to be seen in the light of hope.
"It’s understandable that people may be feeling angry and unsettled right now, and those feelings are valid. Veterans should feel how they feel and take time to heal."
"I want to educate people about the impact service has on our families, our next generation, our society. We need to get the message out that its ok to speak up and there are resources to help.”
“Pete’s legacy will be that it’s ok to reach out.”
“I’ll never regret working in Afghanistan and I haven’t lost hope that Afghanistan will be better in the future. We have great examples of that happening, like Vietnam and Rwanda, where we left thinking it was never going to change but it did.”
"Australians should be proud of what was achieved and the work our people did. There was a reason to be there and our people have changed many lives."
If this article has raised any concerns for you, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you are a current or ex-service member of the ADF or a family member of a veteran, you can access free and confidential 24/7 support from Open Arms — Veterans & Families Counselling on 1800 011 046. The Safe Zone support line (1800 142 072) is an anonymous support line also operated by Open Arms.
If you have other support needs, you can reach out to your closest RSL Sub-Branch or contact RSL Victoria’s Veteran Central service on 1300 MILVET (1300 645 838)