Lust Love Loss: Conversations is a three-part series produced by renowned broadcaster Megan Spencer that delves deep into stories of Australian wartime relationships. This episode follows the story of Julia and Jai Michel, who in the nine years they've known each other have spent three and a half living in the same place. Julia has navigated the trials and tribulations of organising a wedding, buying a house and weathering a pandemic all with limited communication to her husband. Listen as she unpacks life as a contemporary defence partner and explains how she kept her relationship going despite the distance while helping others do the same.
Speaker: Julia Michel
Actor: Jai Michel
'Children's Christmas party and messages to Vietnam 1968', Australian War Memorial Collection, Accession No. Accession No: F04721. Item copyright held by the Australian War Memorial ©, licensed under Creative Commons and used with kind permission.
‘Kentucky Fried Chicken - Hugo & Hill’ (1975, New Zealand) by Groove Myers. Reasonable attempts were made to identify the copyright owner of this audio material. If you have any information please contact Sue Burgess at the Shrine. Thank you to Grant Gillanders at Frenzy Music for his assistance.
Original ‘Lovestruck’ music by Philip Brophy.
Performed by Bill McDonald (bass), Dan Luscombe (guitars), Garrett Costigan (pedal steel), Sianna Lee (vocals) and Philip Brophy (drums).
Julia Michel for her time and the generous interview, and to Jai Michel.
Beck Rayner, producer of the Military Life community and podcast (formerly ‘Military Wife Life’) and founder of the National Defence Partner Round Table (Julia is a speaker in the October 15, 2021 edition).
The Shrine team: Leigh Gilbert, Tessa Occhino, Sue Burgess and Neil Sharkey, curator of the Lust Love Loss exhibition. See it at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne until November 2022.
The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Shrine of Remembrance.
If this interview raises any issues for you, please contact: Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14
MEGAN SPENCER: Welcome to this podcast exploring all facets of our wartime history.
The Shrine of Remembrance acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the traditional custodians of the land on which we honour Australian service people. And we pay our respects to Elder's past, present and emerging.
Hello, my name is Megan Spencer. And in this episode of The Lust Love and Loss podcast, you'll meet Julia Michel, a defence partner with a story sure to ring true in these tricky times of the pandemic.
JULIA MICHEL: So, my name is Julia Michel. I'm 28 years old. I was born in Sydney, but I grew up most of my life in Wagga Wagga in regional New South Wales. I’m currently located in Adelaide, and my husband is full time serving in the Australian Army in an infantry capacity.
MEGAN SPENCER: Julia and her husband Jai initially met through mutual friends around 10 years ago. Julia was then studying full time a double degree in law and behavioural sciences, and Jai, well, he was about to go on his first overseas deployment.
JULIA MICHEL: So, we met 10 days shy of his first deployment to Afghanistan, and that was in October 2012.
MEGAN SPENCER: Instantly attracted, they spent the next seven months getting to know each other by email, sending over 3000 emails to each other while they were apart.
JAI MICHEL READING MESSAGE: I watched Game of Thrones last night when I couldn't reach you. I love you and hopefully I will phone today.
JULIA MICHEL READING MESSAGE: I have heaps to tell you tonight. I miss you. Love you most.
MEGAN SPENCER: They married in October 2017, just after Jai returned from his second tour of Afghanistan. And as Julia found out, organising a wedding and buying your first home is no mean feat when your partner's deployed overseas with pretty limited communications.
JULIA MICHEL READING MESSAGE: Got your brother's RSVP for the wedding back
JAI MICHEL READING MESSAGE: I could not get through on Skype tonight. I just wanted to talk to you and bloody Skype wouldn't work for me.
JULIA MICHEL READING MESSAGE: I just finished my work for the weekend and boy do you need to see our house. I'm so excited for your leave in April so you can be home and hang out on the couch with me again.
MEGAN SPENCER: Julia and Jai have spent much of their relationship living apart in different cities or in MDWU, Member with Dependent Unaccompanied, as it's termed in defence.
JULIA MICHEL: Merry Christmas. And even though you're not home, I know this Christmas will find you surrounded by those you love and those who love you. Hope the beers suffice.
MEGAN SPENCER: She estimates that out of the nine or so years they've been together, they've only spent three and a half of them living in the same place.
JULIA MICHEL: I haven't slept well the past two nights. I miss you. I love you more. I can't wait for you to be home either.
MEGAN SPENCER: While by now make their home in South Australia, as a defence couple Julia and Jai share a very contemporary Victorian story. The onset of COVID in early 2020 brought their plans to live together in regional Victoria to a screeching halt after Jai was posted to Puckapunyal shortly before state borders closed due to the pandemic.
Working in Victoria on Operation COVID Assist, as you can imagine, it was a tough time for them both. And the longest time they'd spent apart, spending little more than two months together out of the 20 they were separated.
Really, yeah. grateful to you for saying yes to doing this interview.
JULIA MICHEL: No worries, I'm grateful to do it. It's such a privilege to be able to talk a bit more about defence partners.
MEGAN SPENCER: Phenomenally articulate and passionate about the rights of defence partners, Julia has an amazing story to tell about what it is to be a contemporary defence partner with the overlay of these challenging COVID times.
So here, Julia digs into how she and Jai have kept their relationship going. Amid the isolation and distance that defence life can bring a young couple today. She speaks from the heart and from deep lived experience.
So, when you and Jai first met, he told you he was about to deploy to Afghanistan, his first tour back in 2012. So, what went through your head when you found that out?
JULIA MICHEL: So, it's interesting because when I learned that we were actually at a pub at a mutual friend's birthday. We didn't know each other. But something just told me in the conversations we had had that night, which started over a comment about ethics, and I said something about don't talk to me about ethics. I've just done a year of studying them and if someone mentions them again, I've just done the final exam, I'm going to throttle the person or they're going to buy my next 10 rounds.
And he piped up and said, so you'd be familiar with Machiavellian ethics then. And so, the conversation went on from there for the evening. And so, when I learned that he was then 10 days shy of deployment, I knew enough from the conversation that we had had to know that it wasn't a line. And he also had the look about him that he was defence, you can usually tell by the haircut and build.
MEGAN SPENCER: Had you had much to do with defence or defence members prior to meeting Jai? Like was there anyone in your family who'd served? Had you been around it? Had you dated anyone from defence before?
JULIA MICHEL: No, I hadn't dated anybody from defence before. My own experience with defence was a friend that I had made in year 10. And some point during the year 11, he left, and his dad was a serving RAAF member. And I remember that he didn't integrate well at school as far as friends and so I knew enough about how defence kids slotted into the education system. But apart from that, I knew nothing else about defence other than a family connection from back in the day that my great grandfather had served in the war.
MEGAN SPENCER: So, was it love at first sight for you? Did you know that you were attracted to him? And did you think that you wanted to talk to him again or see him again.
JULIA MICHEL: Yeah, so for me, I actually knew like it was that love at first sight that before that, I just thought it was this concept, this throwaway tokenism thing that people talk about.
But I remember when I first saw him in the pub that night, we had just entered and we were walking across this hallway in there, and my friend had kind of waved him on the shoulder as we went by. And then we went around to the pool area room, and we were doing our own thing. And then it was much later on, about midnight, when we actually met and spoke for the first time. Once he said the thing about ethics and we got chatting, he then brought that round of drinks.
And I knew the next morning when I woke up that I just had to message him. And so that day went by, and he hadn't messaged me, and I had no further plans to see him again. I didn't even know when at that point his leave visiting his family, who are from Wagga as well, was over and when he was heading back to Adelaide. All I knew was the date that he had told me at the end of the month, roughly would be but I didn't know what date I didn't know if it was the start of November the end of October. I had no idea.
And I still wasn't questioning ‘Was it a lie?’ like yeah ‘Am I having my leg pulled here or what?’
MEGAN SPENCER: That he was deploying?
JULIA MICHEL: Yeah, that he was deploying. And so, I think two nights later, we went back into town, and I never go out with my friends. I'm always the person who didn't want to go out didn't want to drink, wasn't comfortable in the pub. And then I did not recognise him because he had a different colour shirt on that night. But he was in the pub that night with his friends again. And he was there with his brother this time. And I kind of pulled my friend to the side and said like ‘Is that Jai from two nights ago?’ and they went ‘Yeah, how do you not know that?’ and I'm like, I, I didn't have that much to drink, but I can't remember, he looks different.
And so, then we were chatting that night as well. And then from there, I sent him a text maybe a day or two before he was actually deploying. I sent him a text message to just say, from the conversation we had had, he said that he very much like the old-fashioned way of communicating pens and written letters and, and emails even.
So, I had texted him to say this is my email address, if you would like to keep in touch while you were deployed. And it was a bit longer than that everything that was in there, and I kind of rambled on and explained about how, you know, I just felt inclined to have to tell him this and, and to keep in contact and there was just some feeling that said I needed to do this. So, it's quite a long, funny text message. And he just texted me back his email. And that was it.
MEGAN SPENCER: So, he had you at Machiavelli.
JULIA MICHEL: He did, he did, I’ll never forget it.
MEGAN SPENCER: And your, I suppose your heart string, was quivering a little bit. There was some sort of attraction there. And it sounds like you weren't put off by the fact that you knew he was defence, and he was actually going overseas to Afghanistan.
JULIA MICHEL: Yeah, absolutely. It didn't put me off at all. I think largely because I had no experience with defence, I didn't know what it was. But I think in my mind, also, Afghanistan and that deployment wasn't going to have much of an effect on me at that point in time. In my mind, it wasn't a thought that crossed my mind.
Casually waiting for the news to start and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was on TV, there was a question about which Renaissance figure broke two titles? And I knew the answer because of you. And your Machiavelli, you told me about made me remember that being among the first thing she said to me, I hope you're having a good day.
MEGAN SPENCER: So, you really established your relationship, the two of you, didn't you, by email and the odd phone call, which is when you think about it, outside of defence, that sounds pretty tough.
JULIA MICHEL: Yeah, so it was really good, and we always credit our communication and strength with one another and how honest we are with one another, we credit it to that time of the first deployment where all we had was emails backwards and forwards. And I remember it wasn't long before, the emails would come in and we were in different time zones, obviously, he was over there, and I was in Sydney. So, his day was different to my day, and he's emails would come through at all hours of the night, which with a law students schedule and class and assignments and all-nighters was just, you know, I'd find myself spending an hour mulling over the response before I press send to respond.
But then, of course, he's not sitting behind the computer to respond back. But we did have those rare times where they were actually instantaneous exchanges, but it was very, very rare. But I think we ended up with a total of about three and a half thousand emails in that seven months. And the very first thing we did when he got back was jump onto a Skype video chat with one another, which just felt very surreal, because all I had had was emails and I had set a personalised ringtone so when they came through it was prioritised and sounded on my phone, like a text message, so I knew to drop what I was doing and respond to his email or read the email.
JULIA MICHEL READING MESSAGE: I didn't go to bed until 11. But I was awake. Skype just didn't sound loud enough for me to hear it.
JAI MICHEL READING MESSAGE: It's a shame I didn't catch you on skype tonight. I wanted to keep talking. I miss you heaps. I am glad that I get to speak to you though. I miss you. I love you very much.
JULIA MICHEL READING MESSAGE: I love you more.
JAI MICHEL READING MESSAGE: I can't wait to be home so we can just be together.
JULIA MICHEL READING MESSAGE: I can't wait for you to be home either.
MEGAN SPENCER? Did you kind of, did you, did you hanker to hear that sound come through. So you knew it was him, like was, was the heart fluttering increasing I suppose, over that time? And would hanker to hear that sound like? Like you might someone coming through the door at the end of the day, “Honey, I'm home”, was it a bit like that?
JULIA MICHEL: It was like that. And everybody in my life got to know his text message, so when my phone was on loud, and it came through. And I think it was Joey Tribbiani from Friends with “Hey, how you doing?”
JOEY TRIBBIANI AUDIO: Hey, how you doing?
JULIA MICHEL: So, everybody knew and there was no way to hide it, of course. And then so the worst thing to do was to have my phone on loud. But I needed my phone on loud in case he put a call through and, or in case the email came through, and I had it set for both. But obviously, he wasn't using his personal mobile from over there. So, it would come up if he rang private number. And I remember one time, I just popped out to the fridge, I was in the middle of a hectic assignment. I think I had 3000 words to go. And I just wanted a Pepsi Max. And my aunt and uncle were visiting from New Zealand, and I got caught up talking to her for two minutes in the kitchen. And I walked back and there was a missed call from a private number on my phone and I hadn't heard it ring from the other end of the house. And I immediately went out and I said to them, I get these intuition, gut feelings. And I walked out there, and I said, this missed call was Jai. And they said, ‘How do you know?’ and I said “I don't get private numbers calling. I just know it was him”. And then an email came through to say ‘’sorry, I missed you’’.
JULIA MICHEL READING MESSAGE: I didn't go to bed until 11. But I was awake. Skype just didn't sound loud enough for me to hear it. I haven't slept well the past two nights. I miss you a lot. I have not much company without you.
JAI MICHEL READING MESSAGE: How was your weekend? Same old here as usual. I tried to call you earlier but no luck.
JULIA MICHEL READING MESSAGE: I'm so annoyed. I walked in right as it stopped ringing. I thought straight away that better not have been Jai. Turns out, it was.
MEGAN SPENCER: So how does it feel when you miss a call from a loved one, thousands of kilometres away working in defence in a war zone? What is that feeling like? I imagine, well that you've just told us about that instance in the first deployment, I'm imagining that it might have happened in the second deployment as well. What's it like?
JULIA MICHEL: It's … you just have this instant sense of regret. And when you think about being a kid who's so excited to go to the Easter Show or something like that, and that trepidation feeling you can get it and, and like that nervous feeling where you might even have your hands shaking. That can be the physical representation, like that exact moment is how I felt if I saw a missed call, or I wasn't able to pick that call up, knowing, and every time it came up private number, you were so let down if that was a telemarketer on the other end instead, because to you private number means something different than the telemarketer
MEGAN SPENCER: Because you can't call him back, can you?
JULIA MICHEL: No, you can't. So, you’ve got to wait till he's free to call again. And we had an agreement in the second deployment that if I didn't answer he had time, then it was important for him to then dial somebody else’s number. So, when he went across to use the phone, he would take his notepad with him that had everyone's numbers in there. So sometimes, then I'd get a call from my parents to say “Oh, we just talked to Jai, he gave us a call”. Or it might be that he popped me an email to say he got through to my sister instead or something.
MEGAN SPENCER: Does it keep you up at night if you miss a call? I mean, he's deployed to a very dangerous war zone - he was then - and obviously on the second deployment too, did it keep you up at night if you did miss a call?
JULIA MICHEL: Yeah, absolutely. And I think you had a bit more peace of mind in 2017. We were there more in a training capacity by that stage. So, there was less wondering whether he was out walking around or in a vehicle and was there an IED? Obviously, you knew that those things still existed, you knew that people were still doing patrols, you knew that potentially, the base could get compounded by rockets or attack. But it just felt safer, knowing that he was more inside the confines of the base and there were very few times he was going to be outside of that base during that deployment. But it didn't make you sleep any more at night, like you were just laying there kicking yourself for missing that call.
MEGAN SPENCER: So, you're getting to know this person, you have feelings for them. And then you're becoming aware at the same time, just how dangerous that would have been in that first deployment. He was going outside of the base and deployed, wasn't he?
JULIA MICHEL: Yeah, he was. And I've got a few photos from that deployment and one of them shows him in his platoon and they're spread down a hill. And one of them is up on top, and he is being signalled to because he was the signaller for them at the time. So, he's being signalled to by his boss in the photo. And it was very surreal, because that photo depicts what I imagined Afghanistan to be like, which was to be an arid brown land.
And then I've got these other photos where he's on top of buildings. And you can just see the bluest sky you can imagine, and the greenest background you can imagine. And I was like, I've never seen grass, that vibrant green, like never, and I didn't expect it in the photos. So, they contrast each other quite well in those two photos. And then I have another photo from his first deployment and he's carrying a box, and it's of soccer balls. And there's a kid off to the bottom of the picture. And it's our army going in and delivering soccer balls to the local school and kids.
And so that's quite a different thing to know that they were out on an operation and their mission was to do that rather than a patrol. And obviously, they’d had to do patrols as part of completing that and getting to the location and getting back to the base from there. But you didn't know what to expect it and those are the few things I know from the deployment. Just based on what the photos depict for that deployment. I largely know nothing else if what happened.
MEGAN SPENCER: That must be tough though, not knowing, the not knowing…
JULIA MICHEL: It's tough not knowing where he was at what time. I remember that that kept me very much awake at night wondering “Was he safe? How long is it going to go for? Are they going to get pinned down by fire, what what's going on?” And then I remember when he got back, it just all didn't matter. And that sounds really horrible to say, because obviously for the people of Afghanistan, and what we're seeing playing out now in 2021, like to put that out of your mind, but knowing that that was swirling around in his brain, and I think it was easier back then because we were still apart. So as much as I would talk to him during the day, it was about what was happening in those days. How was your day? How are you? What are plans? What's leave looking like? What can we do?
And we would talk a lot about my studies and things to do. So, it wasn't so much defence conversations. He really liked to leave his workday at work. And that was that.
JULIA MICHEL: ”Hey, you, how have you been glad to get back to your friends and company? I barely had my phone all week. I ring up just this morning about my service not working out a little call the other night totalled $590. And because of call of that scale is so unusual on my account, it red flagged in their system, and they froze my service in case my phone had been stolen. It was really nice to hear your voice.
MEGAN SPENCER: You're listening to the Lust Love and Loss podcast for the Shrine of Remembrance. My name is Megan Spencer, and my guest today is defence partner Julia Michel. And yes, you heard right, one phone call Julia was able to make to her husband Jai during deployment number one wound up costing her a lot of money. He was on leave in the UK, and it was her very first international phone call. She thought she had the credit to cover it.
JULIA MICHEL: And it was midnight my time when that call took place. My grandmother said to me when I went out around lunchtime the next day of my room, she said, “I swear I heard you up talking all night” and I said “Yes, I was talking to Jai for 10 hours last night.”
And so, around about a month later, my phone bill came in. And I learned how expensive international phone calls were because that one had cost me $600.
MEGAN SPENCER So was that on your mobile?
JULIA MICHEL: Yeah, it was on my mobile. And I remember when I told Jai “I learned how expensive that phone call was today. It was $600.” And the funny thing was he immediately said, “Let me pay for that.”
MEGAN SPENCER: Oh, wow. Well, that's kind of love right there, isn't it?
JULIA MICHEL: It is. So, there were all sorts of things we're talking about. And then he was updating me on how the UK and his trip was, things he wanted to do when he got home and what that transition as far as what he could share home would be like, I don't know, the 10 hours felt like it went by, and it was only a blink of an eye.
MEGAN SPENCER: A 10-hour phone call. I don't think I know anyone who's made a 10-hour phone call. I reckon that's pretty romantic. And have you kept the bill?
JULIA MICHEL: I do I still have the physical copy of the bill that was sent to me, yes, in the treasure trove of memories.
MEGAN SPENCER: Could she say without blushing, and without embarrassing Jai, who's not here, what you love about him?
JULIA MICHEL: So, I think the first thing that I connected with was, this is someone that I can actually have a genuine conversation with. At the time we met a lot of my friends. Some of them were studying teaching, but they were still on a different level. To me, I was the person who got their first kindergarten report at school, and it said she takes life too seriously. And I'd always been that person ever since. And people read me as quite standoffish because I have such a serious approach to life. And I guess that's what led me to law as well. So, the first thing that drew me to him was, this is somebody who's got morals, ethics, values, strong held beliefs. But this is also somebody who will know what persistence is, will know what it means to go the distance as well.
And then second to that would be his nature as well. To this day, so we're approaching nine years together this October, and he still says, you know, “Is all of the housework done before I jump on to my computer and play a game?” And then he'll say, “would you like a cup of tea before I do that?” And then as he comes out to top up his beer, or his cup of tea, he'll again ask me that, and it's not something I've ever had to ask him for.
MEGAN SPENCER: So, he's doing the housework. Is that what you're saying?
JULIA MICHEL: Yeah, and that was another thing for him. So, he had saved, all those years he'd been working before me and he's four years older than I am, he had saved that money. And I remember when we moved in together, he said to me, “Take it and set the house up for life. That's what it was for.” I always knew I'd have to set up for a house because lived on base all that time. So, when we lived together for the first time, that was his first house, that was his first need to get his own vehicle, and to have all those things like insurances.
So, he had kind of said, buy what you need to if you need $1,000 in Tupperware, get $1,000 in Tupperware, if you want a $300 saucepan, because that's going to go the distance for two or three years, then that's what you get. And he custom ordered a lot of our furniture, which in recent years, and being home alone, and COVID, and borders, and just me here, I look around and I'm satisfied at home, and I’m in lovely surroundings and to walk out to one of those rooms in the evening just gives me a little bit of joy in my day and holding on to that really does get you through.
MEGAN SPENCER: So, it sounds to me as if you found someone who's really on your team, on your side. Would Is that a fair observation?
JULIA MICHEL: Yeah, absolutely. It's I never have to worry about whether he's got my six and I know that he's never had to worry about whether I've got his back.
MEGAN SPENCER: Adversity has also brought Julia and Jai closer together. Another thing Julia told me was that in the first couple of years of their relationship, both she and Jai rushed to be by each other's sides after injury. In Christmas 2014, Julia broke her ankle and was wheelchair bound in Wagga. Jai came and took care of her through that time, then, almost a year later, the exact same injury happened to Jai
JULIA MICHEL: Almost a year to the day since I had done it, he suffered the same injury. It was his third time with that particular injuries, which forced an ankle reconstruction. So it was kind of ironic and a little bit bitter sweet at the same time, because then the role was reversed. I was thrown into my first care as capacity for him as an injured serviceman.
MEGAN SPENCER: So, you jumped on a plane from Sydney and took care of him for several months. Is that right?
JULIA MICHEL: That's right. So, I suspended my term at university and deferred my exams till February of 2016. And then I went back for my end of semester exams in the February of 2016. And then that was it, I packed up my car. And then my family lived five hours down in Wagga from Sydney. So, I stopped there overnight. And then the next day departed again to come back to Adelaide. And that was that. I was unable to finish my law degree because I couldn't transfer out at that point. It was too late. I was in my fifth or sixth year of study.
And then after two years went by, it just went by the wayside with everything else that had happened with defence life after 2016
JAI MICHEL READING MESSAGE: I couldn't get good Wi Fi until now. You're my favourite person, I reckon when you get this email in the morning the puppies will be in bed.
JULIA MICHEL READING MESSAGE: I miss you too. These dogs are not interested in being in their own bed.
MEGAN SPENCER: Julia and I met to do this interview in September 2021, quite literally the day after Jai had come out of the home quarantine that she did with him after his 20-month Victorian deployment also working on COVID-19 Assist. It was an emotional and long-awaited reunion.
Their Furbabies Charlie and Freya, a Lab Healer and Kelpie respectively, were also pretty stoked to have the family back together again.
So, I feel like yours and Jai’s story, Julia, is quite a contemporary one in that you're a young couple and your relationship has been impacted by COVID 19. The last posting that Jai had from Adelaide, to Victoria, Puckapunyal, he went over in January 2020. You went over and settled him in. You came back, you had an idea that you might work over there.
JULIA MICHEL: Yeah, so the idea was I worked from home and at that stage I didn't know whether I was going to be in that role long term through the whole posting, but we also knew the posting was two years not three years and that he was most likely coming back to Adelaide. So that factored into my decision to do Member with Dependent Unaccompanied, so he goes to Puckapunyal, and I stayed here in the house that we owned. And in that time, if I could go and visit him then I would work remotely from potentially his room on base or there is family housing on that base. So, we did have some friends that he made there, and I could have used the internet from their house to work remotely.
MEGAN SPENCER: So, you had plans … so he goes there, he's living there. It's early in 2020, and then COVID hit, borders close, and then Jai gets posted on Operation COVID-19 Assist, which means he's going to be pretty busy for the rest of the year. And you're not going to see much of each other.
JULIA MICHEL: Yeah, so there's a bit more that was going on at the time. But 100% it became about well, with these borders closed, how does he get back from there to here for a visit? Or how do I get down to him? A few other issues going on is, while he can return home on what you call the reunion travel, where they'll pay for his flight six times in every 12 months since you were separated, if I went to him to what you call reverse reunion travel, that's a fringe benefit. So, it counts as income at tax time for you. So, there's a bit of a financial implication there.
The second issue was we didn't know what his schedule was going to be, especially when COVID Assist came up. And currently COVID Assist is still if you're on that duty, it's roughly three months now that you're away. So, with that, if he came down, were they just going to rest? Were they going to redeploy on COVID Assist? And the thing is, while we turned on COVID Assist, we didn't necessarily turn off other taps. The ordinary day to day roles still exist. That work piled up and had to be done still.
MEGAN SPENCER: So how do you maintain romance in a long-distance relationship as per a deployment overseas, or indeed MWDU – Member with Dependent Unaccompanied. You stuck in one state, he's posted to another? How do you maintain that side of a relationship? Is it difficult?
JULIA MICHEL: It is difficult because obviously, you know, you've got to balance, you know what your needs are at any one time, you don't know what their needs are at any one time and, and things like that can just be knowing that somebody is there to hold your hand while you watch a movie. Or it could be that somebody is there to just give you that embrace and cuddle at the moment that you need it, and you don't have any of that. So, it is hard, and it's something that you have to work on. So, I think, to that, communication always plays into it, because you're not even going to have the romance if you can't communicate and be on the same page. So first and foremost, it's always about finding ways to communicate and make sure that you are on the same page. And then second to that, it's about finding ways to connect with each other while you are apart. So, whether that's instead of just your daily call or text message, it might be using a video chat at night to communicate instead. And that gives you more of that personal element as well. And then we used to do things like synchronised dinners. So, we actually know that it takes longer to drive from Puckapunyal base to KFC in Seymour, which is our favourite dinner.
And so, he would leave and when he was at KFC, I would then drive the four minutes from my house to my KFC, and we'd buy the same meal. And then we'd come back and video chat while we ate dinner.
JULIA MICHEL: And it's just learning to alter what that means when it's 1000s of kilometres separating you.
MEGAN SPENCER: That sounds pretty romantic to me, like intimate, I guess you know, you're bringing that person into your daily life and vice versa. And you were doing this pre COVID before Zoom dinner parties were a thing as well.
JULIA MICHEL: Yeah, so a lot of people used to joke about it, like were used to the distance so lockdown didn't affect defence families as much. You don't really get used to the distance; you learn to cope through the distance. But just because we knew it, it didn't mean that we were any more resilient to that. And that was something that in the last two years, when that comment was said, and it was said to me multiple times.
MEGAN SPENCER: What exactly was said to you?
JULIA MICHEL: So, you'd have comments like “Well, you chose this lifestyle, you have to take responsibility for your separation from your husband.” And that was actually said to me by a part of defence, because you chose MWDU. And I was injured in that two years. Effectively, I had two broken arms, I had blown all three tendons in both arms. I had inflammation right up to and I still have the inflammation today into my spine where the tendons originate. And I had a ruptured Bursar in each wrist, which is the sack of fluid in the joint bones between the hand and wrist.
And I had to navigate that on my own -I didn't have any family here. I didn't have any friends. I didn't have anyone to ask for help. And I worked from home. So, you know if I fell over in, hit my head and had a concussion, or I was unconscious, I didn't have anybody who knew to come and check on me. And when people said that it really rubbed salt in the wounds because people don't understand the sacrifices, why you made the decision to go MWDU, which was it shortened his posting from three years to two years.
The commute for me would have been from Puckapunyal to Melbourne - 90 minutes one way every day and that's assuming I drove. Did I have the ability to transfer my job or not? And what was the gap in superannuation earnings? And I'd already given up my law degree. And I didn't resent him for that. And I don't regret it to this day. I made the decisions I made, and they were the right decisions and always will be. But we carry with us the burden off that HEX debt that was almost capped out at the right. And if anybody knows what that rate is, you'll know how expensive that is.
So, we're still paying that off. I've got a six-year gap in Super already, because I was at Uni and then didn't go on to that higher earning role. So those are all decisions that go into it. It's not just that you choose MWDU, there's not these magical benefits in the background at all. It actually costs you more financially to be a defence family and move around. Because even when you move, not every single one of your costs is covered by the disturbance allowance that is given to you.
JAI MICHEL READING MESSAGE: Yet again, nothing much has changed here. Just working and watching movies. What have you been up to the last few days? I've been trying to send an email for a while, but the internet has not been working all that well. I've been thinking of you.
JULIA MICHEL READING MESSAGE: Here are pictures of the garden so you can show people. I am glad I had leave as well. Today, I got two new indoor plants. I miss you a lot. I love you most. Start thinking of vows or we will run out of time.
MEGAN SPENCER: The uncertainty that goes along with defence life when you're in a family unit or in a couple, I think is pretty disruptive and pretty at the centre of the life, it can be, it must make planning, super difficult. Family Planning difficult. All these big things, but not only big things, little daily things too can just go sideways because of defence life. Would you mind speaking to the uncertainty that that does go to the heart of it?
JULIA MICHEL: Yes. So, it, it's complete uncertainty. It's for us at the moment, he's come back only now a little bit earlier than this posting was due to finish because he's injured, and they've brought him home so that I can assist him with the care and recovery while he rehabs from that. But it still carries with it the uncertainty of as you say family planning. So, for us, we're at that stage of life where we wanted to have our house renovated by now. We wanted to start trying for our first child together. And now we've been thrown this other curveball. And so, we don't know what that looks like now, you know is that the right time? Do we get this injury out of the way? They're potentially saying if he can't rehab out of this through physio alone, that he will be facing another surgery. So there's just this constant element of uncertainty, the same way as we had uncertainty when he was in Puckapunyal and I was in Adelaide and the border is closing, opening, closing, opening, closing, are you going to be given compassionate grounds to move? If you waited until the end of 2021, for the posting was that still going to be available to defence to get an exception for him to cross the border and come home? As it stands, those moves are all suspended now. So, it's just a constant uncertainty. When's that next call coming through out of the blue to say a deployment is on?
And Afghanistan has just wound down. And now really the deployments that you will see are to COVID Assist. They are the Navy going out on deployments, there won't be as many deployments like his previous ones to Afghanistan in his immediate future. But he'll still have training, he still goes out field, and that's what we call when they're not at home and coming home every night, they might be four hours away at one of our training centres. And they might be out there for six weeks. And in the course of a year, if you add up all of those little times and courses and duty evenings, it's seven and a half to eight months of the year that they are away just training to do the job before they get sent on extra deployments like COVID assist.
(HISTORICAL AUDIO OF 'Children's Christmas party and messages to Vietnam 1968')
MEGAN SPENCER: So, it strikes me, like we talk a lot about sacrifice when it comes to our military and it's usually to do with the personnel who are enlisted. It strikes me there's also an awful lot of sacrifice that comes with being a defence partner, spouse, wife, girlfriend and, you know, family. What do you think about that?
JULIA MICHEL: I think the cost is more significant than it need be. I think that that is because the policies haven't kept up with the current needs of defence families. I think more times than not, the policies don't account for the fact that there's a family behind the member. But I think that is the problem too. We talk about a family behind the member. We're not behind the member, we're alongside the member, we’re with them hand in hand while they go through this life. So, my husband likes to say that it's thrust upon you as the partner, because they signed up to the uniform. And in a lot of instances, they did that potentially before we even met. And so, you might come into it, and I certainly came into it, very naive as to what that price was, what the sacrifices were. And while I don't regret them, they are heavy. And they are bigger than they should be. And it is because the policies haven't kept up with the times.
(HISTORICAL AUDIO OF 'Children's Christmas party and messages to Vietnam 1968')
JULIA MICHEL: It is because when we turn on an operation like COVID assist that requires rapid three months deployments, and then you might be there for three months, and it might get extended, and you've got to stay for four months. The tap for other operations isn't being turned off at the same time. So, it's very much like they can get back from that three months on a Friday and they can be gone again on another course Monday morning. And for our family in particular, that's what happened in this year. So, he was away for 11 weeks at the beginning of the year. He went interstate to New South Wales for course up at Singleton. He came back for two weeks, he left again on another course for another month. He came back for a week, he went on another outfield trip to assist with other people's training this time. He was out there for three days and then had two days back at work that week. And then he had to go out for I think it was another week. And it was very much a Friday gone again Monday. And it's only really at this point of September in 2021 now that he's actually just had two weeks stand down. And that's only because we had to do home quarantine now that he's returned.
MEGAN SPENCER: So, two weeks stand down means two weeks, he's here at home every night, you get to see him in person every day.
JULIA MICHEL: That's right. And yet first time he's had that, since mid-January when he returned to work this year.
JAI MICHEL READING MESSAGE: I really enjoyed my time at home, it was exactly what I needed. I still have a smile on my face from leave. I'm glad you only had to work the one day as I don't think my leave would have been as relaxing if you haven't been with me most of the time because you are working. I think that I'll adjust well when I come home for good. And I just need to focus a little better on the routine at home. So don't leave stuff for you to do that I should be doing myself. I love you the most.
MEGAN SPENCER: So, the obvious next question, forgive me for being obvious, but it needs to be asked, is how do you cope with this emotionally? Because we are emotional beings. How do you cope especially given the isolation that you've been in? Interstate, your family doesn't live here, you would have had to I guess make new friends, colleagues, etc. How do you cope with that separation? How do you, how do you get through?
JULIA MICHEL: So, in recent years, the first three years that we were together, study. I had no choice. I had deadlines that kept you on task, it meant you had something to do. And when your brain wandered, you had to bring it back to what the task was. And then again, that was something I was able to share with him. So, if he was around, I could email him, he could be my proof-reader of assignments and I could bounce things off of him. And sometimes he led me quite astray wanting to say, “Oh, well, you could make this argument or that argument” and I'm like “No, no, no, no.”
MEGAN SPENCER: Pipe down, Machiavelli
JULIA MICHEL: Pipe down, Machiavelli. I wish I had thought of saying that to him. I'm definitely going to say it from here on out!
After that we had his rehab out of the reconstructive surgery, and we were adjusting to life together and we had two puppies and they needed to be trained. And then I was re-establishing and trying to put in place for myself some career management and what I was going to do, so that took us up to 2017. And then through deployment while he was absent, I had to move out of the rental but buy a house and the market was quite competitive in Adelaide at the time. It took me months, and I ended up buying this house after begging the agent and overpaying the price as well, to sell it to me off market before it went to open house on the Saturday, and he didn't want to, and I had to beg him to do that. And then I had the removal. And I had the wedding planning at the same time.
I was busy, I was absolutely flat out. And it's not something that I like to say, “Oh, well you just keep busy, and you just get through,” because the problem with that is it glamorises the burnout, and the burnout of us as defence partners and on the Homefront, it's not acknowledged that exists. So, I don't like to say “Oh, well, you just keep busy”. But when I think about it, it's what I did up until 2018. So, 2018, he came home, I was in the middle of organising and I was still moving furniture around and restyling rooms here and I was drawing up the plans for which paint and everything. And that really brought me through to 2019. And then I think that that had always helped me cope.
And when the borders closed in March for the first time of 2020, my mental health took a big hit. And then I've resisted the urge to need to get any help for that or, or to admit that it was happening. And when I knew that I was going into black holes in other years, it was something that I was able to talk to Jai about. And it was really odd, I think everything that was going on in the second deployment, I didn't feel like I was in a black hole even when I moved to this house on my own, I was so focused on setting it up for him to come home to and so invested in his excitement that that got me through.
JULIA MICHEL READING MESSAGE: Here's another house for you to look at, good price and offer suitable. Another house to see but it's in Salisbury. Take a look at this other house. I found the new lounge we need.
JULIA MICHEL: But 2020 and 2021 got harder as it went on. So, the first lockdown was one thing, no one had any idea how long it was going to last. But it was enough to say like, well, if something happens to me or something happens to him now, we don't even meet the compassionate grounds for travel. To that we had the added problem that defence had said “Well, that's your problem. We're not going to ask for exemptions like the NRL and AFL are. If those employers want to step up and do that, that's fine. But we feel like that's political and it's not something that defence can do.” That was heavy. I didn't know what to do with that. That angered me. And as a defence partner, I've always been told that my anger around what's happened in my lived experience, the sacrifices, the non-acknowledgement, the inability to have a voice as a defence partner to drive those policy and changes our non-participation. We don't get to co design policies or systems that are there to support us, which is ironic. And I've always been told that my anger about those things was misplaced, and that it's a bad thing. But for me, my anger reinvigorates me. It makes me bounce out of bed in the morning and go. I'm going to use the voice that I've got, I'm going to get involved where I can, I'm going to lend a hand where I can and support where I can. And in particular, I'm doing that for defence families and defence partners who are just like me
(HISTORICAL AUDIO OF 'Children's Christmas party and messages to Vietnam 1968')
MEGAN SPENCER: So, it strikes me listening to Julia speak at the ripe old age of 29, that she's part of a long lineage of Australian Defence partners that spans back over 120 years to the early days of what we now call the Australian Defence Force, sharing similar experiences and tribulations that others have through the wars Australian service personnel have historically been involved in, especially when it comes to overseas deployment. Do you ever feel part of that kind of lineage that you're, you're another defence partner who's experiencing all of these things over this amount of time?
JULIA MICHEL: You do, it’s something that's continued to evolve. And it's continuing to evolve today for families and partners, and you do remember Legacy and this week was Legacy week just gone by. And you remember that this all started back in the day with war. And we lost lives in Afghanistan. Now, we have lives still put at risk. And just because you're training doesn't mean you're safe - we have lost a number of personnel and we lost two recently on a training exercise here on our own home soil. And it makes you remember, the widows. There were mass widows back in the day. And that's one of the reasons Legacy started. And the thing that I admire the most about Legacy was Legacy started because returned servicemen took up the duty of care for the widows and the children. And I think it would be great today. It's not that our members don't support us, my husband is one of the greatest supporters, he's always got my back. But we need a return to the support being based more around the family's inclusion. One of the things that Legacy has done so great is that they’ve kept that connection for our widows and our children. And I'd like to see a return more to that for the contemporary families who are serving. I think that's fallen by the wayside a lot and understandably, with what's happened in the last 30 to 40 years and the increasing exercises and demands and absences. And people post now more than ever. But that's what I really lust to see is a return to all of us being connected like that.
(HISTORICAL AUDIO OF 'Children's Christmas party and messages to Vietnam 1968')
MEGAN SPENCER: So, it really it sounds like we on Civvy street need to ask more questions and listen more. And maybe if we do, defence, families might feel more confident in sharing their experiences. so we all get to know how this rolls. Does that sound like a doable formula?
JULIA MICHEL: It sounds like a doable formula. And I think it starts with being able to reach out to every defence family and let them know that it's okay to have that identity, to say we are a defence family. And I think the best thing that will come from that is our integration to Australia so that as we post around the country, we fit in, we integrate. We're not hermits in our own shells in our own house, keeping to ourselves. And then when something's up, you won't have to put your hand up and struggle to ask for help. Because you'll have people there and arms ready to wrap around you to provide that support that you need to embrace you when you need, and you'll always have that sense of safety
MEGAN SPENCER: So, when Jai returns from deployment, when he comes home from him MWDU, when you're together, how does that feel? When you're the couple, the unit, together?
JULIA MICHEL: It's amazing. It's very surreal to go and do your groceries when they have mean there to push the trolley and suddenly you keep thinking “Oh, I’ve left my trolley behind”. But no, they're behind you and they’re pushing the trolley or just knowing that he'd go out and buy a bag of soil at Bunnings you don't have to lift that 15 litres anymore because somebody else is going to lift it for
MEGAN SPENCER: Or text a photo to his phone somewhere else to say is this the right soil?
JULIA MICHEL: Yeah, and again, like very surreal, like how do you get the ratio of pasta, or more importantly rice for two as opposed to one? That is not something I did well after 20 months of not doing it. There was a lot of rice cooked.
MEGAN SPENCER: And just circling all the way back to, to love, you've been through so much. There's so much responsibility that comes with being in a defence relationship. There's the sacrifice that we spoke about. There are just, there's all the bureaucratic or admin side of things, there's the uncertainty. But if we circle all the way back to you know, the reason you kind of got together in the first place and that that love part of it, there must be something really big that makes it all worth it, that drives this relationship and keeps you guys together.
JULIA MICHEL: I think it's our care for one another. So, you spend so long apart from one another. And you grieve that normal life in that time. And then you remember some of the reasons you might be MWDU. In that it works better for your family. It's two years and you get to maintain your career. And it's not another sacrifice. Or it could be that you get to keep renovating the house that you own, and he's invested in that at the same time and that keeps you connected as well. You still feel like you're making progress on something. And so then, when they're home, neither party has to do that grieving. You just mould back into who you were together, what you've longed to be for so long. If you are feeling resentful when you are apart, you've only got to remember what homecoming is like, what reintegration is like. And it's not that it's not work because it is work, but it's about how you get to work together again. And that draws you closer to each other because you're so reliant on each other through reintegration that that's pulling you together anyway, rather than making you work against one another.
MEGAN SPENCER: What doesn't kill you makes you closer. I think we're going to rewrite that.
JULIA MICHEL: Absolutely. And I love that, because people will say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. And it's not true. In my experience, what doesn't kill you, brings you closer.
MEGAN SPENCER: Lust Love and Loss is a podcast produced by me, Megan Spencer for The Shrine of Remembrance. Speaking today was defence partner Julia Michel. You also heard the voice of her husband Jai Michel and their lovable Furbabies Charlie and Freya. Many thanks to Julia for the generous interview, and to Jai and Julia for taking part.
JAI MICHEL READING MESSAGE: Did all your things go well today? I haven't done anything worth mentioning today, just work stuff. Apparently, there is a photo of me in the Facebook page of Joint Task Force 633. I had really good lasagne for lunch.
MEGAN SPENCER: Julia is the founder of the Defence Partners and Carers Support Group on Facebook. Her blog is The Home Post AU.
Thanks also to Philip Brophy for the original music, Kris Keogh for mastering, to the Australian War Memorial for the archival sound to the Shrine team. And to Beck Rayner, founder of the fantastic Military Life podcast, find it at military life.com.au.
All reasonable attempts were made to identify the owner of the Kentucky Fried Chicken Hugo and Holly 1975 ad audio by Groove Myers. Please contact the Shrine if you have any information about that. Thanks to Grant Gillanders at Frenzy Music for his assistance.
The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Shrine of Remembrance.
If this interview has raised any issues for you, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Open Arms on 1800 011 046.
The Lust Love Loss exhibition is on at the Shrine of Remembrance until November 2022. My name is Megan Spencer. Thanks for listening. Speak to you again next time.
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Reviewed 14 February 2022