Opportunities for decentralised & informal care to our Veterans & our Wounded, Injured and Ill
‘The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them’
In the lead up to Christmas 2016, the B Squadron 3rd/4th Cavalry Regiment Veteran’s Community was rocked by the untimely death of AA; a popular ‘Stinger’ and veteran of multiple operational deployments. Back in 2011, in the lead up to deployment to southern Afghanistan with 2nd Battalion the Royal Australian Regiment (Mentoring Task Force Three), AA was both a dominant personality and an unmissable junior non-commissioned officer, who soldiers both admired and were intimidated by. On deployment, AA was a brave and popular soldier who served as crew commander of the lead Protected Mobility Vehicle. He was involved in numerous enemy engagements across his eight month tour; and was lost to us before his time was due.
Word of AA’s passing spread quickly across social media. Veterans, friends and family members grieved and mourned his loss. And while the nature and circumstances of his passing are not relevant to this blog and indeed are private and not widely known, it is beneficial to revisit his loss as it served to be a catalytic event from which much good has since come. Impetus was established for veterans of this deployment to reconnect more closely for the purpose of keeping our remaining mates safe.
Following informal discussions, a closed Facebook group was established and momentum was gained to reunite, reconnect and then conduct what was a highly successful first ReUnion for veterans and their families, in early December 2017. The ReUnion was conducted in the Surfers Paradise Returned and Services League (RSL) Club, and proved to be an exceptional venue.
The purpose of this blog is to share my experiences, and the experiences of others who participated in and so overwhelmingly benefitted from, attending this Veteran’s ReUnion. Secondly, I will share my own dealings with the RSL – who provide a range of support services which are of great utility to contemporary veterans. It is my contention that these support services provided by the RSL are largely unknown, and certainly under-utilised. Addressing this deficiency is the driving purpose in writing this blog.
The Returned and Services League (RSL)
‘There are ‘pokies’ there, but the RSL Club is far more than just pokies’
A cursory view of the Returned and Services League of Australia website will identify that the purpose of the RSL is to “help veterans and their families by offering care, financial assistance and advocacy, along with commemorative services that help all Australians remember the Fallen.” But like yy of Australia’s modern veterans; my personal knowledge, understanding and engagement with the RSL was, until very recently, minimal. I had attended RSLs in the past, usually on ANZAC Day, not more than a handful of times. And I was aware of the erroneous perception amongst many younger veterans that the RSL was about pokies, and old people, with little relevance to the younger generation.
This changed in 2016 when duties relating to my employment at the Warrant Officer and Non-Commissioned Officer Academy increased my engagement with representatives of RSL Queensland. I subsequently became a member. As a serving officer, my membership was without financial cost to me. But on reflection, I believe that my delay in establishing a relationship with the RSL attracted an adverse opportunity cost in that until recently I was unaware of the very many services that the RSL provides, which may be of utility to contemporary veterans I maintain contact with.
When engaging with appointment holders from the RSL, I found good people who were eager to connect with our younger veterans. Indeed, these appointment holders were eager for younger veterans to have greater say in those services which are financially supported by the RSL.
‘Ask not what the RSL may do for you; consider what you may achieve for veterans by working as an appointment holder in the RSL’
Opportunity exists for motivated younger veterans to nominate for official appointments within RSL sub-branches. This would then allow these motivated people to establish a business case to seek funding for initiatives which would benefit the veteran’s community in a particular geographic catchment.
In my dealings with the RSL, I found an organisation that was open to funding good ideas, provided that efficient and effective use of available monies was established, appropriately documented in writing, and included written receipts for all expenses to facilitate subsequent auditing.
Veteran’s Health and Well Being Partnerships
A quick snapshot of support services provided by RSL Queensland follows. Further information can be gained from accessing this hyperlink – support services;
- mental health support
- emergency financial assistance
- bereavement assistance for Defence families who have lost loved ones
- help with compensation claims through the Department of Veteran’s Affairs
- referrals to peer support groups and other specialist services
- visiting the sick, injured and lonely in hospital and/or their homes
- short term crisis accommodation
- subsidised longer term housing solutions.
In addition to these services, I received traction and financial support from the RSL to assist with offsetting some of the financial costs associated with conducting the 9 December 2017 Veteran’s ReUnion for “B Squadron Mentoring Task Force 3 / B3/4 Stingers”, a deliberately inclusive group which opened itself to those who may have benefitted through their attendance.
The fee for venue hire was waived by the Surfers Paradise RSL, and money received from the RSL Gold Coast District office assisted to cover food expenses for the evening. Money received from the RSL also paid for the security guard which was required for a gathering of greater than 50 persons at the RSL.
Most significantly, money received from the RSL allowed us to reduce the travel and accommodation costs for several attendees who flew in from interstate to attend the ReUnion. This allowed the parents, and sibling, of a deceased member to attend. It also allowed some in financial hardship to attend. Without the benevolent support of the RSL, the Veteran’s ReUnion would not have been the success that it was.
The Case for ReUnions – What we must learn from Vietnam Veterans
Many years ago, a mentor of mine shared with me his experience with ReUnions, and their paramount importance in helping to ‘keep our mates safe’. JR was a junior infantry officer who served multiple tours during the Vietnam War. JR mentioned to me that at about the five-year mark, large numbers of the company had gone ‘off the grid’ and failed to attend organised ReUnions.
The response by veterans at the time was to come together to conduct a ‘clearing patrol’ across Australia and up into South East Asia. I understand that former soldiers were located and assisted out of some dire circumstances; including living rough (homeless), becoming mixed up with criminal elements and bikie gangs, and worse.
As the story went, well-meaning veterans were able to locate and assist their former wartime mates out of seemingly intractable situations and assist them re-connect with their peer group, their families who many had become estranged from, and to Australian society; more broadly.
Of the “B Squadron Mentoring Task Force 3 / B3/4 Stingers”, some are still serving. Many more have transitioned; voluntary separation at the conclusion of their return of service obligation, or involuntary separation for a variety of reasons which included being medically unsuitable for continued service. Some had experienced trouble with the law. At least one had spent time in prison, while others had experienced a variety of difficulties including challenges reintegrating with society, with family or securing paid employment. Some had spent time living rough on the streets with no fixed residential address. Others had contemplated or actually attempted suicide.
The life-path of some of these soldiers proved to be an impediment, of sorts, to some soldiers attending the ReUnion. Some felt embarrassed and ashamed of their circumstances. Others were terrified about the reception they may have received. It took a lot of effort from some influential soldiers in the peer group and one very influential current serving senior non-commissioned officer to engage bilaterally and to the collective on the Facebook group to encourage them to attend in spite of their reservations.
Approximately 80 people attended the evening which was universally seen as a great success. The tone, support and sheer humanity in the room; was powerful. It is hoped that this number will rise on subsequent iterations and that we will be able to connect with some of our former team members who are presently seen as being vulnerable and at risk.
The Surfers Paradise RSL – A Tremendous Venue for a ReUnion
A junior soldier, who is still serving, did a tremendous job in chairing the Veteran’s ReUnion Committee. MM was responsible for the conduct of the night, which was far more than an opportunity to relive or embellish ‘past glories’ in an alcohol fuelled haze of an evening. Families were invited and many spouses attended. Alcohol was responsibly consumed and no-one lost control of their behaviour. Influential soldiers and non-commissioned officers, past and still serving, set the tone for the success of the night.
A series of guest speakers provided complementary accounts of challenges faced by veterans and some of the support services which are available to provide them with help. Mr Tony Dell, from Stand Tall 4 PTS attended and spoke on the evening. As did representatives from an RSL Queensland initiative; the association of Veteran Surfers.
The broad intent of this tremendous surfing initiative is to get veterans who may be that way inclined out together, on the water, and in nature. In between catching waves, they can sit on their boards and talk about issues which may be on their mind. Simply discussing life’s challenges is an important step in the right direction. After all, ‘a problem shared is a problem halved.’ The reason I like this initiative so much is that it seeks to separate blokes talking about their issues from late-night drinking sessions at the pub—the traditional precondition for Australian males to loosen their tongues, talk about their stuff; and forget it ever happened (talking about their stuff) by the morning.
I believe that changing this behaviour is important – or at least should be discussed …. I recall a story from another Vietnam Veteran who I came into contact with earlier this year at a function I attended in an official capacity at the RSL. NR mentioned that prior to deploying to Vietnam, some Korean / World War II Veterans advised him and his mates that, over there; “you will see some stuff which you will not like … the best thing to do is to bury it in your mind. To forget it ever happened.”
While I freely admit to no psychological credentials whatsoever, to me the lunacy of this position was self-apparent; and history has shown the cost such advice wrought, in part, on this generation of servicemen.
‘Talking about your service is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness.’
I believe that modern veterans are better at discussing their issues than previous generations may have been. For mine, war exposes one to traumatic events. This traumatic event may commence as a fire-cracker in the mind/sub-conscious of the person who was exposed. And if managed, this fire cracker may be diffused and rendered safe. But if this fire-cracker (or worse), is neglected or buried, it can grow in intensity to derail a person at a subsequent inopportune time (perhaps when other work / life pressures begin to weigh).
Enter what I believe to be an important indirect role of the RSL. Similar to an earlier blog I wrote on the important role of the Officer’s Mess, your local RSL is more than ‘bricks and mortar.’ It is far more than a ‘bar and pokies’. The RSL is an institution which can cater for gatherings of former service personnel, and connect you to a variety of support services.
But I digress … other speakers at the Veteran’s ReUnion included a representative from Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service. Several veterans from the tour also spoke of how they had overcome real hardship; and then got on with their lives. This was an important message to many others in attendance, who are presently faced with a variety of real-world challenges.
‘I know that look in a Veteran’s eyes. I have been there. Come on mate; let me help walk you back from the Abyss.’
Mr Dion Jensen, Success for Soldiers
At the time of writing this Blog, board members of the Surfers Paradise RSL are associated with the Gold Coast Property Council. When requested by members of the organising committee, codes were made available for Veterans to book accommodation, at reduced cost, to the benefit of them and their families.
In all, the Gold Coast proved to be an exceptional venue for the ReUnion. Veterans could fly in to one of two nearby airports (Brisbane and Gold Coast) which both have several options for transit to the Gold Coast. A variety of accommodation options are available at different price points and there are numerous activities for veterans and their families; that do not centre on the consumption of booze. The best way to reduce the cost of attending Gold Coast theme parks is to walk down the Cavill Avenue Mall and speak with ticket providers – which is cheaper than when booking online.
One word of warning, any ReUnion should be de-conflicted in time from the annual Schoolies period, which our ReUnion was.
As the Australian Army approaches the 20th Anniversary of our operations in East Timor—a point in time which has seen a ramping up of operational tempo which to this date has not abated—it is proper for veterans, whether current serving or separated from Army, to give consideration to reinvigorating those linkages with our former colleagues which the passing of time may have been allowed to atrophy.
‘If you want to help yourself; a good place to start is by helping others.’
Our Veteran’s ReUnion was all about connecting on the same level; as Veterans. And moving forward; together. I commend to this readership this cathartic and important experience.
About the Author
Lieutenant Colonel Michael Scott is a Royal Australian Armoured Corps officer and a regular contributor to Grounded Curiosity. Over the period 2010-2011, he commanded B Squadron 3rd/4th Cavalry Regiment and deployed to southern Afghanistan as a Combat Team Commander, with Mentoring Task Force Three. In 2016-2017, he served as Commanding Officer / Chief Instructor of the Warrant Officer and Non-Commissioned Officer Academy. In 2018, he will take up an appointment within Modernisation Branch, Army Headquarters.
The views expressed within are those of the author and do not represent any official position of the Australian Army.