Why The RSL Must Look To The Future

In the past few days there has been a lot of coverage in the news and on social media about the RSL NSW office dictating what will and won’t be allowed during the Sydney ANZAC Day march. To say this has caused a wave of emotion to boil-over various Defence affiliated social media groups is an understatement. The sentiment most being expressed is one of Veterans being fed up with the attitude of the RSL and their efforts to control the very thing that is central to our identity; the ANZAC legend.

I have been critical of the RSL previously and have even participated in some of the online debates about what my opinion is of the current issue surrounding Veterans and marching with their unit banners. As with most discussions regarding the RSL and Veterans opinions and experiences; sadly the negative seems to far out-way the positive. In the midst of a robust discussion about the relevancy of the RSL in these modern times; I posted a rough opinion piece that I have fine tuned and censored for this blog post.

Many of the negative experiences Veterans are facing today aren’t from the club side of the RSL. We are literally being told to “go away” by sub-branches. I don’t give a rats arse about the bar, bistro and pokies side of the RSL; my concern is with the Veterans support side turning away my generation because of perceived differences.

In the past 18 months we have seen more than twenty suicides of Veterans under 40 years of age! While every suicide is both concerning and a tragedy; I’ve now buried more friends to suicide than have been lost in war. We are on the edge of an epidemic spilling over and the sad fact is that Veteran suicide is the new Elephant In The Room for Australia and Australia’s Veteran community. The simple reason for this is because the support isn’t there when it is needed and that support certainly isn’t coming from the RSL anytime soon!

We all wore a uniform and we all served Australia, but to a very small minority in positions of authority in the RSL National, RSL State and RSL sub-branches, this means nothing. In the months after I left the Army I tried to reach out to the RSL, the same sub-branch my Grandfather was President of for 40+ years and was told by the new President “fuck off, we don’t want young blokes with tatts”.

The RSL needs to realise there are other Veterans support groups, social groups and avenues of support available to the Veteran community aside from them. The Vietnam War era soldiers didn’t have the support of the RSL when they needed it but eventually the tide turned and now a lot of Vietnam Veterans are running the sub-branches. The Vietnam Veterans went through decades of lobbying and some still won’t walk inside an RSL. Unfortunately they didn’t have the groups and support networks we have available to us today.

Put simply we have other support and social mechanisms in play that won’t ostracise us and turn us away. Until the RSL at the State and National level fully understands that they are no longer relevant in their current form and start listening to what ALL Veterans want (WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda, Somalia, East Timor, Solomon Islands, Foreign Aid/Relief, Border Security and Middle East) they are going to see a continuation in the already rapid decline in numbers and attendance.

There are many sub-branches that are doing exceptional things in the Veteran community but their good deeds are being overshadowed by a leadership that won’t look towards the future.

An Open Letter To The Minister For Veterans’ Affairs

An Open Letter to Senator the Honourable Michael Ronaldson, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Dear Senator Ronaldson,

On 12 November 2013 I sent both an email and a letter to you via your gazetted Ministerial Office contact details.  To date I have not received a reply nor have I received any acknowledgement that my correspondence was received by your office.  Although traditional mail does occasionally fail to arrive at its intended destination, an email with the correct recipient address does not.

My original letter to you was in regards to the comments made by your Department’s Mental Health Adviser, Doctor Stephanie Hodson, which were aired during a segment on Channel 7’s Today Tonight entitled Fighting A Mental War.  Dr Hodson’s comments were not only highly controversial, but also quite insulting to Australia’s Veterans.  To claim that a major part of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs inability to provide timely support to Veterans with mental health issues was in part the fault of the Veterans themselves is nothing short of victim blaming.

Did I, like many others ask to be haunted and troubled by the traumatic experiences from our deployments?
No, we did not.

Did I ask for help from within the Australian Army?
Yes I did and on numerous occasions I was told to “harden the fuck up”.

Did I ask your Department for assistance?
Yes I did, but instead of the support that I was entitled to, I was forced to jump through hoops and make my way through a maze of red tape.

Like many Veterans, I found the system that is supposed to provide us assistance and avenues of support was, in reality, creating more roadblocks on the long journey to recovery.  Roadblocks that ultimately resulted in me turning my back on DVA and finding the help I so desperately required from my family and friends.  To be honest I couldn’t help but assume this was a deliberate ploy by DVA; make it as difficult as possible for Veterans to access support services and they will eventually give up; saving the Department a large sum of money.

Unfortunately many Veterans do not have the type of support from family and friends that I do, and when the world is at its darkest, some will take their own lives.  This year alone more than twenty returned servicepersons have committed suicide.  I must stress that this number reflects only those that are clear cut cases of suicide and not single-vehicle accidents and incidences of drowning while intoxicated.

I was extremely fortunate to attend Paul Barclay’s Boys Don’t Cry forum at the Australian War Memorial on the evening of Thursday 21 November 2013.  During this forum members of the panel discussed various issues regarding PTSD and depression with a focus on the Australian Defence Force and withdraw from Afghanistan.  It would have been highly beneficial for a member of your Department or staff to have attended in an official capacity in order to answer some questions regarding the level of support offered by DVA.

LTGEN Peter Leahy was a member of the panel and spoke about returned servicepersons accessing support from within the ADF and DVA.  While I wholeheartedly agree that the ADF is getting better and that the stigma associated with PTSD and depression is slowly dissipating.  I found LTGEN Leahy’s claims that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is learning from the mistakes of the past a complete and utter fallacy.

This was an opinion that I shared with the panel and audience during the question time at the completion of the forum.  For almost 25 minutes I spoke about my struggles with PTSD, the systematic failures of the ADF and DVA when I was trying to access support services and my fears for Australian Veterans in the future.

The Department of Veterans Affairs exists for the sole purpose to provide assistance to Australian Veterans, whether they have experienced overseas service or not.  This is a role that DVA seems to fail at more often than not.

Senator Ronaldson you are quoted on the ABC’s World of Today webpage from a report by Lexi Metherell from Tuesday 10 December 2013 as saying:

MICHAEL RONALDSON: We cannot repeat the mistakes of post-Vietnam, where this country let down those men who were doing no more and no less than serving the nation at the nation’s request.

Senator Ronaldson I implore you to open your eyes to the facts.  The mistakes of “post-Vietnam” were the mistakes from post-World War 2 which was the legacy from the mistakes made post-World War 1.

I am a third generation Soldier; my Grandfather served in World War 2 and was stalwart for Veteran’s advocacy his entire life, my Father served in Vietnam and dedicated 42 years as a fulltime Soldier; and I have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  These mistakes you speak of, the mistakes of the past are in fact the Ghosts of the Past that continue to haunt us to this very day.

I watched as my Grandfather’s legacy and honour left with him as he passed away in a geriatrics ward; a man of such strong resolution, he dedicated the entirety of his post-war life to the Returned and Services League and spent a record 35 years as the President of the Corrimal RSL Sub-Branch.  The Department of Veterans’ Affairs bureaucracy come to forefront when matters concerning his palliative health care and DVA Gold Card became an issue in his final days.

I have witnessed my Father’s transition to civilian and retired life; not an easy feat after spending almost half a century serving this great Nation.  I watched as a child, my Father’s struggles with his past service in Vietnam and later as his friends died prematurely from illness brought on by exposure to hazardous materials and suicide brought on by depression and PTSD; long ignored and compounded by DVA’s ineptness and unwillingness to support struggling Vietnam Veterans.

To listen to spokespersons from the Government, Department of Veterans’ Affairs and even yourself; the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, speak of not having history repeat itself is insulting.

I have several friends with their names on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial; these are men now forever young that I mourn the loss of everyday.  A heavy weight that I and many others carry on our shoulders as we will not let their sacrifice for the people of Australia and Afghanistan be in vain.  Every loss is felt deeply within the Australian Defence community even if it becomes a just a distant memory for most.

I fear with the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Middle East almost complete, the spotlight will dim and the ongoing fight for support and assistance we have earned will not be forthcoming.  Many Veterans spend months waiting to see specialists and have claims processed.  Coupled with PTSD, depression, anxiety and the blasé attitude of some DVA staff this is a catalyst for self destructive and suicidal behaviour.

The number of Veterans who have taken their own lives now surpasses the brave 42 whose names are on display in our Nation’s capital.

Many of these Veterans have continued to fight long after their war in the Middle East ended.  Like a battle with the enemy this too is a fight for survival; and without DVA accepting responsibility and acting on its mistakes this too will cost the lives of Australians that once donned the uniform of a Soldier, Sailor or Airman.

I care not for excuses and the ongoing blame game of previous Governments.  I care only for you the current Minister for Veterans’ Affairs to stand up, acknowledge the mistakes of the past and find a way to move forward for the better.  I ask you Senator Ronaldson, to engage with us, those Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen that have fought against the bureaucracy of a Government Department that has learnt nothing over the past 100 years.

As we prepare to remember and mark the 100th Anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign; can you honestly say that today’s Veterans are receiving the appropriate level of support and assistance that our forefathers never got to experience; or like them will this fight become the legacy of my children when I am long gone from this world?

Respectfully yours,

Chad Dobbs
17 December 2013

This letter has been forwarded to Senator Ronaldson’s contact email address: officeoftheminister@dva.gov.au;
Tweeted to Senator Ronaldson’s Twitter page: @SenRonno;
Tweeted to DVA’s Twitter page: @DVAAus.

Why I Walked Away From The RSL

I left the Australian Army 16 months ago, in that short period I have become a very vocal contributor and critic of veteran’s affairs in this country.  In particular I have written about and contributed to issues in regards to the Government and Australian Defence Force’s handling of veteran support services for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is a fact that many people within the Federal Cabinet and ADF hierarchy have the perception that the current system is doing enough to help wounded servicemen and servicewomen.  This is not true however; and as more high profile Soldiers such as MAJGEN John Cantwell break down the stigma attached to PTSD; the support systems in place are getting better.

Traditionally the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL) has been the main avenue for wounded servicemen and women past and present to pursue support and rehabilitation services.  The various sub-branches around Australia have men and women, mostly ex-serving members, acting as advocates that help the people in need communicate with the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) and Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Services (VVCS) in order to facilitate the required support services.
The RSL as a whole does a good job at this; however the various sub-branches sometimes aren’t as supportive as they should and to be honest are funded to be.

The RSL has a long history.  Founded after WWI as a support service for returned servicemen; it continued to flourish in the peacetime years and throughout and post WWII.  Without giving an in-depth history lesson; the years that followed included the Korean War, threat of communist invasion, threat of nuclear war and of course the Vietnam War.

I am a 3rd Generation Soldier.  My Grandfather served in WWII across Africa and Europe, my Father served more than 40 years in the Australian Army and served in Vietnam; and I have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  To say my families’ recent history is steeped deep within that of the Australian Defence Force is not too far removed.  Both my Grandfather and Father have been awarded the Order of Australia Medal for their services to veteran’s advocacy and service to the Australian Army respectively.

My Grandfather was the President of his RSL sub-branch in excess of 40 years and my Father has been a staunch advocate within Legacy and his RSL sub-branch for many decades.

In the final years of my Grandfather’s life he stepped down as President of his RSL Sub-Branch; but remained a sitting board member and veteran’s advocate.  Throughout the years he had amassed a very comprehensive list of contacts including high ranking ADF officers and politicians; both state and federal.  It was a testament to his character and reputation when the Lord Mayor of Wollongong officiated at his funeral and hundreds from the veteran’s and RSL community attended.  He was given a proper serviceman’s farewell at which I delivered a short, but heartfelt eulogy and placed a poppy on his flag draped casket, next to his WWII medals.

I have been accused of not knowing enough about the subject of veteran’s affairs before and to be blunt, the people that have made these accusations are full of shit.  I have admired the two Patriarchs of my family for their dedication to veteran’s affairs since I was a young boy and have also learnt a lot from them.  Now in my own way I have taken up the torch in order to fight for today’s young veterans.

While my Father is an active member of his local sub-branch; I doubt he will ever forget the way the returned servicemen of the Vietnam War were treated by the RSL.  The Vietnam War divided Australia.  People not only protested against Australia’s involvement in Vietnam they also shunned and persecuted those that wore the uniform in service for their nation.  My Father was spat on during his “welcome home” parade, pigs blood was splashed upon other Soldiers as they marched through Sydney.  And then the RSL told them “Vietnam wasn’t a real war”.

Imagine serving your country proudly in a foreign land; facing death on a regular basis and then being shunned by the very organisation set up and funded by the Federal Government to provide you support services.  I’m not referring to the Veterans of Vietnam; I am referring to today; and the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Young men and women fight for their country in the Middle East and are not afforded the respect that comes with serving your nation.  In this regard certain sub-branches within the RSL have failed.

I have experienced this first hand; however I will not tarnish the entire RSL by the actions of the few.  That is not fair and hopefully in the following years the RSL will realise their folly.  If they choose not to openly embrace the modern serviceman and servicewoman the RSL will sadly disappear into the annuls of Australian Defence History like the thousands of men and women who have died wearing the uniform.

My decision not to join the RSL was made very easy when I was snubbed by the very sub-branch my late Grandfather was the stalwart of.  As a 3rd generation serviceman and the Grandson of the man that dedicated more than 40 years of his life as Sub-Branch President it was insulting.

They openly criticised the need to include “young blokes with tatts” into their ranks.  At first I was angry, but this soon faded as I realised there were alternate avenues for young veterans like myself to access the various support services they are entitled to.

For this reason I will support other advocacy and support services such as Soldier On and Mates 4 Mates as a lot of other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in need will also choose to do.