A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Young veterans turning away from ‘out of touch’ RSL

A battle for the loyalty of Australia’s young veterans is quietly being waged off the 21st century battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, as returning servicemen and women turn away from the vets’ traditional standard-bearer, the RSL.

Words by Jack Latimore

Newly established ex-service groups are drawing strong support from veterans of both conflicts, who see the long-standing Returned and Services League as too bureaucratic and generally “out of touch” with their needs.

Instead, they are accessing a range of advocacy and support services provided by emerging groups such as Young Diggers, founded in 2010, and other non-affiliated RSL organisations.

“What we’ve got to remember is that a lot of these young fellas are traumatised and a lot of them are angry,” said John Jarret, president of Young Diggers. “Just like when we came back from Vietnam.”

While Mr Jarret said the RSL had some strong advocates and good advocacy services, he added: “I don’t have a problem with the RSL in that way. It’s just that a lot of the younger fellas won’t go to them.”

In an extreme example of the division, members of a young veterans’ “well-being centre” on the Mornington Peninsula have severed ties with the local RSL sub-branch only weeks after Veteran Affairs Minister Warren Snowdon lauded it as a model for the RSL’s engagement with young veterans.

Critics say the RSL has been focused on membership at the expense of providing practical support to young veterans, many of whom bear the mental scars of war if not physical injuries.

“This [Young Members’ Forum is] made up of people under a certain age. When we have our congress we bring these people on and they tell us what they think. They don’t hold back . . . believe me.” — RSL national secretary John King

Some others explain the rift as simply reflecting an inevitable generational divide, in which each new wave of veterans finds it difficult to penetrate the organisation and gain acceptance.

Underpinning the debate is the sobering reality of declining RSL numbers. Membership has fallen sharply as World War 2 veterans and those of later campaigns die. Nationally, numbers fell by more than 8000 in the last four years, to 117,748 .

In Victoria, RSL ranks have taken a similar hit – falling from 33,587 to 30,719 over the same period, a decline that RSL Victoria spokesman Marty Graham attributes to “natural attrition”. The average age of the RSL’s WW2 cohort is now 93 .

However, more than 45,000 Australians will have served in Iraq and Afghanistan by the time troops exit the latter later this year, a figure that under normal circumstances could be expected to replenish RSL numbers handsomely .

The RSL acknowledges openly that it is struggling to recruit contemporary veterans and in recent years has strived to bolster service member numbers.

 It launched an online membership option in 2010 to attract interest from currently serving Australian Defence Force personnel. The Defence Sub-Branch –  managed nationally by RSL Victoria –  has since attracted around 3000 new members.

“The other initiative we have is the Younger Members’ Forum,” said the RSL’s national secretary, John King.

“This is a forum made up of people under a certain age. When we have our congress we bring these people on and they tell us what they think. They don’t hold back anything and, believe me, a lot of it is food for thought.”

“We are very confident that contemporary veterans recognise that the RSL is making efforts to engage with and assist them,” said RSL Victoria chief executive Michael Annett.The view is shared by the organisation’s Victorian administration.

“When I was involved with the RSL . . . [t]he attitude was: ‘Don’t rock the boat, the old fellas don’t like change and your membership is welcome but your opinion is not’. The RSL is seen as something from the past.” — Rod Thompson, national entitlement officer for the Younger Veterans Outreach 

He cited the recently opened Young Veterans and Families Wellbeing Centre in Frankston as “a good example of our activity in this area”. At its opening in February, Minister Snowdon praised the RSL for “developing new and innovative ways to engage the younger veteran community”. “The work being done here is an example for what can be done across the country,” he said.

However, a recent falling out with the RSL Frankston sub-branch has resulted in the Peninsula Young Veterans Wellbeing Centre splitting from the partnership.

“Less than three weeks after the opening we got a message that a sub-committee had been formed by the Frankston RSL and none of us were on it,” said Karl Williams, vice president of the centre.

In late March, Brent Clyne, president of the RSL Frankston sub-branch, had emailed the Young Veterans Centre president, Peter Erdman, notifying him that the sub-branch had changed the locks on the centre’s doors and removed Mr Erdman’s administrator access to the YVC social networking pages and the centre’s website. 

“Everything that we tried to do, we were very mindful of the fact that we were under the RSL’s banner,” said Mr Williams. “It was all going great guns until they decided to pull the pin.”

He said the RSL had lost its way: “They’ve lost touch with what’s going on.”

The Frankston skirmish reflects the frustration of younger veterans groups more generally.

Rod Thompson, the national entitlement officer for the Younger Veterans Outreach Program, said: “When I was involved with the RSL, I was a sub-branch secretary. The attitude was: ‘Don’t rock the boat, the old fellas don’t like change and your membership is welcome but your opinion is not’.

“The RSL is seen as something from the past. There are attitudes, a generational change that has not been embraced.”

The disenchantment is shared with some peacekeeper veterans, too.

Michael Quinn, the Victorian president of the Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans Association, said that services provided by the RSL had not been up to speed since he returned from the Gulf War in 1992.

“The RSL would not take up the issues,” he said. “There hasn’t been a hell of a lot of a push from the RSL towards doing things for the younger veterans. Every initiative that they’ve tried has been membership-based rather than delivering services.”

The APPVA organization formed in Brisbane, in 1997, after the RSL refused to provide a banner for young peacekeeper veterans to march behind, he said.

“Now we’re getting a large number of Iraq and Afghanistan vets coming through the doors with mental health problems, and it’s very early,” he said. “Their exposure to absolute violence and absolute fear is extremely high.”

One veteran told The Citizen that he had been drawn to the Young Diggers organisation because of the level of care it had provided him.

Scott Gardiner, 36, an Iraq War veteran from South Australia, said: “If you deal with the RSL, you’re dealing with lots of different people. With Young Diggers you get the personal touch with it — which makes a huge difference, because you need to be able to trust the people that are handling your claims.

“I was in hospital. I was in a psych ward at the time and [Young Diggers founders] John [Jarret] and Peter [Walters] actually flew up to Darwin to meet us. They went above and beyond what any other organisation would do.” 

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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