What has changed for our returned service men and women in 100 years

SIMILARITIES: Victoria Cross winner Joe Maxwell wrote on Anzac Day in 1931 that the plight of many returned soldiers “and stands as a monument of disgrace to a country for which these gallant fellows sacrificed so much”.

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As thousands flock to Australia’s war memorials today to honour the dead from wars long past, too many veterans of more recent military service are homeless, jobless and traumatised and too many are taking their own lives.

According to some statistics, seven returned service personnel have taken their lives so far this year, and 75 took their own lives during 2016.

A parliamentary inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-defence forces personnel, due to report in June, has received hundreds of submissions, many of them alleging neglect, carelessness and incompetence on the part of the government authorities that are supposed to provide help.

When the NSW Governor, General David Hurley, spoke in Newcastle last month at a luncheon to celebrate the centenary of the City of Newcastle Sub-branch of the RSL, he urged the organisation to maintain its traditional concern for the returned service men and women of recent wars whose problems were just as real as those who came home from The Great War 100 years ago.

The RSL charity DefenceCare this month launched a national appeal to raise funds to help veterans in distress, reporting a 27 per cent increase in requests for help over the past year.

According to figures recently released by theNational Mental Health Commission, suicide rates are 13 per cent higher for former ADF members than in the average population, with the problem particularly pronounced among those younger than 30.

“These and other cases of attempted suicide and self-harm as outlined in the report, combined with other recent figures of veteran homelessness, speak to a great need to support veterans on a case-by-case basis following discharge,” Robyn Collins, general Manager of DefenceCare, said.

“We see the human face of these statistics play out on a daily basis, with the mental health issues faced by many veterans exacerbated by chronic physical pain as a result of their service to our country,”

Research undertaken for the recently-published centenary history of the sub-branch shows many disturbing similarities between the treatment of veterans today and those of 100 years ago.

One of Australia’s most highly decorated Great War soldiers, Victoria Cross winner Joe Maxwell, wrote in The Newcastle Morning Herald on Anzac Day 1931 that the plight of many returned soldiers was pitiful, “and stands as a monument of disgrace to a country for which these gallant fellows sacrificed so much”.

Maxwell described a tour of the Depression-hit streets of Newcastle, where he found scores of ex-Great War Diggers sleeping rough in parks.

“Near the gas works another “battalion” is bivouaced in dug-outs, shelters, and two hard-boiled members of the 18th Battalion have made their abodes in adjoining 6ft cement stormwater pipes,” Maxwell wrote.

“The crowd of men congregated at the municipal tip near the Sports Ground recall memories of Egypt, with its scores of hungry natives salvaging the garbage tins at the AIF camps, for scraps of food. To add to the family coffers – as one fellow confided – they collect old tins, pieces of copper wire, and, in fact, anything which can be bartered to the second-hand dealer, who calls each evening.”

This general neglect of returned Great War servicemen was not confined to Newcastle.

In 1932 the retiring president of the Coonabarabran RSL Sub-branch, Rev. Father C. Lonergan, wrote that the returned soldier was “without honour in his own country, and his fate writes a page in the history of this country of which no-one can be proud”.

“Amid rapturous scenes at their departure, Diggers were assured that: ‘living or dead, they were never to be forgotten’. They were to be placed high on the pinnacle of the nation’s gratitude,” Fr Lonergan said.

“Bravely and faithfully the duty was borne, with well-nigh infinite patience and steadfastness, even when all round appeared to fail. The world proclaimed it! But the war was scarce over when a change seemed to set in. Public opinion forgot the promises and the cheers.”

Newcastle’s RSL journal complained about the government’s treatment of Diggers: “Departmental failings: No perspective, no imagination, no sympathy, no ability worth anything; and the Digger suffers”.

Hunter Region wartime leader Brigadier-General John Meredith wrote that men had returned “with their ability dulled by years of service and unaccustomed work and we find that they must be classified as perfectly sound, totally incapacitated, partially incapacitated, shell-shocked and recurrent sick”.

“These men who have sacrificed the best part of their life to the honour and glory of this glorious Commonwealth are almost starving. The streets of the towns and cities are full of Diggers who are unable to work owing to their disabilities, and whose pensions are not sufficient to keep them, are compelled to ask charity of the public, who unfortunately look askance at them, and they are fast becoming derelicts with no thought of the future. They start to wander from place to place, and also many of them are dying in strange places without a friend or relation near them,” Brigadier-General Meredith wrote.

That was in the Great Depression, of course, and the huge number of Diggers in need was greater than today when relatively few need support in an apparently prosperous country at a time when the traumas of military service are said to be well-understood.

While Australians properly pay their respects to the warriors of the past, they might care to spare some thought for those of the present, and to ask themselves whether the nation has learned from the lessons of the history.

Amidst the hymns and exhortations to never forget, it seems, something very important is being forgotten after all.

The history of the City of Newcastle RSL Sub-branch is contained in the new book, The Hunter Region in The Great War, byGregand Sylvia Ray

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