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Think Piece: Missing mates

Thursday 23 February, 2017

Laurie Lewis_croppedI have often pondered what has happened to the many soldiers I have had the privilege to serve with during my thirty plus years in the Army. Many I know had a successful and sometimes outstanding career as they continued their service in the Australian Defence Force. Others returned to civilian life and forged leading roles in their chosen careers.

Unfortunately, an unknown number simply faded into obscurity. Some chose to make a clean and permanent break from military connections, while others have travelled a very rough road. I am aware that some have lived a life of isolation from former friends, work mates and family –  they have lived it very rough.

As I reflected on what the lives of the later group might have been like, I am reminded of that very popular song of the 1960’s, which included the Line:

“Where have all the soldiers gone.”

I find the very thought of veterans and their families living a life of isolation, or worse, profound isolation, very disturbing.

My limited journey into an attempt to understand what support has been given to servicemen and women returning from overseas wars has led me to believe that they have been treated very poorly by those responsible for their rehabilitation. Some were made promises that were never kept. To put it briefly, servicemen and servicewomen were sent off to war with a variety of promises and assurances that, in return for putting their lives on the line for their country, they would be looked after. Few promises and assurances were ever delivered.

I thought it would be best to limit my research to short interviews with those who had actually had experience in the process or first-hand knowledge, rather than a PhD Thesis, which is clearly beyond my capabilities. As there are no living veterans from WWI, I decided my best option was to meet with Bob Kearney, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of that conflict.

After the cessation of hostilities in WWI, soldiers were moved to the UK to await return to Australia by ship – a slow and frustrating experience despite the efforts of Sir John Monash. By late 1919 about 50,000 were still awaiting transportation. It was an almost impossible burden for the physically and mentally wounded.

On return to Australia they were pushed through personnel depots without delay, given a suit, a hat and a “Returned From Active Service” badge and discharged. Some received a deferred payment which had been deducted from their pay during service. Some lost their deferred payment due to lapses in behaviour.

The “Cheer Up Hut”, while it remained in operation, was one of the very few places diggers were able to meet. Later the Returned Soldiers Associations were formed and large numbers joined. In 1924 it was renamed the “Returned Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen’s Imperial League” and membership continued to grow. Just how effective it was as a voice for ex-service men and women’s rights is difficult to determine.

In 1917 some were given plots of land under the “Soldier Settlement Scheme”. These plots were usually in isolated locations such as Kangaroo Island, Loxton and Berri. Basic schooling on farming was available, but was of little use.

The early equivalent of DVA was formed in 1920, however disability payments were not generous. A total disability pensioner received a payment of four pounds per week at a time when the average weekly wage was four pounds and thirteen shillings.

In an attempt to understand the “Transitioning” system for veterans of WWII I had the privilege and pleasure of speaking with Bill Corey, OAM who served in the Middle East and the Pacific Theatres of War. At 99, Bill must be South Australia’s oldest veteran. He is a man of obvious dignity.

Bill told me that within two hours of leaving the train on his return to Adelaide, he was discharged from the Army. His brother, Jack had much the same experience when he returned from being a prisoner of war with the Japanese. Bill joined the RSL but found it of little use. WWII servicemen were not always welcomed by WWI members. Bill’s main contact with ex-servicemen was through his own unit club. He still attends the club’s monthly luncheon, which is now supported by family members, he being the sole surviving veteran. Veterans also used to meet each Anzac Day at a function held at the Adelaide Town Hall for all ex-service men and women. Bill said his marriage enabled him to return to a normal and productive life. With the love and support of his wife he established his own business and built his own home.

Bob Kearney reminded me of the ex-service men from WWII seen around the streets particularly of the capital cities who were obviously “doing it hard”. Their usual dress included an army greatcoat and army boots or sand shoes. Their universal cry was “Can you spare a Deena (shilling) or a Zac (sixpence) for an old digger?”

John Jarrett is a Korean War veteran. He has been President of the Korean and South East Asian Veterans Association (SA) for a number of years. After completing his tour of duty in Korea he was returned to Australia by commercial airline with eight other soldiers. The group was not met on arrival at Mascot Airport and had to find their own way (by local bus) to the Marrickville Personnel Depot where they were held until their next posting was decided. They received no debrief or medical inspection. He has no idea what happened to the other soldiers. He was sent on leave and after a short posting to the Albury area joined 20 NS Battalion as an Instructor. At no time was he given any debrief or medical examination related to his service in Korea. John attempted to join the Albury RSL, but was informed he was not eligible as Korea was only a “Police Action” and not a war. I gather he has not tried to join since.

Some soldiers were enlisted into “K Force” which limited their period of service. After completing their tour of duty they were returned to Australia for discharge. A small number were invited to transfer to the Regular/Interim Army. Apparently, their treatment on return from Korea was no better and probably worse than that experienced by John.

Little is known about the treatment experienced by the few Korean Prisoners of War on return to Australia. Some remained in the Army and had successful careers. e g, Brigadier Phil Greville, CBE

A friend of mine of long standing told me of his experiences on return from a year of active service in Vietnam with 9RAR. I believe this is typical of the discharge process experienced by National Servicemen.

After the “Welcome Home Parade” along King William Street, the Battalion was dismissed and told to report to Keswick Barracks the next day, when they would be sent on leave until early January 1970. He, like a good soldier, reported back to Keswick Barracks along with the other National Servicemen for a medical and dental examination prior to discharge. The doctor conducting the examination asked him if he was fit and checked his eyes, tongue and listened to his chest. He was asked if he had any problems and stated he had a sore back. He was told “they” were not recording sore backs. He was then discharged. Two weeks later he had an attack of Malaria. At the time he was visiting a farm and was treated by the Flying Doctor who managed to get a quantity of primaquin.

The next group to test the Transition System was the so-called “Contemporary Veterans” (a title they dislike) from 1999 to the present period.

There is no doubt that the present system is a vast improvement on what went before it.

Transition Centres have been established in all capital cities and in the larger military precincts, (eg Edinburgh). They are staffed by very experienced servicemen and women, and usually commanded by a major. They have proved to be a vital part of the “Transition Process”.

Units also have a vital role to play, although just how this is managed appears to vary from unit to unit. Just to confuse the issue a little further, Navy, Army and Airforce have different systems.

Let us follow in outline, the process used by one of the major units in South Australia.

Soldiers are encouraged to make a decision about transfer within or separation from the ADF about six months prior to their discharge date. This initiates an interview with their platoon sergeant/ platoon commander, who will attempt to determine their goals within the Army or in civilian life.

The next step is an interview with the company commander, once again to determine what are the soldier’s goals. All interviews are recorded. If the soldier wishes to continue the process he/she completes the “Application to Transfer Within the ADF or Separate from the ADF”.

The Commanding Officer may than interview the soldier or consult with the RSM/ Operations Officer to determine if the soldier should perhaps be offered a move within the unit to encourage them to remain.

The Commanding Officer must sign off on all discharge applications.

During the Transition Process applicants may apply for Career Transition Assistance to be undertaken either pre or post discharge. All soldiers awaiting discharge are interviewed by the Transition Centre who arrange discharge medical and dental examinations. They may also arrange a change of date for discharge, if for instance the soldier requires further medical treatment or perhaps has new employment to go to. The Transition Centre will also ensure that, where possible DVA claims are initiated.

During the discharge process applicants can also arrange to attend an ADF Transition Seminar, which is a two-day event organised by Defence Communities Organisation. Families are also encouraged to attend. The attendees I have spoken with have been high in their praise of these seminars.

Veterans are also able to attend a two-day “Job Search Preparation” workshop.

The Veterans and Veterans Families Consultation Service (VVCS) provide a first class service prior to and post service.

Does this resolve all the Transition Problems? Clearly it does not.

Despite the good work done by such organisations as “Soldier On” and “Homes for Heroes” we seem to have lost contact with many Contemporary Veterans and their families.  They are not inclined to make contact with ex-service organisations. Some of them do maintain contact with each other through digital networks. One such organisation is “Overwatch” which responds to veterans in crisis. It has a membership of about 4000. Recently, they searched for and located a veteran somewhere in the Blue Mountains who was threatening suicide.

We should not overlook the value of “Mate to Mate” contact and strive to encourage such connections. Given the current veterans and ADF members use of IT, this should be easy to encourage and establish.

We have no idea of the number of veterans (including families) who are homeless.

We do not know the number of veterans in the Criminal/Justice System, nor their need for assistance.

Perhaps DVA plans to develop a “Veterancentric” system and introduce an “Enlistment to Death” Program for all veterans. This will be the start of a new approach to honouring the promises made to look after veterans and their families.

Many of the post service difficulties could probably be resolved or reduced if an identity card could be issued, which identified the person as a veteran and include the following information, or at least part of it:

• Qualifying service for DVA claims
• Details of non-liability conditions
• Details of accepted disabilities

This would also provide a significant boost to the collection of data, which is vital to support future submissions to improve the support and services our ex-service men, ex-service women, their families and carers need and deserve.


Brigadier Lewis served for 32 years in the Australian Regular Army.  During that time he saw active service as an infantry officer with the Royal Australian Regiment in Malaya and South Vietnam. Brigadier Lewis subsequently became the General Manager of the Aged Care and Housing Group from 1984-1996, and was Chairman of the Repatriation General Hospital between 1993-2005. Since 2006, Brigadier Lewis has been Chairman of the Consultative Council of Ex-Service Organisations which represents 26 ex-service organisations in South Australia. Brigadier Lewis is also a Patron of the Royal Australian Regiment Association (SA Branch) Inc. and the Guards Association, Vice-Patron of the Association of Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Ex-Servicemen and Women (SA Branch) Inc., Adviser to the War Widow’s Guild of Australia (S.A. Branch) Inc., a member of the Veterans’ Review Board and the Ministerial Advisory Board on Ageing. In 2006, Brigadier Lewis was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for service to veterans as an administrator of aged care and health services, as an adviser to state and national ex-service welfare groups, and through support for charitable organisations.

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