Pillars of support

Comrades at the weekly Thursday ceremony at Noble Park RSL

By Cam Lucadou-Wells

After Covid’s sullen lockdowns, the jokes and laughter have returned for a hardy group of Vietnam veterans at Noble Park RSL.

Each Thursday vets from across the state gather, catching up for light banter, meat raffles and drinks.

The banter subsides for the centrepiece of the day – a service remembering their fallen comrades.

It’s a roll call of those who died in combat, aged in their 30s, their 20s and teens, in just that week of the year.

A minute’s silence is spent. Heads bowed towards a white-lit cross, hanging high on the clubroom’s far wall with the words Lest We Forget.

Today, a visibly moved stalwart Gary Willits is awarded an RSL life membership. He served in 1968, lucky to survive when a landmine exploded under the tank he rode in.

Many of the group are like him, Gold Card holders with a total and permanent injury (TPI).

He pays tribute to the Noble Park RSL’s welfare office as one of the best in the state.

“They look after us, guide us through to the right doctors, the right psychiatrists.

“We’re like a hub – of all the guys that have got problems.”

A Noble Park legend and Thursday regular is 90-year-old retired commando Captain Don Bergman OAM.

With a ready smile and stream of conversation, he has left a lasting mark on the club such as his self-made tables embossed in military medals and memorabilia.

On display are his hand-carvings the Shrine of Remembrance and the Menin Gates. They’re made from a fallen Lone Pine sourced from Gallipoli.

“It’s like any organisation. It’s the people who make the club,” he says.

Sub-branch president and senior welfare pensions officer John Meehan says a lot of the hearty banter is a front. He’s got a wary eye on members who stop coming in or look in trouble.

It was especially important during the isolation of Covid lockdown when Mr Meehan says “the birds in the backyard were calling me by my first name”.

One of the officers made regular welfare checks while delivering donated food and books. Others worked the phones.

On their return from the Vietnam War, veterans were the unwanted, Mr Meehan says.

“The army didn’t want us, the government didn’t want us and even the RSL didn’t want us in those days.”

Ironically the RSLs are now largely run by Vietnam veterans. But they are struggling to reach a younger generation of veterans from 21st century conflicts.

“We know these kids coming home need to be looked after. And we need them to reinvigorate and keep the RSLs going.

“We are probably OK for the next five years but we’re all getting older.”

Mr Meehan has seen “terrible bursts” of veteran suicides. He says there should be a Royal Commission into the support of returned veterans and their transition to civilian life.

“If you’re going to send kids up to war zones, you’re going to expect they’re knocked around and damaged.

“There has to be a stream in which we can really mentor these kids and really follow them all the way through.”

Mr Meehan says Anzac Day in 2020 was a “fairly dull feeling” – just half-a-dozen diehards in the RSL car park due to Covid restrictions.

This year, the club will invite members with a hope that it may still stage a march.

“It’ll be a chance to see blokes we haven’t seen for more than 12 months. With a lot in their seventies, you wonder how much longer they’ll keep coming.”

Noble Park RSL’s Anzac Day service is on from 11am on 18 April.