7 June 2023

Goulburn veterans aim to share value of A Friendly Face

| John Thistleton
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People enjoying coffee at a table

Enjoying coffee and their regular catch-up from left are Peter, Nick, Lillie (Open Arms/Department of Veterans Affairs), Jahn, Roland, John, Diana (obscured), Kieran and Liz. Photo: John Thistleton.

Australian Defence Force veterans in Goulburn meeting each fortnight to support one another want other veterans to join them.

They meet each fortnight at The Hub at Bradfordville, share information, experiences and reaffirm with one another that help for mental health issues is a phone call away.

Their struggles are shared, and with a sympathetic ear or referral to a professional, a way forward emerges less grim than what may have been.

They call their group ‘A Friendly Face’. That came about in 2016 when an army veteran returning from conflicts abroad was helped by a pensions officer, who he said had been a friendly face.

A returned air force serviceman says: “I have learned as we’ve grown older military is like a family, and it can feel relaxed and comfortable.

“You don’t realise that when you have been away for 30 or 40 years, you come back and get that feeling of camaraderie, it’s like a brotherhood or sisterhood,” he said. “It’s just something you feel comfortable in.”

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Up to 15 people are coming along regularly, most having served in the army. Chance meetings with former colleagues in the army and police force prompted some to attend. Others heard of AFF at their rural fire brigade meetings. Word-of-mouth has continued to spread.

Some of the men have lost their wives through divorce or death or having had to put their wife into care. In all cases they have lost a mate. One man came to the group afterwards after experiencing a long, dark period that magnified his loneliness.

Veterans said their years in either the air force or army learning mechanical skills counted for nothing once they were discharged. “You come out and are being told the qualifications were not worth the paper they were written on,” one said.

While post-traumatic stress, anxiety, isolation and depression are well documented among the Australian Defence Force personnel, these afflictions are still wreaking havoc in the wider community, according to the Goulburn veterans.

“When World War I finished they came home and were told to shut up,” a veteran said. “That set them all off. World War II was the same. Korea was even worse because when they came home they were not welcomed.

“When I was in the air force Vietnam was ending and you were not allowed to wear your uniform off base,” he said. “So nothing has changed.”

He said returned servicemen and women from Afghanistan did not feel they were welcome at home either.

“How you overcome that, I don’t know,” he said. But AFF was a good place to start.

The veterans would especially welcome first responders like firefighters, paramedics and SES volunteers, including women. “Too often veteran agencies have been male focused, and in this changing world, there is the need for a greater involvement of women veterans and to address the specific issues they experience,” one of the members said.

Lillie McGlashan, a community and peer advisor with Open Arms, an organisation formed by Vietnam veterans to provide counselling and support for returned men and women and their families, joins the discussion. She said AFF’s collective knowledge of accessing services locally was invaluable.

A veteran was told he faced a two-year wait to see a psychologist. He turned to Lillie who was able to get him in to see a psychologist in a month’s time.

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“I really look forward to these [AFF gatherings],” a man said. “I have been told by a psychologist to go into respite care for three weeks and I’m trying to juggle it around so I miss only one of these [AFF] meetings and not two.”

AFF’s founder, who prefers anonymity, said the group formed because more homeless and transient veterans were in Goulburn and district than RSL sub-branches thought there were.

“Many of these people had not sought help from the RSL for a variety of reasons,” he said.

Not all veterans and first responders like police officers are comfortable meeting in a licensed club. Goulburn charity Angels For The Forgotten was helping support some of the veterans at the Railway Cafe in Sloane Street until it was disbanded and the cafe closed.

These days they catch up at the Hub on Tuesday mornings, share a few jokes, warmth and raised spirits.

Anyone experiencing distress can seek immediate advice and support through Lifeline (13 11 14).

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