In a room full of badges, plaques and war medals, Tamworth RSL sub-branch president Bob Chapman plans arguably the organisation’s biggest day since its inception.
It's fitting that Mr Chapman puts the finishing touches on such a historic occasion in a room packed to the rafters with history.
On Saturday, May 5, the sub-branch celebrates its 100th year as a Returned and Services League. Mr Chapman said it was a momentous achievement, particularly given that the first incarnation of the RSL was only formed two years earlier in 1916 (with the catchy name of The Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia).
“We are probably one of the first country sub-branches that formed,” he said.
“Only two years after the RSL was designed we came into being. 100 years later, we are still doing what they were doing, because the objects and the aims of the league written then haven’t changed, they’re exactly the same.
“These days we call it a mission statement – we aim to care, compensate, commemorate, provide welfare and lobby the government for the betterment of defence force personnel.”
The care and welfare aspect of the Tamworth sub-branch comes in many forms. It has a dedicated team of three volunteer petition officers – “who are flat out” – that fight to get ex-servicemen and women their entitlements.
“We have everything from Post Traumatic Stress to hearing and back problems,” Mr Chapman said.
“While we won’t necessarily get them a fortune, we can get them a white card that will cover a specific treatment.”
But often, that care can be as basic as a smile and a chat.
“People come in here and just want to talk, they want to relate to someone who's been through the same sort of ordeal they have,” Mr Chapman said
“Someone could call up and say ‘a tree fell down in my yard’ – well, we'll organise for some people to come clean it up.
“Just any care that is genuine, we provide for.”
Once a fortnight – and once a week at the Kootingal and Moonbi aged-care facilities – RSL members visit their hospital-bound comrades.
“We get a list from the hospital of all the ex-service people in there, and we take a chocolate to each of them and spend some time up there having a chat with them,” Mr Chapman said.
“It’s not much, but it means a bloody lot to them.”
The other prominent pillar of the RSL is commemoration. When The Leader asked how long it took to organise Anzac Day, Mr Chapman chuckled.
“Mate, look at the bags under these eyes,” he said, laughing
“We start planning for next year’s Anzac Day only a couple of weeks after this year’s has finished."
Along with the big commemorations, such as Anzac Day and Remembrance Day, the RSL also holds personal commemorations for our fallen soldiers. If someone’s served in the military for at least six months, their family can request an RSL tribute.
“We hold a service that is pretty intense. We say The Ode, play the Last Post and The Rouse, and each member of the RSL who goes farewells them by putting a red poppy on their coffin,” Mr Chapman said.
“Afterwards we give the family an Australian flag, folded up in a nice box with a printed service record of what they've done.”
As for the 100th anniversary commemorations, the historic day begins in the chambers of Tamworth Regional Council, when Freedom of the City will be bestowed upon the sub-branch at 9.30am. Following that, a commemorative service will be held at Town Hall at 10.30am.
While it was a proud moment for the sub-branch, Mr Chapman said it was also a time for bittersweet reflection.
“The thing I’m a bit sad about is that a lot of our World War Two veterans are gone now,” he said.
“I think we’ve got about 10 members left, many of them are in nursing homes.
“Korean veterans, at a guess, we’ve got about two left in the region. Vietnam veterans, a few of them have passed away in Tamworth in the past few years.”
That’s why the RSL has made the Tamworth Young Veterans a central part of the centenary celebrations. At midday, the RSL sub-branch will step out of the spotlight, as the city’s Young Veterans unveil their new memorial at Railway Park, for post-1973 service men and women.
“Including them is always in the forefront of our minds,” Mr Chapman said.
“We must nurture them, so they can keep the RSL going.”
Tamworth Young Veterans president Rebecca Linich said the inter-generational bond within the Tamworth sub-branch was incredibly strong.
“We’re a smaller community than in Sydney, so we see each other outside of the RSL,” Ms Linich said.
“Part of what draws us together is that their sacrifice is your sacrifice as well. We’ve all been through horrendous ordeals, and asked to do and see things that ordinary Australian's can't even comprehend. That’s what unifies us.”
She said the Tamworth Young Veterans were ready to carry the RSL’s proud tradition.
“I truly believe the young vets are the custodians of the Anzac tradition and the Anzac spirit, and it’s the RSL that has moulded us into those custodians,” she said.
“The RSL was founded by the original Anzacs 100 years ago. They were the bravest of the brave and to be walking in their footsteps is just such an honour.
“To have the foresight to set up an organisation for welfare, to look after each other - and for us to still be doing that 100 years later is amazing.”
The unveiling of the post-1973 memorial has massive significance for the Young Veterans.
“When we first started, some of us couldn't even stand in front of a meeting and talk to people,” Ms Linich said.
“Through building this memorial, we’ve rediscovered skills, rebuilt self esteem and strengthened our relationships. I see young vets doing amazing things every day now.
“That’s what it means to me at the end of the day – it’s so much more than bricks and concrete, it’s actually the stories behind it.”
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