Veterans find peace in Perth’s south

Sausages are splitting and onions are caramelising. Squeezy bottles of tomato sauce and mustard are lined up along the bar. Beers occupy the hands of the people lounging around the outdoor table, laughing, as one makes an inappropriate joke at another’s expense. It is a Thursday afternoon at the Totally and Partially Disabled Veterans of WA clubhouse, a property nestled among bush land on a large block to the south of Perth. The scene could easily be mistaken for a Sunday family barbecue.

Club president Leslie Crowe standing in front of a mural at TPDVWA. Photo: Madeleine Stephens

But life hasn’t always been so pleasant. TPDVWA president Leslie Crowe describes how he returned from Vietnam in civilian clothes in the early hours of the morning to avoid an onslaught of water balloons filled with urine and ink. The Vietnam veterans were outcasts. Even the Returned and Services League Club refused him entry: “You haven’t been to war young fella; you don’t know what war is like.”

Today, the sentiment towards all veterans has changed. The ABC reported 40,000 people braced the chilly ANZAC Day morning to attend the Kings Park service in Perth this year, and the 2018-19 federal budget provided the Department of Veteran Affairs $100 million to improve its services. The money and support is invaluable, but it is the friendship and camaraderie many veterans desire the most.

Vietnam veteran Frank Katzel, who has lived on the property in one of the six houses provided for ex-servicemen for the last 12 years, says he might not be here without the support of the club. “I don’t think I would have survived, it’s as simple as that,” he says. “I did have mental problems where I thought of giving it all up a few times, but like I said, with this group here they helped me out and I’m 100 per cent in a better place now than I have ever been. I met this great bunch of blokes you could sit down, laugh, joke and have a good time with. People that understood you and you understood them because we’ve all been through the same lot.”

The walls of the TPDVWA clubhouse. Photo: Madeleine Stephens

The walls of the clubhouse are covered from floor to ceiling in war memorabilia; honour boards, framed fading newspaper articles and guns. Half a dozen veterans live in cottages next to the clubhouse while others find themselves camping on the lawn. The club currently boasts 120 members, although numbers have previously been between 250-300 people. They organise bingo on Sunday nights, a club night after the DVA payday every second Friday and they are even having a Christmas in July party this year. The clubrooms are open on Tuesdays and Thursdays for people to meet and chat. Ex-servicemen from any background are welcome; it doesn’t matter if they are young or old or whether they fought in Afghanistan or Korea.

One veteran, who wanted to remain anonymous, is one of the younger men at the club. He took part in tours to Timor in 1999-2000 and 2003. His second trip was cut short when he contracted a virus and returned home for medical treatment. He fell into a coma for a few days and spent the next six months recovering. The rare virus left him without a functioning pancreas and is suspected to have caused his Type I diabetes. He now requires four needles a day and up to 20-25 tablets to keep the disease under control. He says he doesn’t get much help from DVA. “It is okay when you are physically capable and you can go and work, at least then money stress is not an issue and when you are working you get up and achieve something every day. Now being stuck not being able to do anything…” he pauses. “This club has been a lifesaver. It’s just one of those places; it’s one big family. It doesn’t matter what tour you did, where you went as long as you served overseas, well, not even that now, as long as you served, you’re welcome.”

TPDVWA enjoying a barbecue lunch on a Thursday afternoon. Photo: Madeleine Stephens

Glen James, state manager of mental health service Neami National, says supportive environments such as TPDVWA are beneficial and can’t be replicated. “The government can’t make something happen. This has just been born of support and it’s absolutely gold and we need to do everything we can to support them,” she says. Neami National has partnered with Community Housing Limited and TPVDWA to look at expanding the existing facilities on the property. They are planning to provide more accommodation, respite services, and professional clinical and psychosocial support in the next 12 to 18 months.

Ms James says she has been very concerned about the mental welfare of ex-servicemen. “We’ve identified that there’s a real gap between what the DVA gives veterans to what’s available in the public mental health service,” she says. An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report found the suicide rate was 14 per cent higher in men who had served compared to men who had not. Ms James says for every person who does take their own life, there’s at least four or five who attempt to. “The cost of that is just as significant and tragic for that individual and their families,” she says. “Neami is very, very committed to appropriate mental health support and prevention, intervention and postvention work around suicide.” Neami National is planning to implement 24 hour care and outreach services for veterans and their families at TPVDWA.

James Butterworth is the WA state manager of Community Housing Limited, an organisation providing social and affordable housing to people in need. He became involved in the project because he noticed a glaring lack of services. “When I first came here, there were a number of caravans out here, just people stopping here because there was nowhere else for them to go,” he says. The State of Homelessness in Australia’s Cities report compiled by the University of Western Australia Centre for Social Impact found more than five per cent of homeless people in Australia served in the Australian Defence Force. More veterans were found to be sleeping outdoors than non-veterans and 43 per cent of people with head trauma or injury had been members of the ADF. Mr Butterworth says the number of homeless veterans in Perth is scandalous. “People are just falling through, well not just cracks, they are wide open holes, bloody big holes,” he says.

A Department of Veterans Affairs spokesperson acknowledges veterans have difficulty accessing services and are trying to improve. “Transforming DVA is a complex process- we have an outdated ICT system, complex legislation, hundreds of thousands of paper records and a geographically dispersed workforce,” the spokesperson says. Along with the 2018-19 budget money allocated to DVA, it is also offering free mental health services to anyone who has spent at least one day in the ADF, and a Veterans’ Employment Program aimed to encourage veterans to use the skills they learnt while they were serving.

Neami National and Community Housing Limited are determined to support TPVDWA and tackle veteran homelessness and mental health. Mr Butterworth says they are hoping to set an example in WA for the rest of the country. “If we can patch up one of those holes in a little but significant way and provide a pilot that will have application across the country, fantastic,” he says. Ms James adds that when you help one veteran, you help their whole social circle. “You’re helping a community, you’re helping a family, you’re helping an individual,” she says.

Back at the clubhouse, Mr Crowe’s mouth snakes into a cheeky smile. “My carer says I spend too much time up here but I love it. I love the camaraderie. You just couldn’t find a better spot,” he says. He gestures to the green valley in front of us; an afternoon breeze carries the familiar smell of a barbecue lunch and the only sound you can hear is the laughter from the patio. “It is so peaceful.”