RSL clubs finding new ways to stay relevant as some struggle to survive

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Queenstown’s World War I honour roll is now displayed in the Queenstown Railway Museum.  (ABC News: Luke Bowden)

It is not uncommon for an RSL club to be considered a humble watering hole for veterans — but it is that public perception the leagues clubs are eager to change.

The modern RSL is a place for veterans and their families to socialise, while also offering fitness classes, meals and specialised support services including housing assistance and counselling.

“Things have changed … it’s a place to come and relax and share memories with people who have experienced the same things as you,” Lenah Valley RSL president Michael Howarth said. 

“[RSLs are] no different in some ways as a sporting club for example, there’s a similar interest in a particular thing,” he said.

Hobart’s Joshua Weir became a member of the RSL when he was serving in the army, but only became actively involved with the Lenah Valley RSL in recent years. 

“Just being around like-minded people who have been through the same sort of experiences, is one of the best therapies I’ve found,” he said.

Mr Weir joined the army in 1995 and served in Papua New Guinea and Iraq. 

“I joined at 17, got out at 32, so I was somewhat indoctrinated into that military mindset,” he said. 

Like many of his fellow veterans, Mr Weir has invisible wounds from his experiences on the frontline, and lives with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

“I’ve seen a fair bit of stuff. I’ve had friends who have seen a lot worse than me and have suffered great amounts of trauma themselves,” he said.

Mr Weir said he struggled in the first few years after leaving the Australian Defence Force, and sought the help of psychiatrists and psychologists to transition back to civilian life.

But he said it was his involvement in the RSL that helped him find his place in society again.

Clubs fighting for survival

RSL clubs have been helping veterans and their families for decades, but dwindling memberships have forced the closure of several RSL sub-branches in southern Tasmania in the past two years.

Glenorchy and Huonville no longer have dedicated RSLs, which has left veterans in other regional areas concerned for their own clubs’ futures.

“We are down on members to what we would like to be but we just have to do the best we can,” Queenstown RSL sub-branch president Graeme Walker said. 

“We are always hoping to get new members but where are we going to get them from? People leave the town or they pass on.”

Queenstown RSL sub-branch member John Halton believes the organisation’s future is vital in ensuring the traditions of Australians at war over the past 200 years are carried on. 

Mr Halton said the changing demographic of the west coast means the average age of RSL members is considerably older than what it has been in the past.

“We don’t have the young, vibrant population in the town so the actual RSL membership doesn’t change, we are all getting older,” he said. 

New services on horizon to better support veterans

RSL Tasmania recognises it needs to diversify in order to stay relevant, and is aiming to implement coordinated wellbeing services in the coming months. 

“It’s not a matter of them getting a pension and us saying thanks again see you later, we want to be a part of their lives to ensure they are supported in all areas,” RSL Tasmania’s Acting President Barry Quinn said. 

“Once they come into the system they stay in the system, and [RSL Tasmania] will look at their life, their family, and their employment status, and whether they need help in a particular area.”

A new advocacy, welfare and wellbeing committee also aims to address veteran homelessness. 

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